The end of the world as we know it? Digital presses at drupa

By Ron Ellis

 The buzz about digital presses has been out for some time, but it was different at drupa this year. Digital presses at drupa 2008 were impossible to ignore. Previously digital printing was thought of as something complementary to offset printing. The new digital presses stand on their own, apart from offset printing, with the goal of replacing offset printing. Up until now, digital presses have often been modeled after conventional presses, and still involved imaging cylinders and complex mechanical assemblies related to offset imaging. That is no longer the case.

               Over the years as I have installed inkjet proofing systems in printing plants people have often looked at the prints and joked about printing the whole job this way. It is a joke when the print is 720 dpi and takes 20 minutes to make. It is no longer a joke for sheetfed printing when the job can be printed at 2400 dpi, on a 40-inch format, at a rate of 7,000 prints per hour. Nor is it a joke on the web side when it can print two-sided 36-inch webs at the rate of 400 feet per minute.

At drupa this year in addition to traditional digital printing which often relies on lasers or plates and imaged cylinders, there is a new form of digital printing — high quality and high-speed inkjet, and it may make all the difference in the world.


The machines

               There were a number of unique machines at drupa this year. Screen had a number of new units, including the web Truepress Jet520, and the ÔsheetfedÕ Truepress Jet520. While new, both are fast and aimed at taking some of the load away from offset. Book manufacturer King Printing of Lowell, Mass. has ordered a Truepress Jet520 for half web and full web printing.

HP offered a variety of solutions including the HP Inkjet Web Press, which can print 36.5-inch webs at a speed of 400 feet per minute. AgfaÕs Dotrix produces sheetfed like output and can print at 30,000 pages per hour. There were many more inkjet presses as well, and keep in mind these are just the beginning of this market. The inkjet digital printer is just coming on the scene, and there will be many more of these units to come in the near future.


Printing in the dark

               The dream is printing in the dark. The idea that you simply load the machines up with paper, turn the lights off, and let it print. In this scenario there are no skilled press operators, no items requiring constant mechanical adjustment by skilled operators. The pressman in effect becomes a copier operator, and with the pesky mechanical craft based issues removed.

In this scenario, the automation of the printing industry is complete. For the owners of printing plants they will achieve predictable printing with low labor costs. One operator can load many machines, be less skilled, and get the same results time after time. Printing becomes true manufacturing. Of course to press operators and those who make the living in the pressroom, the prospect is horrifying. (I spend most of time and make my living in pressrooms.) It is hard to believe it could really happen, but there have been precedents in our industry for this type of technological change.

ÒIt is not "man against machine" in the evolution of the pressroom,Ó says Marc Levine, director of marketing for The Color Management Group, ÒIt is more that case that — in the family of print production — craftsmanship is the parent and technology the child. While technology is in its infancy, craftsmanship takes over and keeps the presses running. As it develops, technology sees what craftsmanship does and learns from it. Eventually, technology grows up and takes over the production so craftsmanship can retire to a house by the lake.Ó


The 12-year plan

               Having lived through the destruction of the once bustling typesetting industry, scanning, and rooms full of strippers and prepress staff, the prospect of another segment of our industry vanishing is unsettling. As I walk through pressrooms surrounded by metal on both sides I wonder about the investment in careers, skills, and technology that have made this part of printing the engine that runs the industry. Is this part of the industry to become just a former shell of itself like the rest of the modern printing plant?

One thing is for certain, and that is that digital printing is not there yet. It is still just starting out, and it still has a long way to go and many technical hurdles to overcome before it is there. The first high-speed inkjets are here now of course, but they are the first models and there will be challenges. There are no doubt some areas that offset will be more efficient for — and that includes printing metallics and special effects, for volumes larger that 5,000 copies, and for extremely high-resolution high speed printing, and for other segments of the market as well. Inkjet will get better at these segments of the market as well over time.

Most industry experts feel that it will take about 10 to12 years for the technology to mature and penetrate the market. A lot can change in that time. Perhaps the pressroom will be a completely different place in 12 years. Right now, and for the near future at least, offset is a safe bet and it is likely that there will still be niches in the future where offset is far more economical.

Some of the missing capabilities in the digital world will spawn or reinvigorate parts of the industry — especially off-line finishing. Right now inkjets cannot lay down metallic special effects (although there was one at drupa that can do this), or coatings, or embossing. So these processes will require an investment in equipment to complement the new digital equipment.

               So inkjet printing is no joke any more. It is here, and no doubt in the next few years we will see these products. There is a good chance that just as letterpress gave way to offset, that offset will give way to digital in the future. It will be a while, but 12 years is not that far away.


About the author: Ron Ellis is a New England-based consultant specializing in color management, graphic arts integration, and press calibration. He has provided installation and training services to dealers, manufacturers, and content creators since 1986. An IdeaAlliance G7 Expert and co-chair of the GRACoL Committee, Ron has qualified numerous G7 Master Printers in the United States. In addition to calibrating pressrooms, Ron also specializes in creating internal working spaces for brands and agencies that allow them to work more efficiently with vendors, saving both time and money. Ron produced training materials for numerous printing industry vendors and publishers. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at