Revisiting ‘Print-On-Demand’ – a personal perspective

My tryst with ‘Print-On-Demand’ (POD) was back in India, during the late nineties, when I first came face to face with the erstwhile Xerox DocuTech135 Document Publishing System that pioneered the very concept of on-demand digital printing. According to Wikipedia, “…the DocuTech Production Publisher was arguably the first fully integrated print-on-demand publishing system and is largely credited with establishing the print-on-demand industry.” Interestingly, it was the Indian Parliament that was the first to embrace the DocuTech to produce parliamentary proceedings in bound book form for the MPs. Universities were soon to follow. They saw enormous potential in DocuTech’s ability to produce finished documents (e.g. training material, course-packs, manuals, books, etc.) at high speed, reducing production cost, waste and document obsolescence.

As my career took me to the Middle East, it was intriguing to find out how the technology played in that market.

While the progressive few made significant investments in modern technologies, the others took a more cautious approach of wait and watch. In order to generate customer awareness, a leading technology company undertook an innovative journey to reach out. They decided to showcase their products and solutions onboard a multi-hulled watercraft – a catamaran – sailing through and stopping by, at each port of call in the region, explaining POD concepts through live demonstrations before potential users! In the true spirit of Gulf Maritime traditions, this unique journey became a resounding success and created lasting impressions among many customers and industry peers. The adoption of print-on-demand and digital printing started improving across many industries: graphic arts, education, airlines, banking, telecom, government, and more. Even in Syria, a leading university deployed a ‘digital book factory’ to produce short-run books on-demand. Airline companies in Bahrain and UAE adopted the POD model to streamline the documentation. The Ministry of Education printed question-paper booklets generating millions of impressions while telecom companies embraced digital printing to drive full colour transpromo communication.

I was fortunate to cover multiple drupa, IPEX, Graph Expo, Gulf Print etc. along with my customers and witnessed how the technology innovation drove a myriad of new print applications, such as image personalization, QRC, pURLs, cross-media etc. In today’s connected world, the very thought of being able to print ‘what we want’, ‘when we want’ and ‘where we want’ is indeed liberating to bring alive, to touch and feel a printed piece at will!

Moving to Toronto, the first thing that captured my attention, was the ubiquitous quick printers championing the cause of POD, doing brisk business, satisfying the urgent needs of their customers. Some have even embraced the ‘web to print’ (W2P) technology to keep their doors open virtually 24/7, 365 days a year! It was also fascinating to learn how the POD core concepts have crept into the world of book publishing here in Canada. There are so many examples:  the Asquith Press at Toronto Public Library, the Expresso Book Machine (EBM) at the Alberta University book store or a well-known book manufacturer with its newest digital inkjet web presses fulfilling customers’ changing needs without compromising the quality or the cost.

While speaking about on-demand book printing, the publishers can’t be far behind. In fact, what we are witnessing today is a paradigm shift in the overall book publishing and supply chain ecosystem. With dwindling order quantity, uncertain forecasts, distribution disruption, multi-channel content delivery and consumption – there are indeed many challenges for publishers! However, as the on-demand business model matures, publishers will stand to benefit from realigning orders as per local demands, reducing shipping costs and lead time to market. With ‘Just in Time’ (JIT), on-demand print and distribution partnerships, publishers could eventually free up their warehouses, unlock their capital and mitigate their profitability risks by embracing a virtual ‘zero inventory’ business model.

Right from the days of DocuTech to the new avatar from Production Inkjet – the technology, the workflow and human ingenuity have always come together to ensure customer success. So be it a project for a ‘book of one’, for thousands of beautifully bound books, a VDP, or a direct mail campaign – the ‘work’ should continue to ‘flow’!