Commentary: Digital Printing Provides Multi-Part Solution to Problems Facing Commercial Printing Industry
Considering what I’ve learned at the recent, very successful Inkjet Summit in Austin, Texas, and following the better part of the last year I’ve spent digging into the brains of printing business owners and managers, I’m increasingly of the opinion that digital printing, and increasingly inkjet technology, has become the logical path forward for the commercial printing segment. In fact, the recent rise, and the renewed relevance, of direct mail can be directly tied to the benefits of digital. Among these benefits are more granular marketing, the use of data to customize the user experience, and a different model that pushes high-value print instead of commoditized approaches.
While the inherent benefits of digital printing are well known and have been transforming printing as we know it for decades, it has been the shake-up of our pandemic and – eventually – post-pandemic world that has brought the value of digital beyond just the value of print.
The Labor Solution
One of the key challenges facing the printing industry (and all other types of employers) today is the need for qualified labor. While the digital printing benefits discussed above are certainly game-changers, commercial printing companies using offset technologies increasingly find themselves challenged to replace qualified press operators, as a whole generation of them moves toward retirement. The workforce has changed. Printing business owners and managers see this labor reality as an opportunity that will bring faster training to proficiency, less of an adherence to craft, and lower labor costs resulting from employees who require less skill.
High-speed inkjet presses, simply put, require fewer employees to run, and I’ve spoken with business owners who said they have, for instance, changed out one offset press, which required three people to operate, for three digital presses that can be operated by one person. In today’s tight labor market, this changed equation is proving to be very attractive.
The Paper Solution (Sort of)
While today’s paper shortage appears to be challenging printing business just as much as (or more than) labor shortages, it is important to consider that digital printing, by in large, is less wasteful of paper and other substrates. Makeready resources spent bringing a press “up to color,” and other steps, are not needed in a well-managed digital workflow, which saves paper, ink, and the time press operators spend changing over from job to job.
Digital printing capabilities have changed the model in additional ways. By using digital to produce higher-value print, the model shifts from lots of printing, at low cost, delivering low value with low expectations; to pieces with broader impact, better response rates, and increased relevance. Fewer impressions, thus less paper, printed at higher margin.
The Automation Solution
If labor and paper are surely the biggest challenges facing printers today, then the biggest opportunity they are seeking is surely automation. The need for automation is driven by several factors, including (again) lower labor cost, higher quality, and more reliable production control. And while analog-focused automation – the linking together of mechanical devices – has been present in offset shops for a very long time, full digital automation uses online storefronts, printing technologies, process control software, digitally-equipped finishing systems, even job tracking and shipping, to create a complete process with minimal touches and increased efficiency. For some operations, in fact, the only physical touch of the job occurs when it is placed in a box to be sent to the customer. Robotics elements are increasingly used in the printing industry, adding reliability and efficiency to the physical movement of substrates, book blocks, and other elements. Smart technology abounds.
One of the most impressive things about the rise of digital printing has been its evolution: what started as a new way to print differently has become a business model-changing opportunity machine. While digital is a choice among printing processes, it is a process whose share is growing rapidly, and which continues to provide change, new opportunity, and compelling advantages.