It seems like a lifetime ago when the manufacturers introduced color copiers that blazed away at five, eight, even 12 ppm. Of course, back then we referred to it as cpm (copies per minute) because the concept of every print being an original was still simmering in an R&D department somewhere. The sales pitch of the moment touted the “pent up demand for color.” If printers could produce full color output without the limitations of offset, customers would queue up outside their doors with open checkbooks at the ready.
For the early color copiers, paper options were limited, the image quality was just good enough, and few printers really grasped the concept of how to sell the output. There was no pent up demand for color. The much ballyhooed color revolution subsided into a quieter evolution—as most technology trends do.
Twenty years down the road that story seems quaint. Every digital color device is now “connected,” as we used to say. And digital color printing is a staple of even the most modest printing company. Also, some features that were considered very high-end just a few years ago are now migrating downstream. It is not unusual to find models that support variable data printing (VDP), myriad in-line finishing options, and even paper de-curling systems.
A Practical Matter
We’ll get back to the techno angle later. There is another matter to examine first, and that is the proposition that digital color printing may just be the application of the moment for an industry that is being called upon to do so much more with so much less.
Printing industry economists are now acknowledging that there are signs of a turnaround from the recession. So far, however, the recovery seems to feel more like a leveling off to many small commercial printers. There is hope, but nobody is really turning cartwheels on the lawn just yet.
Most printers responded to the economic squeeze of the past few years by tightening their belts in every area possible. A large part of that process involved cutting staff to the bare minimum that would allow production to continue. Since quick printers tend to operate with fairly small staffs even in good times, that process was quite painful.
In the face of this ultra-lean work environment, digital output devices provide several advantages. For one thing, digital production is much less labor intensive and requires a less exacting skill set than offset—particularly when it comes to full color output. That should translate to lower payroll expenses. And when you do have to hire a new employee, digital operators are much easier to find and train than offset press operators.
It is also helpful that over the past few years, so much work has already migrated to digital from offset. Most of the black-and-white and spot color work that was once sent to the press was moved to digital years ago. And now digital is taking over a larger portion of the full color work.
Another area in which digital color can help cut payroll expenses is in the labor intensive bindery. In-line finishing options now cover everything from simple stitching to book binding. It is unlikely that printers will invest in every finishing option available for the equipment they are using. However, there you may find a good fit if automating one or two frequently used finishing functions would significantly streamline your workflow.
Getting Better All the Time
There is a color digital output device for every need these days. There are models that can fulfill requirements for heavy monthly output volume, near offset image quality, super fine resolution, and greatly expanded stock handling capabilities.
Speaking of stock, the variety of paper for digital color work has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. There are literally thousands of colors, textures, finishes, weights, sizes, and environmental certifications available.
Environmental concerns are another area in which digital technology shines. Start with the fact that the process requires no platemaking or pressroom chemicals. Most manufacturers also now use environmentally friendly toners. Ventilation is a concern, since this type of equipment produces ozone and VOCs. But as long as the proper guidelines are followed, it should not be an issue.
The latest digital color devices have also introduced features that offer considerable potential for differentiating your product offerings. The most notable may be the introduction of clear toner in some higher end models. This allows printers to create an effect similar to varnish in offset work. Spot application can make images seem to “pop” on the page, making it especially well suited for marketing materials. Other features and options are now moving downstream to more affordable models.
With all the chatter about printers becoming marketing services providers (MSP), variable data capabilities are no longer an option, but a necessity. And color digital is a key component of any 1:1 marketing campaign.
Almost any digital output device will allow you to create variable data documents. The trick is to learn—really learn—the optimal way to use the specific equipment you have. The best way to do this is to talk with your vendors, hardware and software, and set up training for the employees who will be doing the work. Then have those employees educate you and your sales team about their capabilities. This will allow you to approach your customers with new and innovative offerings.
Using those capabilities in your own marketing program will give your team the chance to work out any bugs before the orders come rolling in. It will also give you samples that you can show to customers and prospects.
The advantages to digital color are many and the downsides few. It allows you to offer your customers fast turnaround on full color production, the flexibility of printing only the quantity required, you can make changes as needed, and variable data is within easy reach. With digital color, you can print something that is truly beautiful every single day.