Can’t you print it while I wait?

One of my graphic designer friends comments:

How about an explanation of all the steps required to produce a printed piece?

I really love clients who want projects turned around in a matter of minutes. Maybe, with this bit of information, people will understand that while all this wonderful technology does make things faster, it doesn’t make thing instantaneous.

Ok, we’ll give it a go.

It is not uncommon for a customer to ask the question, “Can’t I just wait for it?” We call it copy shop mentality. The customer is picturing a big box with a paper tray on the end of it. No matter what the size or complexity of the project, you just press a green button, the machine makes a little noise and the finished product comes out the delivery end.

In truth, there are some jobs that can run exactly that way. AlphaGraphics still has a couple of conventional copiers. If a customer comes in and requests a few copies and one of the machines is open, we’ll usually put the job on the machine and tell the customer about how long it will take. Sometimes we’ll ask them to go to lunch and stop back by after they’re through.

But we’re not a copy shop. This type of job represents less than 3% of the revenue of our business. Most of this work used to come from small and medium sized offices that now have fairly good copying capability in-house. The jobs that go to a printshop are the ones that are too complex to do in-house or require a level of quality that cannot be produced on an office copier.

The projects my designer friend is talking about usually fall in both categories at once. She is one of the designers that printers really like; with the (unfortunately somewhat rare) combination of artistic talent and technical competence. Producing one of her pieces on a copy machine would be like re-casting Michelangelo’s David in concrete.

The way a job progresses through the printshop is called workflow. Let’s take a look at how it works at AlphaGraphics:


Prepress has been called the black hole of the printing business, and it can be. Prepress is literally everything that happens to a project before ink goes on paper. It can be very easy or amazingly difficult, largely depending on the customer.

In the case of my designer friend, prepress is easy. She submits files that are usually ready for press. Her customers have approved the art and their changes have been made. We will simply check her files (this is called preflight) to assure that all of the fonts and images we need are there. She’ll get a final .pdf proof or a hard copy if the customer requires it. Once the proof is approved, we’re on to production.

Or, we can do it the hard way. For example, today I received files for a 36 page booklet. The page size specified is 5.5″ x 8.5″. The files were provided in Microsoft Word on an 8.5 x 11 page size (see my previous post Why Printers Hate Microsoft). That means a lot of work before a proof can be produced, then revisions, then proof approval, then printing and binding. This is where the black hole can appear. The timetable is largely dependant upon the customer. If they respond quickly to proofs and revisions are uncomplicated, the project will go smoothly and reasonably quickly. Alternately, they can require multiple revisions, review by committee, and stretch a four day project out for a month. This is the stuff that another blog post is made of.


In our shop, print production can be either on a conventional offset press or a digital machine. We will usually suggest one or the other depending on run length and quality requirements. I used to say that the digital machines were “copiers on steroids,” with the printer’s predictable preference for conventional presses. I really can’t say that any more. The quality gap between offset and digital color has narrowed immensely and the price barrier for digital color has come down a good deal. This means that digital color is suitable for more jobs and for longer run lengths.

Digital production is faster than press, but neither is “instantaneous.” AlphaGraphics (and any other good printshop) uses a production scheduling system that allows us to control the workflow through the shop. We can and do give priority to a job according to the customer’s deadlines, but this has obvious limitations. All jobs cannot be “hot” at the same time. Depending on the time of proof approval, digital printing usually occurs the same day or the next day. Press work usually takes a little longer, with a 1 – 2 day lead time on simple work and 3 – 4 days on process color.

Guess what? Longer runs take longer to run. It takes longer to print 20,000 brochures than it does to print 2,000. And the same consideration applies for everything that is done after printing is complete (see Bindery below).

Another consideration is drying time after press. Conventional inks are oil (or soy) based. They are tacky when they are applied to paper. There are several ways that printers can reduce drying time, but it remains a time and temperature equation. A large block of solid ink will not be dry when it exits the press and should not be handled until it is. This means that extra time may be required for certain projects. If your printer tells you that he can’t cut your business cards because the ink is still wet, believe him. He doesn’t want to wreck your job or redo it and you don’t want him to.


If prepress is everything that happens before ink goes on paper, bindery is everything that can happen afterwards. Simple bindery operations are scoring, folding, and cutting. More complicated operations are bookletmaking, coil binding, die-cutting, laminating, foil-stamping or embossing. Bindery can also include esoteric operations like specialized gluing.

Production time in bindery is largely dependant upon the mechanical capabilities of the printshop. A small shop may still collate and staple booklets by hand. This means that their production time will be much longer than the shop that uses an automated bookletmaker or saddlestitcher for the same process.

No printshop does everything in house. For example, presentation folders require large presses, specialized diecutting and gluing equipment for production. Most printers have a relationship with an outside supplier that specializes in this item. Because presentation folders are outsourced, lead times are longer. Die-cutting, embossing, and foil stamping also fall into this category for most small and mid-sized printers.

Another consideration is handwork. While most of us continue to invest in bigger, better, faster equipment to minimize manual operations, handwork in a printshop is inescapable. Doing work by hand is slower and more expensive. If we see a job that will have a manual component to it and we can suggest a better way, we will. If the customer wants it the hard way, we’ll produce it that way if we can. But, it will take longer and cost more than the automated alternative. Examples of this are very small or odd-sized booklets, specialty folds, and stuffing really small invitations into really small envelopes.

Last Words

Thanks to my designer friend for playing the role of muse. I could write on about this for a while, but I think that I’ve made the points that she asked for. Here’s the last words:

  1. Ask the questions and listen to the answers. Your printer (or an experienced designer) will have an idea of the best way to produce the product you want. In many cases, minor changes can save big time and money.
  2. Plan ahead, proceed calmly and be realistic in your expectations. Your sense of urgency will not cause the ink to dry faster. Also, there is a definite tendency for major mistakes to occur in projects that are done in a hurry.
  3. Establish a good relationship with a good company. It is natural for a printer to give their best service to their best customers. At AlphaGraphics, if we have a customer who is great to work with and depends on us for their printed products, we’ll pull out all the stops if they need something in a hurry. We’re not so anxious to do that with the customer who uses us for quotes all the time and only gives us a job when no one else can do it.

Hope this helps, P . . . .


One Response to Can’t you print it while I wait?

  1. Pen says:

    Can I get some copies? ::grins::

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