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The need for speed: LIA digital event

Friday, 15 September 2017
By James Cryer

I was delighted to attend this week’s LIA event, which dealt with the fascinating question of the role of digital printing within the marvellous tapestry that is our industry.

James Cryer, JDA Print Recruitment

Four vendors (HP-Curries, Kodak, Konica Minolta, Ricoh) eagerly presented their respective cases to an enthusiastic audience.

The program title – ‘high speed’ – may have been deliberately provocative, as we know that the much-maligned process known as ‘offset’ can be anything up to 5 or 10 times more productive than digital in sheer tonnage produced (or probably 100 times if you include newspapers).

So, calling digital ‘high-speed’ is a bit like referring to a ‘high-speed snail.’ I only mention this as several times during the meeting, the term ‘offset replacement’ was used – somewhat menacingly perhaps, like the term ‘hip replacement’ – as if it’s only a matter of when! 

In any event, sheer speed is a slippery slope, as one press could have four-times the impression area of another and go at half the speed and still be twice as productive.

So surely productivity should be the real test, not speed?

But even the notion of productivity has hidden traps – again, a press could run at twice the speed of a competitor, but require more downtime, create more spoilage or even use more energy and still be less productive!

So again, surely the real test (of productivity) should be when you tie the measurement back to ‘return on funds invested’? This gets interesting as, assuming a comparable digital press is one quarter the price of an offset one (ie, $500k as against $2m), I could then go out and buy four digital presses – and enjoy the same ”productivity” for the same price as one offset press. (And some might say enjoy greater flexibility along the way – but that’s another story).

This whole notion of ‘speed’ reminds us of the limits we encounter when we try to make any machine go faster. An engine may be capable of making a car reach 500kph – but if the tyres overheat (or fall off) the point is lost.

Sheet-fed offset presses are now bumping up against one of these constraints, as 18,000iph seems to be the speed at which sheets of paper scream in agony as their leading-edges approach the speed of sound.

Heidelberg creatively tried to circumvent this with the brilliant CutStar Speedmaster, which involved a retro-fitted, roll-feed mechanism. I’m not sure how much (if at all) it exceeded the ‘speed limit’ but it was a clever engineering solution.

The point remains that sheet-fed offset is limited to 18,000iph – now, if that’s not like capturing the rabbit in the headlights for the digital brigade, I don’t know what is!

But, digital presses face a similar problem with any sheet-fed delivery system – you bump up against physical or mechanical constraints. The solution: convert to reel-feed, which many of them do – especially in the large-volume, transactional space. However, reel-feed is hostile to the very principles underlying the whole digital concept: that of short-run, quick turnaround!

And so, we find ourselves chasing our tail if we relentlessly pursue the notion of simply trying to increase speed. Digital has many other benefits to offer – but speed ain’t one of them.

So what are some of the benefits?

I was mightily impressed by the night’s line-up, in that something unique was on display, but nobody noticed.

All four digital devices – even though they all were aimed at roughly the same market, were almost completely different in terms of their construction, concept and underlying philosophy. This is quite different, say, from the car market where all the popular brands mimic each other so that within each class, they’re all virtual clones of each other. Bottom-line: no real choice!

Right now, we are spoiled for choice in the digital press market – each vendor has come up with a completely different way of ‘killing the cat’. This is to be commended, and possibly is quite unique in the way most markets operate -where you can get all the car makers clustering round a basic idea but just adding their own door-handles or bumper-bars.

The downside can be an added layer of complexity, however, when it comes to choosing, not the best/worst press – but the most appropriate press to suit your business model. 

This is where I thought last night’s meeting could have delved more into the relative capabilities/merits of each press. If I were a judge, I’d give them ALL a gold medal for creative/innovative brilliance: each press has addressed a particular ”problem” and solved it.  But I came away feeling that the vendors, while singing the praises of their own devices, could have provided more information on which particular problem or sector each one had specifically tried to address – and what the relative merits were – of this device over that one.

This extreme level of product differentiation is a reminder of how far we’ve progressed from the ”good old times” – when the choice of press was usually out of two or three – and the winner was the one who paid for your trip to Drupa!

I commend the LIA for holding these forums – but let us dig a little deeper into some of these kind of comparative issues. Now, where’s that spreadsheet?

One Response to “The need for speed: LIA digital event”

  1. September 19, 2017 at 6:06 pm,

    Stephan Peters

    The title of the event was “misleading” but only if we compare digital systems with today’s offset presses.
    Question is of course if we were comparing it with the established printing techniques or was it merely a compare to small office printers. Most of the presenting companies (except Kodak) come from the office branch. Therefore in their eyes these systems are high speed.
    We are both from an age that we remember letterpress as the major printing technique. I still remember a letterpress printer telling me that offset will never surpass letterpress, as it could not print a proper black. How wrong he was.
    Digital printing will definitely change the printing. The process will make us more creative to the way we look to the printing process, speeds and products.
    Let we learn from the past and teach today’s customers and our industry the new digital technology. We all have to learn to be more flexible and creative.
    Its up to the manufacturers and industry organisations to look beyond our own borders and show how the rest of the world is progressing with the digital printing.

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