News of CTPS's acquisition of an HP T300 in March—the first in Asia—came as a shock to many in the industry. Although much has been said about the advantages of digital printing in recent years, Hong Kong/China's print industry relies mostly on offset. As such, CTPS's big-ticket investment sparked much speculation, interest, and debates within the industry.

Several print manufacturers, in fact, have already ventured into the digital arena. At C&C Offset, two sets of Canon Image Press were installed last November to satisfy book publishers' increasing demand for smaller runs and shorter delivery time, and C&C's Shanghai commercial printing facility has expanded to more than 20 presses (from Fuji Xerox, Canon, and Kodak) since launching its digital printing services back in 2005. Over at Regal Printing, its Xerox DocuColor 800 has catered mostly to self-publishers and small publishing houses in the past six years. Leo Paper Group has two NexPress machines, the first of which was installed in 2006, while Hung Hing has recently installed a Konica Minolta digital press as a test to decide when or how to expand into the digital arena. Many others are weighing the model and brand that would best suit their needs.

What is the story behind CTPS's bold venture and how does HP figure in the whole digital printing movement? PW sits down with John Currie, global business director at CTPS, and Aurelio Maruggi, v-p and general manager of HP's inkjet high-speed production solutions division, for a quick chat on the rise (at last!) of digital printing in Hong Kong/China.

Why digital printing, why now, and why HP as your supplier of choice?

John Currie: We have been monitoring the developments in digital printing for a number of years, visiting DRUPA, IPEX, and other print exhibitions as part of our research. The turning point came early last year when news emerged about a viable digital book production solution. Further research led us to HP. Digital printing is the new frontier that would tremendously benefit those brave enough to venture into it. And this is our way of keeping ahead of the curve.

Were you surprised when CTPS—and not one of the biggest China or Hong Kong printers—voiced its interest in T300?

Aurelio Maruggi: We have found that early adopters are better characterized not by size but by their keen understanding of how digital printing would fit their own and their customers' long-term strategies. CTPS is a key supplier to American educational and reference book publishers, and these publishers have been moving significant amounts of work onto HP's inkjet web press platform to achieve supply chain efficiencies and enable new business models such as textbook customization.

JC: We have always maintained a low-profile business approach, though this digital move has changed it somewhat. And while we are not on HP's business development strategy list, we are certainly now on their sales and marketing team's radar.

What does it say to you when a medium-size company like CTPS installs a T300?

AM: It confirms that the same fundamental market drivers are active across the globe. Publishers are focused on reducing inventories in order to increase working capital and reduce product obsolescence risk. Digital printing allows printers small and large to offer publishers order quantities that are based on expected or measured market demand, and it is unencumbered by machine setup and plate costs. CTPS's move speaks volumes to its progressive approach to profitable growth. And while there are several leading book manufacturers worldwide with HP inkjet web presses, CTPS is the first export player to adopt this platform. Our intention, when these presses were developed, was to enable longer-run digital printing. CTPS shows us that a longer-run solution can help a book exporter to grow, and that is vitally important for any digital press manufacturer looking to expand in the Hong Kong/China printing industry.

It was a really fast-track decision to purchase and install the T300, right?

JC: Discussion started in earnest in November, and the purchase signed off by our CEO, Peter Tse, in December. It is the quickest installation undertaken by HP. The goal was to have it ready by early April in time for our open house during the Print China exhibition. Surprisingly, the air-freighted high-tech software and hardware went through Chinese customs without a hitch. Muller-Martini also fast-tracked its SigmaLine delivery to our Dongguan facility.

AM: Peter is a man of action. He visited our Corvallis, Ore., product development site after the initial conversations and saw the T300 printing his sample jobs. The pace just picked up from there.

Book printers in Hong Kong and China are known globally for offset printing capabilities. Getting them to shift to digital is a big task. How do you plan to convert them?

