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The Rise of Hybrid Digital and Offset Printing Environments

The term “hybrid production environment” denotes plants that can print both conventionally and digitally. But, today, how meaningful a designation is it?

Consider that of the companies listed on the 2017 Printing Impressions 400 ranking of the top printers in the U.S. and Canada, 354 said their service offerings include some combination of digital web, cut-sheet, wide- and grand-format, and hybrid offset/digital printing. Only 12 of them reported being digital-only shops.

The 346 plants with both conventional and digital processes clearly fit the definition of “hybrid” environments. But, semantics aside, are they simply companies equipping themselves with whatever it takes to stay competitive in the printing industry as it now operates?

Put another way, does the fact that these bi-capable plants are so numerous indicate that hybridization is the industry’s new normal? This requires some perspective.

Although the adoption of digital printing is accelerating, the conventional processes – principally offset lithography – continue to hold powerful sway. At the recent Xeikon Café event, Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies, noted that just 3% of all print is produced using digital printing technology.

Addressing the label and packaging segment, another speaker, Bob Leahey, associate director of Keypoint Intelligence, pointed out that digital printing accounted for only 1% of revenue in that market.

Convergence as Driver of Digital

But, although digital’s shares may be small, they are bountiful. The Smithers Pira research group, ascribing 16.2% of global print market value in 2017 to digital printing, declares that the most lucrative opportunities lie in value-adding work using digital print. And, as the industry continues to converge, with printing companies stepping across traditional boundaries to pursue new market opportunities, the mingling of conventional and digital production in hybrid business strategies can only intensify.

Another effect of convergence is that “hybrid” may now refer to more than just printing processes. Andrew Paparozzi, the newly named chief economist at SGIA, reports that participants in his latest “State of the Industry” survey expect something other than printing – for example, mailing, fulfillment, database management, marketing support and Web services – to provide 31.6% of their revenue in 2018, up from 13.3% in 2012.

Nevertheless, the adoption of digital printing by plants that were once conventional-only is a transformational trend that still has a long way to go.

All Signs Pointing to Digital Growth

Paparozzi writes that a Fall 2017 capital investment report put digital infrastructure (workstations, servers, networks, etc.); toner-based, cut-sheet digital presses; and workflow software at the top of the list of printers’ investments during the past three years. The impetus for the demand can be seen in Boer’s observation that “as run lengths decline, and job frequency increases, more and more print jobs become eligible for digital printing.”

All of this strongly suggests that whether a print shop cares about being dubbed a hybrid production environment or not, a digital press probably is in its future if it does not already have the capability. At Xeikon Café, Dan Muenzer, president of TLMI, a trade association representing label converters and suppliers, said “the daunting task of adding digital” boils down to answering a series of questions that apply to all print market segments:

  • Do I train my current staff on the new technology or hire from the outside?
  • How do we adapt our workflow to accommodate the shorter run lengths digital makes possible?
  • What needs to be done to accommodate the variable data or other advanced technologies that digital printing makes possible?
  • Do we make changes in support areas like estimating or inventory control to make things run smoothly?

To get a sense of how printing businesses hybridize, we asked three shops to talk about their adoption of digital printing, the uses they currently are making of it and their plans to expand that usage in the future. Although none expects digital to drastically reduce the volume of conventional work being produced, all are counting on it to help them serve their customers in ways that supplement the value of their conventional processes.

No Fear of Obsolescence Felt Here

“Digital printing is not doing to offset what offset did to letterpress in the 1950s,” notes Dave Held, principal of The Old Trail Printing Co. in Columbus, Ohio. Thus, there’s been no reason for the 90-year-old firm to fear for the health of its offset business because of the digital capabilities it has acquired during the past 10 years.

The latest addition on the digital side is a Konica Minolta AccurioJet KM-1 cut-sheet inkjet press installed in March. This device and Old Trail’s other digital presses run two shifts a day, five days a week, accounting for about 15% of total production volume.

The rest originates from a conventional press department anchored by two six-color, 40˝ Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102s and a six-color, 29˝ Speedmaster SM 74 perfector. Held says his “intuitive feel” is that during the next three to five years, output will become 60% offset and 40% digital – but not because of work migrating from the Speedmasters to the digital platforms.

What’s being printed on the digital equipment, he explains, is mostly new volume, with the AccurioJet KM-1 taking the lead for direct mail and variably printed jobs. Held describes it as a high-output press capable of printing six 8.5×11˝ pages on both sides of a 23×29˝ sheet at 1,500 sheets/hr. He adds that owing to the breadth of its substrate range, “I can run anything on that press.”

