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Commentary & Analysis

“Everything That Can Become Digital, Will Become Digital”: Except for Everything That’s Better Off with Offset Litho

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By Patrick Henry
Published: June 3, 2008

 In the classic sci-fi horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, residents of a small town are replaced by aliens that gradually take over their physical forms, assume their personalities, and discard their dead shells like the table scraps of the gruesome meals they’ve become. It’s a disturbing tale, and at drupa 2008, the same shivery paranoia creeps in when viewing a new wave of identity-hungry replicants—high-output digital presses that look and work eerily like the offset litho machines whose production space they are invading as relentlessly as the aliens’ body-snatching pods besieged the hapless town.

 

There’s no use in pretending that digital alternatives to—and arguable replacements for—conventional litho presses haven’t finally landed in our midst.

At the end of the film, hope was raised that it wasn’t too late for humanity to wake up and fight back. At the end of drupa, abundant hope will remain for the future of offset lithography. But, as events and disclosures of the last few days have made abundantly clear, there’s no use in pretending that digital alternatives to—and arguable replacements for—conventional litho presses haven’t finally landed in our midst.

Consider two examples that can be seen at the show: the HP Inkjet Web Press and another roll-fed inkjet platform, Agfa’s :Dotrix.

The HP machine can print two-sided signatures for books, newspapers, and direct mail in full color on a 36"-wide web. It runs at up to 400 feet per minute and is designed, like an offset web press, for production volumes in the millions.

 

While it’s true that inkjet’s encroachment has begun at the small-format end, it also seems clear that the technology can be beefed up at will to go after bigger game.

The :Dotrix, built upon the iron frame of a flexo press, can have flexo units before the inkjet heads and UV coating and drying after them—just like a "hybrid" sheetfed lithographic press. Equipped with an inline sheeter that can cut its 28.5" web to various lengths, it delivers a product that's almost indistinguishable from the output of a conventional sheetfed press.

These are not—repeat, not—offset litho presses, although with a little nervous imagination, it's almost possible to believe that they are.

Get on Board, or Get Out of the Way

This drupa is full of evidence that digital presses of all kinds are on an unstoppable march. Hard numbers on digital installations are starting to come in, and they’re persuasive. It’s difficult, for example, to argue with Anne Mulcahy’s claim that her Xerox iGen3 is “the industry’s most accepted digital production press” when she also can report that 2,000 of them have been sold. At Xerox, for the time being, “digital printing” means xerography, a.k.a. electrophotography. But the company also intends to make inkjet its own and has, as Mulcahy declared, “no intention of duplicating the inkjet technologies that are available today.”

For suppliers of postpress systems and peripheral equipment, the blossoming of digital printing is a what’s-not-to-like proposition indeed. Marcus Tralau of KAMA said that thanks to the proliferation of digital platforms, “there is a completely new market opening up” for his company’s line of small- to medium-format diecutting and finishing machines. In the NPES-sponsored “American” section of Hall 15, Britt Cary of The Challenge Machinery Company noted that digital printers need his small- to medium-format paper cutters as surely as litho shops do. As a result, he said, Challenge’s sales have risen while overall equipment sales in the U.S. have gone down.

Needless to say, the conventional press manufacturers also are watching the expansion of the digital press base carefully, but without apparent alarm. KBA’s Albrecht Bolza-Schünemann noted that the growth of digital inkjet “is working against small-sized sheetfed machines,” a market segment in which KBA is not heavily represented. And while it’s true that inkjet’s encroachment has begun at the small-format end, it also seems clear that the technology can be beefed up at will to go after bigger game.

Steve Hoover, in charge of Xerox’s research laboratory in Rochester, N.Y., said that scaling inkjet for bigger formats is a matter of learning how to “stitch” inkjet heads efficiently—the more nozzles in a line, the bigger the addressable image area on the roll or the sheet. If 36" webs and 28" x 20" sheets (as recently announced by Fujifilm) are ink-jettable today, how far behind are inkjet presses ready to handle jobs deemed full-size in the offset world?

