Envelopes used to be an afterthought when it came to a printed package. A lot more time, attention and expense would typically be spent on the contents rather than the package which enclosed them. That is no longer the case and here's my theory as to why:
One of the pervasive aspects of our increasingly affluent society is that people's tastes and expectations change; generally in a more expensive direction. Just to take a couple of examples (there are many others):
My parents drank Maxwell House ground coffee that they bought in a large, pressurized can at the supermarket probably for the same price (or less!) than a single latte drink at Starbucks costs today. Maxwell House was good enough for them and millions of others.
Anyone try to give away their old cathode-ray TV lately? Last year I had the Salvation Army refuse to take mine because "everyone wants flat screen TVs these days". They also wouldn't take my used but good condition sleeper couch with down cushions because of a small, faded portion on the back from the sun. Apparently, even poverty isn't what it was 50 years ago.
Those are just two examples but the point is, for most of us, pedestrian isn't good enough anymore. One of the prime drivers of this is technology which, for example, makes flat screen TVs less expensive today than my 19" Sony Trinitron cost 15 years ago. Our standard of living has gone up largely because the cost of what used to be premium items has decreased. We're less willing to settle for...
simple black printing on envelopes for example! You can buy a fairly inexpensive color desk top printer and print your own envelopes in pretty colors. You can also go to Staples or other walk in digital printers, hand them your flash drive and walk out with some fancy color printed envelopes.
But what about if you're a small business owner or a print buyer? What are your options for more than just a few hundred four color process envelopes?
There are four possible ways to do this:
- Offset - The most common offset press made for envelopes and used by most envelope converters, envelope manufacturers and envelope printers is the Jet press made by the Halm Corporation. The four-color jet press is a great option for a quantity of 5,000 and up where the printing is light to medium coverage with no bleeds. For instance - if you have a small four color logo that you place with your return address, the four color Jet is generally the best way to go for price and good quality.
- Lithographic - By this I mean high-quality sheet-fed printing from a large, sophisticated press made by companies like Heidelberg and Kamori which you'll find at large, commercial printing companies. Envelope converters like Elite Envelope will take printed sheets from these companies, almost always printed in full color, and cut, fold and glue them into envelopes. The reasons an envelope is printed this way boil down to three: coverage, quality and stock. If the envelope has full coverage, front and back, this is one of your two options (flexo is the other, more on that shortly). If the envelope uses coated stock, then it generally needs to be printed this way. And sheetfed offset is generally the gold-standard for print quality in the industry. So if your envelope has to look better than anyone else's, this is probably the way for you to go.
- Flexographic - Also known as "flexo" uses hard-plastic photo polymer plates versus the metal plates used in offset printing. It is done in-line (as the envelope is being manufactured) and features quick drying ink. Flexo used to be pretty much exclusively for "down and dirty" print jobs; black or one color with simple copy. It's main advantage is cost; especially on very large quantities (typically 100,000 and up). The quality of flexo printing has improved dramatically over the past several decades and there is now so-called "enhanced flexo" equipment which prints four color process in full coverage with outstanding results. However the quality is still not quite up to the level of lithography.
- Lastly as I already mentioned, there's digital printing. This is done mostly with toner versus ink. The quality is generally very good especially as the technology improves. Unlike the other three methods, there's virtually no-set up time required for digital printers. You pretty much just click and go. For that reason, digital is great for small runs of up to around 2,500. However digital printers are very slow in comparison to offset or flexo presses so after that number, you're better off going offset. Another drawback with digital printers is because of the intense heat needed to set the toner, regular poly window patch material melts. So special and more expensive material must be used if you're printing a window envelope. Plus, while the quality is good, it has a different look than offset printing. So, if the components are printed offset, they won't match the envelope which can be a problem in some packages. However, one great advantage to digital printing is that it can easily print variable data which has become essential in the world of direct marketing. And if you need a larger quantity of digitally printed envelopes, there are some very-sophisticated digital web presses that can print on sheets or rolls for converting later.
If you have a question on how to print a particular envelope to best meet your needs, send me an e mail or give me a call. I'll be happy to help you sort things out.
