Why 'Working Backward' Can Lead to Digital Printing Success
The natural focus of the Digital Packaging Summit is printing, but the conference doesn’t overlook other, equally important aspects of successful production. On Tuesday, Nov. 6, program co-chair Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies, reviewed the essentials of three of them: substrates, inks and toners, and — perhaps most urgently for printers about to invest in digital printing systems — finishing.
Because substrates are the “foundation of the house,” Boer said, printers need to be clear about how their interactions with digital printing and finishing equipment differ from what takes place in conventional production. Temperature, moisture, and surface tension are among the factors, and the difficulty when it comes to finishing, Boer said, is that the OEMs don’t have the “bandwidth” to investigate everything that might happen when their finishing devices process digital stocks.
For printers, this means “working backward” from the end-product to make sure that selected stocks will both finish and print as intended. Boer also counseled printers about substrate availability, advising them to line up a second and even a third source of the digital papers they want to use.
A string of recent price increases related to mill closures have been “bad news for commercial print,” Boer observed. An upside for packagers, however, is the fact that mills still in operation are producing more packaging stocks with the help of some of the money they’ve earned from charging higher prices for their commercial grades. Although that gives packagers “lots of options,” said Boer, they must be careful about testing and qualifying the new stocks.
He continued with a comparison of the benefits and limitations of toners and inkjet inks, emphasizing that there’s no one-size-fits-all choice to be made among them. Electrophotographic toners, liquid and dry, perform dependably, are food-safe, and work with most types of paper; their limiting factors are print width and linear throughput speed. Inkjet inks are more scalable for print width than toner and can be deposited onto paper faster, but they can have issues with respect to substrate compatibility, drying, curing, and food safety.
Turning to finishing, Boer spoke of the “strange unintended consequences” that digital workflows have brought about for the post-print phase of production. He explained that because digital prepress (minus the platemaking) and digital presswork (minus the makeready) take less time, the unchanged amount of time required for finishing represents a bigger portion of the overall task – and absorbs a larger, more expensive share of budgeted hourly cost rates.
There are two ways, according to Boer, of responding to this: either by adding value to finished sheets so that more can be charged for them; or by finding ways to make finishing more efficient and less costly. The latter will be challenging, he said, because of an increase in job frequency that has become “a way of life” to a point where “‘short run’ has become almost meaningless.”
One of the main concerns here is labor: a resource the printing industry is running disturbingly short of. Bureau of Labor Statistics data cited by Boer put printing fifth highest on the list of industrial sectors projected to lose jobs; in print’s case, this could amount to a 15% reduction in the amount of available labor by 2026. The remedy, Boer said, is workflow automation that can get the finishing done no matter how many jobs there are, with whatever the head count happens to be.
“It’s a manageable problem, but you’ve got to prepare” with a print manufacturing strategy that plans backward from finishing and workflow but also looks ahead to what needs are likely to be three to five years from now, Boer counseled. Only after the finishing and the workflow have been addressed should a decision be made about acquiring a digital press: this, in Boer’s view, is the smartest way to “future proof” the investment.