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“Fast, Good and Cheap” represents three facets of every project — schedule, quality and budget. Generally, the option of applying all three is considered impractical. Instead, the “Tyranny of OR” is applied: Fast and Good, OR Good and Cheap, OR Fast and Cheap. A company that wants something “Fast and Good” is going to pay a lot of money for it, OR “Good and Cheap” is going to wait longer for production, OR “Fast and Cheap” is going to lack a quality product.

Regardless of how impractical it may be to apply all three aspects, companies will always try, which leads vendors/contractors to figure out the questions of “How?”

The printing industry — traditionally considered to be neither fast nor cheap — is beginning to make strides to improve in areas of speed and cost, while also maintaining quality. Many traditional offset printers have made significant technological improvements while others have moved to an online model to accommodate their customers.

Before I outline the benefits of online printing, let me first share with you the pros of traditional printing — as my friends in the printing industry will likely string me up for steering you in new directions.

Traditional Printing
The advantages of traditional printing include:

  • Customization. With traditional printers can you choose the paper stock, special die cuts, pms colors, etc. that your project will have. Most online printers have a set number of stocks, sizes and colors that you can apply to your project.
  • Quality Control. When you submit your project online, you put more of the quality control efforts into the hands of your designer, who in most cases, is not a trained prepress manager. This means that your project is less likely to have mistakes when you use a traditional printer.
  • Relationships. Having a relationship with a printer is extremely important. Your account representatives are going to work hard to make sure your projects turn out correctly and are going to take responsibility to set things right, if they don’t. They are going to work with you to make sure your materials are properly sized, the correct weight for mailing, etc. Most importantly, they are going to give you peace of mind. Once the project is in their hands, you can relax, and let them do the rest. You aren’t likely to get that with an online printer.

If cost and time are concerns (and they usually are), then consider the following questions, if you are looking for a traditional printer:

  • What services do they provide in-house? Services such as perfect binding, die cutting, foil stamping, mailing and distribution, etc. are often outsourced, which adds cost and time to your project. If your printer has these services in house, you can save significantly.
  • What types of printing machines do they offer? Depending on the type of project, you can save money based on what type of machine you use. For example, if you have a four-color process project that needs to be coated, you will save money by having a 6-color press with a built-in aqueous coater. Digital presses may also provide cheaper 4-color process options. Make sure to ask your printer about the types of machines they have and how they can save you money.
  • How do they manage prepress? Many printers are beginning to implement computer-to-plate technology, which takes the digital file and records it directly to the plate rather than creating film to make the plate. This process can save considerable costs, especially if there are changes that need to be made to the project during prepress. Other printers are setting up online management tools (e.g., InSite) to help with prepress (similar to online printers)

There are numerous other reasons to use traditional printers over online printers. In the end, it depends on your comfort level and, of course, your commitment to the Fast, Good and Cheap model.

Online Printing
Online printing is beginning to pick up speed. Again, in most cases, online printers are traditional printers that changed their company model. Online printing provides the following benefits:

  • Lower Costs: In most cases you can save 30%-60% more on the cost of printing. Occasionally, you can save a great deal more. For example, you can get 500 four color process business cards (2-sided with full bleeds) on 14pt coated or uncoated cover stock for $23. For a 3-day turnaround, you can get them for $25. For the same specifications, it can cost you $130-$200+ for business cards at a traditional printer, and it will take you a week longer to receive them.
  • Faster Turnaround: Many online printers provide standard turnarounds of 5-7 business days (just like traditional offset printers). However, they typically can provide as quick as a 1-day turnaround for a slight rush fee.
  • Quick Approval Process: Most traditional offset printers do not like to use PDFs for approval. Because their technology isn’t updated, there’s a risk that errors might occur between the PDF and plate creation. Online printers have put technology in place that takes care of this problem, which means that you can review and send your artwork to press within minutes of uploading your files. For those of you who need a more tangible proof, many online printers do provide hard proof alternatives for a small cost.
  • Large Variety of Products: While online printers will never be able to provide the customization that traditional printers provide, they still offer a wide variety of products, as well as templates to support layout needs. They provide templates and services for: booklets, catalogs, brochures, bookmarks, CDs/DVDs, calendars, business cards, stationery, flyers, posters, greeting cards, menus, notepads, folders, binders, and much more. In some cases, online printers do provide customization for an additional cost.
  • Quick Estimating: Because online printers provide a very rigid model (specific stocks, colors, etc.), they typically have “Instant Pricing” tools on their websites that provide exact costs on production, tax and shipping. This is a tremendous tool for projects/proposals that require quick pricing.
  • File Storage: Many online printers keep your files stored on their servers, so if you need to reprint your letterhead or business cards, you can just login and send them to production. (Traditional printers keep these files on hand, too.)

I have spent many years working with traditional and online printers and have found both to be very useful. I could also tell you which printers are the most efficient, have the best online tools, lowest costs, highest quality and best customer service, but I won’t give away all my secrets. Those insights come with an hourly rate. 🙂

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