Commentary & Analysis
Did You Say 'Short-Run Color Digital Printing?'
by George J.
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: February 3, 2004
by George J. Whalen February 2, 2004 -- In the hierarchy of malaproprisms and oxymorons, "short-run color digital printing" seems, at first, to rank right up there alongside jumbo shrimp and military intelligence. Close study of the constant barrage of techno-phrases in our industry show scarcely any with meanings that make much sense. Take on-demand printing . Now, doesn't that phrase literally mean that someone wants something printed "right now?" Well, arguably, doesn't all printing match that definition? The only reason that the phrase on-demand printing has any meaning at all is that we have all cozily agreed among ourselves that it stands for use of digital printing to immediately satisfy that want. This makes that phrase slang . And, as we will see, slang meanings drift, over time. Print Technologies And Ever-Shortening Runs When society was much more dependent on print to satisfy its information, communication and marketing needs, the usual conventional offset press color print-run was a respectable 50,000 to 250,000 pieces. This was in the 20th Century, when anything less was called "a short run." As alternative media sprang up over the years, however, print run-lengths kept falling, and "short run," being a comparative form, shrank, too. Printers grumbled as profits fell. Offset press manufacturers began offering "bells and whistles" to reduce makeready time. But, it was clearly time for new solutions. About 20 years ago, new digital printing technologies began springing up, all intended to serve the short-run market, as alternatives to conventional offset. First came direct imaging offset presses. These were followed by toner and inkjet digital printing technologies. Development in each has since substantially increased the variety of means by which shorter-run jobs can be printed, enabling the phrase "short run" to become newly used in digital color, to distinguish really-short-runs from more-usual job lengths. (As noted earlier, slang meanings drift, over time.) So, what is it that has caused this ever-shortening trend in printing run-lengths? How has it all come about? The Mission Of Conventional Offset Litho Historically, conventional offset litho's mission has always been long-run work. For about three-quarters of the 20th Century, offset litho brilliantly fulfilled the mission society had assigned it: reproducing lots of the same things at low unit cost. Of course, that was when offset-printed color media were among our major means of communicating information -- before the rise of electronic media, computers and network technology. Here in the 21st Century, conventional offset color still has much work to do, and remains the "gold standard" of color quality against which all others are judged. There are still long color runs, although intermediate-run color jobs now dominate many commercial printers' and publishers' job boards. Recently, evidence has surfaced that short-run work is increasingly being done digitally. The reason is economic --the costs of time and labor for conventional offset makeready (platemaking, hanging, registration, ink-and-water balance and getting on-color) are the enemy of profit in short-run color jobs. So, it is natural for those jobs to seek lower cost production methods. The Mission Of Direct Imaging (DI) Offset DI offset presses originated in the 1980s with the mission to all-but-eliminate the makeready time, costs and fuss associated with platemaking, color registration, ink and dampening systems. Most are made today by offset press manufacturers and those now on the market are used for short-run color jobs up to about 25,000 impressions. Automated makeready, on-press imaging and registration of special, no-process plate material, and running waterless all enable a DI press to get away on a job in a small fraction of the makeready time a conventional offset press requires. So, a DI press can profitably complete many more short-run color jobs per shift than can a conventional offset litho press. The Mission Of Toner And Inkjet-Based Printers Typically, these have the primary mission of doing the really short-run color jobs (say, 100 copies and less). Toner and inkjet digital printing technologies actually sustained the digital revolution and helped change the way short-run color is thought of by printers and publishers. Once, quality differentiated these machines, but great advances have been made, bringing their color quality to parity for most applications. Toner printers tend to focus on two-up and four-up page-size reproduction on paper and similar substrates, while inkjet printers come in many more sizes and can accommodate a greater variety of substrates. Economics 101 How "Short" Is Short-Run Digital Color Printing? The accompanying chart, provided by TrendWatch Graphic Arts, shows the percentage of short-run digital color printing jobs reported by commercial printers in a recent survey. The products of these runs were primarily brochures and business cards. Together, runs from 101 to 500 pieces accounted for 41% of the jobs. Percent of Short-Run Digital Color Jobs Among Commercial Printers yellow: 51 to 100 copies 20% red: <50 copies 