A job’s not finished until it’s finished

By Simon Eccles, Monday 16 May 2016

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Gone are the days when finishing could be called ‘the Cinderella of print’. While today’s industry mourns the commodification of print, there’s a greater awareness that it is the post-print processes that can really add value to what the press does. Now that all print can be good and not merely good enough, it is the finishing options that can help individual print services really stand out.

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Perhaps it’s not surprising that Muller Martini’s UK managing director Dirk Deceuninck recently urged printers to “start with the backend” when considering their Drupa investments. 

“Finishing is the packaging of print,” says Steve Giddins, managing director of Perfect Bindery Solutions. “I tell printers that any idiot can put ink on papers, but to make it presentable takes finishing, and that means knowledge!” 

“Recent trends are more integration, improved workflow, improved automation,” says Jason Seaber, technical sales director of Intelligent Finishing Systems, the distributor for Horizon and Tecnau among others. “Run lengths continue to come down and now there is print-on-demand and run lengths of one. Horizon and Tecnau are focusing on this, especially improving services through more automation and more flexibility.”

“There’s a lot of discussion about justifying ROI,” notes Peter Dyson, product development manager at Duplo International. “If an investment can perform more functions on more formats, it lets you keep a greater range of finishing work in-house rather than outsourcing. So a bookletmaker that has a broader specification can do more and allow people to take on a wider range of work.”

Digital drivers

As we noted in the last Drupa preview, digital print may still account for only a drop in the total ocean of ink (or toner) applied to paper and other media, but its needs have become primary drivers in the development of finishing. 

“The technology of digital has enabled almost anything to be printed with a very quick turnaround,” notes Giddins. “As a result it has put quite a lot of influence and pressure on finishing, which hitherto was a bit slow to catch up. Historically printers were the most important people in the industry as they put the ink on paper. But it doesn’t stop there, as if you want to make a book you’ve got to bind it, to finish it.”

“Digital suppliers have been much faster to respond than the offset finishing specialists,” Dyson says. “They often seem to think that there’s still a requirement for high-volume offset so why move into medium- sized volumes?”

Digital printing’s main characteristic is cost-effective short runs, with fast turnrounds and delivery to customers often a priority. Yet shorter runs were a trend before digital got off the ground, Dyson notes: “For 25 years there has been a trend towards faster set-ups and reduced waste. What we did 20 years ago to allow one-minute makereadies is still the same today. What’s changed is the adding of PC controllers to allow faster programming, easier adjustments and more job storage. Pre-setting is faster, though the actual machine set-up remains the same.”

Increasingly the first sheet has to be sellable, i.e. no makeready waste. This is vital for digital print, where often the complete run may be a few tens of copies, with no ‘overs’ or waste to set up finishers with.

While variable data is still rare in general commercial digital printing, the fact that every sheet can be different means that you can print pages in sequential order. There’s no need for a collator. Manufacturers such as CP Bourg, Duplo and Horizon have responded by developing digital sheet feeders for finishing lines. Duplo has a low-cost alternative in the form of a collator that can also handle pre-sorted sheets. 

Digital doesn’t always mean less finishing, points out Stuart Bamford, post-press and packaging sales manager at finishing distributor Friedheim International. “We deal with customers that may be putting together 60 sections into a short-run book, so it still needs a lot of work.” 

“Printers may be coming down from high-volume Mullers, but they still want ‘real finishing’ on saddle-stitchers, rather than bookletmakers,” says Dyson. “At the same time on the digital side, monthly volumes are rising as the presses get faster and people install multiple machines. It’s not a question of switching to offset above a certain volume, as often they’ll need variable data. Photobooks for instance – I’ve seen a site in the US with 40 iGens, producing staggering throughput.”

“The bottleneck is nearly always in the folding department,” says Bamford. “MBO is working on this in a big way. It’s the tool setting that takes the time. You can now pre-load several slitter shafts and store them until you put the cassette on the machine and you’re ready to go.”

Inline finishing is far more common on web presses than with sheetfed, especially for presses that print fairly standardised products. Many of the mechanical issues of feeding, reel changes, slitting, folding assembly and delivery were solved decades ago, though computer controls have helped here as everywhere else. 

