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  • New Affordable, Short-Run Finishing Systems:

    A Competitive Edge for Commercial Printers?

    by Sean O'Leary
    Chief Technology Officer, PrintPlanet


    One of the hidden problems with the digital revolution is that it opens up new business opportunities for everyone – not just you. For example, you may have thought that a high volume inkjet press investment was a strategic move that would put you one step ahead of the competition, but in reality it turned out you’re just keeping up with the pack. For small-to-medium commercial printers in particular, striking that balance between the leading edge and the bleeding edge is always a challenge. And as the digital revolution enters its third decade, that treadmill shows no signs of slowing down.

    As I’ve pointed out previously, there is a tendency in the business press to focus on the latest and greatest printer technology at the expense of developments further along the production line. But it is also true that the “printing” part of printing is more easily commoditized than the more prosaic activities of trimming, folding, collating, scoring, punching, perfing, drilling, stitching etc. And yet these are processes that add value to a printed sheet when it comes out the other end and wherein opportunities for new revenue may be found.

    One of these possibilities lies in the Small Office/Home Office and smaller print shop markets for post printing services. As the economy continues to inch toward a gig or contract driven model, there has been steady growth in this emergent commercial sector. Look no further than the popularity of shared office spaces (WeWork, ShareDesk, Techspace) for confirmation. These miniature commercial entities may consist of a single entrepreneur, but they require essentially the same support services as full scale offices…. but without the resources.

    This topic came up more or less organically during a discussion with Al Boese, longtime Executive Director of the Bindrite Dealers Network. In addition to binding systems, the group also sells laminators and all kinds of cutters, tabletop paper converting equipment.

    “The way we see it, the companies and individuals in a SOHO environment probably have access to a copy machine, inkjet printer or laser printer, but are less likely to have access to binding systems, folders, laminators, collaters, scorers and other equipment that make paper more useful,” said Boese. “These potential customers can produce the artwork and output the printed pages for brochures and business cards, but they can’t (or shouldn’t) trim or hand fold them into mailers or slit them into business cards.”

    According to Boese, commercial printers don’t need to tie up the big iron when it comes to accommodating demand for post press work on short runs. A graphics industry veteran, Boese is in a position to track emerging trends as equipment manufacturers endeavor to accommodate the post printing demands of smaller printing runs. He notes that the development of automatic tabletop and low volume paper converting equipment from companies like Duplo, Standard, MBM, Martin Yale and Formax has been brisk over the past five years. These new machines are smart, programmable and generally offer push button setup and are designed to be operated by unskilled workers. In addition, more and more models are being engineered to combine functions, adding flexibility and versatility to the overall operation.

    Now, a few manufacturers are taking this trend one step further with the emergence a new generation of versatile, lower cost equipment that specifically targets on demand markets by combining functions. These new machines don’t always fit into an existing category, but it seems probable they can provide a competitive edge for a commercial printer by immediately broadening the range of products and services.

    From Tamerica we have the just-released TLC 420 Desktop Label Cutter, which I would describe as a short run digital plotter. Driven by the same art file that outputs the print, the TLC 420 can cut custom shapes up to 13 x 19”. The relatively large format of this unit means it can not only produce the standard range of everyday print collateral like business cards, postcards, id tags and door hangers, but also customized graphics. With a price tag under $6,000, this compact unit would seem to offer endless possibilities for marketing high value services.

    Ascending the price ladder somewhat is Graphtec America’s LCX603, a combination label printer and cutter. The LCX603 is designed for on-demand, short run labels but can cut out designs of any shape. With a maximum output size of about 5 x 8 (print size 3.4 x 7.8”), this combo unit is less versatile size wise than the TLC 420, but on the other hand it is also an all-in-one system that not only prints, but also weeds and laminates. The high resolution thermal printer can print on polyester and polyethylene material, so the possibilities for new markets are there for a printing business with a plan.

    One more product that resists categorization but also typifies the trend in specialty digital converting equipment is the PCM-20 Cutter from Carl Manufacturing Co. Ltd. This multifunction machine creases, perforates and trims short run output into a whole spectrum of graphics products, including business cards, post cards, flyers, greeting cards, tear offs and tickets. Although it was conceived and designed to meet the demands of on-demand and requires minimal setup between jobs, it isn’t all that digital. The configurations of each function are determined by modular cassettes.

    According to BindRite’s Boese, there are several more low volume postprint products in the pipeline for near term release that promise to open new competitive alternatives for those with an ear to the ground.



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