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Printing Periodicals and Textbooks on Inkjet Presses

I read an intriguing article in Print Week India last night (an online printing-trade publication) by Rahul Kumar entitled “Digital Inkjet Printing in Newspapers Must Cross the Hurdle of Feasibility” (dated 2/6/15).

The thesis of the article is that unit costs of digitally printed newspapers in India must drop before the technology can compete with web-offset lithography.

The concept is straight out of Business 101: new technologies either prosper of fail based on the balance of their costs and benefits. But what intrigues me are the following implications for the digital printing of periodicals:

  1. Newspaper and magazine printing may be in decline but only when viewed through the lens of US business. In other countries—most notably China, India, and Saudia Arabia—newspaper and magazine printing is on the rise. (It is growing in the double digits in India.) This is in spite of worldwide access to online publications.
  2. There is an increasing worldwide need for economically feasible digital printing of such products as transpromotional materials, textbooks, and newspapers, with shorter and shorter press runs and tighter schedules. Both versioning and personalization are also in demand. Since the world is splintering into multiple, smaller populations distinguished by unique language and culture, this change lends itself to shorter, targeted press runs of newspapers and other periodicals.
  3. The need for faster and faster production of small, segmented newspapers and magazines has led equipment manufacturers to expand the accepted paper size, running speed, and paper-handling capabilities of both laser and inkjet printing equipment.
  4. Among these developing technologies, inkjet presses for printing textbooks (such as the Kodak Prosper S press and the HP T230 Color Inkjet Web Press) and newspapers (such as the Xerox Impika and Fujifilm J Press 540 W) are gaining traction.
  5. The technology is available to duplex print (print on both sides of a sheet simultaneously). In addition, new inks are being developed that will work with multiple existing paper stocks (without the need for a pre-coating step); and print resolution and halftone screening technologies are improving, affording smoother halftones and graduated screens as well as crisp type even at small point sizes. Digital presses can now maintain the quality of high density ink coverage at very high press speeds. (In essence, digital custom printing is quickly approaching the quality of offset lithography.)
  6. Print Week India also notes the development of nanoparticle inks that yield exceptionally high color fidelity and saturation using thinner ink films than offset lithography.

Offset vs. Digitally Printed Periodicals in India

The new technology described above is, interestingly enough, less compelling in India since there is easy access to low-cost offset custom printing equipment and operators. It simply costs less to use the older technology in some countries. However, I believe the sea change in content consumption will change this, sooner rather than later, due to the following:

  1. Content is being targeted to specific regions, in India and elsewhere. Print volume is rising, but so is the need for versioning. In the United States this would be analagous to the smaller newspapers that focus on hyper-local, neighborhood content.
  2. Due to the growth of more, but smaller, press runs, there is an increased need for decentralized production and distribution. That is, instead of printing multiple thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) of copies of the same newspaper in a single location, the trend will be to print multiple versioned editions in diverse locations closer to the readership. In this case the range of the distribution will be smaller. Therefore, inkjet custom printing will help reduce delivery costs.
  3. Hyper-targeted production and distribution will make the digital publications more relevant to the readers. This will in turn drive advertising revenues higher, since inkjet printed, localized newspapers can deliver a more certain audience to the advertisers (and therefore newspapers will be able to charge higher advertising rates). Inkjet-printed copies of newspapers can then drive traffic to the Internet, TV, or online gaming to nurture relationships with readers, providing even more opportunities for advertising.
  4. Totally unrelated to newspapers–but perhaps of high importance to printers committing to digital inkjet technology–is the flexibility of the digital inkjet process, which can be used not only for newspaper printing but also for transpromo work, print books, or even commercial printing jobs.

Implications for the World Printing Trade

As the unit cost for digital inkjet printing drops and the quality improves, it will be possible to use the technology to turn a profit while improving production values and delivering a higher return on advertising dollars.

But in India, it’s not prime time yet. According to Kumar’s article, “Digital Inkjet Printing in Newspapers Must Cross the Hurdle of Feasibility,” “the cost per copy is still on the higher side compared to offset.”

For all the reasons Kumar notes in his Print Week India article, I think the transition to digital inkjet for print books, transpromo, and newspapers might actually occur here in the United States first.

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