Digital Press update: The challenges in choosing a Digital Print Production Press

Assessing the key variables in the acquisition process

For the purpose of this article, I’ll consider myself a “virtual” commercial printer.  I’ve been in this industry for over 25 years, managed fair-sized printing plants and represented major equipment and supplies manufacturers. In October of 2018, I attended Print 18 in Chicago. For the first time I was not “representing” any specific manufacturer as in most of my previous appearances. So I shed my manufacturer mantle and roamed the floor acting as an objective “virtual” commercial printer on a mission to find the next big investment to grow my business.

First, let me walk you through my “virtual commercial print shop.” I have two sheetfed offset presses, two half web offset presses, one with an inline finishing system (I plan to decommission one of the half webs), one full web press, two digital B&W toner cutsheet presses, one digital colour toner cutsheet press, and numerous pieces of finishing equipment (including a smart stacker, stitcher, perfect binder, dye cutter, folder and a flexible, modular finishing line, etc.). Recently I added my first wide-format display graphics printer, driven by a growing demand by our clients for posters, signage and some short-run packaging needs (mainly prototypes). On the software side I added a digital storefront with web-to-print capabilities, making it easier for my clients to directly create and submit files. My team is in the process of streamlining our digital workflow, automating the complete production process from order input to shipping to accounting. I’m attempting to eliminate as many handoffs in the production process as possible, thus increasing overall productivity and efficiency.

My “virtual” business is growing, the jobs are getting more complex, and run lengths are decreasing, SLAs are getting tighter, but the number of job tickets is increasing. This increases the pressure on our production teams. Clients are requesting that we get more involved in data management to assist in producing more personalized, variable-data printing pieces much faster, etc. With that in mind, I’m convinced I need to expand my digital print production capabilities – but I’m just not sure which digital print production press to add to my printing fleet, given all the challenges I now face.

Due diligence and the challenges

I roamed Print 18 for the duration of the three-day show. I talked with most manufacturers, compared notes with colleagues and asked a lot of questions. I envisioned integrating a digital print production press into my manufacturing environment and considered all possible cost issues – capital costs, operating costs, maintenance costs, supply costs, labour costs, etc. In the end I realized that deciding which press to choose was much more complex than I anticipated. I ended up with more questions than answers.

There are considerable challenges in deciding which digital print production press to acquire. Many digital presses are high quality, high performance machines. However, the press itself is only one aspect out of many. Other aspects require further analysis to ensure that the press fits within the company’s overall strategy and business goals. In this article I’ll describe some of the challenges I faced during my due diligence process – challenges that go beyond the “speeds and feeds” specifications of a digital press. There are two critical factors that will drive my decision process: First, the digital print production press must meet my current and anticipated production needs. Secondly, the press must be an ideal fit and complement my current offset/digital production platform.

Challenge one: Choices

There are many excellent, full-colour digital print production presses on the market, but I need to narrow down which one will ideally fit my production needs and growth plans. Do I go with a toner press or an inkjet press? Do I go with a web press (offset lingo for continuous feed) or a sheetfed press (offset lingo for cutsheet)? If I go with a toner press, do I choose a dry toner or a liquid toner press? If I choose an inkjet press, do I go with dye ink or pigment ink? Aqueous or UV? If I go with a web press, do I choose a 9, 20, 30 or 40-inch-wide press? If I go with a sheetfed press, do I go with a 2-up, 4-up or 6-up press? Do I need a single pass (offset lingo for simplex) or perfecting (offset lingo for duplex) press? And the list goes on!

Challenge two: Applications

Making the right choice must be grounded in a clear understanding of which applications are conducive to be produced profitably on the chosen digital print production press. There’s no doubt that the newer generations of “conventional” offset presses have evolved considerably over the last five to ten years. Makeready and setup times have decreased significantly, automation is the norm and overall productivity has increased dramatically. These new-generation presses can produce shorter runs more cost efficiently, pushing into digital press territory. Also, offset presses are less restricted in the types of substrates that can be used compared to digital presses.

So, when you print non-variable jobs, it’s critical to clearly understand the cost breakeven point between offset run lengths and digital run lengths. With offset, the higher the run length, the lower the cost per impression. This is not necessarily the case with inkjet/toner, where cost per impression is virtually static, whether you print one or many.

Understanding the importance and share of the variable/versioning print jobs within your overall production is essential. Is the potential for variable/versioning work growing? Is the demand for short-run jobs increasing? Do overlapping SLA’s put a strain on your scheduling? Can a digital print production press eliminate the use of preprinted shells, eliminating costly extra steps while helping to decrease inventory and logistical costs? Does a digital print production press open up new business opportunities?

Challenge three: Ink costs

Another critical factor is coverage and the related ink consumption. Some inkjet technologies are limited in the amount of ink that can be put down when combined with a pre-coating/bonding agent. This impacts, among other things, the drying time. The more ink and pre-coating/bonding agent, the more time/heat is required to remove the moisture out of the paper. Make sure you fully understand this technical limitation. In addition, some digital presses might not be able to run at full rated speed if you choose the “high quality” mode, which puts down more ink than in a lower quality mode. This obviously has an impact on productivity as well.

