Reading most of the technical stuff written about digital printing is about as life-enhancing as changing a fuse. But at least there’s no doubt about what a fuse is for.
If you’re not particularly enthralled by RIPs and VIPs, TIFFs, bits and trapping, or sorting out your high end from your low end, the entire digital phenomenon is guaranteed to leave you numb. But don’t give up just yet…
The image problems began in the early years of the decade when digital printing was firmly the domain of the dork who appeared to revel in boring everyone with jargon.
However, manufacturers have since realised that to sell the concept it’s crucial to explain it first in plain language. And, to their credit, they have made plenty of progress here. But the same two questions continue to be asked by designers: “What’s the quality like?” and “what is digital printing for?”
Jonathan Leafe of Hull-based Cyber Digital Print, which operates a state-of-the-art Indigo digital press, thinks there is still a lot of groundwork to do.
“Plenty of people don’t understand traditional printing so it’s no surprise that they’re some way off getting to grips with digital.” He also confronts the two most frequently asked questions: “As far as quality goes we have seen some quite significant advances in the Indigo during the past year – the ink quality, for example, has improved considerably. There used to be criticisms that it was too flat, but the new inks on the market are much glossier with better lift – the results are now virtually indistinguishable from traditional offset.”
He adds that speed and versatility have also been subject to improvements. “The machine has been extremely useful in proofing and now we’ve demonstrated that it’s possible, for example, to proof a complete full-colour 80-page magazine, with multiple copies, in just half a day – that would have been impossible a year ago.”
And new and increasingly ingenious applications for the technology are constantly appearing. Leafe explains: “We’ve completed a lot of work on personalised in-company documentation such as producing strategy documents tailored to each member of the board, and design and marketing companies have been using our digital systems for items such as product packaging to help them carry out consumer tests.”
Phil Eaves, vice-president of sales and marketing for Xeikon, has also been encouraged to see how the experts have been experimenting with the format and technology. “The opportunity to personalise documents and make intelligent use of databases has been picked up in plenty of jobs. For example, investment companies can now produce statement documents with charts and figures showing how each investor’s money has performed through the year. Retailers have also seen how they can use information from storecards. For example, if a department store runs a special promotion on a range of furniture it is able to send out personalised colour mailers to all customers who have bought items from that range during the past couple of years. And in the travel industry a number of companies have set up telephone systems linked to digital printers that allow callers to key in their routes, their interests and their budgets – the next day they receive a fully tailored brochure for their trip.”
And as for quality? “The technology has grown so fast that it may well be the case that perceptions haven’t kept up. Those people who still think digital printing is pretty much like colour photocopying in quality must have had some unusually bad experiences,” says Eaves. However, it must be remembered that it’s not really possible to talk about all digital machines in the same breath. There is the high quality end of production, with machines like the Xeikon and Indigo, then there are other machines such as DocuColor from Xerox and Spontane from Scitex which have sprung from colour photocopier technology.
Eaves continues: “I’d say that it is now a given that the high-end digital presses such as Xeikon are equal in quality to traditional offset litho. Resolution simply isn’t an issue – at 600dpi there are absolutely no problems with that – and in the past year we have seen improvements in toner quality which gives an even better print finish.”
There’s good news, too, from paper manufacturers: “We have seen paper ranges increase dramatically. They’ve worked hard to produce suitable papers in a wide choice of weights and finishes from 60 to 300gsm and in coated and uncoated stock. The range is close to what is offered for litho work and my hunch is that this sort of work will continue to expand the choice further still,” says Eaves.
He adds that non-paper substrates are also finding uses in the digital arena. “Polyesters and plastics are extremely interesting developments – especially in printed matter that is subjected to heavy handling such as sales presentations and maps. Where these have usually been laminated, they can now be printed direct on to materials such as polyester which is resistant to water damage and tearing and which is extremely durable.”