The introduction of digital web presses has driven a trend to nearline finishing rather than inline. Developers such as Hunkeler can certainly build digital-friendly inline configurations, but it’s more common to see them supply a rewinder at the end of a digital press, then a separate finishing line that starts with an unwinder. 

Even so at Drupa Hunkeler will have inline finishing configurations on the stands of Canon, Screen and Xerox, as well as have roll-to-roll systems on HP T-series and Canon Océ presses. 

Integration

As noted in our first Drupa preview, automation and integration are major themes at Drupa, though JDF/JMF has become a fairly invisible enabler rather than the universal solution it seemed to promise. 

“When we talk about JDF to people often they will says that their existing automation is good enough already, with a good ratio of cost to payback,” Dyson says. “Going from there to super-quick and super-accurate is expensive and means everything has to be strictly controlled and managed. JDF costs a lot to implement but it only describes intent and not the job, so you still need to make adjustments to position on the finishing machine. 

“The challenge for the industry is to make this affordable and easy. The work that HP is doing in ‘direct-to-finish’ for digital is a good strategy. It’s harder for digital work as not everything comes from the same vendor, unlike offset where, say, Heidelberg can supply the lot and it all communicates.”

Decorative effects

Digital decoration is another trend that’s been particularly evident at past shows. Spot UV varnishing, embossing and foiling have traditionally been regarded as finishing processes, although some digital presses can now apply ‘special effects’ including spot gloss and metallic toners. 

There are also dedicated inkjet-based UV varnish and foil systems with variable data, or on short runs. Scodix and MGI are the biggest players so far, with Komfi as a relatively new entrant. MGI added the ability to apply cold foil over its varnish at Ipex 2014 and now Scodix is following suit. Landa is also promising a revolutionary new metallic printing technology called Nano-Metallography.

The important issue isn’t so much the variability, but the removal of the need for relief plates or metal dies, cutting costs and allowing instant changeovers. The relatively high cost of these varnishers (well over £100,000 and sometimes several times that) has kept sales modest. Scodix reckons its new E106 B1 model being launched at Drupa will be a breakthrough model, making short to medium-length runs commercially viable on a wide range of substrates. 

Laser cutting

A notable development over the past four years has been the number of laser cutters entering the market. They are a growing alternative to conventional platen or rotary types for shorter runs. 

Laser cutters were first seen on narrow-web flexo and digital label presses. Larger formats are now appearing. Basic hand-fed laser tables cost as little as £7,000, but they’re slow. Fast B2 models with autoloading and belt transports from LasX, The-mediahouse and Trotex cost from £125,000 and upward depending on laser power and load/unload options. Hans Gronhi offers the B3 LC340S costing £90,000 with sheet feeder and stacker. 

Polar caused a bit of a stir last year with the introduction of its manually fed B2-plus Digicut at just £40,000. At Drupa it is launching Digicut Pro, with automatic pile feeder loading. 

Lasers struggle with folds: they can only score or perforate, which weakens cartonboard along the fold line. Highcon addresses this by extruding creasing rules from liquid polymer that’s then UV-hardened. Its current B1 Euclid III (1,500sph) has just been joined by the high speed Beam (5,000sph). A new 29in/B2 model called Pulse for 2,000sph will be shown at Drupa for shipping next year.

US developer LasX has a different approach. At Drupa it will be on the Petratto stand with a digital creasing module inline to the LaserSharp. This can place up to 36 computer-positioned rules in two directions, to form a box. 

Conclusion

This completes our previews in the run-up to the show, which have looked at e-commerce and automation, conventional presses and consumables, digital printers of all types and sizes, and now finishing. A running theme of the show is integration and automation to reduce ‘touch points’ (human intervention) and boost productivity while maintaining quality, without necessarily increasing mechanical speeds. 

Digital print is the most rapidly evolving set of technologies and is the most active driver in developments that have spin-off benefits to other processes, digital or not. 

As ever, Drupa is a showcase for the future of our mighty 500-year-old industry, as it continues to respond to economic and technical challenges. As such, it’s well worth a visit. 

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