There are two main criteria for deciding how to print your envelopes: aesthetics and price – or most commonly a combination of the two.
The aesthetic or look of the piece is generally going to be determined by marketing factors; i.e. the purpose for which the envelope will be used. A simple function like letterhead or mailing an invoice will not require an elaborate look. In fact, going overboard on design for an envelope with a modest purpose might actually send the wrong message such as; “We’ve got way too much money to spend so thanks to all our customers for putting us in this position.” On the other hand if you’re selling something – a new and exciting product or service, you’re probably going to want match the excitement of the offering with the appropriate graphics and color.
Fortunately for direct marketers and small business owners, envelope companies like Elite Envelope & Graphics will generally have the capabilities to print whatever your fertile imagination can create. In a previous blog I described in detail the various ways to print an envelope. These are: lithographic (on flat sheets for converting after the fact), offset (mostly done on Halm brand Jet presses but also can be done on smaller presses like an AB Dick with special envelope feeders), flexographic (typically done in-line while an envelope is being folded) and finally, digital (either on flat sheets for converting or on newer model presses that accept pre-converted envelopes).
Each of the four envelope printing methods listed has its own unique characteristics and uses. The most common method is offset. The reason for that is because it gives the best look for the best price in most situations. An envelope can be offset printed at quantities as low as 1,000 at very reasonable prices. The Halm Jet press, which is what most envelope company’s use, is built for speed and higher volumes. Printing on a Jet press will generally become most competitive at around 5,000 pieces and up.
Offset printing is done with metal plates that allow for a sharp, clean image even with halftone screens and fine lines. The Jet Press will allow for the envelope to bleed to the edge and print fairly heavy solid coverage and can print anything from black ink up through and including four color process. All things considered, Jet Offset printing including four color Jet printing provides many options at competitive prices.
Lithographic (or litho for short) is the way to get the highest print quality when that is required. The reason for that is a combination of the method and the fact that litho presses tend to be large and sophisticated with many built-in features that allow for very fine reproductions. When an envelope is designed with full ink coverage on all sides (printers sometimes refer to this as a “paint job”) it is generally printed lithographically on flat sheets. The individual envelope impressions contained on the printed sheets are then die cut and fed into an envelope folding machine where they are scored, glued and folded into envelopes. This process is referred to as envelope converting. Lithographic printing and converting is more expensive than printing a pre-made envelope on a Jet press. However, it is necessary for certain graphic designs. One way to reduce cost for this option is to print the copy on a cold web press. These presses can print the same heavy coverage as flat sheet presses but can do so more economically. Elite Envelope & Graphics features cold web printing up to eight colors in addition to the more traditional forms of envelope printing.
Flexographic or flexo is done with hard plastic, photo-polymer plates. The impression is raised on the plate and is applied to the substrate in a similar fashion to the older and mostly out-of-date letterpress process. Flexo printing in the envelope world is almost exclusively done in-line while the envelope is being folded. Certain larger and more sophisticated envelope converting machines have flexo printing capability which allows the printing and folding to be done at the same time. This greatly reduces cost especially for large-volume print runs which is primarily where this type of printing makes sense. The high cost to set up these machines to fold and print generally makes flexo printing uneconomical at quantities of 100,000 or less. While the flexo printing technology has improved to the point where it can produce certain full-coverage items that heretofore could only be printing litho, flexo printing is not going to be as sharp and vibrant as litho or even offset printing. However, for the high-quantity runs, even for four color process, flexo printing can be an excellent option for an envelope.
