Print finishing has long been considered the poor relation of print itself. All too often, the focus of attention is on the press or the pre-press workflow, and yet, if you consider the impact that this process has on a printed product the value of finishing to the print production chain is extremely under-rated. It is the process that not only transforms print into a saleable product, it can also make or break a job in terms of both quality and profitability. Put simply, without finishing, there is no end product and the best you get is just a sheet of ink or toner on paper.
In recent years, there has been significant growth in digital print. With its ability to print on demand and offer high speed and short and personalised, variable data print runs has without doubt fuelled the development in a range of advanced finishing solutions. The quality of output, the versatility and the greater range of substrates that digital presses can now handle have resulted in a whole new set of finishing requirements. So while speed continues to be vital for the printers of today, they are equally looking to their finishing solutions to offer greater flexibility, productivity and ultimately valuable profit margins.
Print finishing can be built into a production workflow in three ways: Off-line, near-line and in-line.
Off-line finishing is when the finishing device is completely separate from the press and there is no communication between equipment. This makes it is particularly suited to fast and longer print runs on a variety of paper sizes. With off-line finishing however, every step in the set-up process is manual which requires greater skill as well as time. But there are benefits. Off-line devices offer the versatility to accept work from multiple print engines whether they are lithographic or digital, deliver at very high speeds and if there is a problem with the print engine, finishing will remain unaffected.
In contrast to the off-line approach, in-line finishing solutions are linked directly to the print engine. Set up requires little if no manual intervention, and the fully integrated print and finishing process offers optimal workflow efficiency in which all aspects of the process are streamlined and automated. The reduction of skilled operator intervention not only delivers labour savings, there is also less chance of human error in set up, resulting in reduced downtime. This makes in-line workflows particularly suited to variable print such as book production, and personalised mailings where integrity of the personal data is vital. Transactional print, for example customer billing, whereby customer vouchers, and personalised letters can be printed and finished in booklet format and enclosed in addressed envelopes all in one single pass.
Today, it’s fair to say that with the widespread use of pdf, almost all finishing technology has some degree of automated make ready capability, and therefore, near-line options are increasing in popularity. Near-line finishing integrates both elements of in-line and off-line options, where the device is not directly connected to the printer, but there is still some degree of communication between the two. This may be in the form of an i/F cable, or via intelligent markings. The finishing system obtains the print criteria via optical mark recognition (OMR) or bar codes printed onto the substrate offering a degree of automation and again avoiding time consuming and costly manual set up. Near-line finishing also allows the capability of combining litho printed work – such as covers – with digitally produced contents.
While the automation and labour saving features of in-line and near-line systems may appear to be a more attractive option than off-line devices, this is not necessarily the answer for every job. The right system depends entirely on the requirements of each job, as well as the equipment that the printer already has in place. Generally speaking, short run, personalised print is more suited to in-line solutions, while the versatility and speed of off-line finishing systems would be more suited to lithographic printers.
As automation of the print production workflow continues to increase, in the future, all printing devices are likely to have the capability to integrate and communicate with one another. However, integration should never be at the expense of flexibility. For example, the ability to switch jobs between devices to accommodate lead-times and capacity, or indeed the ability to combine the capabilities of two print devices to the best effect. Therefore the finishing options for printers in terms of off-line, near-line or in-line are only going to increase.
With no one solution able to fit all print jobs, and each approach offering its own set of limitations as well as benefits, it will be vital that printers continue to monitor developments in print finishing and choose the right solution that is both compatible with their existing equipment and suits the needs of their business and their customers. You may have the most productive printing press, but any advantage in its speed is lost the minute the sheets come off the press if the finishing process can’t keep up. If you can keep the productivity of your finishing aligned to that of the press output, however, then you can benefit from maximum output efficiency and ultimately greater profit margins.
What is clear is that there is a growing interest in and excitement surrounding print finishing as the industry turns to the once-considered poor relation to help it increase value added services and build business opportunities.