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Optimized Short Runs: The New Normal

If short runs are the “new normal” in the offset and digital print worlds, then vast increases in the sheer number of jobs flowing through the average shop has become the standard as well. “There was a time when we would not even quote a job under 5,000 pieces,” recalled Kathy Wise, president of $50+ million printer DME Holdings. Over the past three years, the Daytona Beach firm has added a robust web-to-print platform to its direct mail division. “We are handling many jobs a day, sometimes over 3,000,” Wise noted.

Jim Schultz, CEO of Great Lakes Integrated (GLL), can relate. “Six or seven years ago, we might have only produced between 3,500 and 4,000 jobs in a year,” he said, remembering pre-recession higher quantities that kept Great Lakes’ two- and four-color, 40-inch Heidelberg sheetfed presses humming. The firm’s 75,000-square-foot plant in Cleveland also runs an older, five-over-five Royal Zenith half-web. Today, GLL churns out up to five times more jobs – as many as 20,000 annually. Of its more than $13 million in annual print sales, some 30 percent of these revenues come from digitally produced jobs.

GLL installed its first digital press 11 years ago. “Because of so much digital work running through [now], quantities range from one-offs to 2,000 to 3,000,” Schultz added. The company today runs a trio of Kodak NexPress 2500’s as well as DigiMaster 9110, Konica-Minolta BizHub Pro 1600P, and Oce (Canon) models for monochrome work.

In 2008, about one-third of sheetfed print jobs had run lengths of only 250 sheets. That sheet number has dropped another 20 percent in 60 months: “I would say that about a third of all jobs are at 200 sheets for all sheetfed devices, but digital now dominates,” reported print guru Frank Romano, the retired RIT professor and 50-year industry veteran. Digital printing represents some 60 percent of all short runs, Romano added, “with offset at 25 percent -- up slightly [from 20 percent two years ago] because of new presses.”

Industry consultant Hal Hinderliter concurred: “Digital printing offers a powerful solution for short-run projects, but it has been exciting to watch the innovative new features that sheetfed offset press manufacturers have developed,” said Hinderliter, who now oversees the popular Must See ’Ems program at Graph Expo and this year’s PRINT 13 trade show. “Thanks to amazing technologies for simultaneous plate changes, defect recognition, in-press color measurement, smart start-up/shut-down, and automated wash-ups -- just to name a few options -- conventional presses can now be very competitive at as few as one thousand sheets.

“Of course, it is difficult to make money on either type of press if your sales and order entry costs are high,” Hinderliter added, “so improved estimating and MIS systems have become essential for any company that wants to remain competitive in a short-run world.” Indeed, efficient order-entry processes are precisely how today’s flexible print shops ensure that they’re handling up to 75 jobs per day in the most effective manner.

More Customers, Fewer Touches

Optimized workflow is the key to profitability. Employing digital storefronts is one way that frenetic printers keep up with the growing volume and variety of jobs. Instead of coming in through the door and on hard copies, these orders come in virtually via online web portals and are sent directly to the designated output devices. To produce personalized direct-mail components, including variable data and imaging, GLL uses a combination of third-party technologies, primarily off-the-shelf online templates from PageFlex, which it then customizes.

While a no-touch administrative workflow may be the goal, it is not the reality. “We still have to enter orders on ‘transactional’ call-ins,” Schultz explained. GLL is a longtime EFI software customer. “We use PrintFlow for scheduling and Monarch Planner [for MIS],” he said, “and are looking at an EFI solution on the digital side as well because the orders are so abundant. EFI technology has made a significant difference in how we process orders. We are much less manual.”

GLL still prints a fair share of general commercial work, too. “But if I have 500 static brochures to run, it’s entirely my call as to which press to run it on,” Schultz pointed out. “Whether it’s digital or offset doesn’t really matter to customers. There are no longer questions about quality. Eleven or 12 years ago, people would say. ‘Don’t run it digital.’ But the digital [print] world has really caught up to the offset world.”