Lastly, digital printing has made inroads into the envelope market over the past ten years or so. Printing digitally with toner rather than ink can yield good results depending on a few factors. First, it can only be done with process colors, not spot colors. Any art file can be converted from spot colors to process but if a company’s logo is to be printed in a certain, specific PMS color, converting to process may not yield an exact match to the PMS chart. Secondly, digital presses are best suited for small quantities. Printing in general will show lower unit costs as the quantity of a job increases. This is mostly because the set-up of a job is a significant cost that is the same to print 500 pieces as it is to print 500,000. The longer the print run, the more the set up cost can be amortized which allows the unit cost to decrease. The same principle however doesn’t apply to digital printing. There is no comparable set-up cost to a digital print job. It’s similar to printing something from your desktop computer. Once the file is ready to go, you press “print” and you’re off and running. Digital printing is generally priced at a “click charge” or per piece charge. Eliminating the set up cost allows for lower quantity jobs to be relatively inexpensive but since there’s nothing to amortize, the same price applies to every piece in the run. This makes digital envelope printing competitive for quantities up to around 2,500 pieces. After that, you’re better off going offset.
One last benefit of digital printing is if you need variable data on the envelope. Some small mailings can be addressed digitally. Or you can vary your teaser copy or code numbers more easily through digital printing. Elite Envelope and Graphics is one of a few companies that can take digitally printed sheets with variable data and convert them into envelopes.
If you have a certain design file and want some advice on how best to print it, send it to me at email@example.com and I’ll be more than happy to provide suggestions.
Topics: elite envelope, envelope printing, envelope converting, cold web printing, four color envelope printing, digital envelope printing, flexographic envelope printing, flexo printing, flexography, envelope offset printing, litho envelope printing
The recent announcement of a second bankruptcy filing by National Envelope Corporation has put envelopes, and to a lesser extent direct mail back in the news. National first filed Chapter 11 in 2010. At that time they were taken over by a private equity company,the Gores Group in hopes that they could turn around their fortunes. Plants were closed, hundreds of workers were laid off and some severe methods were employed to boost productivity. Three years later, it appears they have not been able to accomplish their mission.
This is sad news for the remaining 1,600 employees spread throughout the country. At this writing the company is saying they are looking for a buyer and are encouraged at the response they are getting. However, I think it’s safe to say that National Envelope’s future form will be significantly changed from its present state.
It seems that the only time envelopes and direct mail make any kind of national news is when there’s a plant closing or when the financial woes of the Post Office are discussed. The Post Office’s problems are well-documented and we’ve written about them here in our blog on numerous occasions. Generally the press accounts in both cases focus on the significant drop in first class mail due to the digital revolution and then infer that this means paper mail is on the way out.
Anyone in the industry knows that while the total amount of mail has decreased, the mailing industry is alive and well and, in many cases, thriving. Much of the decline in first class mail has come from the financial sector. More folks are paying bills, receiving statements and prospectuses and submitting documents on their computers. Automation has also affected envelope usage. Many bank ATMs now allow a customer to simply insert a check for deposit without the envelope. In many cases the envelopes used in those transactions were purchased in bulk quantities and their decrease has affected companies more adept at producing large volume orders at commodity-level pricing. One of those companies is National Envelope.
As we’ve written about here, direct mail remains one of the most cost-effective ways to reach an audience and generate sales. As the overall amount of first class mail declines, the percentage of direct mail increases and this trend has resumed after a decline during the worst years of the recent recession.
Marketers are finding that while e mail blasts have their use, they do not produce the type of measurable results obtained from a well-designed and executed direct mail campaign.
We believe that companies which can serve the direct mail industry in the most efficient, flexible and service-intensive way will be those that survive and prosper in the future. That was one of the main reasons why Elite Envelope joined forces with Web Corp,the full-service cold web printer late in 2012. Cold web printing is perfect for direct mail; allowing companies to produce full color components with superb quality at very competitive prices. The combination of cold web printing and envelope converting and envelope printing under the same roof gives direct mailers an edge.
We welcome your comments about the future of the direct mail and envelope industry and the type of company required to thrive in the new climate.
One of the less talked-about changes in the envelope market is the increase in demand for packaging style envelopes and mailers. The many web-based distributors for various products (think Amazon) require versatile packaging in which to transport goods through the mail. Anyone who buys on-line has at some point received items in bubble mailers or similar products.
