Pressing ahead

According to Printing World, 20 per cent of all print will be digital by 2001. Some say the proportion could be even higher at 50 per cent. So like it or not, the digital age has arrived.

Digital printing, first introduced eight years ago, has had a tough time fighting against the stigma associated with it. Both designers and printers have reservations as to its effectiveness and ability to satisfy expectation of creativity.

The image in most designers’ minds is that digital printing is little more than a glorified colour laser proof. Typical problems cited include colour inaccuracy, banding, inconsistency, quality, inability to reproduce certain colours in the spectrum – and the list goes on. But things have changed. Digital printing now brings professional printing closer to the desktop – quick turnaround, flexibility and cost-effective four-colour short runs.

There is always a need for consultation between the designer and printer at the first stages of any project, but with digital printing involved this becomes vital. Digital printing projects need to be designed with the processes in mind to ensure the best possible result. Designers need to be aware of the limitations – a point that is recognised by both sides.

With this in mind, some digital printers now provide their own process colour tint books. Used in the same way as litho tint books, they are equally effective and informative. Simple examples on the best way to achieve a rich black by combining it with the three other colours as percentages can make all the difference to the final result.

With the six-colour capability on some machines, it introduces a function similar to hexachrome. The improved colour gamut is achieved by introducing orange and violet for a closer match to special colours and transparencies. Useful as it is, it’s important to bear in mind that it is not yet a science. If you use more than one printer for a project you will, without exception, experience colour variations across all of the sites.

Digital printing has illustrated that it comes into its own for producing colour proofs at the earlier stage of a production process. Typically, this presents itself in the form of a one-off prototype or a number of colour book proofs for a client. It is a good checking procedure for layout, bulk and also copy, if the same ripped file is used for the final job. The client needs to be warned that the proof is not a guide to colour quality. I use a scatter litho wet-proof to highlight the quality difference.

In addition, preparation and production checklists are now available. They contain useful tips, for example: introducing “noise” into a gradient with graphics software can help to break up banding lines; or avoid placing dark colour across fold lines when using dry toner presses, because without proper scoring it will cause cracking.

Some digital presses can also vary the amount of toner to each dot; a technique called variable dot density. This creates detailed shading and colour graduation that significantly increases image sharpness.

So the message to the quality-conscious designer is that there have been massive gains in quality over the past eight years. Yet, I would be amazed if digital matches litho.

Even with the digital imaging presses on the market, I still regard them as litho machines. They are competing with the “true” digital presses in terms of turnaround time and cost effectiveness. DI presses basically image plates directly on to the press and uses conventional litho inks, but they are put under the digital printers’ banner. It can be very confusing. But once you take a wider perspective on the matter, the “value-add” from digital far outweighs the quality negatives.

What are tomorrow’s companies facing? – increasingly segmented audiences, which place higher demands on their relationship with the corporate. They are not as loyal as they used to be because there is generally little to choose between one product and the next. So the race is on to build stronger relations.

Imagine personalising an annual report for each shareholder. Personalisation using variable data print is starting to be a mainstream proposition. There is a definite need to link IT and databases into print production. Personalised, customised communication builds loyalty.

There will be a big role for digital printers in the future, especially with the changing regulations regarding annual reports. I can foresee them being produced in far smaller quantities “on-demand” therefore saving PLCs the huge cost of committing to long-run litho, instead being able to order a number of shorter runs throughout the year.

Paper companies are taking digital printing seriously and have introduced a wide range of digital paper swatches, so you now have a good range of stocks to choose from. There are also a number of other substrates that can be used as well. I recently saw a good solid printed on to 55gsm in a newspaper print-style paper. In addition, paper merchant Robert Horne has set up an internal helpdesk for its sales force and Paperlink team for any digital enquiries.

Like litho, there are Web and sheetfed presses. Web presses can be used for producing banners or large impositions, as it is on a continuous roll of paper. Sheet-fed presses may often provide a variety of paper weight and types, but the print size is limited. There are restrictions on finishing for each press, but work closely with the printer to achieve the best result.

Another exciting development is the Web-interfacing and digital production Intranets. This means that you can customise a number of products on the Internet. You enter the text, select the image, order and pay on-line for T-shirts, bags, mouse mats, postcards and a number of other articles delivered to your door.

Digital printing will never eliminate the need for litho printing, certainly not in the type of work I produce. But having met a host of people who are really passionate about digital printing, it is only a matter of time before this new wave of positive feeling filters out into the industry. Already with the arrival of categories for digital print in credible print and design awards ceremonies, there is no doubt that digital print is becoming a more valued and recognised tool.

Liz Grahame is head of print at Addison

Checklist

Arrange a consultation with the printer at the first stages

Ensure that at least a monochrome laser proof is submitted with the file

Label files clearly

Documents should be set up to the actual size

Scans must be of a suitable resolution, normally minimum 300dpi at printing size

All scans should be CMYK

Leave the imposition to the printer. Supply imposition layout or folding dummy

Supply all fonts used, including those used in any EPSs

Variable data files can be supplied as either Mac or PC databases in applications such as Excel

Specify the paper stock

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