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"Ink-Jet Imaging—A Natural Fit for Finishing"
[Column #71, 11/00]

Many people in the graphic arts and printing industries used to snub ink-jet printing as an unworthy stepchild of the craft of printing. With advances in technology, the quality of the actual printed matter no longer is inferior to the jobs we receive each day. Higher print resolution, greater coverage area, and different ink colors have substantially improved imaging quality and expanded potential uses for the process. Ink-jet imaging has proven invaluable to direct marketers who use it to enhance their products and reach a tremendous number of people with personalized unique messages in a single mailing.

I’ve seen huge growth in our ink-jet imaging division over the past five years—and little to suggest a slowdown anytime soon. It has flooded the market and is used in virtually every industry, from publishing and direct mail to pharmaceuticals and finance. We see it on the food we buy, the pills we take, and our payroll checks. With new technology, ink-jet imaging is no longer confined to several lines of print, but can now print one-inch, two inches, four inches, even up to a full page area, with variable data. In this article, I’ll review the basics of ink-jet imaging.

The important distinction between offset printing and ink-jet printing is that the latter is a nonimpact process and is highly portable. The beauty of ink-jet imaging equipment in the trade bindery is that it can stand alone or be mounted on a variety of equipment including folders, stitchers, perfect binders, mailing equipment, high-speed tippers, and laminating machines.

Because ink-jet printing is a nonimpact process, it can be done on nearly any substrate, whether it’s flat, folded, or bound. In addition, it can be applied by some printers in any direction, even sideways and upside down. (A few years ago, one ink-jet company was promoting itself by ink-jetting on the yolk of a sunny-side-up fried egg.)

While all this is enough to wow anyone in the post-press industry, perhaps the most amazing thing about ink-jet imaging is the computer processing behind it that allows direct marketers to target their customers. The latest computer chips have increased data processing speed, enabling extraordinary product throughput. Increased memory capacity allows unique images to be placed on every product that passes through the equipment.

For example, a national cataloger wants all catalogs going to a single zip code in San Francisco to have a $10 discount, those going to a certain zip code in Alabama to receive a $20 discount, and those going to my zip code in Baltimore to be given a two-for-one special offer. The codes are automatically interpreted by the machine, which then prints the correct message and barcode on each piece.

Mounting ink-jet imaging equipment on folders is a great marriage of machinery. It allows barcodes, addressing, and variable messages to be printed on parent sheets prior to folding—a task that cannot be done by a mail house. If you have a double-addressed brochure, such as one with a mailing address on the outside and a pre-filled-out perforated business reply card (BRC) on the inside, every piece will be produced with a perfect match. Direct mailers place a high value on this because studies show that 80% of returned cards that recipients complete have either an illegible or incomplete names and addresses. This process makes it simple for people to mail them back and ensures accurate information for the company that sent them out.

Ink-jetting in-line on folding equipment also facilitates lot changes. In the past printers had to stop the press at certain points in the run to remove coding data from the plate. This was expensive and time-consuming. The ink-jet and folder combination allows us to gang-run (print together in one impression) material as many as five across and five down on a sheet, each with different serial numbers and version codes. The proper placement of the area to be ink-jetted needs to be considered early in the design phase because ink-jet printing must move in the same direction as the material passes through the equipment. Your finisher can help you with placement of the ink-jet image area to make sure it’s correct with the folding sequence.

Postal barcodes can also be ink-jet printed when the data are not variable, as in the case of return addressing. Like any other barcode, those designed for the mailstream use a binary identification system that’s based on numerical series and parallel bars. Optical character recognition (OCR) equipment scans the width of the bars and the sequence of numbers and converts the data into electrical signals. Direct marketers have quickly learned the advantages of doing this when possible because mail rates are substantially lower when automation requirements of the United States Postal Service are fulfilled. This includes accurate and correctly placed designated areas on mailing pieces, size and thickness, spot gluing, and wafer sealing.

In a world where everyone is desperate to get their message out and the public is inundated with more information than they could possibly soak in, ink-jet imaging provides a critical link allowing marketers to personalize messages and send them to targeted and selected potential customers.

For those of us in the post-press finishing industry, the traditional services that used to define our business—binding, diecutting, embossing, foil stamping, varnishing—have changed and evolved to encompass other things. The increased demand for single-sourcing and the natural fit of ink-jet-imaging and mailing into finishing operations have allowed us to grow our business and include these services. With that in mind, I wanted to touch on another related topic, polybagging, but due to space limitations, will wait until next month.

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