The bubble-lined envelope or mailer is probably the most popular product of this type. They come in a wide range of sizes generally starting around 4 x 7 to as large as 19 x 22 in some products. The envelopes are typically in an open end or catalog style (opening on the short side) although they are available in open side or booklet style as well (opening on the long side). The outside paper stock is either brown or white kraft. Many businesses prefer the poly bubble envelopes which are white plastic on the outside. The poly is less easily punctured in transit than the paper variety.
Most bubble envelopes are sold unprinted. However, some companies want to at least print a logo and return address; others are looking for more exciting graphics. Printing on bubble envelopes is only done on certain presses which are few and far between throughout the US. There are generally tight restrictions on the amount of coverage and colors. You cannot, for instance, print full bleeds all around on bubble products. When considering a printed bubble envelope, it’s best to consult with your envelope converter who can tell you what’s possible so you can plan.
Bubble envelopes are thick. That’s kind of the point as the air pockets provide protection for the item enclosed. However that can be a factor if you’re intending to mail something that significantly adds to that thickness. I’ve been talking to a marketing manager who was looking to mail t-shirts with the company logo to certain customers. She was hoping to mail as many as six shirts at once and was considering a large bubble envelope for that purpose. I suggested rather that she consider a simple poly bag since t shirts are not in any danger of being damaged in transit. She was a lot happier with that solution as not only did she save a ton of money but she was able to get a nice four color process graphic image printed on the bag as well.
Poly bags are an excellent and relatively inexpensive method for shipping goods. They are especially useful for articles of clothing as previously mentioned. Most of the major online retailers like J Crew use poly bags for transporting purchased items to customers. They will generally include a return bag which can be folded inside taking up little space. Obviously the light weight of the poly mailers is a major advantage when it comes to the high cost of postage and shipping. Poly bags can also be printed in almost full coverage front and back. There is a gloss finish option which shows ink very well.
A new product has entered the market called Soft Pack. This is an envelope with tear and moisture resistant paper outside and a thin, foam lining inside. Soft Pack has several advantages over traditional bubble lined products: it’s generally less expensive, the printing options are generally greater than on bubble envelopes, it lays flatter than the bubble envelope and we can produce the item in a wide range of custom sizes tailored to your particular needs. Product tests show the soft pack outer material to be more less likely to tear than paper from standard bubble envelopes. Bubble envelopes are available in tear-resistant tyvek but at a much higher cost.
Being thinner, Soft Pack envelopes require less space in the carton and hence more available storage space for end-users who use them in large volume. Also, both the outer shell and inner foam are made from recycled materials. Poly bubble liners are completely synthetic. The only disadvantage vis-à-vis bubble envelopes is they don’t provide quite as much protection for the contents. However, they are more than adequate for items such as smart phones or electrical components. Anyone looking for a bubble envelope should consider Smart Pack as an alternative. You can contact Elite Envelope for further information.
In my next post, I’ll cover board and other flat mailers. As always, your comments and information from your experience is always welcome.
Well, 2012 is almost behind us: another year of challenges and ups and downs but hopefully more than your share of success. The printing and envelope industries continue to either decline or evolve depending on your outlook. I prefer the latter. While there’s no question that far fewer envelopes are being mailed today as opposed to ten years ago, direct mail has remained a vibrant and attractive tool to marketers. New digital technologies have made personalized mail affordable. Improved four color envelope printing equipment and technology has moved process printing firmly into the mainstream.
As I write this we are facing the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. My 13-year-old daughter wanted to sleep over a friend’s house to mark the occasion which was fine with me. I could use some peace and quiet before the end of time. So who knows if you’ll even be around to read this? Just in case, here are some of my fervent hopes and wishes for 2013.
I wish that companies in our industry and in general would be less timid about wishing customers “Merry Christmas”. I understand that businesses tend to be risk averse and generally will take the path of least resistance. But Christmas Day has been a national holiday since 1870 and has a healthy and ubiquitous secular side. I know there are some that take offense at being wished Merry Christmas but they are a tiny fringe and do we really want to consider their tender feelings above the vast majority who, regardless of their religion, enjoy and celebrate the Christmas Holiday? How about “Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays”?