AM: Few industries are transforming as significantly as the publishing industry, and we are working closely with printers in every corner not only to show how an investment in HP can drive efficiency and reduce costs but also how it generates new opportunities. We want to help customers add even more business by unlocking print's greater value in the digital world—the ability to offer a tangible, authentic product that can be customized or even personalized in a way that holds greater appeal to readers.

Presently, only 1% of the global publishing industry uses digital printing for book production. How does HP plan to go about changing this picture?

AM: Trends in the book industry point to a need for increased efficiency and flexibility. We are working with printing and publishing firms to share information on the rapidly evolving opportunities and challenges facing the industries today. With these shared insights, we can work together to accelerate adoption in areas with highest returns and develop better solutions year after year.

Now that the first T300 has been installed in the region, what's next?

JC: The upcoming months will be focused on promoting it as a viable textbook and STM production solution. We are working on establishing new business streams based on this T300 and upcoming installations. Co-sharing and smart partnership with other HP clients around the globe is also part of our plan.

AM: As more publishers buy into the new platform and efficiency model, we expect further expansion across the Asia Pacific region. This is already one of the fastest-growing regions for HP and our counterparts in the graphic arts space. With the success of Indigo presses in the region, we have a strong infrastructure in place to support our customers. The plan now is to expand our presence in the inkjet web press area.

What are the best features of T300?

JC: In addition to providing full-color short-run solutions, the T300 is great for clients adopting rapid stock replenishment and low inventory warehousing. We want to be the regional point of contact for such print orders.

How about the latest model, T400?

AM: The T400 is the most productive press of our rapidly expanding product portfolio. In fact, if you are printing A4-size pages, you can have more than 6,000 pages per minute. Its 1,067-mm web width offers format flexibility and is a good match for many existing signature-based finishing solutions as well as a growing number of digital inline solutions. It is also highly compatible with 521-mm finishing solutions that are prevalent in the industry.

How about the much discussed environmental advantages?

JC: For one, producing books in smaller quantities—made possible by digital printing—reduces overprinting and the volume of unsold returns. These in turn translate into savings in terms of paper consumption, ink use, make-ready, and solvent usage. Inks used by T300, for instance, are water-based, with very low VOCs. Ideally, more installations of digital presses such as T300 in different corners of the globe would further reduce the carbon footprint associated with cross-continent deliveries.

AM: Research shows that an estimated 30% of all printed books in the U.S. will be returned to the publisher and pulped. Digital printing helps publishers to better match supply to actual demand, creating significant environmental savings. We have sponsored a study to measure the carbon footprint associated with printing and distributing a paperback after the printing is done on an offset press, a digital press, and a mixture of the two platforms. By using HP digital presses, for instance, the carbon footprint of a typical 240-page 14-cm×21.5-cm paperback would be reduced by 14% to 20%.

I wish that printing presses were manufactured in different colors to make them less boring. Given a choice, what color would you prefer your T300 to be?

JC: Within the Hong Kong printing industry, Peter is seen as a vibrant person who is definitely not boring. Since the T300 looks so futuristic, high-impact and bright casing color would be most appropriate. A Ferrari red would certainly fit Peter to a T.

AM: That is an interesting concept. We have not established custom color schemes for our press housings yet. But it is evident that we are very conscious about creating great industrial designs for our inkjet web presses—they don't look like anything else in the industry. If you recall, earlier continuous-feed digital presses looked like big office photocopiers—they didn't give the impression of being on par with an offset book press. However, when you look at an HP web press, I don't think there is any misunderstanding that this is an advanced, heavy iron press.

JC: We actually asked for the Muller-Martini line to be in another color, but we ended up with blue, which is marginally better than the green that was initially offered.

What is the optimum run for T300 and T400?

AM: Some customers have said it is in the low hundreds up to approximately 5,000 copies for the T300. But the number will go up for the T350 and T400 because those models produce more pages per minute, thus driving down cost per book. On the other hand, our inkjet web presses are capable of producing unique page per book at full press speed. So even a one-copy run is possible.

