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Commentary & Analysis

Offset litho vs. digital printing and vice versa

It is 1959.

By Frank Romano
Published: April 3, 2009

It is 1959. Letterpress printing dominates. Hot metal typesetting services abound. Trade engravers are awash in profits. Letterpress presses are printing money. The printing ecosystem hums along like a well-oiled machine. All is right with the world.

There is the distant rumbling of thunder. Photon has sold it first phototypesetters; new offset lithographic plates are available; photo-mechanical pre-press is evolving rapidly. Small offset litho shops are starting to take volume away from larger letterpress printers because of short runs and color jobs.

Articles are written by pro-ponents and con-ponents; consultants and pundits take sides, and a war of words ensues.

Sound familiar?

It would take another 20 years, but by 1979, most letterpress printing would be gone and offset lithography would begin its rise to dominance. It had been an “almost contender” for over 50 years but now the stars are aligned: efficient pre-press, photographic typesetting, film-based workflows, and a flow of newer and newer presses. We entered the photographic age of printing, based on the camera, the darkroom, chemistry, and film.

Digital printing, as toner or inkjet, has been an “almost contender” for over 30 years. This time it will not take 20 years for digital printing to wrestle significant market share from offset litho -- it already has. The economic crisis has accelerated the rush to shorter runs and on-demand approaches.

But, as the industry contrarian, I do not think that digital will wipe out offset litho as offset litho once wiped out letterpress. As long as the offset litho suppliers keep innovating, keep reducing makeready, keep automating, and keep their users productive, offset litho will be viable for another 50 years. But -- the reduction in print volume caused by electronic substitution, means that the printing market is no longer big enough to sustain almost ten press manufacturers. Consolidation will bring the number down by half in the next few years. The same will be true of digital printer manufacturers.

If digital printing is to advance, it will have to increase sheet size, speed, spot-color capability, and reliability. Oh, and the click charge may have to go. That is why inkjet looks so promising, but only time will tell.

We are also seeing a situation where we are being asked to take sides. Only recently a digital printing supplier said I was prejudiced because I consulted for offset litho suppliers, and an offset press supplier said I was prejudiced because I consulted for digital printing suppliers. The truth is that I have never consulted for any supplier, but truth appears to be the victim today. If there are prejudiced media, consultants, or analysts, they are pretty well known and marginalized.

We need to debate objectively about the pros and cons of all available printing processes. Printers cannot afford to make a mistake. The problem is that there is a plethora of research and prognostication, but no consensus. All suppliers say that they listen to their customers, but they all hear with jaundiced ears. I love the quote from Henry Ford “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

The offset litho folks are jealous because of the attention digital printing is getting. The digital toner people are jealous about the attention inkjet is getting, and many suppliers are offering both toner and inkjet solutions so printers can evaluate which is best for their needs. It is a confusing time for printers. They have to look over the horizon when it is night and the moon is not shining. They have to listen to contradictory information from a phalanx of sales people, some of whom will be long gone when the printer knows whether the decision was right or wrong.

We need healthy suppliers. They are the reason printers are more productive. They are the reason our industry progresses. We are now undergoing a massive re-structuring -- a right sizing, if you will. We will exit on the other side of these tough times as a smaller, more focused, more efficient industry. And when we do, we will be using offset litho and digital printing in greater or lesser degree depending on our markets, our customers, and our suppliers.

It is like that time when letterpress dominated and offset litho was on the horizon. Some saw it and prospered. Others wanted a faster horse.

Frank Romano has spent over 50 years in the printing and publishing industries. Many know him best as the editor of the International Paper Pocket Pal or from the hundreds of articles he has written for publications from North America and Europe to the Middle East to Asia and Australia. Romano lectures extensively, having addressed virtually every club, association, group, and professional organization at one time or another. He is one of the industry's foremost keynote speakers. He continues to teach courses at RIT and other universities and works with students on unique research projects.

Please offer your feedback to Frank. He can be reached at frank@whattheythink.com.



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