Although jobs exceeding 15,000 sheets typically belong to the offset equipment, there is, according to Held, “no line in the sand” for deciding which process to use when the sweet spots overlap. In the case of a toss-up, the plant’s estimating system prices the job both ways so that the customer can decide which set of economies makes the most sense.

Output Redundancy Be Praised

As the first printing company in Ohio to attain G7 Master Printer certification, Old Trail ensures that all of its presses conform to G7 standards for consistent color reproduction. That best practice, together with compatible workflows for the offset and digital equipment, enables the two sides of the operation to back each other up. As a result, says Held, “we’ve got redundancy throughout the building.”

Another advantage of running a tightly synched hybrid operation is the peace of mind it brings. In a hybrid shop, notes Held, “you’re in control of so many things. You’re not outsourcing anything.”

Xeikon 3500 digital press

Clayton Blair operates the Xeikon 3500 digital press at Bollin Label Systems.

Flexography continues to reign supreme in the label printing business, and this certainly is the case at Bollin Label Systems, of Toledo, Ohio. Here, narrow web flexo systems from Roto Press and Nilpeter produce 90% of the company’s output of labels for grocery and food, promotional, product merchandising, food safety and custom applications.

But within the broad swath of markets the company serves, reports Robin Flaum, national director of sales and marketing, “there’s a lot of branding going on.” This has meant more product variations, more requests for customization and more reasons finally to go digital – a step the company took in April of 2017 by installing a Xeikon 3500 wide-web label press backed by a Rotoflex finishing unit.

Bollin’s transition to digital has been gradual. But, it is a highly significant move toward the future for the family-owned company, which will mark its 50th anniversary next year.

New Process, New Opportunity

“Our digital press will allow current customers additional flexibility for new product introductions, seasonal items, multiple versions, variable data and to help with their inventory costs,” according to Flaum. She also thinks it will enable Bollin to target customers it wasn’t able to service in the past because of the quantity requirements that come with flexo.

High-volume orders remain on the flexo presses. Runs under 5,000 feet and those requiring variable content go to the Xeikon 3500, a 20.3˝-wide digital toner press that can print in five colors at 1,200 dpi. But, depending on the nature of the job, there can be room for choice. “We may flip between digital and conventional for different orders of the same items,” Flaum says. “Volume will help to determine that, or color matching.”

By following scrupulous, cross-platform color management routines and supporting the flexo equipment and the digital device with the same MIS and workflow software, Bollin Label Systems is demonstrating that “hybrid” can also mean “harmonious” in terms of press performance. Flaum foresees expansion on both fronts, with digital capturing an increasing share of the volume – perhaps as much as 40% – and flexo augmented with new equipment to meet customer demand in certain categories.

In this high-productivity hybrid environment, she says, Bollin can be confident of “meeting the needs of customers large and small, while maintaining the look of product between processes.”

For Some Clients, Only Offset Will Do

Full- and half-size offset presses from Heidelberg produce about 60% of the volume at Torrance, Calif.-based

Classic Litho + Design, a provider of high-quality print and creative services to the automotive, motion picture, legal, cosmetics and fashion industries. Darioush Nikravan, director of marketing, notes that agencies and other demanding clients insist on offset for jobs with heavy solids and spot colors.

The company is no newcomer to digital printing, having installed its first toner press in 2005. Its successor is an HP Indigo 7800 that sometimes handles overflow from the offset department when the Heidelbergs are fully booked. Classic Litho + Design also offers wide-format digital output, courtesy of an HP DesignJet L26500 latex printer and an HP Scitex FB700 industrial printer.

All are supported by The OTPrint MIS. For color management, the G7-certified shop relies on Prinect Color Toolbox software from Heidelberg. Cross-platform compatibility makes it possible to combine processes in projects such as kits for automotive customers, in which everything is color-profiled to match.

Six of One …

Nikravan says the HP Indigo 7800 prints invitations, short-run catalogs, personalized booklets and other products that play to its strengths as a high-quality, variable printing digital press. He thinks that eventually, with the addition of a digital press in a half-size format, Classic Litho + Design could become a 50/50 hybrid environment where the offset and digital systems handle the same amounts of work.

Digital has an edge in terms of quick turnarounds, but the true measure of a properly equipped production environment is its responsiveness to the full spectrum of customer requirements. As Nikravan points out, “these days, you have to be ready to service your clients with whatever projects they have.”

That’s just good business sense – and, by any other name, probably all the justification that hybridizing a printing business needs.

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