Digital finishing holds great promise and many benefits, but the first step is demonstrating the value of these special effects
Print finishing, and in particular, digital finishing, promises to boost profits, add value and separate early adopters from the competition. And, in a world of shorter runs, product customization, faster time to market, shrinking margins and predatory pricing, astute printers look for ways to differentiate their product and increase profits. As the saying goes, no print job is completed until it’s finished properly.
Finishing today is dominated by increasing automation and the integration of traditional and new technologies, and by eye-popping special effects rendered by laser cutters, and special applications from suppliers like Scodix and MGI. A touted advantage of these finishing techniques is that it doesn’t matter if the job was printed on an offset or digital press. But, finishing is more than just an enabling technology that allows printers to participate in a particular segment. Many agree that finishing is an untapped frontier where astute printers can build a profitable relationship with customers where both reap increased brand recognition and profits. Although it may be a niche market, printers in many spaces are keeping a close eye on the progress of digital printing and finishing – especially in short-run printing.
Early adopters are going through the learning phase right now. One of the biggest barriers to making money on finishing is demonstrating to cost-conscious clients the value of adding tactile and visual effects to printed products. For small shop owners, the decision to outsource digital finishing work or purchasing new equipment to serve clients can be monumental. Moreover, while many digital press manufacturers have improved processes, finishing still remains a challenge. For many production managers it’s viewed as either a production bottleneck or another equipment investment they’re simply not willing to make – yet.
The learning curve
No matter the printing method, transferring product from one feeder to another isn’t always a smooth process. The paper is not necessarily flat, it has toner on one side, there is static and there may be curl. By the time a job gets to finishing its profits have been booked. Any rework in the finishing department cuts deep into revenues and it’s this realization that pushes printers to automate and to add finishing embellishment to boost revenues. But making a dime from finishing depends on printers’ space and how they segment their customers.
Dylan Westgate, co-owner of Sydney Stone, importers and resellers of digital print equipment, notes, “Finishing as a trend is moving toward automation at all levels of the print industry.”
Mitch Whatford, Plant Manager at Cambridge Label in Cambridge, Ontario, concurs. “The ideal situation is to automate the entire process all in one line with everything staying up to speed and no bottlenecks.” There are machines that can do that but they are limited by the speed of the slowest process. Automating finishing and adding digital finishing to a job makes sense if there is a possibility for sustainable profit.
Westgate finds that currently many printers are doing digital finishing in a sort of semi-manual way, on outdated equipment. These patchwork setups aren’t cost justifiable, can’t be easily automated and just produce enduring headaches for print shop owners.
Byron Loeppky, book/web General Manager, Corporate Vice President of Operations at Friesens, in Altona, Manitoba, has been eyeing digital printing and finishing for quite a while. In the 1990s, Friesens took a hard look at its businesses and undertook its first foray into digital printing for its yearbook market. That’s where the average quantity is about 500 and shifting from the offset press to digital made sense. Friesens was pleased with the quality of the digital print. The challenge came when the finishing technology, such as a cutter/stacker, was directly connected to the press. Even though there were many challenges, the biggest was the communication between the press and the digital finishing equipment. “It was too inconsistent, resulting in an inordinate amount of down time. Coming from a sheetfed big iron environment, where the uptime is in the high 90% we realized that digital world uptime is very different from what you would have from big iron.”
Loeppky does like how more and more technology is being integrated. Its first digital sewing machine was very basic. Its second was much more advanced and faster. The next generation should put the entire process in line where it goes from a roll directly to a sewn book. “Instead of having four different work stations, make it in line. That’s where I think digital has an advantage because it is pretty simple, especially on these short runs for digital to literally take it from a roll to a finished book out the other end. At small quantities it certainly is very difficult to do that on the offset press.”
Just scratching the surface of the potential
Rebekah Fougere, Vice President, Client Services at Think2Grow, a Toronto-based marketing company that handles Konica Minolta Canada, agrees that if you look at the entire graphic communication chain, the future lies in the streamlining of operations. Workflow advancement and adoption of technologies that increase operational effectiveness and efficiency must be top-of-mind for every printer. And when it comes to selling digital finishing it’s all about understanding your clients and segmenting your market. “From a technological perspective it’s about creating a finished product with spot 2D, 3D varnish and hot-foil inline in single pass to an audience of one. First time every time.”
Fougere believes the print industry is just scratching the surface of the power of digital finishing. Industry experts need to educate the manufacturers and the manufacturers need to educate the actual print marketers and graphic designers. Ryerson University’s Graphic Communication and Management School hooked up with Belmont Press, in Markham, Ontario, and Konica Minolta in 2016 to augment classroom learning. The partnership exposed graphic communication students to JETvarnish, 3D Evolution and iFoil technology.
Fougere notes graphic designers are the ones with the creative minds and they are the ones who will pull and push new design options through the system. She laments that “Printers who print solely for the sake of printing miss the opportunity to assist their clients in moving forward their strategy and building a stronger brand.” Reaping profits from digital finishing comes down to knowing your target audience.
Christian Knapp, managing director of CMD Insight, which distributes Scodix in Canada, believes finishing is an area that is under-digitized. Finishing can be seen from two complementary perspectives: as an additive manufacturing process that augments paper, boards or plastics with polymers and as a subtractive manufacturing process where lasers are used to cut away plastic, board or paper. What Knapp finds exciting is, “the differentiation and value-added potential,” that these technologies provide print service providers – you the printer – the ability to differentiate your service on criteria other than quality and price. “Where you add texture and foil to a process, even if it’s for one copy, it offers the highest returns because finishes differentiate the final product.”
Whatford, at Cambridge Label, says that a large number of clients in its print space purchase digital enhancements. In particular, the wine and beer industries are pushing digital finishing and willing to pay extra. Nutraceutical (cosmetics, vitamins), vape (e-cigarettes), and the marijuana industries are also paying for these premium labels. Take note, all of Cambridge’s digitally printed labels come coated with a varnish or lamination, which helps create a more upscale and professional look as a standard feature.
Whatford cautions that the digital finishing process is temperamental. “One thing that we found is the temperature and the humidity need to be monitored and controlled. Because you have two different substrates all our products are two liner – two papers put together with adhesive between them. If you get any curl at all it jams everywhere. Temperature and humidity are very key components of making sure everything runs smoothly. Curl is a killer.”
Whatever the learning curve or bugs, Knapp at CMD Insights, believes digital finishing will come to play a more vital role in the print industry because it will make printers and their clients more successful – it’s a symbiotic relationship.