Magazine Article


New Revenue Streams
Enter the next decade for EP Digital offset Penetrates Photo Labs

Do you believe in print? Can you live with click charges? Does variable data printing pique your interest? Personalization? Do you see new markets and applications with the products that a digital press can produce? If your answer to these questions is yes, you'd better join the digital press revolution before your competitors leave you in the "soup."

One might call digital offset printing a creative and technological disruption. If photo labs could make the switch from analog to digital, printing with ink and toners should be a breeze. Electrophotography (EP) requires learning new terms and technology. Some may consider it electrostatic printing (like photocopiers), because the presses are toner-based. The HP Indigo is the only press that uses liquid toners, called "ElectroInk," but a classier name was given by its inventor, Benny Landa: "digital inks." The other digital presses use dry powder toners.

Another common term is MFP (multifunctional printing), along with VDP (variable data printing). The simple fact that one can personalize prints and text is a big advantage for pro labs. On-demand short-run printing is why litho printers were the first to embrace EP: They had jobs waiting for the technology.

A big advantage to the Indigo is an unlimited choice of color, including Pantone five, six, and seven colors, in addition to CMYK spot and fluorescent colors. The flagship model is the Indigo 5500, and it has a seven-color advantage. Bob Friend of District Photo says, "Going six-color instead of four can help us improve on quality that's already very, very good." The Kodak NexPress also is Pantone-licensed but is limited to five colors.

Advanced Press Technology

Digital offset technology is well into its second decade of printing, and there continues to be on-going installations since PTN covered this topic last year.

So what's changed? Complementary finishing products are now available for trimming, binding, and laminating. Canon is just vying for a position in the pro market. Screen has entered with several systems. However, the most significant players in the current and former photo lab industry remain HP Indigo and Eastman Kodak NexPress models, followed by the Xerox iGen3 and the Xerox/Fujifilm DocuColor 240/250 presses.

The primary differences between all systems are speed (40100 pp/min), number of colors (quality and tonal range), and cost. So what's stopping us? Size shouldn't stop anybody, because the market for small-format printing far exceeds wide format, and what self-respecting photo facility doesn't own some type of wide-format inkjet or digital photo device today? IT Strategies projections show "EP far outpacing inkjet in terms of worldwide market volume now and in at least the near-term future." Price shouldn't be a factor. Those who don't want to spend (or can't justify) the half-million-dollar price tags for EP now have alternatives, namely the Xerox DocuColor 240/250. The primary difference between these two models is speed. Start with lesser output and scale up. PTN has found around 25 of the 240/250 presses in the pro labs (Northwest Professional Color, Buckeye Photo, LustreColor, Century Color Labs, H&H Color Lab, and Tri-Color, to name a few) and more in specialty shops such as ArtCraft Camera,

Larry and Brenda Anderson of Final Images have found new markets since they purchased the Xerox DocuColor 240. Number one is soft-cover books, 6x6, and 8x8, followed by graduation announcements, calendars, and posters. Sports-team composites is a new category for them as well, and a creative composition (11x17) costs about $0.15 for consumables, according to Anderson, including a click charge of 6.2 cents.

To sell these products, the Andersons had to purchase finishing equipment, including the Duplo Fiery and ExactBind for book covers, plus the VersaCoater liquid UV laminator. All this, including the DocuColor 240, for $130,000.

When asked whether customers accept nontraditional photo prints, Larry says, "We get no complaints. Soft-cover books are going so well we hired a draft artist to create templates-we use our own designs. Photographers want flashy proofs today; the ROES software easily imports into Kodak's DP2 software and interfaces with our own templates."

The other popular system is Kodak's NexPress, in a different category when it comes to speed and size (which, of course, you pay for). The bulk of these presses are found in the people/social labs: Miller's Professional Imaging, American Color Imaging, and Burrell Colour Imaging.

The NexPress 3000 has some big advantages, according to Richard Miller, who will have three each in Pittsburg, KS, and Columbia, MO, upon completion of upgrades from older models. "They're considerably faster than the 2500," he said. He isn't so sure that photobooks off digital presses are going to take over the world, but in this economy, he says they will eat into the traditional wedding album business because a photobook is less expensive to produce and therefore costs less. Miller is offering digital press products through his online Mpix consumer ordering system and needs multiple units. Fast as it is, a NexPress 3000 can set a lab back $900,000, list.

Tom and John Hicks, who run JD Photo Imaging, are in the process of upgrading their digital press department with new equipment and services. They have a Xerox 8000s and a DocuColor 2045. "We're looking at sticking with these printers," says Ray Hicks. "We do a pretty good job of matching them [prints] up with traditional." They produce prom books, yearbooks, cards, and a new product-fun packs for the school division.

They just installed a UV VersaCoater: "We added creasers, a perfect binder, automatic cutter, folder, and case maker for hard covers."

Digital press is a moving application for JD Photo Imaging. They just acquired Digilabs software for producing photobooks (they believe it's going to be a big market for them). Their digital press business is so good that they'll be looking at another press.

Faster Presses

Only a few in commercial wide-format digital imaging have adopted on-demand digital printing. Wide-format digital printers tend to farm out this business and don't see it as an additional revenue stream.

Last year we covered The Color Place, now on its second HP Indigo. Rex Jobe still envisions his digital offset department to be bigger than wide-format roll and flatbed. Digital Imaging Resources and Digitalhub in Chicago have been successful at blending their Indigo press business with wide-format graphics.

The HP Indigo is also found in the consumer online photo suppliers: Shutterfly has 30 systems, District Photo owns 24 Indigos. White House Custom Colour ships press-printed books in two days.

IT Strategies has an interesting projection: "The photobook market is expected to grow to more than $1 billion by 2010."

We'll offer more exciting figures in Part II of Electrophotography. On-demand printing or digital press-you name it.