Digital color is widely adopted, but no two implementations are the same. Finding the right mix of documents and products is the key to coloring your world.
Has the digital color print industry finally started to achieve critical mass? It depends on who you ask and what they are using it for.
While some organizations continue to experiment with digital color, others have moved into production. Many commercial printers have successfully tested digital color presses and are now running production. On the other hand, transactional printers, including both data centers and service bureaus, are experimenting with digital color but have not realized the same amount of success.
A successful digital color implementation relies, in some respects, on the type of application being produced. Documents classified as short-run, personalized, and transactional are the most common applications for digital color. Each application is best served by a different mix of equipment and resources. Successful implementations require skilled staffing, IT systems, and color management processes in addition to a digital color press.
This article discusses the types of documents that are the most likely candidates for digital color, examines the suitability of each digital color press for each type of application, and identifies some of the additional resources that are needed to make digital color press implementation successful.
Short-run applications—or documents—are produced in print runs with fewer than 2,000 pieces. Typical short-run documents include marketing sell sheets, booklets, and newsletters. Each document in the run is identical, i.e. there is no variable data. Short-run documents can be produced on offset printers, but require a print plate for each color. Direct-to-press technologies, such as the Heidelberg QuickMaster-DI, have reduced the costs associated with short-run offset printing.
Digital color presses can easily reproduce short-run documents. Digital presses require less setup time than offset presses and quickly shift from one document type to another with little or no waste. However, digital presses do not have the same color gamut as offset presses and cannot produce the very high quality required for some documents, such as magazines and photographs. Digital presses also do not print on as wide a range of papers or substrates as offset presses.
Commercial printers often choose digital color because they produce a large number of different short-run documents. These documents are changed frequently, so it does not make sense to print a large quantity and store excess documents. Since each digital color press prints at a different level of quality, printers should choose the color press that is most appropriate for their documents.
With a little planning, commercial printers easily transform short-run applications from offset operations to digital operations. A digital print operation needs color scanning and layout software, expertise with Adobe Acrobat or page layout programs, and a knowledgeable press operator with digital color print experience. Once the documents have been converted and the digital color resources are in place, organizations can develop a web-to-print storefront for customers, associates, or partners to order documents directly.
Personalized documents use business rules to control the content and content layout of the document. They vary in both content and format based on the variable data. Personalized documents include letters, regulatory notices, and service or program changes. More and more direct-mail is personalized to encourage a better response rate.
Digital color presses are well-suited for producing personalized documents. Although the traditional inkjet addressing is fast, it is limited to adding the variable elements in specific locations and cannot alter the rest of the document to accommodate longer names or unusual addresses. By producing the documents on a digital press, the static content can flow around the variable data. For example, paragraphs wrap to fit based on the length of the individual’s name.
In addition, variable data jobs usually have short run lengths. Whereas traditional printing methods employ a pre-printed color shell and monochrome addressing, digital color presses produce complete documents in a single step, which eliminates the need to stock inventory and reduces waste that is created by misaligned print.
Commercial printers and in-plant print shops both need a number of key personnel to support a variable data print operation. Organizations need data mangers to refine and organize the variable data, document designers to create layouts and set up the conditional logic, and skilled color press operators to run the equipment. Because the personalized documents rely more on data than traditionally addressed documents, designers must take greater care to ensure that the data, such as gender and age, is accurate.
Transactional documents present the results of one or more business transactions. These documents use tables and graphics to present all of the transactions in a given time period and provide calculations of sub-totals, totals, and payment terms. Transactional documents include statements, bills, and invoices. Many organizations are adding promotional messages to transactional documents, creating a single document that serves as a promotional-transactional document.
Because transactional documents are frequently high-volume applications, organizations often have difficulty justifying the cost of running transactional documents on a digital color press. Digital color presses are fully capable of producing transactional applications, but the operational cost per page for digital color presses ranges from three to ten cents per page. Applications consistently running more than 10,000 pages per day need a definitive payback in customer retention or response rate.
In addition, most transactional applications are currently produced in AFP/IPDS or Metacode/LCDS data streams. These data streams do not have full-color support and several of the digital color presses do not accept these print data streams. The transition to digital color may require the data center or service bureau to convert the data stream before it can be sent to the color press.
Organizations need to calculate the return on investment for transactional applications prior to migration to digital color. Redesigning transactional documents to include promotional messages and attractive color marketing enables the transactional document to serve as a revenue-generating customer communication in addition to an informational piece. With this in mind, several financial services organizations have successfully migrated their high-value customer communications to digital color. These documents are more attractive, and since they are targeted to a segment of the customer base, the digital color page volumes are affordable.
