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 Digital Printers: Then, Now, and the Future

Despite a period of consolidation and recent market fluctuations, digital print engine manufacturers have a compelling stable of solutions to offer.

By Gretchen Kirby Peck

Just like most other industries, print has suffered through recent years, leaving equipment manufacturers just as vulnerable as their customers. Layoffs ran rampant and business units consolidated. PR agents lost their jobs. But digital print is in for brighter days, according to CAP Ventures, which last fall predicted a compound annual growth rate of 14 percent between 2002 and 2006.

A quick scan of the solutions available in the monochromatic space shows that there are few players remaining (Ricoh, Cannon, Delphax, IBM Printing Systems, Xerox, and Oce Printing Systems).

Color is clearly where it’s at. Some of the most exciting news came out of the color space last year, and the industry will continue to see most of the upcoming tradeshow hype focusing on color and variable-data opportunities. In the mid-to-high color category, vendors are plentiful and include major players like: Canon, Ricoh, Xante, NexPress, Oce Printing Systems, HP Indigo, Scitex Digital Printing, Xeikon, and Xerox.

So, who’s buying digital printers these days? Perhaps the question should be: Who isn’t? They’re popping up everywhere—at ad agencies, design studios, corporations, in-plants, publishers, and commercial printers. Indeed, digital print has gone mainstream.

Digital Printers:
 
Top 10 Tips and Considerations

It may be commonplace to categorize the black-and-white (B&W) and full-color printing solutions by page-per-minute (or hour, as some vendors rate them) output, but speed should not be the only factor when choosing a digital printing device. To narrow your selections, and to effectively evaluate devices with similar promises, consider the following facets before you buy:

No 1: Cost
The cost of digital printing is undeniably coming down, making it more cost-effective for print producers to choose digital production of traditional offset methods. Still, the solutions on the market today can range from as little as several thousand dollars (on the workgroup end) to hundreds of thousands of dollars for the higher-volume, digital color presses. By superficially adjudicating printers based on cost and your budget constraints, you may inadvertently rule out a printer that may cost a little less or a little more, but better suits your operations and will, in the long run, help support your growing workload and converging output requirements.

No. 2: Duty Cycle
Duty cycles on mid- to high-volume digital printers range from as many as 300,000 impressions per month on the low end to more than several million on the high end. Before you choose a printer for your operation, get a firm grasp on the actual impressions-per-month your organization is producing now and set a good prediction of what your duty cycle needs may be three years out, so you can purchase a printer that enables your business to grow without reinvestment.

No. 3: Color and Quality
If high-quality is what you’re looking for, make certain that you narrow your selections to printers that offer high resolution (600 dpi and up) and support for the color and B&W output variances your organization requires, such as four-color-plus printing, highlight color, spot color, and MICR printing . Also, if your establishment is producing a wide array of print projects, consider models that offer adjustable dpi settings.

No. 4: The Front End
While print engine architecture may be your first consideration when narrowing your choices, what’ s running on the front end may, in fact, be just as important. Check with the vendors to ensure that your digital printer (less applicable for the low-end workgroup models) can be equipped with a digital front end (DFE) that meets your specific job management, equipment optimization, and speed needs.

No. 5: Connectivity
Most digital print engines these days offer several means of connectivity to the Web (some come with standard and optional embedded Web servers) and to a network. While some models come standard with USB and 10/100 BaseT Ethernet connectively, other vendors offer these as options.

No. 6: Speed
While digital printers in the mid- to high-level category fluctuate greatly in terms of speed—30 pages-per -minute and up— it’s critical to inquire about the potential for speed gains with the addition of a lightning-fast DFE, and become knowledgeable about speed losses when the printer is connected to in-line finishing modules.

No. 7: Versatility
As the trend toward application convergence continues, print producers are plagued with “doing more with less.” Optimizing single print engines or stables of them is important to all businesses trying to see the difficult economy through—and this means being able to adapt and modify existing equipment as more diverse jobs come through the door. Seek out vendors who have developed strong partnerships with pre- and post-processing equipment manufacturers and offer a wide variety of solutions that add versatility to the engine.

No. 8: Flexibility and Data Streams
Few print production operations are vendor centric these days, with workflows built on mix-and-match technologies. Unless your company has a strong affiliation with a single vendor, don’t be afraid to mix it up a little, by buying beyond a single manufacturing brand. Do your research, though. Some digital print engines are best suited for single-workflow shops; others can be easily integrated with systems from other manufacturers, as well. Also, determine what data streams are vital to your organization. Fundamentally, support for PostScript and PDF is common, while there are fewer options that support industry standards like PPML for variable-data production.

