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Transformative Technologies

Affordable, Automated Digital Finishing Tools Come to Market

By Gretchen A. Peck


In the business of big print, the most sophisticated and highly automated tools—especially for finishing—were usually reserved for the largest print service suppliers (PSPs) with the volume to support considerable investments. It left a solution void for PSPs with more modest monthly volumes, but the need for exceptional quality product, nonetheless.


That’s about to change. Bill Hartman, VP, digital development, digital finishing, Esko, says the print market needs to be segmented to determine digital finishing’s reach.


“If you look at the mid-sized and large print businesses, you’d be hard pressed to find a print service supplier with a digital flatbed but doesn’t have a cutting system,” notes Hartman.


This is mainly because the market is more mature, which Steve Aranoff, business development, MCT, Inc, believes is exemplified by PSPs adding to their stable of finishing equipment, or replacing legacy equipment they perhaps installed a decade before.


To illustrate just how the landscape of digital finishing has evolved, Aranoff recalls, “the original installations of digital finishing equipment we saw back in 2003 to 2005 usually had one cutter that might service three or four printers, because not every job had to be finished. Today, we see three or four cutters that service one printer.”


For print businesses that haven’t yet made investments in automated digital finishing, there are two choices, according to Hartman—finish by hand or outsource.


“What a lot of smaller companies do is try to finish as much as they can by hand, but for complicated or fast-turn jobs, they’ll find somebody with a table and subcontract out the work. And you do that until your subcontracting bills and logistics become a burden—or you’ve increased your volume enough to get acquainted with your own cutting table,” he suggests.


In order for automated finishing systems to be transformative, print suppliers must be willing to be transformed. Often, that means taking new approaches to sales and customer service.


“For whatever reason, customers aren’t able to hire sales people to sell the new capabilities, or they lack the flexibility to go after new creative markets. And that’s totally critical; the ability to sell new finishing capabilities to customers and prospective customers,” explains Beatrice Drury, marketing and communications, Zünd America.


Creating a Complete Workflow

While it’s natural to be dazzled by the bells and whistles and sparkling steel of new equipment, Hartman stresses that print suppliers should focus on two bigger picture questions. First, how do you expect—or hope—the business to grow and change in the coming years?


Finishing manufacturers expect print providers to look down the road to the future. As Drury notes, the modular nature of Zünd’s finishing devices allow PSPs to leverage smaller, less complex systems with fewer tools, to gain access to exceptional equipment even when budgets are tight.


Secondly, what do you want the workflow to look like? After all, it’s not just about inserting a finishing technology as a standalone tool. It becomes part of the complete workflow—what Esko refers to as design-to-print-to-cut, according to Hartman.


The truth of the matter, he adds, is that what happens as far upstream as creative and prepress will impact what unfolds at the finishing level.


“When you look at that workflow, we like to start talking about basic prepress applications, like preflighting or layout and imposition,” according to Hartman. Esko’s i-cut Suite manages preflight and layout, which is important for a PSP that’s getting a lot of digital files from customers, as many as 50 percent, probably, that aren’t ready for a RIP.


“Our layout program allows you to lay out multiple images across the substrate, like shoe nesting, to get a good optimization of material, which is expensive. It may save 30 percent on substrates,” shares Hartman.


Without an automated design-to-print-to-cut workflow, the profound way in which a digital cutting system can transform a business is diminished. Like kinks in hoses, a single obstacle along the way can slow the work to a trickle.


“When you buy a cutting table, you’ll eliminate the bottleneck in the finishing department, both from a capacity standpoint and from a capability perspective. Now, you can finish virtually any substrate and produce any shape,” notes Hartman. “So then the bottleneck becomes prepress. You need to automate these functions, and you’ve got to keep feeding the beast—the printers, the finishing equipment.”


But the potential to automate the workflow doesn’t stop at prepress, the pressroom, or digital finishing. Print providers can take the theme even further. Esko’s i-cut Automate incorporates tools that enable the creation of dynamic workflows that eliminate all the manual touch points along the way and provide a system to track the workload and keep it moving.


Print for the New Rock Star

Automated finishing hardware needs to be easy to use for all experience levels. “People don’t follow around rock stars anymore,” quips Mike Zielny, principal, Soundworx Systems and, based in Jersey City, NJ. “Right now, the DJ is the rock star. People follow them around. There are entire concert series dedicated purely to DJs who play electronic music.”


