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How much of the cost of a printing job can be attributed to paper and other materials?

In general, how much of the cost of a printing job can be attributed to paper and other materials, such as paper, ink, etc. -- not labor, facility overhead?

R. A.

It would be nice to be able to say "30% of the job is paper and materials." Unfortunately, it varies considerably.

The biggest reason for the difference is the size of the job. The smaller the job, the higher the percentage of labor and overhead. As the run gets longer, the percentage of the total cost that falls under the "paper and materials" category increases. Makeready is the most labor intensive part of a job. Under that category you can put the pre-press functions and the labor required to actually set up the presses, folders and other equipment. So the labor and overhead costs are a much higher percentage of the total for short-run jobs. Complicated bindery and finishing requirements will make the percentage of labor costs increase. The more processes a job goes through (folding, coring, stitching, shrink wrapping etc.), the higher the labor percentage will be.

The set up time for each printing process takes about the same amount of time whether you are running 1000 sheets or a million sheets. On short-run work, set up labor can easily become the largest part of the price. If you are paying $500 to get a job "prepped" but only running 250 sheets, the cost of the paper is negligible. If you are running an entire skid of premium coated paper, your prep cost is still $500, but your paper cost is now the biggest cost element of the job.

This is why digital presses and copiers, particularly those with in-line folders and stitchers, can cut costs on short run jobs. By significantly reducing the labor and job start-up and finishing costs, a big chunk of the overall cost can be eliminated.

And of course paper prices can have a major effect on overall costs. Clearly a heavy, coated premium sheet will cost more than an uncoated lower grade sheet. But premium and specialty or special order papers can make the paper itself the most expensive part of the job. With paper too, there are economies of scale. Many printers have their own "house" stock which they buy by the skid or by the truckload at a discount. Using a house stock can save quite a bit in many cases.

Stephen Beals is a digital pre-press manager and has been writing for major print publications for many years. He is the author of A Practical Primer for Painless Print Production. He can be reached at

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