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Faster might not mean cheaper

The following article originally appeared in Issue 1 / 2015 of Specialist Printing Worldwide. For more details on Sophie Matthews-Paul, visit her website at www.mrs-inkjet.comFaster might not mean cheaper

Faster might not mean cheaper

In the growing concentration towards the integration of digital print into the industrial and functional sector, it is perhaps easy to overlook the directions that the graphic arts segment has been heading in the past year. Interestingly it has almost become an arena of two halves with, on the one side a strengthening challenge to the offset and screen-printing areas and, on the other, the desire to bring entry-level and modestly priced options to market to extend the capabilities of print service providers.

Manufacturers don’t really face the same dichotomy and, if they’ve got the technology, then there is no reason why it cannot be configured to allow new users and those wanting, say, a back-up machine to buy a low-cost machine. At the same time, the major players are certainly wanting to push ahead with what they believe to be valid opponents of analogue printing methods. But who actually works out the true cost of every job that’s being produced and confirms its value and how can this be made more efficient? The answers lie in becoming more accountable so that the right machine is used for the right order so that good margins can be generated and maintained and, where appropriate, increased.

Taking each print requirement piece by piece, the overall intention is to produce end products that are primarily profitable. With little to no job margin, the time and effort put into an order which results in a poor return are unlikely to generate much enthusiasm for future applications of the same type.

While run lengths aren’t the be all and end all of deciding whether or not a job should be produced on a digital machine or conventionally using analogue methods, volume still plays a factor. Typically, an ink-jet application once it’s been through the pre-press stage will cost much the same per sheet whether there are one or 1,000 prints being generated; conversely, with screen-printing or offset litho, the labour still lies in preparing an order for print but, once on press, the higher the number being throughput the cheaper the process becomes.

This is one of the contradictions faced by print companies today as they need to decide whether or not to adopt digital production for their higher volume applications. The business owner with one or two low to medium sized ink-jet engines has his fate sealed with these, but that is no bad thing; such a user would factor in square metre costs along with ink used and estimate the amount of ink and material – and time – are all to be included in the final invoice. For larger operations that have access both to digital and analogue machines the problem becomes a thornier one and, unless there is an obvious component such as variable data printing, time and human effort can be wasted on comparison models when trying to assess which production option to use.

Analysis of how well a printing machine pays for itself is a valuable lesson in the dynamics of digital methodologies as well as in the economics. But, because standardisation can be removed from print runs with the additions of customisation, the ease of quoting the right figure from an existing ball-park set of parameters can be complex. Speed might appear on the surface to be the key criteria to being more profitable and taking on more work. But a faster machine might need more frequent job changes and, thus, a greater level of human intervention than a unit which can be left to potter away at its own rate while the operator carries on doing something else.

There are some print service providers who would quite merrily buy machines across several digital ink technologies as long as they can all be driven from the same front end. But knitting together entire operating environments has still not manifested itself into an interface that everyone is optimising to the best of their capabilities. The solution lies in efficiency of workflow, from start to finish.

The integration of digital front ends (DFEs) with preflighting, colour management, good input and output profiling, plus cutting paths and nesting criteria if required have helped to make people more efficient. And bringing these elements together with the right accountability and management products to achieve higher levels of automation overall should lead to the smoother running of businesses of all sizes.

Companies large and small, with one machine or a fleet of the latest technologies, are usually responsible for their own balance sheets, whether their efforts are rewarded via digital or analogue production, or a mixture of the two. In true productivity terms there is no golden catalyst to being able to estimate with exact accuracy the real overall costs of many jobs. The fastest printing machine might produce more work but the low-end slow engine that’s limited in speed could turn out to be more profitable when allied with alternative processes.