The Holy Grail of digital printing

April 1, 2009

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

In 2001, my company did a feature series in our monthly newsletter, “Overnight Lite,” comparing the quality of two digital presses we employed at the time. One was made by Xerox, the other Indigo (now owned by HP).

Our newsletter usually is a single–sheet self mailer, so we printed two complete versions of the April 2001 issue, one on the Indigo and one on the Xerox DocuColor, for each of the 5,000+ names on our mailing list. We inserted one of each version in a No. 10 envelope, so every recipient had both versions at their fingertips for side–by–side comparison.

“Vote for the digital color you like best,” was our simple request. We created and hosted an online survey site for Internet voting. And we included a fax–back survey ballot with the mailing.

The response was excellent. Not only did we get a high percentage of votes, we also were gratified by extensive comments submitted explaining why people preferred the results of one process over the other.

We learned much about our customers' attitudes toward color and quality in general. Our clients learned about the level of quality that was now achievable with digital printing, and especially with Copresco. We even won some marketing awards for the program.

At that time, the phrase “near–offset quality” was the buzzword. It was presumed that digital couldn't match offset, but every digital press maker claimed its press came the closest. At Copresco, we didn't offer an offset sample for comparison. We merely presented beautifully printed samples from two different digital processes, and as people evaluated the quality, they realized how far digital had come.

Quality is not the issue

Fast forward eight years to 2009. A national printing trade magazine prints half the covers for its February issue via offset, and the other half digitally.

“Was this run offset? Or was it digital?” the fine print asks. They didn't have to print 80,000 magazines to answer that question. Now, in most cases, it doesn't matter.

The phrase “near–offset quality” is archaic; digital print quality surpasses offset as often as not. Today the offset vs. digital issue depends more upon the characteristics of the image being reproduced, and the question is more likely to be, “Which digital process should be used?” because (unlike offset) every digital press has its own color gamut.

High–quality digital color printing is being achieved every day in shops like mine. Next Holy Grail, please. The explanation inside the magazine said the offset covers were printed on a 41–inch Heidelberg Speedmaster. It didn't mention number of units or perfecting capability, nor did it specify run time, but I'm guessing that 35,000 covers were completed in under two hours. No big deal.

The digital counterpart required 35 hours of press time — downright painful compared to the offset run of exactly the same job.

Digital press manufacturers, take note

Now that you have matched offset quality, you ask me, “Why isn't more work jumping to digital?” When offset press productivity is some 20 times greater, with much lower consumable costs, to boot, the answer is obvious.

But wait — the worst is yet to come. The magazine coyly described as “hours of press time” the 35 hours of digital running. I'm betting that figure does not include the copious downtime that is an inherent part of operating any digital press. I'll further bet that start to finish time, including machine breakdowns, easily doubled the runtime figure.

I surmise that the offset job ran under two hours because if the plates and paper were at the press at 2:00 p.m., finished press sheets were on their way to the cutter before 4:00 p.m., makeready and press check included. I don't need to allow for downtime or service calls. I'll even bet the Speedmaster hasn't had a service call since the day it was installed.

Digital press operations are plagued with downtime, no matter what the process, make or manufacturer. We have dazzling color, yes, but we still have the copier repair technician.

Listen up, digital press manufacturers, if you ever hope to be more than copier makers. Gorgeous color hangs on the wall and wins prizes. I thank you. Productivity and reliability ship out the door and win contracts. When I get that, I'll thank you ever so much more.