No. 9: Service and Support
Some may say that service and support should appear first and foremost on this list. These are, in fact, vital considerations for anyone considering buying a mid- to high-volume digital printer. The cost of daily, weekly and monthly maintenance should be factored into the overall cost of the device. Beware of hidden contract charges on service agreements, and be clear about the support offerings of the engine manufacturers and their partners. It’s a good practice, rather than relying on the vendor’ s service promises, to speak to a few users or customers running identical systems to the one you may be considering. It’s a good, non-commercial way to confirm that you'll receive the type and quality of support you deserve.

No. 10: Return on Investment (ROI)
Even after you’ve reviewed these considerations and conducted thorough research on the digital print engines available, you’ve still got to sell the idea to management. Many of the equipment vendors have worked closely with their clients to develop sound ROIs for purchasing digital printers, despite incredibly tight budgetary constraints.

Looking back

2002 was a great year for digital print engine manufacturers. In prior years, they were hard at work making enhancements to their own systems, as well as forming valuable strategic partnerships with pre- and post-process developers.

For example, late last year, Canon (www.canon.com) and T/R Systems (www.trsystems.com) jointly introduced the latest version of its MicroPress (v.6.2) software for integration with Canon’s imageRUNNER and CLC color production systems. The software suite includes several new features and improvements to True Edit (image editing software), the PrintStation Manager and the MicroPress RIP. Jobs can now be exported as TIFF, PostScript, or PD for use in third-party applications, and the PrintStation Manager enables users to automatically split black-and white (B&W) and color pages within the job.

In addition to its compatibility with Canon’s full line of B &W imageRUNNER line, it is now also compatible with Canon’s C LC 3900 color production system, a 39 ppm printer targeted to operations of with a monthly duty cycle of less than 150,000 (A4) impressions per month.

The Heidelberg-Eastman Kodak spawn, NexPress (www.heidelberg.com), also saw the value of third-party alliances. In November 2002, the company announced that it was cutting the ribbon on its new Print Solutions & Services Alliance Program “designed to build dynamic relationships with best-in-class third-party partners,” according to NexPress. One of the program’s first initiatives was to create a PPML/VDX software development kit, they comprised products, documentation and services, including hands-on training, engineering consulting, sample files, and output tests.

In the same week, NexPress proudly announced that one of its Dublin, Ireland-based customers, Virtual Literature Management LTD (VLM) reached a one-million-impression-per-month mark using its NexPress 2100 digital production color press, one of the winners of last year’s coveted GATF InterTech technology award. VLM is an all-digital marketing services company, with a second facility based in Birmingham, England that offers next-day turnaround on all jobs for its customers. Between 800 and 1,200 full-color jobs come through its doors in an average day, with run lengths that vary from 60 to 20,000. Today, the company reports that it is using its NexPress 2100 for both custom and localized printing, and it plans to add full variable-data production to its capabilities list in the near future.

Graph Expo 2002 was the platform for Hewlett-Packard’s (www.hp.com) unveiling of the new Web-fed, seven-color HP Indigo Press w3200, which, according to HP, offers offset quality, streamlined operations, and personalization capabilities. At the show, HP coupled the press with HP Production Flow, a high-speed RIP. Combined, the solution is best suited for high-volume commercial, publishing, and direct-mail applications. It delivers 8,000 A4 full-color images per hour, running 24 hours a day, and up to three million A4 color images-per-month. Raster Digital Marketing, a Utah-headquartered digital printing and marketing agency, was reported to be one of the first beta sites to test the solution, which is compatible with several in-line finishing options, including Hunkeler A.G.’s roll-to-roll and roll-to-sheet systems.

The earlier introduced predecessor to the w3200, the HP Indigo Press 3000, is garnering a lot of interest due to its database and fulfillment capabilities. This seven-color press was reportedly used to create a series of personalized direct-mail campaigns for BMW of North America. BMW’s agency, Redi-Mail Direct Marketing (www.redimail.com) produced an initial run of 15,000 personalized direct mail pieces from responses to a traditional mailing campaign sent to targeted prospects and BMW owners. Based on the preferences and areas of interest expressed by the mailer’s respondents, each recipient received a 32-page, full-color brochure with personalized messages to draw the customer’s attention to the car’s key attributes and options—based entirely on the customer’s expressed interests.

