Back before I knew better, I asked a purveyor of finishing systems what the company had to offer for finishing systems for digital presses. His response was not unlike the scene in Star Wars when Obi Wan Kenobi told the Star Troopers, “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”
That’s when I first realized that many of the finishing equipment companies were maybe lagging a bit behind the companies that made print engines. That’s no longer the case, and one of the industries’ most notable changes is the rapid expansion of finishing solutions being brought to market. This is especially important because the once manual processes of finishing have yielded to automation and present a profitable way to streamlined production.
A new study conducted on behalf of Canon highlights the best practices in digital finishing, and provides insights into how print service providers are leveraging digital printing to boost efficiency and better serve customers. Conducted by NAPCO Research (a unit of NAPCO Media, parent company of Printing Impressions and In-Plant Impressions), the study contacted 233 commercial printers and 174 in-plants to uncover evolving trends that are advancing the use of digital printing. Among them is finishing. I saw this first-hand a couple years back when a group of transactional and direct mail printers I work with asked me to include finishing systems in my presentations on print systems. They had decided those were the next products they needed to think about. Having been in shops with both limited and sophisticated finishing options and learning about their respective profitability, I was not surprised.
Printing has long been described as a manufacturing process, and for some time in-line systems have been seen as barriers to faster production. But no more. While in-line options are now fast enough to no longer limit throughput, the long tail of older off-line systems still keeps them in favor among many commercial printers. Among the things I hear are:
Many commercial printers want to continue using the off-line devices in which they have already invested
Having multiple digital presses requires investing in several in-line solutions
Fear that an in-line system being down could limit production capacity of the press
The wide range of applications produced makes in-line finishing impractical.
Depending on the operation, these can be valid concerns, but all can prevent a print provider from modernizing their operations in ways that prepare them for an automated future. To be sure, not all types of finishing can be done with in-line systems and some functions may be more practical using a near-line or off-line device. Near-line finishing systems receive the job set up and job ticket information through a JDF integration or via printed barcodes so multiple presses can imbue a finishing device with a higher level of automation.
Money on the table
As a colleague once noted, no one buys a pallet of printed paper: It always needs something done to it. So one thing that finishing does is put more money on the table. The study showed that offering both digital printing and finishing can be highly profitable. Enter mail addressing, perfect binding, booklet making, die-cutting, saddle stitching, and mail inserting, all largely considered to be profitable services. Even more value comes from print enhancement techniques such as foiling, embossing, textures, special coatings, and overprinting. Many of these techniques and processes add value, are coveted by print buyers, and applied using finishing equipment. Digging into those options is another study on Print Enhancement [DOWNLOAD THE FREE WHITE PAPER] that provides insights into the profitability behind these added capabilities. Just follow the money.
As digital presses have become commonplace in all types of print shops, a key takeaway from this research is the looming shift in how jobs are finished. While commercial shops still indicate a preference for off-line finishing, workflow automation will soon provoke a sea change in how and when off-line, in-line and near-line finishing are most appropriate. For example, as run lengths and turnaround times shrink, many in-line options begin making sense for all types of print providers. While commercial printers still say the majority of their jobs are finished off-line, in-plants’ story is one of higher utilization of in-line finishing. Some of this difference may be volume or run-length related, but there is little doubt that the landscape for commercial and in-plant shops alike is changing. With respondents seeing more jobs with shorter run lengths and shorter turnaround times, commercial shops are coming to consider the benefits of in-line or near-line finishing.
Today’s finishing equipment can be fully integrated with prepress and printing in a workflow based on relaying digital job specifications between processes. Many devices are now equipped to share job specs, automatically set themselves up for operation, and instruct other machines to join in the workflow. This is an essential objective of Digital Printing 5.0—smart factories—in which manufacturing environments where zero-touch, lights-out production is routine. In-line finishing solutions are a key enabler of such operations because they foster a “white paper in, finished product out” production model. As the printing industry’s analog-to-digital transformation continues, successful print providers are embracing tools that help create “smart” manufacturing workflows.
As I noted earlier, print providers didn’t have many in-line finishing options in the early days of digital presses. Today though, printers can select from a variety of digital-print friendly post-press capabilities to meet many requirements. Innovations in finishing technology are expanding production capabilities and possibilities and helping to deliver the power and promise of Digital Printing 5.0. To get a sense of the power that can be on your shop floor, take a few minutes to download and read the report on the Best Practices in Digital Finishing. [DOWNLOAD THE FREE WHITE PAPER!]