Besides, Schultz said, “We just don’t need that [large] footprint any more. We had five 40-inch presses at one time, as well as two-colors. We produce the same offset volumes today with two newer, 40-inch Heidelbergs’ high speeds and fast makereadies.” GLL has two six-color Speedmaster models: a 102 perfector and an XL-105 installed in 2009, both featuring aqueous coaters.

Digital Only

Owners of many 21st century start-up print firms don’t even consider offset press technology. And there are the former sheetfed shops that added digital presses to their arsenals over the past two decades or so. DME, an acronym for Digital Mail Express, is an example of a business that has totally converted over to digital print. “The only offset equipment we have now are envelope presses,” said Wise. Any other offset jobs that come in get outsourced these days, she added.

The Florida firm was “an early adopter of the first iGen3 presses from Xerox eight or nine years ago,” she noted. Since migrating to three iGen4’s, DME also has added two HP Indigo 7500 models, two monochrome Kodak DigiMaster e150’s, and a pair of Xeikon 5000’s. Such device diversity led HP to invite DME to beta test its SmartStream Production Center (see sidebar), which is “due to come out of beta in mid-April,” Wise said. The fleet of nine digital devices outputs everything from personal wrapping paper, short-run postcards, and photo prints to invitations, business cards, collateral, and even books -- quantities from one to more than 500 – in its 120,000-square-foot facility. “It’s communion season now,” said Terry Webber, DME’s director of business and product development. A typical work day in production consists of aggregating anywhere between 25 and 50 jobs. So how does DME handle all that product and volume variety?

“We began taking web-to-print seriously about three years ago,” explained Webber, “starting with an out-of-the box solution at first from OPS [Online Print Solutions], which is now part of EFI. We got our feet wet with direct-to-consumer sites.” For sports memorabilia firm Replay Photos, it created an e-commerce site from where unframed prints can be ordered. “We use DirectSmile [software] for some of their personalized work,” he added. DME developers even created an Online Automated Fulfillment (OLAF) System to aggregate orders sent by OPS, he continued. Over a weekend, DME may fill as many as 3,000 orders for Replay – everything from 3x5 to 9x27-inch prints.

But in the end, OPS “as is” was not flexible enough for what Webber and Wise ultimately envisioned. “So we augmented the framework to fit our needs,” he said. In 2012, DME built out and customized its own platform. “We took two years of learning and got deep into it,” Webber explained. “We made our own code changes and have source code for some of OPS. For personalized assets, we use the XMPie composition engine, plus a variety of other software.”

This added expertise led to Xerox referring DME to its customer, Office Depot, which needed business-to-business portals for its 1,150 retail stores and nine regional printing locations. The project required a complex, back-end routing system, Webber noted. For ACN, a DME-developed portal supports more than 150 sales staffers and 100,000 direct selling agents in North America.

Managing More Print Jobs

Commercially available this month, the HP SmartStream Production Center allows users to efficiently receive, produce, and deliver high volumes of short-run print jobs. With monitoring, system customization, job submission automation, and productivity optimization tools, print professionals can take better control of the production process, said Hewlett-Packard.

“Production Center tracks all jobs on different pieces of equipment in our building, whether folders, UV coaters, or whatever,” explained Kathy Wise, president of direct marketing printer Digital Mail Express (DME), Daytona Beach, FL, which went live with beta testing last November. The DME production floor features nine digital presses, including models from HP, Kodak, Xeikon, and Xerox.

SmartStream Production Center features include:

  • Monitor production in real time, tracking job progress and identifying jobs that need operator attention, using the modular dashboard
  • Automated job submission cuts overhead while drag-and-drop controls offer improved controlOptimization tools, including load balancing and job batching, enable maximum productivity
  • Easy customization allows you to tailor production processes and parameters to your specific needs
  • Qualified integration with leading web-to-print systems, so you can retrieve jobs from multiple sources

“The ability to aggregate [jobs] is the key to profitability in a digital print environment,” added Terry Webber, DME’s director of business and product development.