The adjectives describing digital printing—short, fast, variable—are enough to give suppliers restless nights. But the segment's exponential growth is unstoppable and undeniable. Industry expert Pira International predicts that the global digital printing market will grow to $180 billion by 2015. Little wonder that suppliers are busy tweaking their offerings and expertise to get faster, better and cheaper.

At Enterprise Group (a Domtar Business), the sales manager for the western region, Dale Coulombe, attributes the rise of digital printing to its inherent advantages. “Economical short runs, zero film or plate costs, variable data capabilities, in-line finishing and quick turnaround—these are the benefits driving its growth,” he says. “At the same time, technological leaps have resulted in improved print quality and color capability at higher press speeds. For us, this calls for close collaboration with digital press OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] and postprocessing equipment manufacturers to match our papers to their machines.” Meeting requests for faster delivery means, for Coulombe and his team, efficient inventory management. “We have to anticipate demand, arrange direct shipping from our mills to save time and ensure no in-transit damage to the paper that would reduce the usable volume,” he says. “At the same time, we have to cater to the different, specific types of digital presses that our clients use. We are here to find the right solutions for them. As such, we offer an extensive line of roll papers designed for digital printing, such as those used on Bridge's DocuPrint presses, supported by a distribution network to ensure immediate service and delivery.”

Finch Paper, meanwhile, has introduced several line extensions to its Fine iD grade (for HP Indigo presses), including the first HP-approved optimized 75gsm uncoated Indigo grade, a thicker version of Finch's optimized 150gsm cover grade, and larger sheet size (13”×19”) in six basis weights. “These products allow our clients to take full advantage of the improved features on the new Indigo 5500 press,” says marketing manager Robert Huber. “Our iD grades are 'optimized,' i.e., treated with a proprietary surface chemical, to produce perfect toner-to-paper adhesion while eliminating the problem of 'yellowing' or treatment effectiveness decreasing over time. This is necessitated by the nature of the unique liquid ElectroInk used on HP presses.” Finch's technical staff also formulates special grades beyond its normal product range. For instance, the Ultra White Ink-Jet grade is designed for high performance on high-speed web-fed inkjet presses such as Kodak Versamark, Screen TruePress, Océ VarioStream and IBM InfoPrint. “A specially designed grade may add a modest cost to the paper, but in most cases the grade would allow clients to move into more lucrative business areas and differentiate their products from the competition,” adds John Kittinger, West Coast sales manager.

For Gane Brothers, the rise of digital printing and on-demand publishing in the past five years has brought a sense of urgency to book production. “On our part, we see more lower-volume orders coupled with rapid-delivery demand,” says CEO Glenn Brown. “To meet such demand, we provide even faster response by increasing our inventories and implementing just-in-time and product consignment programs. We also partner with manufacturers to provide a wide array of raw materials, such as coated and uncoated stocks, cloth products, boards, adhesives and foils. Our clients can now purchase full- and partial-roll quantities, and have the supply delivered within a very short lead time from any one of our eight warehouses. We helped design a cloth product that could be printed on Indigo presses. Both Pinnacle and Impressions—B- and E-grade book cloth respectively—are available in prepackaged press-size sheets. We also carry Kivar IMAGEase, a line of latex-reinforced nonwoven cover stock, together with special adhesives for binding these covers.”

At HP, the Print 2.0 program has picked up speed with the release of several next-generation digital printing products, most of which will be commercially available in 2009. Among them are a high-speed 30” inkjet web press, new water-based latex inks, an Indigo 7000 press and web-fed Indigo WS6000 and W7200 presses. “Our Indigo technology is considered digital offset equivalent in terms of image quality and level of control,” says Thomas Horan, premier account manager for digital publishing solutions. “And we design with the environment in mind. Take the Indigo presses. The 5000 series has a mechanism to separate condensed oil from water to reduce waste, while our flagship 5500 series includes an on-press oil-recycling program that cuts imaging-oil consumption by about 50%. The 7000 series now consumes 25% less electricity than its predecessors. Additionally, our ElectroInks produce no hazardous air pollutants or particulate matter emissions.” For clients wanting spot and special color printing, as on those endsheets in Bridge's books, Indigo is the only digital press with this capability. “We also offer an OFIR [on-press fast ink replacement] option that allows clients to replace the inks on the fly while printing other jobs, thus maximizing productivity,” says Dale Equitz, commercial accounts manager for digital publishing systems.

Over at Xerox, two recently announced continuous-feed models—the 490/980 and 650/1300—are, respectively, excellent for color and monochrome digital book printing. Its flagship model, iGen3, continues to be a bestseller since its release in 2002, with more than 2,000 installations worldwide. “It uses nontoxic dry inks, generates no hazardous waste and contains up to 97% recyclable or remanufacturable components. Just like other models, the iGen3 is engineered to meet our strict noise, emission and safety standards,” says Jerry Murray, v-p for product marketing (production systems group). Meanwhile, Xerox's patented chemically grown EA toner is available on certain digital systems, such as Nuvera 288 perfector and Nuvera EA digital press. It provides a smooth, consistent offset matte finish and sharper outputs than traditional toner. “Digital technology is, by nature, flexible, and the presses are solution-agnostic. In other words, the workflow, target products and the value of the solution are directly associated with the publishing issue at hand,” adds John Conley, v-p for publishing segment marketing. “So if you are a POD company doing several thousand books per month, you may choose a Nuvera 288 or a DocuTech. But if you are producing several million books per year, then you might go for continuous feed. We offer clients a wide product range as well as ways to modify our presses to fit their specific requirements. The iGen3, for instance, can be modified using our retrofit key to run lighter-weight coated paper for, say, teacher's editions.”

For Jack MacDonald, Los Angeles-based printing segment general manager at xpedx, serving digital printing clients means “staying one step ahead of their growth. Our knowledge of all types of digital printing equipment, their technological advances and various substrates they use has allowed us to supply clients with the most suitable products that they need and when they need them.” To do that, keeping up to three months' worth of inventory is normal at xpedx (which, by the way, is the first U.S. merchant to be nationally SFI- and FSC-certified). “There are many factors determining the appropriate inventory level, and there is no fixed formula, as it is different for each customer and each product,” adds MacDonald. Adds account manager Catherine Bonin, “A lot goes into working with an organization like Bridge, from understanding the latest technology to inventory management and logistical planning for multiple deliveries in a given day. But it's all worth it. Bridge is blazing a trail in digital printing for others to follow, and they are doing it right. Just look at the quality of what they produce; that speaks volumes.”