Trends Impacting Digital Finishing Enhancements
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I had the chance to sit down with Mark Nixon, the EVP of global sales and marketing at Scodix, to chat about the industry, and the trends he sees impacting the space in the coming months.
First and foremost, when it comes to digital finishing enhancements, in particular, he says it's typically selling a value-added concept to people who aren't already existing clients. For most of the life of digital finishing, he explains that it was about targeting new customers — those who wanted to “take something not usually embellished, and make it sexy, add more value, and charge more for it.”
But in the past few years, that is changing.
“The second market for digital finishing is Web-to-print,” he notes. “It clearly adds value to a piece and is extremely lucrative.” The traditional way of adding embellishments was costly and time-consuming, but as digital is gaining ground, Nixon notes, you can have the same effects for a small cost, while adding a lot of value.
“If we assume that there is something like 100 million sheets per year already being folded, or given spot UV coatings, or enhanced in some way, why am I not chasing that market?” he asks. “So in the past three years, we have embarked on selling digital embellishment to large volume players.”
The reason that is possible now, and an attractive option to anyone already offering any sort of embellishments already, is that while the costs have come down significantly, the quality has also gone up. “On analog equipment, a makeready could take four or six hours. On ours, it’s three minutes,” says Nixon. At the same time, the machines have been enlarged, to accommodate the 40-inch sheet size most shops are running, as well as offering a wider range of embellishment options in-line, on the same machine. It makes for a compelling argument for commercial printers to take a hard look at adding or upgrading their digital finishing lines.
Another trend Nixon notes driving the push for more digital finishing options is increasingly shrinking run lengths and turnaround times. He specifically sees two segments in the printing industry where digital finishing is making in-roads fast.
First, he points out the packaging segment, where brands are increasingly looking to create versioned pieces for different regions, different seasons, even for special events. Those run lengths are considerably shorter than a traditional packaging run, but the brands still want the same eye-catching effects that will help them stand out on the shelf. For packaging printers, the costs and time for makereadies, dies, materials, and waste doesn’t decrease just because they are printing 10,000 instead of 100,000. To help bridge that gap, digital finishing can step in and allow for more robust options while keeping costs and turnaround times reasonable.
The second segment Nixon calls out is book publishing. With companies like Amazon really pushing the “book of one” concept and just-in-time production of books, it is tempting to let those pieces go out the door with the bare minimum. But digital finishing can bring special effects like foils and coatings to these books just like their longer-run cousins, opening the door for unique pieces that individuals will want to keep and share. Think coffee table books, or highly embellished memory books. Or being able to up-charge a writer looking to self-publish a manuscript for a highly designed and embellished cover that they will be proud to call their own. In the book space, Nixon notes that digital finishing offers a lot of options for printers to add an incredible amount of value that translates directly into the bottom line.
“We can make a big difference in the economics of these types of projects,” Nixon points out. “So that’s where we’ve been focusing our efforts. We see those trends in those spaces, and we’re trying to answer them. We want people to realize that digital finishing isn’t just sexier, it’s also more economical. Yes, it is very sexy, but it does have to go back to the economics — you can’t buy the equipment just because it’s sexy.”
Nixon believes that while the adoption of digital finishing is growing slowly and won’t happen overnight, we are reaching a tipping point, as the market is changing. “If we look at the evolution of digital prepress, at the beginning it was a hard sell,” he recalls. “Digital presses were a hard sell — everyone said you didn’t need one. But then the market changes, or the economics change, and that’s what we’re seeing with digital finishing — the market has changed.”
That said, Nixon doesn’t see digital finishing replacing all traditional equipment anytime soon. Rather, “I see us running alongside those analog processes. When something brand new replaces the old, the two co-exist for a long period. Digital printing is a great example of that — it’s only 15-20% of the market, and it co-exists with offset. Digital finishing will co-exist with the technology that’s already out there.”
So how can a printer make the best use out of digital finishing, and get the true value out of it? Nixon notes that, for commercial printers, “it is all about being different, about giving their audience more things to appreciate. It helps brands up their position. But from a commercial printer perspective, the absolute first thing you have to do is sell it and represent it. You have to be front-of-house with it, invent new applications, and keep producing nice-looking pieces.”
On the packaging side, however, he advocates printers go a slightly different route when it comes to integrating digital finishing into the sales process. “Sustainability is a huge play these days with brands,” he notes. “Go to any of the top brands’ websites and look at their front page — they open with claims of sustainability and ‘green’ awareness. We’ve done deep dives on digital versus analog, and Scodix uses around 8,000 times less water, and 6,000 times less energy to create embellishments over analog. So, if you’re a packaging printer, and you’ve done analog for 50 years and you’re talking to brands that are very aware of their environmental impact, you can make big inroads into those accounts.”
All that said, Nixon notes that digital finishing is still very much at the beginning of its journey. “As a technology, we are still super young in the development path,” he says. “There is still a long road ahead.” The quality and speeds have reached a point where they are good enough to be viable options in most applications, but there is still a lot of room for improvement that Nixon believes we’ll see pick up in the coming years.
“It is becoming more flexible with more enhancements on the same machine. You’ll see more people foiling and enhancing more of their print largely because the complicated will become easy. Micro embossing, for example, is really, really sexy, but it is out of reach for most brands because it is a very expensive process via analog. But it will become very affordable with digital. These things that people want will become more of the norm and will become more expected. Right now, only about 20% of foil sheets are embossed, but if you ask most brands, they would like to do more but don’t because it’s too expensive. But we will get over that hump.”
Finally, another trend that will drive digital finishing adoption is the ongoing labor challenges. “I know people who have been foiling for 50 years, and they are craftsmen,” Nixon says. “It takes them 8-12 hours to take the ordinary and make it gorgeous. But the real craftsmen are now few and far between. How do you replace Joe who’s been with the company for 30 years, but he wants to retire?” With digital finishing, however, he notes you can take anyone in the shop who wants to learn, and in a week, they can be up and running and producing highly embellished pieces that are just as beautiful. “Digital makes it easy,” he says.
Toni McQuilken is the senior editor for the printing and packaging group.