“Complementary” According to Whom?

This would appear to challenge the article of faith that digital platforms “complement” offset presses by enabling printers to build new volumes that don’t cannibalize their conventional production. All of the digital press makers profess it, and all of them can point to offset customers who have succeeded with digital equipment in precisely this way. What’s more, they all predict that this win-win balance will continue: Mulcahy, for one, promised that the developmental iGen4—a press up to 50% more productive than the iGen3—will be the “ideal complement to offset printing.”

A fair question to ask is how long the manufacturers of industrial-strength digital presses will remain satisfied with “complementing” the offset machines whose output their newest systems clearly can replace

But a fair question to ask is whether the total demand for print can grow robustly enough to keep digital presses from grazing in offset pastures forever. Another is how long the manufacturers of industrial-strength digital presses will remain satisfied with “complementing” the offset machines whose output their newest systems clearly can replace. The offset press makers, after all, compete with each other on the basis of equipment replacement, and there’s no reason to expect Xerox et. al. to tiptoe around that hardball tactic if it will work as effectively for them.

But, they still will have some uphill selling to do. Digital presses are by no means an automatic cure-all for the shortcomings of conventional production—even the ones that seem to cry out most plaintively for digital relief.

HP’s Vyomesh Joshi pointed out that because of distribution inefficiencies, up to 40% of books and up to 60% of magazines are printed without ever being purchased or read. HP and others are ready to ride to the rescue with digital presses that print on demand in tiny but cost-efficient runs, facilitating the switch to a sell-then-print business model that can end the shocking waste of mass-market distribution once and for all. Where, then, is the “a-hah!” moment for the publishing industry?

It’s Likeable Enough

If it hasn’t come, one reason is that the “forced” distribution of conventionally printed books and magazines, with its unpredictable sell-throughs and its depressingly high percentage of unsold returns, still works acceptably well—and still produces an acceptable profit—after all of the excess copies have been collected, shredded, and landfilled. Until publishers decide that this model is no longer sufficiently acceptable, digital platforms will have a hard time snatching book and periodical volume from hard-working litho presses.

Just as offset lithography had a long, hard road to travel from the messiness and the inconsistency of its early days, digital printing processes have technological hills of their own to climb. As noted, it’s theoretically possible to stitch together as many inkjet heads as the desired width of the array calls for. But widening the printing area increases the challenge of delivering ink to the heads and assuring adequate coverage in high-volume runs.

Offset presses meet this challenge with centralized systems that continuously pump ink to the fountains from buckets and drums containing a great deal more fluid than the vessels of an inkjet press. These platforms will need counterpart systems of their own to go head-to-head with offset in the upper ranges of commercial production.

Another boundary for digital presses is defined by the demand for the kinds of products that they’re good at printing. At the top end of the desirability scale are shoot-it-yourself books, calendars, greeting cards, and other photo specialty products for consumers. Everybody loves them, and the personalized, ultra-short-run nature of their production makes them ideal candidates for digital output.

 

The writer of this article, who has yet to receive a single transpromo document from any source, would be very interested to hear from readers who have

But where’s the action when it comes to the most-ballyhooed digital printing application of them all, transpromotional documents? A “transpromo” document is a credit card statement, a retail invoice, or a similar transactional mailing piece that has been tailored to its recipient with personalized promotional content: ads, bonus offers, and so on, courtesy of database-driven variable printing. Transpromo documents have an almost chicken-and-egg symmetry with digital printing, so it’s not surprising that most of the digital press manufacturers have been predicting an upsurge if not an outright explosion in their adoption and use.

The writer of this article, who has yet to receive a single transpromo document from any source, would be very interested to hear from readers who have. The reality is that so far, the coming of transpromo documents has been something of a bust. Because they’re print, Google-infatuated advertisers don’t take to them. At banks, credit card companies, and other enterprises, IT departments jealously guard and sometimes block access to the customer databases on which the “promo” part of transpromo depends. Legal and privacy concerns are additional obstacles.

