The technology that's been waiting inline to catch on
By Jenny Roper Thursday, 02 August 2012
If you believe 'inline' refers to rollerblading, it's time to update your terminology. The technology, though, does require a sacrifice: are you willing to cash in your flexibility for speedier turnarounds?
Around five years ago, if you’d asked printers if they were considering "going inline", many would have politely explained that, as pressurised as turnarounds were becoming, taking to rollerblades to get around the factory was not for them. Today, however, ‘going inline’ – hooking finishing kit up to another finishing unit or printer to streamline and automate operations – is more of a recognised term in print. Indeed, it is apparently all the rage.
At least this certainly appeared to be the situation at this year’s Drupa: it seemed that every finishing manufacturer was at pains to profess how many post-press processes they could place inline, be it with each other or a press. But with finishing a huge area incorporating many very different processes and technologies, a pertinent question might be whether this future has truly arrived for all sectors. That is, are all finishing processes ripe for bringing inline yet, and even where the technology is in place, will this suit the individual business models of all printers?
Certainly there are many scenarios where inline is advantageous. Mailing house GI Solutions runs Zirkon 24pp litho web presses, Scitex 6240 variable data systems and finishing kit as two inline systems, in order to dramatically speed up turnarounds and ensure the integrity of customer data.
"With supermarket loyalty vouchers, for instance, you’re effectively sending money out with people’s information on it, so it’s good to be able to produce the voucher booklet and the letter and enclose the pieces in an addressed envelope all in one pass," explains business development director Alistair Ezzy.
Even where security of data is not an issue, another key benefit of inline finishing can be ensuring quality, says Muller Martini UK managing director Andreas Schillinger. "If it’s offline you can damage things in transit or you can get confused with the sequence," he says, expounding the benefits of Muller Martini’s recently launched Allegro perfect binder and Primera saddlestitcher. "But inline is a quality control measure, because it’s all done in one pass, so it’s the luxurious version."
What printers must be careful about, though, advises Friedheim International head of web-based products Robin Brown, is that the particular finishing process they wish to bring inline is technologically sophisticated enough that the above benefits will be reaped, and that they don’t in fact inadvertently compromise speed, security or quality by rushing to get inline.
The key consideration, he explains, is how fast a finishing process can be completed. Whereas a litho operator can potentially slow its press down so that its speed is matched to an inline finishing machine, this isn’t an option in the brave new world of digital printing. And so, though it might be possible to complete certain processes inline, some finishing machines won’t be able to keep up with the speed of the digital printer they’re attached to, rendering an inline set-up redundant or even disadvantageous.
"It comes back to the infancy of full-colour digital," explains Brown. "The technology has been around in real terms for about two years and so the finishing is in some ways still catching up – we can do everything, but not necessarily at the speed that these things are running."
Where inline finishing can be very beneficial, he says, is where a company is producing relatively straightforward transactional mail or direct mail pieces. He goes on to explain that this type of work only requires certain staple finishing processes, such as cutting, creasing, perfing and punching, which can all be done now by inline machines, operating as quickly as the latest digital printers, and, where applicable, as quickly as litho presses running at high speeds.
Where a printer is more likely to run into problems, he reveals, is where they are trying to carry out more sophisticated processes such as cutting, gluing and cross – as opposed to plough – folding. While many do incorporate these processes inline, this can lead to problems.
"Some people do incorporate these processes and get away with it," says Brown. "But it really is getting away with it. It depends how much they’re willing to sacrifice with loss of stock and speed. If you’re messing about with die-cutting and glue lines and all of a sudden you’ve got a digital printer kicking you up the backside saying ‘I’m ready – get going,’ you’ve got a lot of potential failures in that line."
Brown goes on to explain that this can lead not only to more downtime, but also to sensitive data being compromised. "If you have a crash and you’ve got live data, you’ve got to then recover that data instantly. The problem is if it’s a telephone bill and your data gets screwed up in a mess in a glue tank, you might not get that bill out," he says.
But even where the technology is in place to enable a printer to bring their finishing inline without risking these issues, printers will still need to look to their own specific set-up to see if inline will be for them.
Where two processes always follow on from each other – whether a printing and finishing, or two finishing processes – it makes a lot of sense that they should, as long as it is not liable to cause any of the above problems, be coupled together.
This is certainly the case with laminating and spot UV varnishing, explains John Gilmore, managing director at laminator and UV coater manufacturer Autobond. "About 95% of spot UV varnishing is on top of matt lamination, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer to offer that inline," he says.
But having diversified afloat in the face of shrinking print volumes, most printers now have much more complicated set-ups than ones where the same print or finishing processes will always follow on from each other.
Pureprint is one such a printer. It uses machines in highly versatile combinations to maximise uptime inthe event of one printer going down, and to maximise the creative solutions that can be offered, with any litho or digital machine potentially combined with any finishing process.
The question here might be: why, given that print can be siphoned off an inline set-up to be taken to a different offline finishing machine, don’t operators such as Pureprint go for an inline set-up for processes that take place consecutively?
Although this would be possible, explains Pureprint technical director Aaron Archer, it wouldn’t be worth compromising the reliability of Pureprint’s operations for the small turnaround gains brought by coupling only occasionally consecutive processes together. "Having equipment linked up creates more single points of failure for an entire line," he explains, "and because of our set-up, that risk outweighs any productivity boost other businesses might get from reducing down secondary handling of final products."
Also, adds UK retail marketing manager at Duplo Andy Pike, retrieving print from a machine that is hooked up to a finishing machine can be slower than if it was being taken from a standalone printer. "In the event of the finishing machine going down or the printer just wanting to go for a different process, they’ve got to get the print feeding out of a different tray which might be a slower tray to feed out of," he explains.
And so nearline has become Pureprint’s finishing weapon of choice. This entails having finishing kit at a physical remove from a printer, but equipped with a barcode scanner to ensure that no pages of a book or mailer will go astray during transit.
Archer is adamant that very little time is lost transferring print across from one machine to the other. And he and Pike advocate nearline as a good way of insulating a business from any future changes in kit line-up and product offering. "We just don’t know where print is going to go and having a nearline system can be safer, because if you suddenly change from a Xerox to an Indigo, for example, the inline machine may not be directly transferable, whereas a printed barcode can be used on any set-up," says Pike.
Which is not to say that offline doesn’t also have its place. Geoff Neal Litho managing director Sam Neal, points out that some printers won’t want to compromise the flexibility of their set-up with an inline system, but also don’t produce work of a sensitive enough nature to warrant the hefty investment in new, nearline finishing kit. "Our market place isn’t really in financial printing, so that’s not such a big issue for us," he says.
Despite more inline solutions flooding the market now, the instances where inline will be beneficial are mostly as they always were. Operations where many different formats are produced in short runs, and where the product offering may evolve in the future, will generally opt for nearline or offline. Whereas long-run operations, typically processing the same sort of work day-in, day-out, should probably be looking at an inline solution.
What might be set to change, however, are the instances where these long-run printers sticking with certain formats will be able to bring finishing inline. Although there are still complex processes slower than optimum litho or standard digital printing speeds, potentially creating problems if incorporated inline, this – with the advent of laser cutting for example – could change. With increased focus on inline finishing now, it could be, say many, that technology will very soon evolve to bring more processes inline.
For now, technology may limit which finishing machines can be successfully bolted onto another bit of kit, but the finishing future for some printers – where the business case and set-up is right – might indeed be increasingly inline.
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