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Custom Printing: Will Digital Grow to Match Offset?

A friend and colleague sent me a link to a “What They Think” video recently in which the CEO of Landa Digital Printing, Yishai Amir, addressed questions regarding the present state and future direction of digital custom printing. The video is entitled “What Will It Take to ‘Mainstream’ Digital Printing?” It was published on May 12, 2016.

The big question is what’s holding back digital printing. According to the video, “production digital printing is 25 years old, yet only 2.5% of all printed pages come from digital devices.” Why?

Amir starts his explanation by listing the drivers for the growth of digital printing:

  1. Personal customized printed material.
  2. On-demand, long-tail material, and
  3. Optimization of the supply chain.

Amir doesn’t completely explain the third driver, but here’s my understanding of the first two:

  1. Offset, flexo—all technologies but digital—can only print multiple copies of one original. Only digital can approach “mass customization” of marketing materials, changing each copy of each marketing piece so it will directly pertain to each recipient. Identifying individual wants and needs and marketing one-to-one is the strength of digital custom printing.
  2. The second point requires a definition of the term “long-tail.” This concept is based on the fact that most people want the same things (for instance, a clothing store will physically stock only the most popular designer shirts—i.e., only a handful of styles—but they will have stacks and stacks of the same item in different colors and sizes). In contrast, if you want something different, you are part of the “long tail” (the trailing edge of the graph of consumption, in which only a few people want the more exotic—and less “popular”—items).To bring this back to printing, digital custom printing can fulfill your need for an esoteric print book that only you and a handful of your friends want. You can get it on demand. Before digital printing, you’d be lost. You would only find easy access to the popular books and potboilers in your bookstore. (Amazon is a master of the “long tail.” You can get anything online because no individual manufacturer or outlet needs to store it.)

So these are the drivers, the benefits only digital custom printing can provide and the reason it has been around for 25 years. But, as Amir notes, it has captured only 2.5 percent of the printing business.

For digital printing to go mainstream, Amir notes that the following must happen:

  1. Digital must provide “offset” quality.
  2. Digital must print on any substrate, without a pre-coating step.
  3. The cost to print must be comparable to offset printing.
  4. Production speeds must be comparable to offset printing, and
  5. The format must match offset.

To flesh this out a bit (the video is short), here are some thoughts:

  1. I would say that “offset quality” would constitute color fidelity; a comparable color gamut; smooth, heavy-coverage toner laydown; a lack of banding and other artifacts; etc. For Amir’s requirement to hold, liquid or dry toner laydown must “look” as good as offset printing. I’d also say that rub resistance (durability) needs to be comparable.
  2. For a long time digital papers were limited. They were specifically made to accept an even coating of toner particles. That meant that there were only a few uncoated sheets and a few coated sheets a printer could stock. A designer couldn’t just specify a press sheet she/he liked. In many cases, press-sheets had to be pre-coated, further complicating the process compared to offset printing. So Amir is referring to being able to use any paper for digital printing that you could use for offset printing.
  3. The cost to print must be comparable to offset printing. Up until recently, if you had a short-run job (let’s say 500 brochures), it was cheaper to produce the job digitally than via offset lithography. That’s because you would need to go through all of the make-ready steps for a short offset run as you would for a long press run. In contrast, you could avoid most of the make-ready if you chose digital printing. However–and I think this is what Amir is getting at—you couldn’t favorably compare a 5,000-copy digital run to a 5,000-copy offset press run (unit cost to unit cost). The digital-printing unit cost would be much higher.
  4. Speeds vary from machine to machine, but for the most part digital printing is slower than offset. For instance, an Indigo 12000 can print 4,600 B2 color sheets per hour (according to HP’s product literature). An offset press can print closer to 18,000 sheets per hour (this is from a KBA press description). And for books, catalogs, and magazines, the offset presses can print more pages laid out (i.e., imposed) on much larger press sheets.
  5. The format must match offset. Up until recently, digital presses accepted only small paper. The press sheets were close to 12” x 18” (more or less, depending on the equipment). Some of the newer digital presses accept B2 sheets (which are closer to 20” x 29”). This approximates an offset 20” x 26” cover sheet but not a 25” x 38” text sheet or a 28” x 40” text sheet. Needless to say, if you’re producing a book, you can get more book pages on a 28” x 40” press sheet (that will all print at one time) than on a 20” x 29” sheet. So what Amir is saying is that for digital to be competitive with offset, the equipment must accept larger press sheets. (This is also a benefit for larger products like pocket folders that won’t fit on smaller press sheets.)

Amir then goes on to say that Nanography offers all of this.

My Take on This

My take is that we are in interesting times in printing. The focus is on shorter press runs and personalization. Digital is good at this. Offset is not. I’m seeing extraordinary color coming off digital presses nowadays. The digital press equipment is also starting to be constructed within large durable frames produced by offset press makers (like Komori) rather than in plastic cases that look like photocopy machines on steroids.

I think Landa’s nanography is one answer (inkjet printing onto a heated blanket that deposits the full image onto the substrate while holding an amazingly crisp halftone dot). It saves money in lowered ink usage, lower energy consumption, and lower paper costs (due to its ability to print on any stock).

I also think that the HP Indigo series is a good answer, with its larger B2 paper format and superior color (this is an electrophotographic process like laser printing).

Interestingly enough, even offset printing is becoming more efficient. Make-readies are taking less time due to the automation of color adjustment, plate handling, and other aspects of press work. So it’s becoming increasingly economical to do shorter offset print runs.

Truly this is an exciting time for all number of digital and offset technologies. What I’m going to do now is wait and watch closely.

2 Responses to “Custom Printing: Will Digital Grow to Match Offset?”

  1. Prints such as leaflets are known to be cost-effective primarily because you can save more compared to other mediums of advertising. Thank you for sharing this Post.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for your comment. I agree. They cost much less, and they are very effective. You can’t beat that combination.

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