Along the same lines, I hope that printers and envelope companies will be less accommodating to the “green” agenda which ultimately does not have our best interests in mind. I’ve written in more specific detail about this issue in previous posts. We should all take responsibility in our personal and professional lives to use resources wisely and consider the environment. But the greens think paper consumption is bad and that’s not right.
To add to #2, I wish that companies in our industry would stop claiming that their products are produced with “certified wind power” when all they are doing is buying Renewable Energy Credits. If you have a wind turbine in your parking lot or solar panels on your roof then you are entitled to make this claim. If not, it’s misleading and more kowtowing to environmental purists who are, for the most part, not our friends.
I wish more customers would go back to using formal purchase orders. E mail has certainly made us more productive but getting unspecific messages to proceed on an order via e mail requires us vendors to confirm everything in writing which is really what the customer is supposed to do through a detailed and precise purchase order. Plus, sometimes you have two or three separate trails going on the same order which requires printing out voluminous correspondence for the job ticket. (I wonder if any of these e-mail orderers have that “don’t print this e mail unless it’s absolutely necessary” message after their signature?)
I wish more people would stop responding “your” welcome when I say thank you for doing something for me.
I wish our political class would allow Postmaster General Donahoe to implement most of the reforms he’s been recommending for the past several years. The Post Office is a mess. It’s losing money at a terrifying rate and needs to be significantly downsized and reformed or face collapse. What really needs to be done is to break the monopoly and privatize the delivery of first class mail as we have with parcels with great success. What will most likely happen is dithering followed by another taxpayer-financed bailout.
Despite the many problems we face as an industry, we can be thankful for the chance we have to persevere and dream. We can also give thanks for our friends, family and loved ones; without whom our lives would be diminished. Lastly, to everyone in the printing and envelope world: Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and may we all flourish and prosper in 2013!
Envelopes can be printed in four different ways: Offset, Flexographic, Litho and Digital.
The majority of envelopes are printed on an offset press; the most popular of which are the “Jet” presses made by the Halm Corporation. Those are the presses used by most envelope companies and some printers. The Jet press is a sturdy workhorse that feeds envelopes up to 12 x 15 ½ in size and prints at speeds up to 30,000 per hour in some cases. Most Jet presses print up to two colors and can perfect (print on both sides) in the same number of colors. However, there is a 4 color Jet which prints process or spot colors on envelopes with excellent quality.
Probably the second most common way envelopes are printed is flexographically. (I say probably because I have no hard data on this. If anyone out there has evidence to the contrary, I’d be very interested). Flexographic or as it’s commonly referred to, flexo printing is generally done in-line as the envelope is manufactured. Unlike offset printing which uses a metal printing plate, flexo printing uses a hard plastic, photo-polymer plate. Flexo printing technology has come a long way in the past 20 to 30 years. It used to be done with soft rubber plates and used only for the most basic printing like, say a business reply envelope. However, these days so-called enhanced flexo machines routinely print full coverage 4 color process envelopes with great results.
The next most popular way to print envelopes is on flat sheet litho presses. This requires a two step process of first printing on the sheets and then converting the sheets into envelopes. As an envelope converter, Elite Envelope regularly advises customers on when this might be necessary. It is a more expensive proposition than simply printing an already converted envelope on a Jet press but yields the best quality printing because of the size and capabilities of the equipment.
Lastly envelopes are sometimes printed in small quantities on digital copiers or presses. These machines can only print in process colors so they are not workable for a simple one or two color job. Also, the economics only make them a good choice if the quantities required are small. Generally anything over 2,500 doesn’t make sense to do digitally at least as far as envelopes are concerned. Not all digital presses can easily accommodate envelopes. Some of the newer models include this feature and work quite well.
So back to the question: What IS the best way to print a 4 color envelope? Well, the simple answer is it’s based on three main factors: quantity, quality and coverage or a combination of the three. I’ll break this all down for you in next week’s post. In the meantime, your comments are always most welcome!
Topics: elite envelope, envelopes and printing, envelope printing, envelope converting, four color envelope printing, flexographic envelope printing, flexo printing, envelope printing options, envelope offset printing
As an envelope converter and manufacturer, Elite Envelope holds a relatively unique place in the printing world. We are the only envelope converter in greater Boston and one of only six in all of New England.