The successful transition to digital color requires the full range of design, IT, and production resources. Transactional documents require flexible design with flowing text and tables. Designers scan and scale color images for the document based on the capabilities of the digital color press. Both the transactional data and the targeted marketing messages must be accurate. And to meet privacy requirements, the production operation must produce and mail one, and only one, copy of each document to the customer.
Production operations can choose from a wide selection of production-level digital color presses. Digital press vendors offer inkjet, toner, and liquid ink devices. Sheet-fed and web presses are available. Each press has a set of applications that it is best-suited to produce and no single press is best for all applications. Organizations select a press based on their specific application requirements.
The Canon CLC 5100 is a production copier/printer that produces 51 pages per minute (ppm) in color or monochrome. The printer handles a wide range of papers and transparencies with inline finishing options. The printer generates four-color images at 400x400-dpi resolution. A built-in scanner allows operators to scan and reproduce color copies from original sheets or books.
The digital front-end processor for the Canon CLC 5100 accepts PostScript and PDF data streams as well as FreeForm 2 and PPML for variable data, making the printer well-suited for personalized and short-run applications. However, the printer’s duty cycle is set at 200,000 prints per month, much less than the one million image duty cycle for other digital color presses.
The HP Indigo 5000 is capable of printing on a wide range of coated and uncoated paper stocks. The press produces 67 letter-sized (two per sheet), four-color impressions at 812-dpi using a petroleum-based ink instead of toner or water-based (inkjet) ink. The press supports up to seven colors, which allows for standard process color (four colors) and three Pantone colors, or a hexachrome process color (six colors) and one Pantone color.
The HP Indigo 5000 accepts PostScript data streams and is best-suited for personalized and short-run applications, including digital photos, brochures, and other items up to ledger size. The print process is similar to that of offset printing, with both a blanket and cylinder. The imaging technology provides excellent color depth, and the number of print stations allows for specialized process color and custom corporate color reproduction with a broader color space than traditional CMYK.
The Kodak NexPress 2100 is a toner-based, sheet-fed color press with five imaging stations. The first four imaging stations produce the full-color print image, while the fifth imaging station is used for spot colors, coatings, or a gloss unit. For each color, the toner image is transferred to the paper using a transfer cylinder, allowing the press to print on a wide range of paper and synthetic sheets.
The NexPress 2100 is suitable for personalized and short-run documents. The press controller accepts static PostScript and PDF formats, as well as a VDX variable data stream. VDX is an XML-based file structure written to reduce processing time by identifying all reuseable content and only processing it once. The fifth color station and support for heavier paper stocks allow for the production of direct-mail and card applications.
Kodak also offers a line of high-speed inkjet presses. The Kodak VersaMark VX5000e is an inkjet-based web press capable of printing monochrome, spot color, or process color at 325 feet per minute. The VX5000e incorporates an enhanced resolution capability that uses multiple drops of ink to improve the image quality. Since the ink soaks into the paper, there is no cracking or peeling when the page is folded.
The printer is well-suited for high-volume personalized and transactional documents due to the speed, the low cost of consumables, and support for IPDS and PostScript data streams, as well as VPS and PPML. But the press has limited use for promotional documents due to its lack of color depth and ability to apply glossy finishes.
The Konica bizhub PRO C500 is a multi-function printer/copier/scanner that produces monochrome and color print at 50 ppm and duplex printing at 37 ppm. The printer engine prints all four colors in a single pass for copies or prints up to 11x17 inches at full bleed. The engine uses ultra-fine toner particles to produce fine lines and graphics.
The printer accepts PostScript, PDF, and variable data formats and is suitable for personalized and short-run applications for commercial printers and in-plant operations. EFI’s digital front ends are an optional add-on to the device, and provide color management and print production workflow capabilities. Additional optional add-ons include finishing modules for stapling, punching, and booklet-making.
Konica also recently launched its bizhub PRO C6500, a full color production printer/copier/scanner. Capable of printing 65 ppm print/copy speed in both color and B&W, the bizhub PRO C6500 works at a 7,500-sheet input and a 8,400-sheet output for long runs. The bizhub PRO C6500 comes in nine printing configurations and one high-end office configuration.