Oce Printing Systems USA  (www.oceusa.com) chose Xplor to launch its new cut-sheet and continuous-forms line of digital production printers, the VarioPrint 5000 and VarioStream 7000 families—the first systems to be based on Oce's Adaptable Imaging Architecture (AIA).

The cut-sheet VarioPrint 5000 family has been designed to enable transactional printers and other publishing operations to work more effectively in convergent, multi-vendor document environments, according to the manufacturer. Models in this family are capable of producing in the range of 100 to 160 images per minute, depending on the configuration. The solution will print on virtually any type of substrate, including label stock, tabs, forms, checks, lightweight and coated stocks, and ledger-size forms.. It offers variable resolution settings and highlight-color printing when used in conjunction with Oce's Quick Change Developer Station.

Also built on the new AIA open architecture, Oce’s VarioStream 7000 family is the continuous-feed sister to the VarioPrint line. It, too, is a scaleable solution. Resolution can be varied between 240, 300, and 600 dpi, and, depending on the configuration, it will produce between 190 and 1,300 images-per- minute, will handle both pin-fed and pinless substrates, and has support for CustomTone highlight color, MICR, and even high-speed B&W printing. While the VarioStream line is new to the U.S., Oce reports that it has approximately 30 customers already using its printers in Europe.

Xplor 2002 provided the launch pad for several new models of IBM Printing Systems Infoprint 4100 series. Three new models (HS2, HD3, and HD4) made their debut at the show. These continuous-forms printers offer 600 dpi, up to 1,220 A4 impressions per minute, and the ability to print up to 19 inches wide. The new models, IBM reports, represent significant speed improvements to previous ones—up to 60 percent faster.

And, finally, in the high-volume segment, Scitex Digital Printing (www.scitexdpi.com) unveiled its new Versamark Vantage, designed explicitly for one-to-one marketing applications. This printer is capable of producing 100-percent variable information in black, spot color, or CMYK process, depending on the configuration. It produces up to 667 A4 impressions per minute and may be configured with a choice of controllers that support either IJPDS or IPDS data streams, making it a solution with “ broad appeal to transactional document and commercial printers,” according to Scitex DPI.

 For medium- to large-sized workgroups and publishing applications, Xerox unveiled its new Phaser 7300 tabloid color printer, which produces 30 pages-per-minute in color mode and 37 pages-per-minute monochrome. The 7300 features 2,400-dpi resolution, a 500 MHz processor, Smart Trays technology (automatically displays the media type available in each of the trays), Auto Thickness Sensor, and the ability to run on a variety of stocks, including standard office paper, labels and transparencies.

In addition to Xerox’s Office Printing Business’ (OPB) Phaser announcement, Xerox s graphic arts division also unveiled a new DocuColor 3535 printer and copier. The printer uses micro-tandem engine with intermediate belt transfer using EA toner (which Xerox lauds as offering sharper image quality and faster warm-up time than its competitors). Resolution on this printer is 600x600 dpi, and combined with an EFI Fiery controller, it can produces 35 pages-per-minute in both color and B&W modes. The copier component of this printer is equipped with auto document feed, a bookletmaker, and poster mode, while the scanner can be configured to scan and convert original documents to PDF, TIFF, JPEG formats, which can be sent to up to 250 system mailboxes.

Looking ahead

As conferences and expos like BookTech and OnDemand draw near, prospective print engine buyers can expect to see many of the digital print engine manufacturers riding on their laurels of last year. While at press time most were not in a position to offer specifics about their early 2003 new launches, the underground buzz suggests that we’ll see new twists on nearly-new technologies. Unlike their demonstrations at Graph Expo and Xplor, exhibiting vendors may show last year’s print engine models with New Year enhancements in the areas of pre- and post-press. 

At OnDemand, “We will be showing a DCP 500 with the IntelliStream 3.5 front-end, our state-of-the-art configuration,” remarks Johan Laurent, marketing manager, Xeikon Americas. “[The] DCP 500 D is the only 20-inch wide digital color press and the fastest on the market at 138 pages-per-minute. The IntelliStream 3.5 front end supports the PPML/VDX variable-data standard, and PP ML 2.1 variable-data language.”

Also, expect to see digital printers used in new ways—many of them now equipped to handle a wide array of data inputs and a plethora of substrates. Virtually all of the print engines available—in both continuous-feed and cut-sheet formats—have a growing stable of pre- and post-processing options that run both in- and near-line, and offer attractive cost-per-page ratings that open up the digital print market to all sorts of businesses, from ad agencies to in-plants and from print-for-pay to commercial print establishments.

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