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Printers Rolling With The Digital Revolution

There isn’t a table big enough to hold Hewlett-Packard Co.’s largest inkjet printer.

Its color inkjet web press stands 10 feet high and 70 feet long, and it takes paper from a roll 42 inches wide.

HP is betting that digital printing technology, long used in tandem with home and office computers, is transferable to the world of print shops, where products must be removed with a pallet and forklift.

“There is a major analog-to-digital transformation taking place in the commercial printing industry, and HP is at the forefront,” said Sumeer Chandra, vice president of marketing and strategy at HP’s Graphic Solutions Business. Chandra maintains an office in Rancho Bernardo.

The world of commercial printing is slowly heading in the direction of digital, said Dave Pauley, president of Neyenesch Printers Inc. The downtown San Diego business has one digital press — made by Eastman Kodak Co. — and several conventional sheet-fed presses by Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG and Akiyama International.

According to Pauley, the big three of the digital printing press world are HP, Kodak and Xerox Corp. HP is “absolutely the leader in terms of the capabilities of their machines,” he said.

Doing Business Globally

Like the world of printing presses, HP’s graphics supply business is global. The Palo Alto-based corporation developed its computer-driven thermal inkjet web presses in its Rancho Bernardo labs. Company representatives say they have produced more than 50 of the machines. The most advanced model can turn out 600 feet of printed material per minute.

HP serves the commercial printing market with smaller digital presses as well. Its Indigo press line and Scitex industrial printer business are based in Israel, while its Designjet printer business is based in Barcelona, Spain.

HP came out with its web press in 2008. Since then it has spent more than $1 billion developing it and other parts of its graphic arts press line.

By now the work of digital presses is “virtually indistinguishable” from that of traditional offset presses, said analysts from IDC, a Massachusetts-based market intelligence firm. “This could not be said only a few short years ago.”

Digital presses have the ability to change what they print on the fly. On conventional offset presses, technicians need to stop the press and change plates to produce a different image.

Personalized Products

As a result, digital printing’s strong suit is personalization.

It attracts customers such as San Diego County casinos.

Casinos, which track their patrons’ habits and preferences through their loyalty card programs, are able to produce highly tailored direct mail advertising, said Neyenesch’s Pauley. Casino patrons may receive what amounts to a custom brochure, offering discounts at a restaurant or other incentives to visit the casino. Such personalized pieces are best printed on digital presses.

Digital printing presses may also produce short runs of books in a cost-effective manner, or turn out customized books, those in the industry said.

“What’s most exciting is these capabilities also allow our customers to create new businesses, such as custom textbooks, personalized keepsakes and custom wallpaper or other interior décor,” HP’s Chandra said.

In Pauley’s view, standard commercial print jobs would be a “waste” of the digital presses’ capabilities to personalize their products.

Digital printing can also be expensive.

In traditional printing, ink represents less than 1 percent of the cost of a job, Pauley said. With digital printing, he said, ink costs are far higher. “The big money is in the consumables,” he said.

HP sells its web press ink in 200-liter, or 52-gallon, drums. In addition to the standard black, cyan, magenta and yellow inks required for four-color printing, it sells a bonding agent.

Digital printing has several things going for it, according to a February report from seven IDC analysts called “Worldwide Hardcopy 2012 Top 10 Predictions.”

Efficiency Through Automation

For one thing, the analysts say digital presses can bring efficiency through automation.

The technology can also speed production time. “Print buyer expectations on turnaround times on their shorter print runs is now in the 24- to 48-hour time frame, which will help drive print to digital,” the IDC report said.

The report added that digital can offer a “just in time” approach to printing. Just in time is a manufacturing concept aimed at cutting down the amount of inventory kept in warehouses.

IDC and HP also say their digital presses reduce waste. It is common for print shops to churn out a good deal of paper waste as crews fine-tune their press for the optimum image.

Pauley, the printing firm president, says it’s only a matter of time for the price of digital printing to come down, and for digital to surpass analog.

“It’s going to happen,” he said. “A lot of people are working on it.”

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