There’s one overarching theme when it comes to what’s new in the world of digital substrates. That theme is that printers have more options than ever, which means they also have more opportunities to spark creativity than before.
“Today, they won’t struggle to get what they‘ve grown accustomed to on the offset side, but for digital platforms,” says Bob Niesen, senior vice president of sales and marketing at GPA, Specialty Substrate Solutions. “There are some press capabilities that serve as a limitation. But they can get coated or uncoated, textured, finished items, felts and linens, pressure-sensitive labels and stickers, and plastics and synthetics. The reason for this is that the machines are able to do more, and companies like ours are enabling a much larger range of substrates to perform nearly flawlessly on digital machines.”
That wider range of substrates puts printers in a position to give customers more choices, Niesen continues. Run lengths are getting steadily shorter, but relevancy is more important than ever and can be achieved through QR codes, personalization, and more.
“If you do a good job on those and put the piece on a real cool substrate, you’re going to get noticed,” he says. “Printers have to educate themselves on these, but by being a thought leader for their customers, they’re going to put themselves in a position to increase their revenues.”
From her standpoint, Cathy Kimpton, marketing manager for the MACtac distribution group, says sheet size is also changing. Once, sheets were offered in 12x18 inches, but now can be found in 13x19 sizes. “We also get an increasing number of requests for customized sheets,” she says.
As for opportunities, Kimpton says printers that have commercial offset presses and are buying digital presses are trying to give clients consistent color. “This helps printers provide their clients with a wider range of services—the small personalized piece as well as large commercial print jobs of 10,000 units.
“That’s the big buzzword out there: color management. Before, digital was not considered up to the color quality of an offset press, but now it’s getting so close. It’s the media and the equipment together facilitating this change.”
Appleton Coated, a coated paper manufacturer, is offering among its fully commercialized products Utopia Inkjet Gloss. Product manager Howard Kirby says this is the best-performing gloss product for the high-speed inkjet web presses in its price range. “We also just improved Utopia Inkjet Dull, to give it higher sheet gloss, higher image gloss, and improved durability,” Kirby adds. “And we’ve launched a line of products in our matte family, Utopia Book Inkjet Matte P.E., which stands for piazo-electric. That is for OEMs that are not HP and Kodak.”
Opening New Doors
With the gloss and dull, printers now have capability on fully digital high-speed inkjet platforms to produce very near offset quality on substrates that look like offset substrates. “You can do magazines, brochures, sales mailing pieces for direct mail that are very comparable to an offset printed piece,” Kirby says. “In fact, we’ve done some work with inkjet web press owners where a lay person would struggle to see the difference between this and offset.”
With Book Inkjet Matte P.E., an entirely new group of press owners can move into digital publishing, and produce custom published materials that include very short-run books, textbooks, trade books, and manuals, Kirby says.
At Neenah Paper, director of marketing Kingsley Shannon reports, “When we’re looking at digital, we’re looking at how to take that offset we offer, and really make sure we position that same offering in the digital space. We realize a lot of printers are migrating from offset to digital. And areas we’re seeing that are new center around unique products we offer in the colored substrates, like red, black, chocolate brown, and navy blue. They’re really good at showing off some of the newer ink technologies, like HP’s beautiful white ink.”
When digital media was launched, it was perceived as copier paper—plain white paper for office printing—she adds. But it now has reached the point where it can be used in high-end projects traditionally printed on offset machines. In short, the quality once associated strictly with offset is possible with digital.
Thus, Neenah Paper is seeing increasing demand for its pearlized product line, which is called Esse, and for pearl effects that are also offered in its Classic, Stylized, and Starwhite paper lines, Shannon says.
The pearl effect allows a four-color photograph to be given a striking dimensional effect with the pearl showcased underneath, she explains. Shannon believes the product is a perfect fit for retail and consumer packaged goods companies seeking to differentiate their brands.
Whether it is pearlized, colored, or textured, today’s more innovative digital media allow printers to up-sell their customers into higher product lines, and thereby put more money into their own pockets, she says.
When asked to name some of the more creative new applications she has seen, Shannon immediately cites digital photobooks and variable printing. “No matter what people say about the future of the US Postal Service, the reality is direct mail will continue playing a role,” she says. “By using variable data along with heavier stocks, some color, and texture, our research shows those who differentiate themselves these ways can reap up to 20 percent higher response rate than if they used thin-coated white sheet.”
At the top of Kirby’s list of creative applications are “onserts.” An onsert rides atop a magazine, and has to be packaged with the magazine, but provides the capability of delivering a fully customized ad to the magazine recipient.
There’s also the capability to produce very short-run magazines of fewer than 200 copies, each boasting an appearance that is anything but that of a publication run on a copier, Kirby says. The final exciting application takes the form of 16- to 50-plus-page coupon books, fully utilizing loyalty card data to tempt consumers with attractive cents- or dollars-off offers on products competitive with products to which they’re loyal. “They’re getting more relevant,” Kirby says.
One intriguing application Kimpton saw is a jigsaw puzzle run on an Indigo press and laminated to thicker substrates, then cut into puzzle pieces for a toy manufacturer. Another is a clothing maker’s catalog, featuring an insert of dye-cut labels. A clothing buyer at a retailer can pull off the labels and easily stick them on any of the pictured items to show they will buy those lines, she says.
Matching Substrates to Devices
One question perplexing many printers is how to make sure particular types of digital substrates are compatible with their specific output devices. Niesen urges gaining specific information from the press maker, discussing the potential match with substrate specialists, and then testing the material. “We go a lot further than many in that we have a print trial process,” he says.
“With our partners, we give them education and a file, coupled with any substrate they want to test, so they can understand how that substrate will perform. It’s not just a matter of whether it will feed or get good toner adhesion. It’s about how well will it fold, will it score, will it go through the mail, will it have to be coated or laminated, and can it be coated or laminated? It goes back to that need for education I spoke about earlier.”
Choosing the right substrate requires a consultation with the substrate manufacturer, agrees Kirby. “In Appleton Coated’s case, it’s the sales rep on premise, the management and the technical services team,” he adds. “The consultation focuses on compatibility, what you can expect on press, and to provide insight if what you’re trying to do will be a challenge for that equipment.”
“It’s all about what you’re trying to do,” adds Neenah Paper’s technical sales specialist Tony Difford. “If you’re looking for that first moment of impact, look at colors. If you have a bright color, like a bright pepper ink that will really stand out, then your second moment of impact would be any of the textures you could add to that. Now it really begins to get your attention.”
When storing digital media, acclimate the media to the print environment for 24 hours prior to printing, Kimpton recommends. “For digital, it should be in a climate controlled environment,” she warns. If media’s left over, she adds, “it should be returned to the carton or the wrapping, and stored flat in the same print lab where it is being run, or adjacent to that.”