Many manufacturers offer an “ink consumption” simulator that analyzes the printing file in advance and estimates the ink consumption – which in turn helps with estimating the cost of a job. This estimation will at least give you a good indication of the ink-cost portion of a job. Obviously, the higher the ink consumption, the higher the job will cost. Knowing the amount of ink consumption will help in identifying when producing a job on a digital print production press becomes cost prohibitive. It will also help in guiding which applications are best suited for digital printing and which applications are more suited for offset printing.

Another cost factor that needs to be considered is whether the digital press requires pre-treatment and/or post-treatment, ensuring that the ink coalescences and adheres to the substrate on the one hand, and that the finished product can withstand possible abrasion at the finishing stage on the other hand. Finally, please remember that aqueous and solvent inks act quite differently than UV-curable inks.

Challenge four: Capital and operational costs

The capital cost is, of course, the biggest expenditure in the acquisition of a digital print production press. A basic digital print production press can start below the $100,000 (CAN) level. However, a feature-rich, high-volume digital printing press can exceed the $1.5 million (CAN) mark. Add pre-equipment and post-equipment, and you end up with a substantial investment. Operating costs are the other component. In the digital printing world, one talks about click charges (a “foreign” term to the offset world), monthly maintenance charges and supplies (ink, toner and other consumables, etc.). Obviously, power usage, floor space, downtime, preventive maintenance, labour, etc. are other factors defining the TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) of the press. Bottom line: These costs can vary substantially from one press to another.

Challenge five: Indirect cost factors

One of these “indirect” cost factors is substrate choice. Depending on which digital press you choose, different substrates will yield different results. Some digital printing presses are limited in the type of substrates they can print on. In addition, presses vary regarding what different paper gauges they can print on. This can range, for example, from “pharmaceutical insert” thin paper to packaging substrates. So make certain you match the press to the applications that you’re targeting. Also note that treated papers are more expensive than regular papers and that sheeted papers are relatively more expensive than web papers. Requiring different substrates for your offset presses and your digital press could also impact the volume discount you obtain from your paper supplier.

Other indirect costs are related to the finishing cycle of a job. Does the digital press require specific new inline finishing equipment, or can the digitally-printed output be processed into the existing near-line or offline finishing equipment? Also, when choosing a digital print production press, make sure the manufacturer offers a solid support mechanism (direct or supported self-maintenance), which includes technical support as well as professional services support (i.e. on-boarding of the new press and initial start-up). Always remember that the press itself is only one part of the equation for success.


There are clearly many factors one must consider when acquiring a new digital print production press. Ultimately it comes down to understanding which applications of your overall production can be produced profitably on the new digital press, and secondly, what is your growth strategy with this new technology.  At the end of my due diligence process I decided to add the following digital print production equipment to my “virtual” commercial print shop – a 20-inch full-colour digital inkjet roll-to-roll (R2R) web press and a B2 digital inkjet sheetfed press. There were several reasons why I chose a 20-inch, full-colour digital web press in R2R configuration. Given the fact that I have a variety of applications with diverse finishing requirements, it simply did not make sense to add an inline finishing system to this digital press. In addition, I wanted to be able to run my digital web press flat out, without any hindering of the inline finishing equipment. The reason I chose a 20-inch-wide digital web press (and not a 30-inch or a 40-inch-wide web press) had to do with my need for agility and flexibility. I deal with a multitude of different jobs with varying run lengths that sometimes use the same substrate roll. In addition, tight SLA’s played a role as well. In my reasoning, I fully intended to complement this press with an additional 20-inch digital web press, further enhancing my flexibility and agility. This combination will also give me the ability to print multiple variable-data jobs simultaneously on two presses, rather than sequentially on one. Another factor that played a critical role in the decision-making process was the vendor’s maintenance and support capabilities and follow-up.

The main reason I chose a B2 full-colour digital inkjet sheetfed press is that it fits best within my existing production workflow, without having to substantially re-align my finishing equipment. The fact that the press’ paper path is fairly similar to my other offset sheetfed printing presses is also an added benefit for my operators. The other reason I chose this B2 press had to do with the type of applications I could run through it. My direct-mail jobs have been steadily increasing and I needed more variable and versioning capabilities. My current process was becoming too cumbersome and too slow. Until now, I had been pre-printing shells on the offset presses (that created a short-run challenge), cut the sheets to size, and overprinted the variable or versioning information through the B&W toner printer. With the new B2 full-colour digital sheetfed press I eliminated the overprinting step – and my short-run offset challenge as well. An added benefit is that this digital printing press can also be utilized for short-run packaging print. That, however, may be a subject for a future story.

If anyone ever had the perception that our industry is boring, think again. This is a high-tech, complex business, making this industry very exciting indeed!