Digital adds a special touch

Jenny Roper
Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The skin of a lizard brought to life through tactile ink, a glitzy metallic greetings card and sophisticated security inks: all effects which once were only pipe dreams for digital printers. However, many of these digital dreams have become reality. Since the last Drupa, digital technology has come on apace, enabling applications that used to be in the domain of long-run litho work to be rolled out cost-effectively for shorter run and personalised jobs.

Have you got a personalised mailer that you'd like to recreate the texture of an orange skin on? A gloss-marked certificate that requires only a limited run of 40 copies? That's no problem, because between them, these digital printers are now capable of performing those applications and many more...


What effects can be created?
Security watermarks that can be detected without the aid of UV or infrared light can be applied to any printed product on the Xerox iGen4. Certain parts of the ticket are given a glossy sheen – an effect which, according to Xerox, cannot be counterfeited. "It’s a visual differential when you catch it in the light," explains Xerox marketing manager Kevin O’Donnell. "It’s changing the way in which your eye looks at the printed image."

The Xerox printers can also create fluorescent markings only visible in UV light, security text only visible in infrared light and microtext which appears as jagged lines to the naked eye, but can be checked and authenticated under a magnifying glass.

 Who uses these applications?
The watermark, fluorescent and infrared text can all be used for a wide range of security applications, says O’Donnell, including tickets, vouchers and certificates. "Because it’s digital printing, the applications can be very low volume," says O’Donnell. "So someone might have a week’s worth of events at a club and want to give out tickets where each one has a different security code. Or the watermark may in some cases be required for a product where you only want to send out a certain amount, and you need to track and trace them."

The microtext application is designed for printers who produce documents containing personal information such as birth certificates and personal identification papers, explains O’Donnell.

 How are they applied?
The application of microscopic text as small as 1/100th of an inch high has been facilitated by overall improvements in digital printing technology, specifically the constantly-improving image quality of printers, says Xerox.

The gloss, UV and infrared marks don’t require any extra inks, says O’Donnell, and are instead created using patented technology to lay down the CYMK inks at different angles to the rest of the printed product. "The beauty of the system is in the fact that you use just a standard machine, standard toners and standard papers," says O’Donnell. "So it is part of the printing process itself and all you require is an additional piece of software."

What are the advantages of performing these applications on a digital rather than litho press?

While litho can apply a wide range of security marks – such as holograms and fluorescent marks – through plate preparation, die-cutting or using additional coating units, the advantage of using a digital process is that each item can be personalised.

This comes into its own particularly with microtext. While litho presses can apply the words ‘authorised signature’ to personal cheques to prevent fraud by relying on the fact that such microscopic print is very difficult to counterfeit, digital printers can print someone’s name and address in the signature line. Or, for company and government cheques, the specific amount paid can be printed in microscopic font. This can then be checked against the normal-sized information to safeguard against fraud.

How much do they cost?
No extra click charge is paid for printing documents with these special features. The main outlay for those interested in the applications is around £2,000 for the Xerox FreeFlow Variable Information Suite 6.0 software with a Speciality Imaging Kit.


What effects can be created?
New applications for digital presses were opened up when HP launched a white ink at the end of 2010. This white liquid toner can be used either for printing on coloured substrates, or to allow double-sided images on transparent substrates, with the white ‘ink’ being used to separate each layer of coloured image.

The HP Indigo range can also support a wider gamut of colours than was previously available on a digital press, with an IndiChrome system that uses an orange and violet toner. This, says HP, allows digital printers to match colours out of the gamut with CYMK. Or, if the client is very sensitive about colour matching and the shade is still not in the gamut, special spot colours can be created in a special ink-mixing facility in Israel.

Who uses these applications?
The white ink is typically popular with those printers catering for clients creating high-impact products, says HP supplies business manager Neil Tilling. "Greetings cards, postcards and signage are often created using coloured substrates," he says, "and direct mail has moved towards more personalised, high impact stuff with more unusual colours and substrates becoming more of a focus."