One of our favorite things to do is invite customers and prospective customers to visit us for a plant tour. Many envelope buyers have never actually seen an envelope being made and it’s always an eye-opening experience. There’s always at least one comment about the fact that they didn’t realize so much went into the making of a simple envelope.
We start by showing the paper cutting processes. We show how reams of paper are precisely die-cut either by hand for smaller jobs or, for larger jobs, on our computerized PHP cutter. Showing the cookie-cutter-style die going through the paper lift demonstrates how variation can occur in the cutting process better than any explanation. You can actually see the paper bend just slightly as it’s cut. Customers can actually see how certain designs are more practical than others given the limitations inherent in the process.
After a short stop at the latex self seal and peel and seal equipment, we move on to the folding machines which are the heart of the envelope converting process. We show how the die cut “blanks” are fed into the machine at one end and come out the other end a scored, glued and folded envelope. Customers see the seal gum applied as the first process and how once the gum is applied, the blank travels the entire length of the machine over hot lamps designed to set the proper dryness of the gum.
We show how the panel cutter die punches out the window area which is then covered over by the poly patch. The tour guide points out how the window must be at least 3/8” from the edge of the envelope in order to allow for the patch and the glue necessary to keep it tight. We show how the machine ensures an exact count coming off and how our adjustors/mechanics continually make the fine adjustments necessary to keep the envelopes perfectly square and to the specifications required by even the most demanding customer in all aspects.
Finally, the tour reaches the printing department where our 2 color and 4 color jets are on display with all the various printing capabilities they provide. Customers and prospects are generally very impressed by the quality of our four color envelope printing.
So, if you’re buying envelopes I encourage you to contact your envelope vendor for a tour of the plant. Make sure they actually make the envelopes though; not all envelope companies do. There are many advantages in dealing directly with the manufacturer; not the least of which is you can go on a nifty tour and maybe even get lunch afterwards!
Topics: elite envelope, envelope manufacturing, jet printing, envelope manufacturer, envelope converting, four color envelope printing, envelope die cutting, envelope converting process, envelope blank, printed envelopes
Envelopes have typically been printed either flexographically (rubber or plastic printing plate) or offset (metal plate). Those two processes are still the most common for the vast majority of envelope printing. In a future article, I will break down the difference between them and how one might choose one over the other. Today’s article however deals with the world of digital printing and how that can be used to your advantage for 4 color envelope printing.
Flexographic printing for envelopes is generally only economical on larger runs of around 75,000 or more. Since digital is only economical on smaller runs, we will only focus on comparing it to offset printing. Offset printing (or lithography – same thing) is based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. The image to be printed is burned onto a metal plate. That image is then transferred (or offset) to a printing blanket which, in turn, transfers it to the envelope to be printed. During the actual printing process, the oil-based ink adheres to the image area on the plate while a steady stream of water covers the area of the plate without the image in order to keep that free of ink.
Digital printing is done electronically. There are no printing plates. The printer automatically sends out the proper mix of colors to achieve the image that was programmed. In the world of envelope printing and envelope converting, digital printing is only economical on very small quantity jobs – generally under 5,000. The quality is comparable to offset although most prefer offset or lithographic quality and there are fine differences.
From the sole standpoint of quality, the one possible advantage of digital printing is that there would be less variation over the course of the print run given the fact that offset printing requires continuous fine adjustments in the ink/water mixture. For envelopes however the advantage of choosing digital printing over offset mostly boils down to cost. It’s much less expensive to set up and run a job digitally.
So, the fewer envelopes you require, the more it makes sense to print them digitally. Once the quantity gets to around 5,000, offset becomes more advantageous cost-wise and as the quantities increase, the unit cost of offset printing decreases significantly. Digital printing unit pricing stays relatively constant regardless of the increase in quantity.
Elite Envelope can provide either type of printing with the additional advantage of being able to print digitally on flat sheets for subsequent envelope converting under one roof.