Posts Tagged ‘digital’

  • Paper cut to a digital measure – Print21 feature

    Digital printing has changed the dynamic of the paper supply chain away from large offset sheets towards smaller sizes, with digitally certified paper now being promoted as an essential part of the production process. But is it really? Or will cheaper offset paper do just as well? As printers resort to the guillotine to shave their costs, no one knows how much offset paper is going through digital machines – and what that does to the machine warranty. Patrick Howard follows the paper trail in search of the money.

    Printers are breaking out of their technology straitjackets. They are no longer confined by practice or tradition to one form of production. The mixing of digital and offset printing and the switching between them according to the demands of the job are now second nature to most commercial printers. This is changing the way the industry operates, not just in production but on the supply side too. Nowhere is the change more distinct than in the paper chain.

    Digital printing is driving demand for paper away from large offset sheets to smaller cut sheets. Digitally certified SRA3 sheets have become the benchmark product for the burgeoning commercial digital printing sector. At a sheet size of 320 x 450mm (as opposed to A3 at 297 x 420mm), SRA3 is a true digital printing sheet, with enough margin to be printed full bleed and trimmed. Best estimates put consumption of this sheet size in Australia at 20,000 plus tonnes per annum.

    But tonnage tells only half the story. While all digital engine manufacturers insist that only certified papers be used in their machines, many printers are more relaxed about cutting up large offset sheets and using the nominally cheaper paper for digital printing. The practice is widespread, especially among the bigger commercial printers. It provokes endless debate and no little acrimony whenever digital presses break down and the vendor discovers the printer is using non-certified offset sheets. Fuji Xerox Supplies even writes it into its maintenance agreement that only certified paper be used.

    Costing on average between 10-15 per cent more than offset sheets, digitally certified, mill-cut SRA3 is the fastest growing paper sector at a time when the overall consumption of paper is declining. But no one really knows how big the market really is.

    The million-dollar question

    “How much SRA3 is going through digital engines? That’s the million dollar question,” comments Rohan Dean, emerging business manager, Spicers.

    “All merchants want their paper to be regarded as unique so they can charge a little more. So they make sure their brands are digitally certified as well as with all the environmental certifications. But a printer with a good A1 (650 x 910mm) sheet on a pallet for his offset presses is likely to go over and cut it up into four SRA3s when he needs a few sheets for a digital job.

    “If you factor in the time and effort that involves, the cost saving may be negligible, but this is likely to be more common than not. It means printers don’t have to carry more than one size of paper. Many printers are prepared to push the envelope and run the risk by testing offset papers in their machines.”

    The number of digitally certified grades is increasing as presses become more sophisticated and the range of products printed becomes more diversified. As a result, everyone is keen to have as many types of paper digitally certified as possible, with HP Indigo already up in the hundreds of grades. Both the press manufacturers and the mills, along with the merchants, are keen to expand their range of certified substrates.

    There is a premium added to the price of paper that is digitally certified, which means there is now a constant stream of new papers coming from mills that are promoted as being specifically engineered for digital printing. In addition, many well-established offset grades, such as Spicer’s Monza, are now certified for digital presses.

    “The demand for digital papers is growing all the time. In addition to coated and uncoated, we carry synthetic grades, which were once a big no-no for digital,” says Dean. “Then there are digital self-adhesives and carbonless, which previously were unable to go through digital presses. There are specialities for photo books and canvas quality. The list is growing all the time. They are all niche products but more printers are looking for them.”

    Treat it properly

    According to Phil Rennell, marketing director Currie Group, the problem with offset stocks is less to do with the type of paper and more about how well the paper is handled. With most HP Indigos located inside temperature-controlled areas, he reckons using offset paper that’s been sitting on the factory floor in a broken mill pack is only asking for trouble.

    “We [HP Indigo] say we can print on anything but if you don’t use the right paper and treat it properly we can’t guarantee the result. It’s the same with offset. If you want a good result you have to make sure the paper is properly conditioned. If you’ve got paper on a pallet in Canberra or Melbourne in the middle of winter with zero humidity and you take it from there into a controlled environment with 45 degrees and high humidity, then you’re going to get problems,” he says.