White ink is also sometimes applied to white substrate as another way of creating high-impact direct mail pieces, reports Tilling. The application also comes into its own, he says, where a metallic effect is desired. "You can’t put a magnetic or metallic ink through a digital press," he explains, "but you can use a metallic substrate or foil and use the white to block out the background areas."

Spot colours and Indichrome are used by printers with customers who are very strict about colour matching, but also by those catering for the fine art market, where the possibility of using mid- and quarter-tone greys means high-impact black and white images can be printed. 

How are they applied?
The white inks and spot inks are applied in the same way as the CYMK. It is because inks used with the HP Indigo range use liquid toner technology instead of dry toner, says Tilling, that this has been enabled.

What are the advantages of doing this on a digital rather than litho press?
"If you’re running a short-run campaign, as you would for a personalised mailer, you can’t run this cost-effectively on litho," say Tilling. "So if you want to mix white ink or brand-matching with short-run or bespoke campaigns, digital is the best option – especially when the Indigo’s quality is similar to a litho press’."   

How much do they cost?
Printers are charged no extra click-charge for Indichrome, says Tilling. For white ink and spot colours, there is no additional cost when using HP Indigo Label and Packaging industrial presses, whereas on HP Indigo Commercial Presses there is a small premium to pay on top of standard CMYKOVG printing


What effects can be created?
The Nexpress’ three-dimensional ink can be used to create tactile effects, such as reptile skin. The Kodak system can also apply a gloss coating (this is a fluorescent red security coating only visible when UV light is shone on it) and magnetic ink character recognition (MICR) inks for banking documents and cheques where there is need for ink that can be recognised by banking machines.

 Who uses these applications?
The three-dimensional inks have proved popular with a wide range of clients, says Kodak strategic account manager Phil Walsh, who explains that the effect can be used to add impact to any direct mail piece or other marketing material. "At any point throughout the past 20 years, if you went to a printer and showed them a sample, you might think that it was sharp and of high quality, but you would have seen the same thing 100 times," says Walsh. "With a three-dimensional ink, you put that in front of them and you are looking at something totally new, different and exciting."

The gloss coating is typically used, says Walsh, to add a gloss finish to posters and paperback book covers.

How are they applied?
The 3D effect is created by first working with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign and selecting the colour that has the most tonal separation to use as an extra layer. This colour layer would be printed using the Nexpress’ fifth unit in a clear ink over the top of the colour. The ink expands when it is put through the fuser in the normal course of printing, due to the larger particle sizes of the dimensional inks.

The Nexpress’ fifth unit can also expand the press’ colour gamut and apply the gloss coating or MICR ink.

What are the advantages of doing this on a digital rather than litho press?
Previously, a 3D effect could only be created by thermography, a system separate to the printing process, says Walsh. "You would put down a special ink and heat it up in an oven-like machine, so it raised off the card," he says. "This was popular for business cards in the 70s and 80s, but tended to only be used for stationery because the special ink was expensive. Because it’s a separate process, it is also more time-consuming."

Using a Nexpress to coat books is becoming an increasingly sought-after option, due to shorter run lengths, adds Walsh. "The book market today can go from 5,000 to one, so in this situation there’s no comparison because it’ll be so much cheaper and quicker to use a digital printer."

How much do they cost?
A Red Fluorescing Dry Ink kit costs around £4,000; the Dimens CL Add Color Station kit £14,000; the MICR Add Color station kit £18,000; and the NXP Glossing unit £40,000. Each kit contains all of the hardware and software needed to produce the effect in question, says Kodak, and the inks used will be bought as with any other consumable. Each effect adds a "fraction of a penny" to the click charge, says Walsh.


What effects can be created?
The Scodix UK digital embossing press is a standalone system that applies a clear gloss finish to printed products after they have been through either a digital or litho press. "It gives a fantastic finish," says Image2Output (supplier of the Scodix press) managing director Mike Warnes. "It’s got a fantastic feel and really enhances the product."

The gloss can be built up to create 3D and embossed effects similar to those of the Kodak Nexpress.

Who uses these applications?
People are using the finish, says Warnes, for a variety of commercial work, from leaflets to business cards and other stationery products. The finish gives printers who produce these kinds of materials differentiation against competitors, he says.

