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Catalog printing's future is digital.

The picture is wonderful! Just imagine, say the printers of the future, what will happen thanks to digital printing:

* The cost to produce and print catalogs will drop precipitously due to the tremendous cost savings of eliminating the film stage.

* Catalogs will be produced in half the time.

* Alterations and last-minute changes will be a "piece of cake" - even on press - so designers, writers and merchants will have ultimate flexibility.

* Photo and graphic resolution will be 100-percent better because of the digital process technology.

* Preparing images for alternative media (i.e., a space ad, the Internet, a solo mailing, brochure) will be effortless.

* Everything will be simple and wonderful, and printing will be foolproof, almost scientific in technological application...not what we call "graphic arts" today.

If you believe all of this, you are either a candidate for the printer sales "hall of fame" or are totally naive in the ways of catalog printing.

So does direct-to-plate technology offer all the benefits that printers are promising? Yes! BUT...the technology is still evolving, and the learning curve is steep. Here's a more realistic look at the state of digital printing.

The name of the game in the printing world is change - primarily to differentiate and stay ahead of the competition. One of the most far-reaching changes in the last three to five years is digital printing or direct-to-plate. It has expanded the capabilities of printers, provided customers with more flexibility and produced a better, cleaner image. It is changing printing processes by eliminating film materials and decreasing production time before and during the press run. Catalogs, annual reports and magazines appear to be the prime targets for digital printing due to speed and flexibility. It's not the wave of the future but today's reality.

Some front-runners in the digital game - those who are proving that it can be a benefit to their customers - are R.R. Donnelley, World Color, Quad Graphics, Banta, Arandell and Quebecor. Many of these vendors producing direct-to-plate work have developed internal "digital research groups" that focus on improving the process. As with any new methodology, digital capabilities vary widely from printer to printer. Caution is urged in selecting the vendor that is right for your company and in testing and rolling out digital printing.


Let's examine the advantages a marketer can gain by switching to a printer that uses direct-to-plate technology.

* Some cost reduction can be realized due to the elimination of film materials, but many users say the cost advantage is minimal, if any.

* Making changes at later stages of production - changes to price, color, product or copy - is indeed easier, more expeditious and less expensive.

* Printing quality is improved due to the direct contact of image to plate.

* Alterations, especially those on press, are easily made. The file is altered, a new plate is burned and the job is back on press and running in half the time.

* Aluminum-based thermal printing plates, which "burns" the image with heat, make the dot much sharper.

* Better color registration creates crisper images.

* Proofs can be produced directly on identical paper stock used in the print run.

* Digital photography can be merged into a paginated production file, saving time and money when re-using images or using the same images in another medium.

* Retouching of photos or illustrative images is done electronically to maintain quality.

* Images are adaptable to other media, such as CD-ROM, web offset printing, space ads or the Internet.

* Finer line screens eliminate the problem of film registration.

* Every dot is the first generation rather than the second generation.

* Mailing pieces can be customized without quantity-printed limitations.

* Files are provided to the printer in Quark format with high resolution images in place. This is the format in which most designers will work.


Of course, digital printing has some disadvantages:

* No single system is being used as the standard across the market.

* Color separators and printers are still learning how most efficiently to build and work with the file.

* Printing plants, even within the same company, often are not the same.

* Thermal printing plates can cost up to twice as much as conventional plates.

* Any cost savings are minor, and final costs may end up being higher than traditional film method.

* Customers, who have learned traditional color separation steps (film-to-plate-to-press), are sometimes reluctant to change systems that are working.

The Bottom Line: Digital printing is proving to be faster, somewhat less expensive and the end-product is of higher quality. However, even though the advantages seem to outweigh the disadvantages, there is still a hesitation in the industry. It's a re-learning process for all three parties: customers (catalogers and other marketers), color separators and printers.

But in the next five years, the traditional method of film-to-plate-to-press will fade and the direct-to-plate world will become the standard.

JACK SCHMID is president of J. Schmid & Associates in Shawnee Mission, KS. He can be reached at (913) 385-0220; fax: (913) 385-0221 or by E-mail at
COPYRIGHT 1998 North American Publishing Company
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Schmid, Jack
Publication:Target Marketing
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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