Why Has Digital Stopped at Finishing?

By: Christian Knapp

Digital pre-press and digital printing have been around for 40 years or more, and really started to take shape when Benny Landa founded Indigo Digital Printing in 1977. At the 1993 IPEX his company launched the E-Print 1000 which was the world’s first digital color printing press. Bypassing the printing plate setup process eliminated numerous costly and time-consuming steps associated with offset printing. It enabled printing from a computer file directly onto paper and launched short-run, on-demand and variable data printing into the market place. Landa sold Indigo Digital Printing to Hewlett-Packard in 2002 and digital printing has grown year on year since.

All this is history, so what does the future hold for digital finishing? Surely the next step in print manufacturing includes digital finishing as the final step before the finished product leaves the factory and the printer gets paid.

Addressing the issues of Digital Converting or Digital Die Cutting

There are a number of reasons why digital has not penetrated the finishing area at equal speed or in equal measure.

In fact, the first production laser cutting machine was used 50 years ago to drill holes in diamond dies. This machine was made by the Western Electric Engineering Research Centre. In 1967, the British pioneered laser-assisted oxygen jet cutting for metals. In the early 1970s, this technology was put into production to cut titanium for aerospace applications. At the same time, CO2 lasers were adapted to cut non-metals, such as textiles, because CO2 lasers were not yet powerful enough to overcome the thermal conductivity of metals.

Today’s CO2 lasers are small, powerful, scalable, flexible and affordable enough to be used in a multitude of industries including the printing, paper, flexible packaging and label industries. What is new is the 2-step in-line process that combines creasing and digital laser die cutting.

The Highcon digital converting process is a 2-step procedure where the die line is digitally produced and transferred onto a plastic sleeve. This sleeve replaces the steel-rule die form used in the traditional analogue process. The digital die line of the sleeve carrier is then pressed against paper or board substrate producing the digital crease line. In the second process step, focused laser beams are directed to cut, kiss-cut, score perforate, score, or etch patterns into the substrate in accordance with a DXF or PDF file. High processing speeds can be accomplished as a result of optimizing the pattern’s cutting path. Automatic stripping of the cut- outs completes the digital creasing and cutting process, producing a process ready stack of digitally finished products.

The Advantages of a non-contact crease and cut system are clear.

Firstly, die lines are produced digitally, eliminating long set-up and waiting times – so no more dies. This allows printers & converters to take on short run work economically without expensive die storage or long processing times. Obviously, printers/converters can now answer the market demand from brands and consumers for rapid delivery of any job in 24-28 hours, especially for small quantities.

Secondly, digital laser die cutting eliminates the need for hard tooling or dies, and laser die cutting allows for multiple processes to be performed in sequence on-demand and without any work in progress (WIP). The result is a fast, clean, environmentally friendly and cost-effective production solution that maintains an exceptional standard of accuracy, repeatability and quality. These are critical factors for any manufacturing process, but especially for print, packaging, corrugated and for labels.

Thirdly, printers/converters who will soon or already have invested in digital printing technology can now minimize short run bottlenecks in finishing that are traditionally associated with short runs.

Lastly, automatic stripping eliminates the need for manual setup and tooling and time-consuming waste elimination.

So digital creasing & laser die cutting is technically better for many print applications, but is this enough?

The answer to this question is not as clear and unambiguous as the technical response. For any technology to gain market acceptance and consequently momentum, it must also provide clear financial benefit. This is equally true for digital finishing.

In essence, there are three main areas where laser die cutting generates return on investment (ROI) and hence justification. Cost reduction in the print manufacturing process is the most common area where digital creasing and lasers in combination help businesses reduce full time (or temporary) headcount in finishing. We know of applications where SME sized firms employ 30 to 40 people for up to three months just to manage a seasonal demand. Short run throughput can be achieved via a crease/laser combination freeing up capacity for the remainder of the year, with an amortization period of 18 to 24 months.

Just in time and on-demand printing/finishing is the second area where print businesses reduce costs through the elimination of WIP, reduction in tooling expenses and abolition in associated outwork and shipping costs.

Finally, digital finishing allows printers to offer personalized print runs of 1 without waste or spoilage thereby generating new product offerings.

Advanced ROI calculations have shown that overall savings occur when the power of digital affects the downstream process, for example when printing sales tags in chronological order of the shelf location for any particular store.

The promise of digital print manufacturing has always been to image 1, print 1 and crease/cut 1 individual copy; one at a time for each and every customer. Today digital creasing & laser die cutting provide the technology which fulfills the digital promise, and that is precisely what I believe Benny Landa envisioned almost 40 years ago.

Christian Knapp is the Managing Director of CMD Insight representing Highcon in Canada

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