Digital Tech Speeds Book Printing

January 16, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — There’s no reason for publishers to read it and weep anymore because it’s now less costly to digitally pre-print a book than it was with an offset run.

For most of our lifetimes, the dominant printing process has been offset lithography.

In offset, an image is transferred from a printing plate to a rubber blanket and then onto the paper.

When a light-sensitive plate was exposed to very bright light through a film negative, an ink-receptive coating was activated at the image area.

Then, on a press — all at speeds too fast for the human eye — water rollers and then ink rollers dampened the plate. The ink adhered to the image area, while the water stuck to the non-image area

As the cylinders rotated, the image was transferred to the blanket. The blanket cylinder then rolled along the paper, transferring the image to the paper.

So the offset job went from desktop to proof, to an imagesetter for making film, to another proof, to a plate maker, to the printing press. Five steps.

But digital printing can bypass at least two of those steps and, in some cases, four. The digital job goes from desktop to proof to a plate to the press.

Sometimes the process goes directly from the desktop to the press, skipping all four steps in between.

Direct-to-plate printing is similar to digital.

In this process, a plate is made directly from a computer file, entirely eliminating the need for sheets of film.

Not having to produce film cuts cost, saves time and requires less equipment and polluting chemistry. But without film, a traditional proof isn’t available for review.

Instead, digital proofs are used to do checking and are cheaper to make, but aren’t as color correct as those produced from film.

Books printed on digital presses are usually short runs, from one to 5,000 copies, are full-color jobs, and have a quick turnaround time.

A reason for short runs is that each copy has a tendency to cost the same, whether a publisher wants 50 or 5,000.

Paper size is a limitation to the digital process, too, as the so-called coffee table books use another method. So do fine-art books that require high-quality, four-color reproduction.

Dickinson Press Inc. is one of the area’s oldest and most successful commercial printers with 126 local employees and $26 million in revenue for 2002.

The firm, which has been in business since 1884, specializes in printing hardcover and softcover trade books, Bibles, New Testaments, dictionaries, compact or mini-books, and educational workbooks.

Dickinson Press has a computerized electronic pre-press department, meaning computer to plate, and a state-of-the-art pressroom with a computer-controlled heatset web and multi-color sheetfed presses.

“It’s time-saving for the company, and for the customer,” said Les Hulst, president and CEO of Dickinson Press, on his digital process.

“A book can be set up and processed for less than what it took 10 years ago,” he said.

“But the printing cost and binding cost I wouldn’t say is less,” he added. “The up-front cost is less, from our point of view,” he added.

Hulst explained that books took longer to go the digital route than other printed materials such as catalogs and brochures because negatives for books already existed and these could be easily reprinted.

Only when new titles came in would these arrive in a digital format.

“Since we switched over to computer-to-plate, we want to do everything digitally. So now if we have negatives for a title, we put these in a digital format for the publisher at no cost,” said Hulst.

“It’s a lot more flexible for them.”

Dickinson Press currently works with nearly 600 publishers.

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