I’m not a gearhead. I don’t get excited about car specifications or even computer specifications, but when it comes to custom printing, I’m actually getting very excited about the developments in digital printing. In this arena, I do get pumped about equipment specs.
Why? Because I remember the 1990s, when inkjet printer output was garish. We had an inkjet printer in the design studio, but we used it only to give clients a general idea of how the printed product would look. Now, digital printing is running neck and neck with offset printing.
Back in the 1990s when I was buying commercial printing and managing the art and production unit of a nonprofit foundation, I first heard a printer say, “Quality, Price, Schedule. Choose any two.” Well this has changed a bit in the ensuing years. There’s a print book I found several years ago called Free, Perfect, and Now by Robert Rodin. I think this motto is closer to the demands of today’s print buyer, given the ability of digital printing to produce short runs of variable-data work immediately. Customers expect this now because it can actually happen. Maybe not always. But most of the time.
In this light I was pleased to read “An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press.” It’s a press release from Kodak dated 03/10/21, and it has a number of far-reaching implications.
To quote from the press release, “Offset print volumes are in decline, yet offset remains the benchmark for quality, speed, paper choice, and long runs. But offset cannot print variable content and struggles to economically print small quantities as press runs have become shorter and more targeted” (“An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press”).
This press release touches all the bases:
Current shorter runs (and the need for some longer runs)
Variable data capability
Substrate (paper) flexibility (as it pertains to both overall image quality and the tactile differences between various papers)
Speed (digital presses run much more slowly than offset presses)
And, most importantly, quality. This means everything from the nuances of tone in photographs to ink holdout on printing paper to the breadth of the color gamut (or how many distinct colors a press can print).
Hitting all of these targets at once has been difficult. Quality of digital output hasn’t matched offset quality. Some digital inkjet presses can’t print on glossy paper. Others can print on glossy paper but the inks are expensive and the process slows down the press (making digital even slower when compared to offset).
Kodak’s Answer: The KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press
So this is what Kodak has developed in response to client needs: the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press, a digital inkjet press that runs at “production” speeds (which means the technology is gradually becoming fast enough to compete with offset printing). Moreover, as the speed increases, the point at which it becomes economically prudent to switch from digital to offset moves to longer press runs. In short, that means digital is becoming competitive with offset in terms of quality and speed, allowing printers to opt for digital technology (for its variable data capability, for instance) for longer press runs than heretofore.
To quote again from the press release: “In order to close the gap, we designed and built a revolutionary new inkjet press that offers offset quality at a speed of 500 fpm, (150 mpm), can print on glossy papers with high ink coverage at top speed, and achieves a higher run-length cross-over with offset for low cost production” (“An Interview with Randy Vandagriff, Senior VP of Print on the New KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press”).
This quote addresses one feature I had not mentioned above: heavy ink coverage. If you’re printing heavy solids on a marketing piece, for instance, you want the ink to dry quickly and sit up on top of the paper’s surface. This involves not only the printing equipment technology but also the ink formulation, the paper choices, and the ink drying technology.
Heavy (and perfectly even) coverage of solid inks has been one of the more important attributes setting offset print quality above digital print quality, as well as the source of many past digital printing limitations. Kodak has addressed all of these issues with the new KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press.
Kodak’s new press includes special drying units to cure the ink at production speeds. Kodak’s Ultrastream Inkjet Technology allows for 200 lpi image screening and press speeds of up to 500 fpm with high ink coverage on coated papers.
At the same time, Kodak has improved the inkjet printing process, allowing for smaller inkjet drops, less random spraying around these inkjet dots, higher image resolution (600 dpi x 1800 dpi), thinner ink films provided by the nanoparticulate, water-based inks, and a wider color gamut (able to match 93 percent of PMS colors, which is particularly useful for printing corporate brand colors), all with superior ink drying capability.
In addition to these advances, the precision of Ultrastream Inkjet Technology allows for thinner, straighter lines, crisp details in type and images, consistency from press run to press run—all with a single array of print heads (which allows for much faster print speeds than prior technology).
The faster drying capability allows for thicker ink films (heavy coverage) on glossy printing stocks, which are capable of drying quickly and thus speeding up the entire print production process (and making the process even more competitive with offset commercial printing).
Kodak’s drying system involves infrared technology to dry the low-humectant inks. (To explain this term, “A humectant is a molecule that holds on to water and can prevent evaporative loss from the nozzle. As a result, they are important for nozzle health”–from “Inkjet Ink and its Important Additives,” by Mark Bale, 10/19/18, published on www.inkjetinsight.com.) This allows for faster drying, a quicker overall production process, and heavier ink coatings.
The KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 Press allows for up to a 20.5” image area, placing the technology in direct competition with B1- and B2-format offset printing press sheets. Larger press sheets (than the older digital inkjet technology could accommodate) yield larger press signatures, fewer press runs, and, again, overall faster throughput. What this sheet size capability also means is that printers can use their current post-press finishing equipment to more easily and quickly cut, fold, and bind the commercial printing press sheets.
Flexibility with paper substrate choices is another benefit. The equipment can print on standard inkjet substrates and, using inline pre-coating equipment, the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520 can print on standard offset printing press sheets as well. All of this allows printers to keep their paper costs down when using the KODAK PROSPER ULTRA 520.
Finally, using Kodak’s Intelligent Print System allows printers to constantly monitor color fidelity and consistency as well as to ensure accurate back-to-back registration of inks (positioning of images on both sides of the press sheet), thus minimizing paper waste.
What You Can Learn from This Press Release
Granted, this is just one press release from Kodak. It will be fascinating to see if the process lives up to the promises. But I am very encouraged, based on Kodak’s reputation for the highest quality output. Also, I’m seeing the physical proof on a regular basis. Inkjet commercial printing quality is getting better and better, as are its speed and cost. Now, with paper size increasing and coated papers available, I think inkjet is the wave of the future, possibly even more so than electrophotography (laser printing).
Granted, I’m also seeing good things in the realm of offset custom printing, including quicker make-ready technologies and automated quality control that allow for cost-effective short press runs. So offset printing is moving toward convergence with digital printing as well. And it’s still great for long-run print work of static (non-variable-data) commercial printing.
So the upshot is that you should read everything you can get your hands on, online, about digital commercial printing (sheetfed inkjet, web-fed production inkjet, large-format inkjet, nanography, laser printing). Everything. Don’t get left behind. This is revolutionary in scope.
Designing for digital printing is a subject that needs regular attention these days. Digital and offset printing are not the same. While each has its benefits, they both have potential drawbacks that you can minimize based on your approach to the design of your custom printing project.
Moreover, between the quick turn-around requirements, versioned printing and variable-data printing requirements, and ultra-short print run requirements of recent years, it behooves you to study the various ways to minimize the visibility of the flaws inherent in digital commercial printing.
Here’s an example. In my commercial print brokering business I currently have a client who is designing a floor sample box. It is a die-cut, fold-up product with 32 separate samples of flooring (1” x 2” x .5” wood chips) inset and glued into wells in the interior panels. On the liner for the interior of the box/book, the names of the wood products are printed (or reversed out of the background). The exterior panels are printed (photos, marketing text, company address information, etc.).
For a while during the design process, all exterior, visible panels of the book/box, including the front and back covers and the spine, were to be printed in 4-color process ink. Inside the box, the liner (which covers the chipboard box structure and surrounds the die-cut wells for the wood chips) was first white with black type, then black with white type, then 4-color process to match the dark bluish-black within the front cover photo. (That is, the design of the box is an evolving process.)
All of this would have been fairly uneventful in an offset print run, barring the need to adequately dry and then laminate the heavy coverage ink. However, both the prototype for the box (a one-off sample that will convince the client to either go forward with the printer or go elsewhere) plus the extremely short press run for the box (100 or 200 copies) will necessitate digital custom printing.
Offset vs. Digital Printing
At this point it may be helpful to review the differences between offset printing and digital printing:
Offset printing involves applying ink from an on-press reservoir to rollers, then to a printing plate, then to a rubber blanket, and then to the paper substrate.
Digital printing involves the building up of an electrostatic charge on a drum to attract toner particles (dry toner or toner suspended in a liquid or oil), apply them to a blanket or belt, and then deposit them onto the paper substrate.
For the most part (and to a lesser extent with coated paper than with uncoated), with offset printing at least some ink seeps into the paper fibers as it dries or is cured with UV light.
With digital printing, most of the ink sits up on the surface of the paper.
Offset printing is static. It cannot apply different information (such as different addresses) to each copy printed. Digital printing can.
For very short runs, offset printing is cost prohibitive (all of your money goes into preparation for the short press run). However, since there’s almost no prep work for digital, you can print as few as one or two copies of a digital press run.
So, my client needed one initial copy (the prototype). It required heavy coverage of ink, 4-color process work, gloss lamination, die cutting, gluing, and assembly. And the final production run will need all of these processes for just 100 or 200 copies (well under a 1,000- or 5,000-copy run—for instance—that might be cost effective for an offset printing job). Therefore, digital custom printing is the way to go. And the potential pitfalls of digital commercial printing will be crucial for my client (the designer) to address.