JC: Our experience to date shows that the most efficient run is between 2,000 and 3,000 copies. Titles using the same paper stock but with different trim sizes or extent can also be printed together in batches of 50 to 500. Batching or bundling of titles minimizes paper changes and wastage, and reduces setup time. We also have an extremely flexible SigmaLine folder/collator/binder/trimmer system that allows quick changeover for jobs that use the same paper stock.

Paper stock for digital presses is always a concern. How does the T300 or T400 perform with uncoated stock?

JC: We turned to paper merchant Hing Tai Hong for assistance once the scarcity of inkjet-optimized paper in this region was confirmed. We then started with Appleton since its 66 gsm stock had already been tested and used in digital printing. Heavier base weights are coming soon. New inkjet grades from Sappi that are tailored for books are expected to be available by the end of the year. The same goes for those from StoraEnso and New Page.

AM: All our inkjet web presses come equipped with bonding agent printing, which enables the use of the lowest uncoated grades of offset and newsprint stocks with excellent results. Some customers even print on lightweight coated offset stocks. Since the bonding agent is printed wherever a subsequent drop of pigmented ink is placed, it immobilizes the pigment near the paper surface. This reduces show-through on thin stocks and prevents wicking and irregular dot gain. Additionally, as it is a noncontact printing process, paper cleanliness and smoothness is greatly improved. We are working with various mills to bring more inkjet-optimized papers to the market.

JC: For black-and-white printing, any woodfree 80 or 90 gsm is suitable. We are currently testing on matte papers for full-color work. In most cases, we have to tweak the print file to obtain the required results. Right now, we find that woodfree stocks can take up to 40% ink coverage on four-color printing, while inkjet optimized papers—66, 90, and 105 gsm—can take up to 30%. Increased coverage is expected as newer papers come along and as presses adapt accordingly.

How does China in particular, and Asia in general, figure in HP's long-term strategy?

AM: These two are growing markets that command high levels of attention and strategic planning within HP. We are anxious to listen and learn from publishers and printers in these markets to best match our offerings to their market-specific needs. In China, we are learning that escalating wages and retaining skilled labor are beginning to favor the type of automation enabled by digital production. And as the government continues to privatize its publishing industry, we anticipate that these companies will have a heightened awareness of the increased savings and earning potentials offered by digital printing.

Do you have any examples or statistics on benefits achieved through digital printing?

AM: A project at the British company Communisis comes to mind. It recently shifted one of its direct mail projects to a completely digital workflow using the T300. The switch saved the company time and money associated with making 220 plates. It also gained much more flexibility in its versioning process: instead of printing just 56 variations of a direct mail piece, it could print more than three trillion different combinations of images and customized messages. On the book publishing side, statistics from one of the world's top publishing companies show that the analogue offset printing it purchased consumed 720,000 kilograms of aluminum plates and more than 16 million liters of processing solvents annually. It is now making an aggressive transition to digital printing for many of its titles.

Is CTPS looking at other technologies to support the T300?

JC: We have already prepared a second site for additional inkjet press installations while working on complementing T300 with different finishing options for both hardcover and paperback production. Being an early adopter in China means we have first dibs on other technical offerings from HP.

What is your advice to those considering installing a T300 or T400, or venturing into digital printing?

AM: Printing is only a part of book production. When assessing the digital value proposition, one needs to take into consideration the benefits of time and labor savings in prepress and inline finishing. Unlike conventional printing, digital printing can produce collated pages or signatures to print one book at a time, thus eliminating separate signature production, folding, gathering, collating, binding, and trimming. With digital paperback production, the whole process can be done inline with just two or three operators. At CTPS, for instance, you will find rolls of paper at the start and finished books on pallets at the end. For those considering digital printing, it is crucial to factor in benefits in terms of labor, turnaround time, and efficiency during the assessment.

JC: Do your homework. Review technical aspects to ensure that the digital press is suitable for the type of product you have in mind. Make sure the press will interface seamlessly with the finishing lines. It is also very useful to find out from actual users their experiences and challenges in successful day-to-day rollout. Most important, do not buy into the hype regarding certain presses or technology that has not been fully tested in the market.