Along with the improvements in print quality there is a huge raft of work being undertaken on performance. Companies such as Barco have developed machinery for storing vast libraries of data in the buffer zone between design and press. Among its latest launches are upgrades to the PrintStreamer which stores ripped pages and allows collated printing of several hundred different pages plus the flexibility of personalising each document. And Scitex has just launched Spontane V – an upgraded version of its on-demand colour digital printer which has the capacity to print an impressive 40 full-colour pages a minute. Images are continuous tone with a resolution of 400dpi and image depth is 8 bits per colour. The Spontane system also has a built-in scanner which can be used as a copier. Most impressive of all, Scitex has produced a nifty designer’s guide to digital printing complete with a CD which helps dispel some of the myths and explain some of the mysteries.
Case Study:Immage 2000 from Cyber Digital Print
Wednesday pm: The challenge – to produce 250 personalised brochures to celebrate the opening of the Immage 2000 studios in Lincolnshire at 11am on Friday.
“To mark this special occasion and to give the VIPs on the guest list a really special brochure that also included a list of the day’s events, we had to produce an A4-sized, four-sided, full-colour brochure in little more than a day and a half,” recalls Jonathan Leafe. The brochure design and database of names were delivered by the designers on disc.
Thursday am: Cyber Digital Print set to work on pre-press preparation of files and used special software for merging the images with the individual names on the guest list.
Thursday pm: Ready to roll. The first brochures come off the press – each one is given its VIP name on the front cover as the paper passes through the machine on the fly.
Production is halted briefly because the client decides to make last-minute design changes. The work is carried out on a Mac and then fed back into the Indigo. The entire alteration process takes less than an hour.
At the end of the afternoon the print run continues in earnest – all 250 special edition brochures are printed in under an hour and are ready for delivery the following morning.
Design Week’s bluffers’ guide to digital printing
Digital printing is all about producing fast-turnaround, limited-run, full-colour jobs usually at less cost than traditional litho.
It’s also about personalising those printed documents to make them more relevant to the recipient – in the digi-jargon this is called variable printing, ideal for mailers, targeted promotions and so on.
At its simplest, digital printing makes the leap from computer screen to printing press without all the usual bother with film.
Not all digital presses are the same. At the top quality end, the Indigo, for example, uses up to A3-sized sheets and prints using liquid ink with a resolution of 800dpi. It is based on familiar printing technology using an impression cylinder and drum which presses the image on to the paper.
Also at the top end is the Xeikon, but this uses rolls of paper that are 32cm wide and dry colour toner (pigmented powder). Once again this machine uses a drum but it doesn’t use pressure to plant the toner on the paper – all it takes is a “kiss” of paper and drum. This is called an electrophotographic process. Watch out for the Xeikon website due to be launched later this summer.
Because digital machines such as the Xeikon use reels, it is possible to produce images of enormous length. Xeikon, for example, can print single images up to 11m in length. This has proved very useful for banners and for concertina and gate-fold documents. However, there is no getting around the width restriction, fixed at 32cm.
At the lower end of the digital industry, presses, such as the Scitex Spontane, are based on photocopier technology – however, they produce work of higher quality than most photocopiers and are often very fast. The Spontane is sheet-fed, taking A4- and A3-sized paper. Check out the Scitex website at http://www.scitex.com/spontane.
Leading the field in small- to medium-sized digital printers is Riso. It specialises in the miniature end of the market and produces digital presses no bigger than a medium-sized photocopier. However, it’s fast – turning out 7000 copies an hour, and it has very low operating costs – the company reckons that a single run of 1000 sheets on one of its machines costs just 2.
Digital printing requires a new mindset – if you want 324 copies, don’t ask for 500, ask for 324 and that’s what you’ll get.
If you’re working on a document, a catalogue for example, that features changing price lists, it’s possible to print the number you need now then simply update the prices for the next print run.
Paper manufacturers have recently shown great interest in producing a variety of stocks for digital machines – don’t be fobbed off with the line that there are only a few limited paper types available.
There are all sorts of plastics too… woven materials and sheet plastics are finding all sorts of applications – from making durable maps to weatherproof exhibition banners.
If you’re curious to know more, there’s no better way to learn about digital printing than going to watch a machine in action.