Digital printing update – a look at the past, present and future

Digital printing has entered a golden age of possibility. With advancements in technologies, changes in the marketplace, and increasingly innovative applications, digital printing has established its place as a complement to traditional printing methods. In order to understand the perspectives of both the vendor and the user about how the digital printing industry has evolved and will continue to change in the coming years, interviews were conducted with the following printing titans:  from Ricoh, Tony Karg (Channel & Field Marketing Director) and Edward Robeznieks (Vice President of Sales); Jim Lambert, VP & General Manager – Digital Division, of INX International Ink Co.; as well as digital printing veterans Kevin Lanuke (President) and Kevin de Groot (VP Plant Operations), of Blitzprint Inc. in Calgary.

Low Barriers to Entry & Technology Advancements

In the last few years, some of the biggest changes have been in the access and affordability of digital equipment capable of high-quality production. Kevin Lanuke stated that there are now “more big box companies providing mid-to-long range digital sheetfed toner equipment to the market. That certainty helps more printing companies enter the production toner print market with less risk.”

Healthy competition among vendors has resulted in the creation of products that have low acquisition cost but high returns in quality and versatility, allowing printers to keep work in-house. Edward Robeznieks explains, “Nowadays [anyone] can buy [digital] devices that do so many things and you can produce offset quality, short run, variable data, audience-of-one type of work very inexpensively…That’s why you’re seeing [printers] look to different avenues to try and create profit in their business…That is why Ricoh and other companies are trying to come out with innovative products so [printers] can maintain margins, win customers, and be unique.”

As a result, the narrative is changing. As Robeznieks stressed, “They’re presses. They’re not copiers anymore.” Lanuke pointed out that, “We are actually finding opportunities that were at one time put on offset equipment that we are now able to print here.” Kevin de Groot concurred.  Four or five years ago I would only have considered one or two machines as true production machines…Today there are probably a dozen different machines.”

Vendors, like Ricoh, and ink manufacturers, like INX International, play a large part in how print providers are able to compete. Whether it’s improving resolution and developing equipment to service different market needs or, as Jim Lambert proposed, manufacturing the perfect ink chemistry to print on many different substrates, print technologies are adapting quickly to meet consumer demand.

Client Centred Service

Print has been commoditized. There is ongoing pressure for faster and better service for the lowest price. Initially, digital printing was the solution to overcome the inefficiencies of running short-run work on large presses as those costs were passed onto the marketplace. (De Groot):  “[Short print runs] – that was the main trend. We see this happening in both our commercial and book divisions. There is a solid understanding in the market that customers simply do not have to run large quantities. The market demand is here to stay.” Lanuke added, “The on-demand model that production toner equipment offers is here to stay and has become more affordable to small and medium printing companies.”

However, now there is also demand for creativity. Marketers want to maximize their marketing dollars, but print is just one of many channels for them to convey their message. Tony Karg posited that, “Print is a tactile experience. So, if I as a marketer was trying to reach a target audience with a message, the properly crafted printed piece…uses a strong visual element [which leverages that] tactile and emotional experience far more effectively to communicate the marketing message…So what you see [Ricoh] doing is enabling the printer’s ability to make that kind of message successful to the marketer.” Lambert supported this:  “For the longest time everyone pigeonholed digital printing as something you only do for small quantities or short runs. We don’t see much of that today. What we do see is people enjoying the flexibility of printing digitally and being able to achieve things that are not possible in the conventional style,” be it through using new inks, substrates, or applications.

Future Trends

Inkjet Technologies

Inkjet is coming into its own as a player in the digital sphere. Lambert described how inkjet printheads used to only be capable of low resolution printing at an extremely slow pace but “today, printheads can print 1200 dpi native resolutions and speeds are greater than 100 kHz (kilohertz), so they absolutely rival offset printing in both quality and speed.” Robeznieks seconded the sentiment.  “Because of the fact that offset is expensive…inkjet has developed the ability to run on gloss stocks, run on thicker stocks, [and] produce the kind of quality that offset can produce, and the kind of quality that digital toner presses can produce today at a fraction of the price…We have customers now who have moved their technology away from [toner cut sheet output] and moved it onto roll-fed inkjet. They cut in the back end at a fraction of the cost of what they were spending previously…And that’s why you’re seeing some companies…starting to release inkjet cut sheet devices because then they can up the speed and produce the same image quality at a lower operating cost.”

Packaging

Packaging is considered one of the next frontiers of digital printing. Whether its new substrates, inks, or foils, digital printing devices are exploring these new possibilities. Edward Robeznieks emphasized, “There’s a lot of growth opportunity there. We have technologies right now like our 7100 series of products that allow for neons. That’s unique. [Using] white on a silver sheet of paper we can run all the metallics that somebody would want… That’s opened up the door. Metallics were always something that you had to go to offset for. You couldn’t produce them…That type of technology is allowing printers to go after industry segments that they previously ignored where only the large [companies that had all the equipment could compete.]” Lambert provided insight as well:  “There are certain substrates and vertical markets where toner is better suited than inkjet, and it provides a great alternative for the packaging markets where there may be a concern for health and safety.”

Object Printing

Both Lambert and Robeznieks alluded to direct production decoration as one of the exciting digital uses on the horizon. “People are not just printing the old traditional things like labels and flat sheets, they’re trying to progress the technology directly by printing on three dimensional objects. You now see graphics applied directly to an article or package instead of on a label, and it is being decorated digitally. Brand owners love it. The ability to think outside the box and make the entire package, bottle, box or container be printable graphics results in a completely new type of marketing environment.” (Lambert)

Conclusion

Large volume offset printing is still a huge market player and it will continue to be for the foreseeable future. Adapting to customer needs and helping maintain margins in a highly competitive marketplace makes digital printing an avenue for consideration. Digital printing gives printers the latitude to meet customer expectations and service product niches, while also enabling entrepreneurs to enter the industry.

Whether it is decorative embellishments for packaging, the advancements being made in inkjet technology, or the new unprecedented applications for digitally printed objects the next five years look exciting. However, Lanuke and de Groot cautioned that even though production toner digital presses, related software, and entry level finishing equipment have come of age, all is for naught if printing companies are not involved in solution-based selling practices. Investment in employee education, assessing customer needs and embracing the ongoing technological changes are more important than ever, and this is not going to change.  Attaining industry-leading return on digital capital investment is more complex than ever.  However the opportunities have never been more lucrative.

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