Converters See Hurdles Ahead in Digital Printing

Last May Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER and Intertec Publishing conducted a focus group on the topic of digital technology and its impact on the converting industry.

For nearly two hours, executives representing nine companies in various segments of the industry met in Chicago, IL, to discuss the emergence of digital prepress, computer-to-plate (CTP), digital proofing, and other related technologies.

The following report highlights key perceptions and concerns expressed by these industry professionals, as much as possible in their own words. (Editor's Note: Because participants did not wish to be identified, we are using only the job title and the industry niche of the company with each quote.)

Still an Infant in Our Industry
Group participants expressed the opinion the use of digital technology in the converting industry is still in the very early stages. While digital prepress was seen to be well established and growing, the general consensus was that pure CTP or digital press technologies are deployed currently in very limited applications.

Furthermore, most in the group anticipated that significant hurdles need to be overcome before digital printing becomes truly ubiquitous in the converting industry. Most concerns were tied to cost, speed, and quality issues. Several participants envisioned that niche markets would gradually continue to develop for exploiting digital technology applications over the next several years.

"Pure digital printing is a different type of product than what has existed before. It's not really any cheaper, and in some instances, it's certainly more expensive. If it's more valuable, if more sales are driven and more interest generated, it may well be worthwhile. But the jury is still out in that regard." -- President, Flexible Packaging

"There are niches for very expensive production of digital pieces. But what you're going to see absolutely is digital stations in a flexo press or digital combinations with other print technologies, because you don't need the whole job to be digitally produced. That will be one way to get the speeds up and reduce the costs, because you're going to have the traditional speeds and traditional costs for some of it. It's just going to be a matter of evolving the technologies together." -- Marketing Director, Tapes, Labels, and Tags

"On the actual converting side, for our business right now, the speeds aren't there. The converting -- as far as how to handle the label -- isn't there." -- Director of Marketing, Tapes, Labels, and Tags

"Just because you don't have film, there's a perception in the marketplace that everything's going to be a lot cheaper, because there will no longer be film costs, and that isn't the case." -- President, Flexible Packaging

Wanted: a New Kind of Employee
Training existing employees or finding new employees to operate and maintain digital equipment was a significant concern among members of the group. The consensus was that operating and servicing digital equipment requires a different breed of employee-someone who is both knowledgeable about converting/ printing methods and proficient with computer hardware and software.

Not surprisingly, converters in the group deemed manufacturer-supplied technical training and support critical for their companies when considering purchase of digital equipment.

"There has to be a whole new technology for training these people... Who do you get when you get a prepress person through the door to interview? You get a freelance graphic artist that does $2,000 worth of business in two weeks and figures he has to earn $2,000 a week to come to work for you. And then you find out that this guy can't output film, he can't use three or four programs to make an image." -- VP Operations, Tapes, Labels, and Tags

"It's a whole different type of maintenance. It's not your maintenance person in your plant. It's more like gears and electronics. You'll probably have one or two of these [pieces of digital equipment] in your shop to start, and your other traditional pieces of equipment are maintained a completely different way. I would think maintenance would have to be expensive, because it's different than traditional." -- Plant Engineer, Tapes, Labels, and Tags

Trade Shops Play Role
Group participants seemed to have a love/hate view of trade shops. While many bemoaned the loss of control in turnaround times when going out-of-house, they tended to look to trade shops to make the investments in digital technology and expertise in areas where they don't believe they can justify the costs of developing such capabilities in-house.

"If you have to make an investment in a computer platemaking system, that's a pretty major outlay versus outsourcing to somebody who has already made that investment. So there's a place for outsourcing, but you do lose control." -- Marketing Director, Tapes, Labels, and Tags

There are still more questions than answers on the subject of digital printing in the converting industry. What will happen to costs, speeds, etc., over the next few years? How will the technology adapt to the specific needs of converters (or vice versa)? Will it ever settle into a major role, or will it remain consigned to limited niches?

No one has the answers yet, but first we must ask the questions.


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