Short-Run Presses Take Center Stage

Changing market demand is driving adaptation at commercial printing companies, as diminishing run lengths lead to increased use of short-run digital presses. These devices may not provide the same 24/7 performance of modern lithographic equipment, but their reduced availability is more than offset by substantially lower price points. Lower capital investment costs mollify the impact of unused press capacity, enabling users to scale for increased demand through the acquisition of multiple printers.

Bruce Albrecht, owner of A&B Print and Mail, Harleysville, PA, uses a fleet of short-run output devices to create sophisticated, variable-data print (VDP) campaigns for an underserved market: small businesses. Albrecht said he especially enjoys the wide range of media compatibility provided by his Xanté Ilumina digital press (pictured directly above), through which he images everything from envelopes to heavy card stock.

“I’ve been able to sell the variable-data functionality of this machine, to personalize odd-sized postcards, direct mail campaigns, a whole range of products,” noted Albrecht. “Our typical run length on the Ilumina is about 5,000, but we recently produced a 25,000-piece order that included a large, saturated animal image,” he explained. “That job had previously been run elsewhere on a litho press, but the buyer was disappointed with the results. After showing a sample of the Ilumina’s capabilities, we were able to win the bid strictly on the Ilumina’s excellent color gamut and image clarity.”

Mid-Range Production

There is a great deal of activity in the mid-range production segment, where devices priced at $100,000 and up do battle against small-format litho presses. Xerox is the old hand in this arena, having launched the first successful “digital press” more than two decades ago with its DocuTech series. Today, the DocuColor 7002 (at left) provides excellent image quality at 70 pages per minute (increasing to 80 ppm for its higher-speed sibling, the 8002) and is compatible with a variety of inline finishing equipment including saddlestitch booklet-making, perfect binding, and tape-bound books. As with Xerox’s flagship iGen digital press, the DocuColor 7002/8002 includes an internal spectrophotometer that assures color consistency and aids in spot color matching—all at about one-third the iGen 4’s cost.

The 2010 merger of Océ and Canon has resulted in some possible duplication within their line-up; the Océ CS665 Pro is a 65-ppm, cut-sheet, full-color digital press that would appear to compete directly against Canon’s highly regarded imagePRESS C6010VP. Standing apart from these light production machines, the more robust imagePRESS C7010VP offers a 25 percent increase in throughput as well as litho-like print quality, thanks to Canon’s oil-free V-toner. The C7010VP is capable of 1200x1200 dpi output, producing 33 ppm when running its maximum sheet size of 13 by 19.2 inches.

Heidelberg’s QuickMaster Direct Imaging (QMDI) press platform was once touted as a perfect solution for mid-range production volumes, but was discontinued in 2006. To fill that gap, the German pressroom legend announced in February of this year that it is partnering with Ricoh to offer the Pro C901 Graphics Art Edition digital press (shown on our front cover). Producing 90 ppm at 1200 dpi, the Pro C901 also allows users to change toner bottles while the press is running. Rodney Strasser, who bears the title “digital business driver” among his many roles at Heidelberg USA, offered his insight into the selection of this particular device.

“We liked the quality, the speed, and the price point of the machine as it fits into our current portfolio of equipment,” said Strasser. “We looked at several manufacturers, and our team came to the conclusion that the C901 was the digital press we would like to represent.” With a monthly capability of up to 350,000 impressions on a maximum sheet size of 13 by 19.2 inches, the Ricoh C901 fits ideally into the mid-range production category without challenging the raison d’etre of Heidelberg’s Speedmaster litho presses.

Strasser pointed to the US rollout of the Heidelberg/Ricoh partnership during Graph Expo in September (the C901 is already being resold by Heidelberg in Germany and the UK) as the beginning of an even deeper collaboration. “I think that we will work together to jointly develop products for the future,” he predicted—“something capable of increased speed and even higher quality.”

Kodak and KM

New partnerships aren’t limited to lithographic and digital vendor combinations, as indicated by Kodak’s recent decision to offer Konica Minolta’s bizhub PRESS C8000. Rated at up to a half-million impressions per month, this print engine can output eighty 13-by-19.2 inch ppm utilizing Konica Minolta’s innovative Simitri HD + toner. Compatibility with coated stock sets this print engine apart from the field, including an “air suction belt” for reliable paper feeding. Based on these impressive specifications, more than 90 percent of bizhub PRESS C8000 installations have occurred at commercial printing companies, according to Kevin Kerns, Konica Minolta’s senior VP of marketing.

“It’s really designed—everything from the deltaE to the paper stocks to the internal humidification system and everything else—that if you’re in a commercial print workflow, you can easily adapt digital to it,” claimed Kerns. “In terms of features and capabilities, it’s designed to provide what commercial printers told us they wanted from a digital device.”

For offset print shops that depend on an extremely high percentage of uptime for their print engines, system reliability and field service availability are crucial—an area in which Konica Minolta feels it excels. “We’ve got an enormously diverse footprint, with more than 75 systems analysts in the field just for production print workflows,” Kerns explained. “We’ve also got a huge service network that can support these products.”

In addition to its partnership with Konica Minolta, Kodak has another idea for commercial printers looking to add digital production capabilities: add some inkjet heads to your existing web press. Half-webs and narrow webs are the ideal target for Kodak’s PROSPER S10 imprinting system (far left), providing a 4.16-inch-wide print swath at 600 dpi. Available in both one- and four-color variations, Kodak’s breakthrough “Stream” continuous flow inkjet technology promises excellent color reproduction at full press speeds (650 feet per minute).

As the influence of inkjet spreads across the printing industry, vendors are developing new products that leverage this technology’s advantages without the multi-million-dollar investment demanded by the current crop of high-speed inkjet webs. Riso already produces low-cost, cut-sheet inkjet duplicators for corporate users, including the 120-ppm HC5500, which the manufacturer describes as “the world’s fastest inkjet printer.” This portfolio seems likely to expand in the near future, as Riso recently acquired rights to the small-footprint Olympus OP-1bd (monochrome) and OP-1cd (four-color) inkjet web presses. With a print speed of 108 feet per minute, these devices are reportedly targeted at transactional applications but were shown producing saddlestitched booklets at Ipex.

Small-format digital web presses offer the advantage of reduced paper cost. If you add in the trend to pre-coat conventional offset stocks to enhance their printability (as seen on HP’s Indigo and T300 presses) there’s a significant cost benefit as compared to sheetfed devices. Declining run lengths combined with an expanding interest in variable-data applications assure a bright future for digital print engines, but whether the next wave of “must-have” devices will be sheetfed or web, utilizing toner or inkjet technology, remains to be seen. PN

Hal Hinderliter is an industry consultant and prolific author, publishing more than 120 magazine articles as well as five textbooks. As the former director of the Graphic Communication Institute as well as GATF’s Center for Imaging Excellence, Hinderliter created training programs for industry clients and public workshops. A popular speaker on prepress and workflow topics, he has delivered seminars at Graph Expo, MacWorld, Seybold, FOLIO, Gutenberg and COMDEX.