The Océ CPS900 is a sheet-fed, seven-color printer, producing up to 30 ppm. The engine supports both CMYK four-color process and RGB imaging to reproduce a wide range of the color spectrum. The printer transfers toner from all seven imaging units to a single drum, which then transfers the image to the paper in one pass. The color image is built from side-by-side placement of toner particles instead of multiple layers of toner, which may impact the perceived color.
The printer accepts static PostScript and PDF formats and is suitable for short-run and direct-mail applications. The system produces high-quality output at the full engine speed with no speed reduction for greater paper weights or when printing duplex. The image quality is highly ranked when compared with other color printers in the same speed range. The tight registration and direct imaging eliminate the need for a color calibration system.
The Ricoh Aficio Color 5560 is a multi-function copier/printer/scanner that produces 55 ppm in color and 60 ppm in monochrome. The printer offers integrated options for stapling, book binding, and punching. The printer uses a four-drum electrostatic transfer system to transfer the 600-dpi color image to an internal belt and then to the page in a single pass.
The digital front-end processors for the Aficio Color 5560 accept PostScript and PDF data streams as well as FreeForm and PPML for variable data, making the printer well-suited for personalized and short-run applications.
The RISO HC5000 is a multi-function copier/printer/scanner that produces 105 simplex and 60 duplex ppm in full color. Optional in-line finishing for stapling, booklet-making, and punching are available. The printer engine uses up to eight gradations per drop to generate normal (600-dpi) and fine (900-dpi) resolution images.
The PS7R9000 digital front-end processor for the HC5000 accepts PostScript 3 and provides a web interface that allows users to monitor the status of print jobs. The HC5000 is well-suited for short-run print applications and copying.
The recently introduced RISO HC5500 Communication Color (ComColor) printer uses the latest in RISO’s FORCEJET printing technology. The inkjet HC5500 prints A4 landscape in full color in normal mode at 120 ppm. The HC5500 features an optional HS-2000 high-speed scanner to offer walk-up scanning and copying with scanning speeds of 20 ppm for full color letter size pages.
The Xeikon 5000 digital press has five print stations and uses a mix of dry toner and developer adhering to laser images on a series of photoconductor drums. The press supports a four-color process and one additional color or coating. Coatings protect the toner from UV light to minimize fading in outdoor applications and reduce the cracking that occurs when the paper is folded. As the web passes through the print engine, both sides are imaged, so duplex printing is done in a single pass. The Xeikon 5000 accepts PostScript, VDX, and PPML data streams, so it is well-suited for personalized and short-run applications. In addition, Xeikon offers a new IPDS controller to receive and process transactional data streams, making the press suitable for medium-volume transactional applications. The single-pass duplex is very efficient and unique to the Xeikon-based engines. The web-fed engine is perhaps better-suited for slightly longer print runs and suffers from a higher percentage of waste than cut-sheet engines if the substrate needs to change between jobs.
The Xerox iGen3 110 uses newly formulated dry inks that are applied to an image-transfer belt. Each color is registered to the other colors on the belt and a dual-edge perfecting system ensures front-to-back image registration. The press uses only four colors, limiting the device to standard process printing. The press produces a high-quality image and varies the speed slightly to accommodate smaller sheets up to 120 images per minute.
The iGen3 110 is well-suited for personalized and short-run marketing applications.
Three digital front-end processors are available for the iGen3 110. Each DFE processor supports different data streams, but all three support PostScript, PDF, and one or more variable PostScript formats. For transactional applications, the FreeFlow DocuSP also supports the LCDS and IPDS transactional data streams. The range of digital front-end processors allows an organization to select a color workflow and variable-data output format to use across multiple devices. This allows an organization to redirect jobs to another device in case of a service issue.
The Future of Digital Color
The transition to digital color for short-run and personalized applications is expected to continue as the maintenance costs for digital color presses drop and more organizations devote resources to digital color. Many of these applications were originally created for color output and the shift was from static to variable. Numerous document composition software tools are available to facilitate the application shift.
On the other hand, expect a slower transition of transactional applications. These applications are already variable, and the shift is from monochrome to color. This shift requires new software, hardware, and skill sets which are not readily available to organizations.
Organizations face many challenges adopting digital color for transactional applications, including print data stream conversion, electronic image management, and color matching. Full-color support for the AFP print data stream is still under development by the AFP Color Consortium, which means that organizations need to monitor the latest changes in the AFP specification while making changes to critical business applications.
When it comes to color output strategies, be cautious not to select a specific digital color press until after the transition process has been fully planned. Production color has a steep learning curve, and the resources required to support the transition create additional costs beyond the purchase of the digital color press.