As digital print grows, finishing must develop to meet the new demands

By Sean Smyth, Thursday 12 April 2007

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There is a lot going on across all aspects of digital print. Print customers want the cost and turnaround benefits offered by digital, but they dont want any drop in the product quality. In most cases, print quality is no longer an issue, but finishing definitely still is.

I am often staggered by samples from digital equipment suppliers with cracking on folds, flaking toner, poor trimming, non-square folding and effects of cross-grain stitching so a booklet doesn’t lay flat. The image may look pleasing,
but the overall product is not. Suppliers of print engines are starting to view finishing as a source of competitive advantage, most working with independent finishing specialists.

Easily damaged
Much digital print has specific characteristics that make it tricky to process, particularly toner-based sheets that are easily damaged during finishing. This can destroy the look and feel of a product; as a result, finishers have had to re-invent basic techniques to maintain the value of a printed item.

Tne method is to protect the surface. There are coating options, such as the new UV digital coater from PAT Technology, or systems that apply varnishes or even silicone applicators. Small-format lamination machines are widely available. These provide durability to the print surface. Some suppliers integrate their coater into a finishing system. For example, Kern sells a Digi-Coater that links into a cutter, sheeter, stitcher with full control for each process.

Kern offers a range of sophisticated products to finish digital print, such as the barcode-controlled EasyMailer machine, which converts flat-sheet digital colour output into a full enveloped mailer that can include personalised inserts. There have even been whispers that Xerox is developing a system around its iGen3 engine to convert multiple stocks into mailers in a single operation.

The trend for manufacturers and integrators to create a total print and finishing system is growing as digital presses become faster and more reliable. Increasing demand for high volumes of standard products mean it makes economic sense to provide an integrated solution. In the early days of digital print, the wide range of products made it sensible to opt for standalone finishing systems that would often handle conventionally printed material as well as digital output. Innovative companies such as Horizon, CP Bourg, Ibis and Duplo have developed clever, fast set-up, relatively low-priced finishing tools.

Morgana developed the AutoCreaser in 2001, replacing scoring systems with a rule or matrix action. It eliminates cracking by bringing a male die and female matrix together, pressing toner into the paper surface. It is quick to set up and adjust compared to mechanical methods and is offered as a front-end to Morgana’s latest folders and bookletmakers.

There are many suppliers of standalone, or near-line finishing systems. Suppliers offering inline finishing systems report variable take up and success by users. Xerox and other manufacturers are developing standardised linkages to combine a range of finishing equipment to sheet and web-fed digital engines that allow easy matching of speed and capability. As the print technology matures, a new generation of inline finishing is in development.

Newspaper finishing
Hunkeler has launched a newspaper printing or finishing system that works with the Kodak VersaMark. This can print, sheet, fold and deliver 1,000 40pp tabloid newspapers per hour. Hunkeler has long been a leader in mechanical origami, supplying a wide range of paper handling systems from unwinders and tension controls to sophisticated post-print cutting, gluing, folding and delivery.

As larger printers implement digital operations to handle short runs, they will demand higher output stitching and binding systems. These will be capable of competing in output quality with offset or web-based finishing, and will run in a 24/7 digital environment. The next wave of digital finishing machinery will help printers broaden their service offering into mailing and fulfilment as well as manufacture.


30-SECOND BRIEFING ON... DIGITAL FINISHING
• As digital print inexorably increases its market share, the importance of overall product quality is increasingly important. Finishing options are being recognised as integral parts of a digital print investment with more on and offline solutions being taken up by the market
• The debate about the merits of inline and offline finishing continues apace. For the typical jobbing application, the range of products, formats and materials make inline finishing difficult to use, leading to offline solutions from companies such as Horizon, CP Bourg, Duplo and Morgana
• The range of machines making products digitally is growing as the market develops. As digital engines grow in reliability and speed, it makes sense to consider integrated finishing
• Kern and Hunkeler, among others, offer sophisticated packages, with specialist products for targeted market sectors, such as digital newspaper production. These link high-speed VersaMark inkjet printers with automatic paper handling and finishing
• As digital grows the finishing will grow in sophistication, making high-quality final products more commonplace

Sean Smyth is an independent ‘techie’ providing support for organisations looking to apply technology effectively. Smyth can be contacted on sean.smyth@dsl.pipex.com

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