    “But it’s not a big issue for us. Because they are printing on demand, digital printers only order the paper they require. There is not much waste compared to offset. They usually don’t have broken pallets sitting around the factory. It just makes sense to buy the right-sized paper that’s prepared by the mill.”

    The situation is set to become more complicated with the arrival of B2-size digital presses such as the HP Indigo 10000 and the Screen and Fujifilm inkjets. John Wanless, Bambra Press, one of the early adopters of the HP Indigo 10000, is an experienced, award-winning and knowledgeable printer. He recognises the value of using the right paper for the job but is not averse to testing offset grades when they suit.

    “It depends on the job. We’ll use B2 [digital] papers but there is not a big range at present. We’re working with the paper merchants on that. But we’ll use what ever is required and is available,” he comments.

    Digital is as digital does

    Despite relatively small volumes, the use of mill-wrapped SRA3 is rising sharply. According to Colin Longbottom, one of the first paper merchants to recognise the move towards digital printing – he branded his business as Longbottom Digital Papers in 1996 – printers are coming to recognise the benefits of using paper that is engineered specifically for digital engines. He charts the widespread adoption of colour digital printing from the arrival of the Fuji Xerox 2060 engine at the turn of the century. HP Indigo and Xeikon had trail blazed the sector during the 1990s but it was the arrival of the ‘digital lite’ machines from Fuji Xerox, Konica Minolta and Ricoh that kick-started wider adoption and use of SRA3.

    “It made sense for printers to use SRA3 for commercial colour. It’s a saving on the click charge and because the sheets are made for digital they give a much better result. We stock Mondi paper from Europe, which I believe is the number one for digital colour,” he says.

    Having pioneered the digital sector, Longbottom has strong views on what he describes as the big merchants jumping in promoting offset papers as suitable for digital printing. He maintains there are any number of issues that arise by putting cut-down offset sheets through digital engines.

    “People learn pretty quick. They get a lot of dust in the engine as well as cracking of the image when it’s folded. But the merchants are ankle biters, they’re getting pretty low with their prices. But no matter how low they go they won’t get the tonnage they’ve lost in offset because digital is about short runs,” he comments.

    Self-evident value

    The practice of printers cutting large offset sheets in four to get SRA3 to put through digital engines, though anecdotally widespread, is impossible to quantify. According to Tony Bertrand, marketing & business development manager, BJ Ball, the value of a mill-cut SRA3 digital sheet is self-evident. He reckons that with all the problems and risks involved in cutting larger sheets to the right size – the handling, time and labour involved as well as the logistics – there is nothing left of the original 10-15 per cent differential in prices.

    “Digital SRA3 is no more expensive than offset when you factor in the effort required to get the offset sheets onto the guillotine. Then they have to be cut square, which is sometimes difficult. Printers are better off buying a digital sheet in the first place. Digital papers are designed for digital printing and produce a much better quality result,” he says.

    He makes the point that some of the latest papers have ‘inbuilt technology’ that make them particularly suitable for digital printing.

    “Mohawk has developed its own InxSwell technology which is engineered to give a better result with HP Indigo. As the demands of digital technology increase, it makes even better sense to use digital sheets,” he says.

    All digital press manufacturers test and certify a range of papers for use in their engines although Fuji Xerox Supplies (see story p20) claims to be the sole manufacturer with a complete paper supply chain of certified papers. Others rely on merchants to supply their certified papers. And although they all strongly recommend their own certified papers, there seems to be little truth behind the notion that warranties are in danger if non-certified substrates are use. Fuji Xerox is the most adamant that only its papers should be part of the process and, according to Craig Flavell, executive GM, Fuji Xerox Office Supplies, there are now moves afoot to include certified paper as part of the click charge.

    At a time when printing as well as paper is fighting off accusations of being a commodity, the SRA3 sector and digital papers in general are swimming against the tide.