Uneven Toner Laydown and Problems with Gradients
Unlike offset printing, digital printing involves electrostatic charges—noted above—that may not be even across the entire press sheet. Therefore, the laydown of toner (toner deposit) may not be completely even. This can lead to artifacts (little bits of toner here and there, marring the precise, even deposit of color) and “banding” in gradient colors (visible bands of color across a press sheet when you’re transitioning from one color to another). The unevenness will be even more visible if you’re printing on a perfectly smooth, coated press sheet.
To reduce banding and artifacts in tints or gradations, use Photoshop to add noise—i.e., a visible texture—to the graduated screen or tint. Or use Gaussian Blur on the background screen. Also, make tinted areas smaller, or keep them apart from one another in the design.
In addition, ask your commercial printing supplier about the best length for gradients (the physical length from the start of one color to the end of the transition to the other color) and the best starting and ending percentages for the transition (perhaps 80 or 100 percent gradually reduced to 15 percent across the length of the gradation). Ideal gradations may vary from one digital press to another, or one printing resolution to another, so discuss this with your commercial printing vendor.
Issues with Cracking Toner at Post-Press Folds
Since toner (whether dry toner or toner particles in viscous oil) sits up on top of the press sheet, printing heavy coverage of a 4-color process “build” and then folding the press sheet off-press can lead to cracking of the toner/ink.
Avoid heavy toner coverage over folds, the press sheet before printing and folding it.
Color Matching Problems
Most digital presses either have no accommodation for PMS match colors or only a handful of match colors you can choose (such as a the available mixed colors for the HP Indigo press). Therefore, if your cyan, magenta, yellow, and black ink builds don’t match the particular corporate logo color you want, you don’t have the same options as with offset printing (i.e., printing PMS match colors using an additional inking unit on the offset press).
Keep your colors within the printable CMYK gamut (which is smaller—i.e., has fewer distinct colors—than RGB or PMS match colors). This is not a workable solution in all cases.
In general, to ensure color accuracy, ask your printer about color profiles (ICC profiles) and whether to save your images (photos) in TIFF or EPS format. The latter, EPS, will allow you to embed color profiles into the saved images.
In my own experience (and this may be in the process of changing), tolerance for movement within the digital press is not quite as precise as in an offset press. So if colors have to abut, any imperfections in paper transport can cause problems (visible white lines between colors that abut). In addition, trapping technology, in general, seems to be more comprehensive in offset lithography than in digital printing (again, this has been improving significantly). (Trapping is the intentional, slight overlapping to avoid white lines between them in case the ink or toner placement is not exactly right.)
Keep , where possible. Also, research trapping options for digital printing. Keep at least one common color (cyan or magenta, not black or yellow) within the two trap. If you design with type printed on a solid or screened 4-color build, consider using black type on a light screen. Or reverse the type from a dark solid or screen.
Transparency (this pertains to opacity, glows, feathering, blending, and drop shadows) can cause problems (particularly when “flattening” the file).
Keep the transparency on the uppermost layer (research “stacking order” of elements in transparency). Flatten the files before handing them off to the printer. Proof the page early and often.
Issues with Bleeds
Bleeds can be a problem because digital press sheets are usually smaller than offset press sheets.
To achieve a bleed, your printed image has to extend past the end of the final-size printed page and then be trimmed off to give the illusion that the ink goes off the edge of the page. This often requires a large press sheet. Digital presses often accept press sheets that are closer to 13” x 18” than to the 25” x 38” or larger press sheets an offset press can accommodate.
Larger digital presses are being made. Ask your printer about the acceptable press sheet sizes for his press. As an alternative, find another printer with digital press equipment that can accept a “B2” press sheet (which is just under 20” x 28” in size).
If You Remember Nothing Else…
I personally like to walk away from a discussion of pitfalls with a general rule of thumb: a failsafe way to avoid problems. In this case, here is my advice. Proof early and often using the same digital process for the proof as for the production run (which you cannot do with offset commercial printing but you can do with digital printing).
If you review proofs before proceeding, you will see whether your work-arounds have minimized banding, artifacts, and other problems. If it looks right on the proof, the final run should match exactly.
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Custom Printing: Bacardi’s Direct Digital Bottle Printing
When BACARDI does something, people pay attention. As a contemporary brand, BACARDI is stylish and sexy–on the cusp of the future.
So I paid heed when I read an article recently about BACARDI’s new bottle printing work done by O-I: EXPRESSIONS on Dekron digital equipment (“BACARDI Personalizes Bottles with Direct Digital Print,” Pat Reynolds, 07/02/2020). The article defines direct digital custom printing, addresses the benefits of this technology from a marketing design and sustainability vantage point, and then goes on to mention the improved marketing results of linking this technology to digital-only media such as the internet and AR (Augmented Reality).