As a print arm of Soundworx Systems, supplies custom graphics for DJs traveling the world. “We just sent custom work to Australia, the Bahamas, and Greece,” according to Zielny. “And we just finished a lot of print for a VH1 show called Master of the Mix, for which we produced all of the graphics for the custom DJ equipment, the DJ booths, and the judges’ table.”


Because the DJ equipment is wrapped in flexible media, chose an automated print-to-cut workflow and design software solution. A Roland DGA Corporation VersaCAMM supplies the printing and cutting, and a Royal Sovereign laminator takes care of protecting the print.


“We take any kind of DJ equipment and create customized wraps for musical artists and entertainers,” explains Zielny. “For example, a DJ may bring us two turntables and a mixer and ask us to create something based on a color scheme. Sometimes they bring us—or we create—a single graphic that we need to print and cut individually, spreading the image across their equipment.”


In this niche market, Zielny reports that the clientele ranges from DJs with lots of graphic arts knowledge and ideas, to those who know little about print and contour cutting possibilities. Creatively, these customers are blank slates. As a custom graphics supplier, Zielny says that his company needs to cater to both demographics. In that context, he concurs that design, prepress, printing, and finishing are codependent and critical to the overall success of the job.


Zielny describes the workflow they created. “We design graphics in Adobe Systems Incorporated Photoshop, then bring them in to Adobe Illustrator. There, we add a cut contour line, which is an outline of the image that’s not printed—though the printer/cutter recognizes it as a cut line.”


There is something simple and logical about introducing finishing directives as early in the creative process as possible, according to Zielny, who says that the rest of the process—from printing to laminating to cutting—is largely automated.


The Roland VersaCAMM appealed to Zielny and his business partner, Michael Piscitelli, because a single piece of media feeds into it, and the output is printed, cut, and ready to go. “Instead of having to take a piece of print out of one machine, and potentially have to feed it into two other separate pieces of equipment, at the most I have to work with only the VersaCAMM and the laminator, and we can go back and forth between those two in a seamless way.”


Transforming the Business

KDF Reprographics of Rockleigh, NJ got its start in 1995 as a digital reprographics shop. The vast majority of the print KDF produces is on behalf of companies centralized in the NY-NJ-CT corridor, and some of PA. The company does a smaller percentage of work for national accounts, including enough vehicle wraps to sustain a national network of installers.


KDF is known to help other printers from across the nation when a special cutting and routing challenge is at hand. For example, the print service supplier recently produced a tough CNC job for a fellow PSP based in TX.


Automation is imperative to KDF’s operational strategies. “We are fully automated, and we have a very small crew—every one, very well trained in what they do,” explains Steve Hoey, president, KDF.

The quest to automate doesn’t stall at the press. It manifests in post-press processes as well.


“We originally bought a CNC router because we had so many customers who wanted simple shapes cut out,” recalls Hoey. His colleague, Brian Hamilton, business development manager, KDF, was instrumental in steering the company to MultiCam Inc. and its MultiCam 3000.


“We realized it would open up doors to many things, and it completely transformed our business,” asserts Hoey. “We had a certain number of customers who would give us nearly all of their printing work, except for the jobs that required die cutting or contour cuts. And as soon as we bought this equipment, all of that business came to us.”


“While we were setting it up, on that very day, we were piling up jobs from customers, because they knew that we had the equipment. And that was a beautiful thing,” he adds.


The investment in an automated workhorse for cutting and routing was also creatively transformative. Though KDF didn’t initially have software to automate the three-dimensional (3D) cutting and routing of more exotic substrates, not long after the MultiCam 3000 went live, that additional investment became a must. In response, KDF licensed Vectric Ltd.’s Cut3D. The software quickly and easily converts 3D models into CNC tool paths that can be machined on conventional three-axis CNC devices.


New Frontiers Await

In the past, highly automated digital cutting and routing solutions were priced at points perhaps beyond the reach of print businesses without the volume to support the investment. Today’s hardware offers automation for any level shop, from entry level to the experienced. Niche products, such as those from are designed for the more creatively-minded business. Whereas robust devices like KDF’s machine help a heavy-volume print shop keep pace. Despite the size of a PSP’s workload, there is an automated tool available.  


Sep2013, Digital Output

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