Finishing touch

It’s an oft-repeated truism that customers don’t buy print – they buy cartons and stunningly labelled containers, they buy posters and communications solutions. In most cases, unfinished, unembellished print is really only half a value proposition.

With that in mind, manufacturers of sheetfed digital presses have been spending the last decade or so bringing their flexible and cost effective alternative to traditional technologies right up-to-date. Integrating digital print with the bindery has been at the heart of that development curve.

But what systems are available for digital print businesses to use? How can they best be used in order to generate maximum efficiencies and throughput – offline, inline or nearline? There are lots of options, but printers have limited budgets. Can existing kit that has been used to finish offset print double for finishing digital print, or do you need dedicated digital finishing equipment? And is it better perhaps to outsource it all to a trade house?


Inline, nearline or offline?

David Smith of Ferrostaal Australia says the vendor is offering its Morgana digital range as a dedicated solution specifically customised for digital print, from perfect binding, to creasing, to folding.

He advises that integrated inline is a great solution for small runs, as the integration of the finishing slows down the overall production process on the digital press. At higher speeds, it is more cost efficient to separate your finishing to an offline or nearline space.

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For Tom Ralph of finishing vendor Graph Pak, which supplies the Thermotype TS2L digital finisher, the Zip A3E cutter/slitter, the Rollem rotary die cutter and JetStream products, it’s a matter of horses for courses. He says, “The attractiveness of having inline finishing gear with a digital press may not be as effective on your bottom line as having your digital press and finishing system nearline. It is true that certain applications make perfect sense to go inline, such as a digital press and our Rollem rotary die cutter set up permanently for a repeat or cloned workflow.” 

Matthew Benn, managing director of finishing vendor FAB Equipment, says inline finishing regimes are ‘a nice idea’ but have limited applications. He says, “Also if the press goes down, the inline finisher is also down as they are built to work inline only. Offline and nearline solutions are fantastic if they are built with digital output in mind, as they are normally built with a lot more versatility than inline solutions and a lot faster.  Most offline and nearline solutions are also built to last for more than three years. Most offline finishing solutions on the market are offset-related machines used for digital production.”  

Digital press vendors are keen to supply inline workflows or partner with sources that can provide these, says Grant Thomas, product manager for production print at Konica Minolta. “One such situation required an inline two-side trimmer with square bind, which is currently not available in a Konica Minolta Finishing System, so we established a relationship with SDD in the Netherlands and have since supplied many of these quality units to meet the growing need.”

When it comes to finishing Canon offer a range of both online and offline options. Paul Whitehead, senior category manager at Canon Professional Print says, “When making the selection between online versus offline finishing it comes down to maximising productivity and uptime. Online finishing gives the benefits of a smaller footprint, less handling and in the case of most modern online finishes allowing the printer to run at full print speed. If finishing is highly complex or variable and can impact the productivity of the print engine then sometimes decoupling and offering an offline solution is more beneficial.”

Canon supplies a host of finishing systems for its range of cutsheet printers, including bookletmakers, perfect binders, high capacity stackers and power punches.

Mark Katrakis, national BDM, production, at Ricoh Australia, which offers the Plockmatic inline booklet maker, complete with trimming and creasing options, StreamPunch (inline hole punching), Ricoh Ring Binder, and third-party offline/nearline solutions, says productivity is the key.

He believes inline finishing provides a basis for improving productivity and efficiency by automating the process down to just a few steps. “It requires only one operator to complete each job, which frees up capacity to carry on with other tasks within the business. As a general rule, the bigger the volume or run length, the bigger the lean towards offline. Short-run booklets and production is perfect for digital applications. In long print and bind runs, the economies of scale come into play more and increased efficiencies are able to be realised.”

He argues that the clear advantage of digital finishing, in whatever configuration, is automation. “For instance in the creation of booklets, there is no need to collate and trim (three-edge) or even pre-crease the covers for cracking, as the inline option does this all by selecting the options from the RIP.”

Paul Sanelli, inkjet specialist and business manager at Fuji Xerox, which provides digital finishing solutions from Plockmatic, Bourg, Rollem, Hunkeler, LaserMax  and StoraEnso, as well as some if its own Fuji Xerox branded offerings, says there is no absolute answer on inline versus offline.

“Generally there are two influential drivers. Firstly, customers can have quite a strong philosophy or opinion on the inline versus offline and nearline debate. Some printers are more risk averse and will only use offline finishing to prevent downtime in the event that an inline device requires servicing. Some prefer inline to keep workflows more efficient and maximise the utilisation of their equipment with as few touch points as possible.

“The other key factor is the application types and volume. For large, repetitive applications, the best ROI tends to come from inline configurations. However, if the applications vary both in type and volume, it’s recommended that printers who have multiple devices — offset and digital presses — use offline systems to manage these jobs most effectively,” he says.


Digital-only or hybrid gear?

Should you aim for dedicated digital gear or invest in hybrid offset/digital machines? Ferrostaal’s David Smith says some machines in Morgana’s range are hybrid, and are branded ‘traditionally digital’ as they span a number of output technologies, and these are particularly adept at handling tasks such as creasing and folding on heavier stock.

