Digital printing walks the plank

August 1, 2011

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Frank Romano, esteemed guru of all things print past, present and future, has some pet stories that he likes to recount. As an avid cruise ship passenger it is only natural that one of these stories concerns printing aboard luxury ships.

Cunard Cruise Lines, operator of the Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth, relies upon an in-plant print operation aboard each of its ships to produce menus, newsletters, notices, programs and a host of other printed materials that are needed daily for the operation of these giant cities on the sea.

Frank’s stories relate the unique challenges inherent in an onboard offset printing operation. The biggest problem is sloshing (my word, not an official graphic arts term) of dampening fountains as waves cause the ships to rock.

Other challenges include jury-rigging repairs and the effect of salt air. It makes for great dinner table conversation among printers, especially for those of us who have worked in an inplant environment at one time or another.

All this entertaining chitchat about the challenges of ocean borne lithography belies a rarely asked question. Why, in this digital age, doesn’t Cunard and its rival cruise operators dump their aging Heidelbergs and ABDicks in favor of some state-of-the-art inkjet or toner-based digital presses?

The answer is as obvious as it is embarrassing. The answer, in fact, is an ongoing stain on the whole concept of 21st century print communications.

Transatlantic cruise ships are at sea for weeks at a time. Digital presses break down every day. Without skilled repairmen on hand and without access to an enormous depot of replacement parts, any of today’s digital presses would break down on the first day out of port and stay down for the remainder of the cruise. That’s all there is to it.

I am sure digital press manufacturers who are Johnson’s World readers will rush to furnish facts and figures to show how wrong I am, spouting such terms as “mean impressions between copies” and other such nonsense. That is what it is, nonsense.

Any manufacturer that speaks with pride of hours, days or even weeks between machinery failures is condemned to sit forever on the sidelines of graphic production. Offset presses run at full capacity for months without any glitches, and years with no breakdowns that cannot be repaired by a pressman. Production digital printing environments have manufacturers’ service technicians visiting every day. Yes, every day.

Why do we put up with such pathetic performance from machines for which we pay hundreds of thousands of dollars? A digital press manufacturing executive once confided to me, “We could build printers that never break, but they would cost millions!”

I have news for you, arrogant digital press manufacturers. Printers of all persuasions routinely pay millions for offset presses that reliably produce the lion’s share of the world’s printing. Digital presses may not cost millions up front, but buyers pay through the nose on the back end in the form of exorbitant “clicks for service” fees.

Here is a statistic from my own experience. Most digital presses are sold with 60 month (5 year) leases. During that lease period the press will be down for repairs for over one year’s worth of time!

Yes, my words are harsh, and yes, I am cynical about claims of improvement in digital press reliability.

Are you attending Graph Expo this year? If so, you will undoubtedly check out digital presses. Instead of just ooohing and aaahing at the pretty pictures and the booth babes, ask pointedly about machine uptime. Bring a calculator. Insist that press manufacturers give specific data about uptime, and make them prove the accuracy of their statistics.

Until we all refuse to tolerate substandard equipment, the claims of digital press uptime just won’t hold water.