20% Source: TrendWatch Graphic Arts Report "Digital Color Printing: Ready For Primetime." * A recent survey showed that 41% of digital color jobs were typically more than 100 copies but less than 500 copies, defining the "short-run" digital color niche. Profitability Of Different Print Methods The expenses and outlays associated with producing a short-run job establish its cost . To this, there must be added some level of profit to sustain the business. The sum of these is the selling price . The only question is whether or not the buyer will pay it. A selling price can be subject to many pressures, among them resistance ("your price is too high"), demanded and pre-negotiated discounts, and competition. None of these will reduce costs, but all can force-down the margin (difference between cost and selling price). Absent margin, a business cannot long survive. Today, however, thanks to the new printing technologies, one can "cost-out" a particular short-run color job using their different sets of economics. Knowing the differences in a job's cost when done by conventional offset, DI, toner or inkjet printing reveals which is the lowest-cost means that will deliver a satisfactory job to the buyer. This knowledge can provide greater flexibility in setting a fair price with a decent profit margin. Moreover, this further unfolds into the capability to compete more effectively for work on price. On the other hand, printers limited to use of conventional offset litho will be chained to its higher set=-up costs. The cost of a conventional offset makeready for a short-run color job is the same as for a longer run, making the cost of printing a short-run color job a much higher percentage of what it can sell for. There's just not enough margin. Meanwhile, a competitor could produce the same job at lower cost and in less time using a DI press, or a toner or inkjet printing system. Thus, the conventional offset litho printer is at risk of being under-priced or rendered profitless by competing printers. The lower costs of DI and the digital printing methods allow them to add a good margin, yet, come up with an acceptable selling price. Evidence: Short-Run Digital Is Cutting Into Conventional Offset A recent TrendWatch Graphic Arts study entitled: "Digital Color Printing: Ready for Primetime" * presents evidence that short-run digital printing is picking up among commercial printers. TWGA reports that digital color presses are chiefly being used to print brochures and business cards. This could be just the start. Who cannot recall stories about large-scale printing relationships springing-up, because a printer met a seemingly impossible need for a brochure or business card? But, there is more evidence. First, results gathered last year by the author, in interviews of fast-growing commercial printers revealed a common thread running through their responses, suggesting that commercial printers who offered digital printing, in addition to conventional offset, survived the three-year recession relatively unscathed. Those who did not -- and remained offset-only -- lost substantial revenue and business. This "swapping behavior" began among print buyers as the downturn took hold, as they chose digital printing over conventional offset. One conventional offset printer's story poignantly expresses the surprising shift in buyer behavior. "I knew my price for 5,000 color brochures would be higher than digital," he says, "because all we have is conventional offset. So, my tactic was to offer the buyer 5,000 brochures at my higher price of X dollars – or the option of 10,000 brochures for X-plus-10% -- thinking she'd snap-up the larger 10,000 quantity as a real bargain." He continues, I was already making-up the job ticket when she caught me by surprise and turned me down flat! She said she could only use 5,000 brochures right now -- not even one more -- and that the job had to come in at a lower price." He adds, ruefully, "I guess it's clear that times have changed and that what used to work to get jobs in the old days doesn't work today." Corroborating that behavior, TWGA's report entitled "Design & Production 15" * says that conventional offset jobs are now being re-routed to digital printing. This is shown in the accompanying chart from the TWGA report, showing that 36% of design and production firms surveyed by TWGA reported that jobs now being designed for digital color printing are increasing. Meanwhile, a suspiciously similar percentage of firms (35%) report that jobs being designed for traditional offset printing are declining . Comparing these, the easy conclusion is that a shift is taking place from conventional offset to digital color printing. Printing Jobs Increasing/Declining, All Design & Production Firms, Summer 2003 Source: TrendWatch Graphic Arts Design & Production 15, Summer 2003* Jobs being prepped for traditional offset have declined by about the same percentage that jobs being prepped for digital color printing have increased. A shift of short-run color jobs to lower-cost digital color printing methods might easily account for this. So what are the strengths and weaknesses of the different technologies, and how are print providers balancing them when they have both types of equipment in their operations? We'll take a look at that in Part 2, next week.