Graph Pak’s Tom Ralph says all finishing solutions sold by his company work equally well on both offset and digital products.  “Our main objective with our equipment is to be versatile and tough enough to take some hammer.”

Grant Thomas of Konica Minolta points out that offline finishing gear in an offset environment is generally adaptable to finishing digital production. “In most cases, if this investment has already been made, there may be benefits in continuing the use in combination with digitally printed output.”


Inhouse or trade binder?

Perhaps the best solution is to just farm it all out. Or is it? The question of outsourcing your digital print to a bindery depends on volume, says Ferrostaal’s David Smith. “I guess you have to look at your run lengths. It is not going to be cost effective for a digital printer to run 25,000 copies on his 450-sheets-per-hour  perfect binder. Where it makes sense to have a perfect binder is if you run 450 books a day.”

Tom Ralph of Graph Pak argues that outsourcing costs should be kept minimal. “The ideal for any business is to reduce outsourcing costs by capitalising on equipment with a good return on investment. That equipment must be user friendly and robust enough to cope with both short and long runs but at the same time not to over-capitalise the project costs.”

According to Matthew Benn of FAB Equipment, “Most printers these days are trying to bring everything inhouse for a couple of reasons. As the time frames keep getting shorter, as the competition keeps adding inhouse finishing, as companies merge and as finishing keeps expanding its machinery types, it almost seems it’s inevitable that everyone gets their own inhouse finishing.  Using trade binding houses has always been a great option for longer runs and specialty work but sometimes it’s just not worth it for a little job, hence people are buying the smaller, cheaper finishing equipment to reduce the time out of their hands.”

Paul Sanelli of Fuji Xerox says that while it is important that printers present their businesses as a ‘one-stop’ operation, “experience tells us that this is a significant challenge, therefore being able to fit the majority of finishing functions inhouse is preferred. However it’s more important to manage the balance sheet effectively and avoid under-utilised assets. Outsourcing to trade services for the non-traditional work is a better alternative.”


Morgana’s digital handshake

Coolwise Creative in St Kilda, Melbourne, is a five-staff graphic design and advertising agency that has vertically integrated a digital print service to fulfil clients’ demands for micro-runs of documents such as seminar notes, eight-page brochures, short transactional work, and prestige business cards.

Print was not traditionally a core offering at Coolwise Creative. Director Nigel Abbott, tongue firmly in cheek, describes the downstairs print operation as the “sweatshop” end of the business and the upstairs design studio as the “creative” space. “I’m always cautious of getting too much of a factory sweatshop into a design environment,” he says, emphasising the need for print to integrate seamlessly into the design department.

Abbott casts his mind back 18 years to when Coolwise Creative first dabbled at the print end – it was not long after the arrival of the PDF format and in those days the business was laser proofing its newfangled PDFs on a Canon CLC, which was seen as a radical alternative to chemical proofing.  Printing services later expanded to include limited runs of personalised  VDP.

Today Coolwise Creative runs a Konica Minolta bizhub C7000 to offer clients a print component in a multimedia package — electronic direct-mail, PURL landing pages and social media, to name just some options. All of it is bundled in a web-to-print platform that allows clients to order their print and electronic communications online.

But how to, as Abbott puts it, “turn a piece of paper into a product”? Part of the seamlessness of the print channel at Coolwise Creative is how well the workflow behaves. Abbott is a firm believer in keeping it inhouse from inception to dispatch. No trade binderies for Coolwise Creative. He does not want to surrender his ability to deliver on hairpin turnarounds to a third party, with the inevitable delays that occur on someone else’s timetable.

At Coolwise Creative, the policy is it has to be fulfilled and finished downstairs, not out-of-house. Says Abbott: “In this business, the model is to open and close jobs. We like to get a job out of the door on the same day. And we don’t want to pay for couriers. We’ll be profitable if we open and close a job for a client, then get on to the next job.”

With that in mind, the company recently waded into one-pass folding and creasing by investing in a Morgana DigiFold Pro from Ferrostaal Australia. The machine performs offline creasing and folding on the print generated by the bizhub. “When you drill down, the Konica Minolta is basically a hands-off process with unattended operation – you can virtually set it up to run until it runs out of paper. But when you get into guillotining, then creasing and folding, these are attended operations.”

When ProPrint asks the inevitable question about bottlenecks, Abbott says they are few and far between, mainly due to the Digifold Pro’s speed (the machine is rated at 6,000 A4 per hour).

“The good thing about the DigiFold Pro is that it’s the fastest in its class, so we can keep the workflows parallel. We do tricky stuff quite often, like pre-crease a flat sheet before printing on the bizhub, which it handles well. Or we’ll go the other way and print the whole job, then cut it to size and crease and fold it in a second process. Either way, those two processes top and tail each other,” he says.

Abbott is also pleased with the digitally dedicated Morgana’s kindness to print – digital print is notorious for cracking and curling but the DigiFold is engineered to minimise that. And its low learning curve has operators at ease with the machine very quickly. So nowadays, there’s less to sweat about at Coolwise Creative, even downstairs.

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