Commentary & Analysis
Transitions in the Small Print Market
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: May 24, 2007
--- Special Feature: Transitions in the Small Print Market Being open to change is the key to success By Joe Bendowski May 24, 2007 -- Small offset printing had its beginnings in the late '40s and early '50s as America's post-war industrial revolution began picking up speed, creating a greater demand for printed communications. A growing need for simple product pamphlets, instruction sheets, price lists and other collateral was formed--all deemed essential in supporting our rapidly increasing manufacturing industries. The growth of small offset generated a corresponding demand for consumables including printing inks, press chemistry, paper, blankets, plates, and so forth. To meet this demand, regional sources were necessary, and the independent graphic arts dealer channel was born. With over 800 locations, graphic arts dealers became the local source for these supplies and a provider of technical assistance, industry trends, new product technologies and educational support. Smaller printers always have had a "can-do" spirit and a willingness to innovate that can be lacking in larger businesses. The shift to color As the small print environment matured, a shift from basic black and white to two-color and multi-color took place as designers and customers realized that the addition of color significantly increased in its impact. That trend led industry suppliers to respond with products that enabled printers to satisfy these new demands. Ink companies, for example, had to expand the pallet of standard colors, as well as offer special color matching services. Larger format two-color presses came to market, as did inventions such as color print heads that attached to single color duplicators, enabling printing of a second color on a common blanket. The introduction of the PANTONE Matching system in 1956 offered a choice of 500 offset printable colors, further expanding the capabilities and potential output of a duplicator. Slowly but surely, the age of black and white small offset printing was shifting toward a much more sophisticated, creative and professional era. A time of transition Some might argue that small offset peaked in 1988 as toner-based alternatives began eroding offset's share of the printed page. Initially, these included black and white copiers and more recently, monochrome and digital full-color copiers and ink jet printers. As these devices became easier to use, faster, less expensive, and offered improved quality the competitive pressure forced transitions within the small offset market. Digital presses like Kodak NexPress, Xeikon, HP Indigo, and Xerox iGen should not be considered threats but rather partners to offset. In-plant shops, for example, were not always seen as cost effective and it became increasingly difficult to justify their existence compared to outsourcing. In other cases, installing photocopiers in corporate offices and workgroups provided more immediate results. If you wanted 25 copies you simply went to the nearest copy machine and printed them. No chemicals, plates, ink or other supplies were needed. Meanwhile, advances in offset printing technology used by large commercial sheet-fed printers trickled down to small and mid-size printers. In a quest to move up market, quick and small commercial printers and expanded their offerings to include larger format four-color printing. Similar advances continue today with commercial and in-plant shops alike now offering a mix of digital and offset technologies. Digital and offset --a collaborative partnership The "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality works since it tends to complement the overall capability of the small printer. Digital presses like Kodak NexPress, Xeikon, HP Indigo, and Xerox iGen should not be considered threats but rather partners to offset. Each process has its place in the fulfillment of today's print requirements and many smaller shops are mixing offset and digital technology to grow their businesses and offer their customers more. Variable data printing is a perfect example of work that can be fulfilled only digitally, but which also works hand-in-hand with traditional offset. For example, a customer might order thousands of high-quality, glossy folders with the company logo embossed in gold ink on the cover. Inside is a product catalog customized to the needs of the recipient, along with a personalized letter and invitation to a special event, all digitally printed. Electronic versions of documents such as brochures and other collateral can be stored on servers and printed in whatever quantities are required. In some cases this could be a few dozen or a few hundred from a digital press; in other cases it could be several thousand on a offset press. Or full-color offset printed covers and pages could be printed for inclusion in short runs of a monochrome document produced on a digital press. This concept applies to other fields, like book publishing, where a reviewers' copies are needed in advance of publication and publishers are using digitally printed versions to test market new titles. Later the book might be kept "in print" forever, with copies printed on demand. The middle state of this life cycle is, of course, high-volume offset production. Other books may only be printed digitally, based on demand. Printers can offer their customers more by choosing the right technology for the job. "Versioning" of magazines or other publications can include a core of volume-printed pages wrapped in outer pages and covers that have been customized and digitally produced. Similarly, versioned advertising inserts can be digitally produced and combined with publications printed on offset in volume. Many printers, even smaller shops, now offer fulfillment services, printing some marketing collateral in volume for, say, a product launch, but combining it with digitally printed materials that target the recipient. A printer or in-plant shop equipped with both digital and offset technologies can offer a wide range of options and efficiencies to his or her customers or parent company. Whether it be variable data from sheet to sheet, 50 catalogs, 5,000 catalogs, 25 sell sheets, 25,000 sell sheets--on coated stock, matte paper, synthetic material--folded, bound, scored; all of these options and more are able to be produced efficiently and most cost effectively by choosing the right technology for the job. The important things stay the same There is no question that the face of the small printer has changed over the last 50 years--and will continue to change as the industry evolves. But the heart and soul have not. They remain a vital piece of today's print communication and although they may do it by a variety of different methods today, they continue to account for millions of printed sheets each year--and millions of satisfied customers. Smaller printers always have had a "can-do" spirit and a willingness to innovate that can be lacking in larger businesses. That hasn't changed at all. No matter how they do it, they continue to go the extra mile for their customers. See More Exclusive Articles Joe Bendowski is president of Van Son Holland Ink Corporation of America, a leading global printing ink manufacturer known around the world for producing high quality, high performance inks for every offset press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.