How is it applied?
The gloss is a clear ink that can be laid down in any pattern or font. This is much simpler and cheaper, says Warnes, than the process through which such an effect would historically have been created, where the pieces of print would have to be sent to a trade finisher to be masked-up and then coated. "You can have different levels of gloss ink within the same page," says Warnes, "so that opens up all sorts of creative possibilities. Now awareness is increasing that this type of effect is more readily-available, designers and creative people are starting to think completely differently when designing."

What are the advantages of doing this on a digital rather than a litho press?

"Although you can use the finish for litho printed work, the fact that it is a digital process really comes into its own in a large amount of promotional work where you have some personalisation," reports Warnes. "The reason for this is that it can apply the gloss to be in-keeping with any variable data that is then printed on a digital press."

 How much do they cost?
The unit costs between £200,000 and £250,000.


Aaron Archer
Technical director at Pureprint
"We have the HP Indigo 7500 series and use the white ink application on a very eclectic mix of substrates. We’ve been doing invitations, marketing materials, calendars and greeting cards on metallic substrates to create some very unique and eye-catching effects, and that seems to be going down a storm with creative companies.

We also use IndiChrome, which is perfect for colour matching for big brands. In the past, we had to run those jobs less cost-effectively on litho in order to maintain the consistency of branding.

The other key application for us is being able to run heavy substrates on the Indigo, which we can now use for invitations and business cards. The thing that’s always been missing from digital is the ability to run a wide gamut of substrates, but now we’re able to run everything from the most unusual metallicised substrates to 100% recycled substrates, from coating for fine artwork to very common silks used in catalogues and brochures. Substrates can even be embossed. People are always amazed when I show them what digital can do and how high the quality is."

Mal McGowan
Owner of McGowans Print Innovation
"We invested in the Scodix digital embossing press at the beginning of December last year, because we thought it really brought a third dynamic to the page. We chose the machine mainly for its tactile capabilities. It’s a bonus to have the gloss varnish capability, but we sell mainly on the sensual print.

We are just in the process of helping designers to realise what they can do with it - then we anticipate that it will bring in a lot of short-run work where previously a tactile finish wouldn’t even have been considered. I firmly believe that every business card should be 3D now because it’s so cheap to do. We also do quite a lot of personalised mail campaigns and embossing them will increase the product’s value. We are now able to achieve a complete personalised campaign purely in the varnish.

The Scodix digital embossing press is an expensive machine, but we thought we had to have it because its potential for design is unlimited. We’re hoping we’ll have the edge now over a lot of our competitors, because there’s only one other Scodix digital embossing press in the UK."

Christian Knapp
Managing director KBA

"The main issue when choosing between digital and litho for a job is always personalisation. This is obviously where digital performs best. But even where you have a short-run job, litho is becoming more capable of running these cost-effectively. Printing is a manufacturing business now, so everything is to do with automation, performance and output. Due to optimising performance, our machines are now capable of run lengths down to 150 to 250 copies, even as low as 100.

Special applications can also be cheaper on litho presses. Litho can create a range of effects with coatings, and these are often more or less part of the standard range of inks and coatings. I’d argue that litho will always be best for colour matching and vibrancy. There’s no question that digital has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, but litho can still match a much wider colour gamut and most of our customers tell me that litho still has higher print quality."

Paul Chamberlain
Product executive Heidelberg

"Our litho presses can create special effects that digital can’t. With an aqueous coating device on the litho press, you can get various spot coatings, along with a drip-off effect created by printing an aqueous varnish coating over matte varnish coating, so that the gloss drips away from the matte areas.

Litho can also print with metallic inks and substrates – like Magnacoat – and fluorescent inks (popular for ‘For Sale’ signs), which are only available for litho presses.

Although some digital presses are able to print on heavier substrates, they still can’t match litho in this respect: we have machines that can print from paper that has the thickness of onion skin, right up to 550g paper and heavyweight board. The bottom line is that although digital presses have come on a lot in the last four years, litho presses are getting quicker and quicker. It’ll take digital a long while to catch up with litho on the speed front and I’m not sure that they ever will."


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