Printing business cards with masters, also known as shells, is a technique used in the print industry that allows common elements of a business card (or other printed item) to be printed in one consolidated run. This process takes advantage of the efficiency associated with high volume print runs. By using this strategy, a portion of a business card can be printed at a significantly lower cost than printing it on multiple separate runs. The main drawback of this technique is that it relies on printing more than what is needed at a given time to be effective. This results in a higher upfront cost, but substantially lowers the overall cost. For the purposes of this article, we will use business cards for all of the following examples. Please note that these concepts can be applied to all printed items.
First, to understand the concept of printing with masters, its important to understand how printing efficiency works. With the exception of digital printing, almost all established printing methods become increasingly efficient as the volume increases. This makes high volume print runs much more cost effective than low volume runs. As an example, a box of business cards might cost $100 if ordered by itself. However, if 10 boxes are ordered at once, each box might only cost $50. Once the printing press is set up and running, the manufacturing process is fast and efficient. The amount of work required to set up a press for 1 or 10 boxes of business cards is virtually the same. By increasing the number of units, the setup cost is spread across a larger number of units, which lowers the setup cost per unit.
When printing with masters, specific elements of a business card are targeted. These targeted elements are aspects of the business card that do not change from card to card. A good example would be a colorful logo on a business card that is printed on an offset press. A multi-color logo can be difficult to produce on an offset press. This single element of the business card could account for 80% of its overall cost. If this fictitious organization expects to order 20 boxes of business cards throughout the year, they might opt to print only the logo for all 20 boxes upfront, all at once. Doing so would dramatically reduce the production cost of the logo because of the increased efficiency that we discussed in the previous paragraph. Since the logo accounted for 80% of cost for each business card, the cost of the entire run would also be lowered dramatically. After the logos are printed on all cards, the employee information can be added as needed. The employee information is usually just 1 color (typically black), which is relatively inexpensive to produce.
The process of printing with masters requires that you store the blank unused business cards, for later use. These blank business cards – which only contain the logo – are called shells in the printing industry. Shells can be stored indefinitely and as mentioned in the previous paragraph, are only used when the remaining elements (which are unique to each card) need to be added. As discussed in the prior example, employee contact information would be unique to each set of business cards. So they would be added as needed. The process of adding the unique information to the shells is called imprinting.
The biggest drawback of printing with masters is that there is no guarantee that all of the masters will be used. A company can go out of business, rebrand, relocate, or just not need any additional business cards. In all of those cases, masters that have been paid for might never get used. An organization would have to assess their long term objectives and determine if their future roadmap is stable enough to support printing with masters. Another problem is storage. Not all printing companies will store their customer’s masters. Depending on the location and quantity, this could be a very big problem.
Printing with masters is a great idea for business cards that utilize elements that are difficult to produce. These challenging elements must be the same on all business cards for master printing to make sense. A common example would be a complex logo, as mentioned in the above text. When done correctly, printing with can save an organization a substantial amount of money.