None of these barriers, obviously, will be removed by the mere availability of a digital press to print the kinds of the kinds of transpromo documents that the marketing department would like to print. This application is one rainbow that digital presses will chase until the rainbow is ready to be caught, and not a moment before.

Can’t Touch This

Speaking of barriers, if offset could raise only one against competition from digital, this surely would be its unit-cost advantage: the fact that in sufficient quantities, offset simply is a better deal than any digital reproduction process. Offset impressions decline in cost as run lengths go up; the cost of digital prints stays the same in any quantity. This bedrock fact has not been forgotten in the digital buzz of this so-called “inkjet drupa.”

 

In sufficient quantities, offset simply is a better deal than any digital reproduction process. This bedrock fact has not been forgotten in the digital buzz of this so-called “inkjet drupa.”

According to Agfa’s Richard Hill, most inkjet devices lose their cost-competitive edge against offset when runs exceed 5,000. At the same time, he said, offset presses are making continuous gains in cost-reduction as they become more automated and efficient.

In the American pavilion, Bob Wagner of U.S. Paper Counters admitted that his company’s product—machines that count and tab stacks of paper—would be “dinosaurs” in an all-digital world, since digital presses do their own counting. But that day will not come, he added, until the price of digital consumables drops far below where it is now. “Sheetfed is still so cheap in comparison,” he said, happy to see it stay that way.

That’s an extremely difficult attribute to walk away from, and most offset printers won’t—unless they can be convinced that digital production will deliver the same set of benefits in another way. Heidelberg’s Jürgen Rautert noted that “innovation is meaningless” if it doesn’t address the real-world needs of customers.

He also observed that it’s getting hard for printers to differentiate themselves on the basis of commodity products like 16-page color brochures. The latter statement applies equally to conventional and digital production. Installing a digital press won’t solve anyone’s differentiation problem or necessarily help a shop to run better, faster, or cheaper.

Not So Easy To “Go Digital”

We spoke about this with a U.S. printer who ought to be a digital press manufacturer’s dream: a producer of short-run publications who prints and ships millions of copies in runs that average about 700 copies. He came to drupa four years ago in search of the digital platform that would let him take this volume off the narrow-web litho presses that he continues to use today.

 

It’s about remembering that market-dictated trends in print consumption make some presses a better bet for some printers than other presses, regardless of process or brand.

The answer wasn’t forthcoming at drupa 2004, and he went home empty-handed. Maybe this printer will find what he’s looking for at this year’s event. But, that will happen only if he locates a digital press that’s not only up to the task of printing large quantities of periodicals in short runs, but capable of doing it better than the conventional solution that has proven itself in his pressroom time and time again.

In the end, even a trade show as massive as drupa is not about the equipment. It’s about remembering that market-dictated trends in print consumption make some presses a better bet for some printers than other presses, regardless of process or brand.

Putting in a guest appearance at the HP press conference, Benny Landa—the inventor-entrepreneur who introduced the first successful color digital press 15 years ago—declared, “Everything that can become digital, will become digital.” To become or not to become, yes, that is the question: but it’s a question that can’t be answered by the press manufacturers or even by the printers that use their equipment. The answer comes from the print marketplace to those alert enough to grasp it.

So, if Invasion of the Body Snatchers turns out not be an apt cinematic metaphor for what’s happening to the offset market, neither does The Incredible Shrinking Man. By the same token, It Conquered the World won’t do for digital—at least not yet, judging from what we’re seeing here at drupa 2008.

Please offer your feedback to Patrick. He can be reached at pathenry@libordeath.com.

Patrick Henry, Executive Editor for WhatTheyThink.com is also the director of Liberty or Death Communications, a consultancy specializing in research, education, promotional, and editorial support services for the printing and publishing industries.

Patrick Henry is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us here.

Please offer your feedback to Patrick. He can be reached at patrick.henry@whattheythink.com.

 

 

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