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Industry Insight

Has Offset—You Remember Offset!—Left the Building?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged,

By Patrick Henry
Published: May 28, 2009

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an astute man in possession of a good printing business must be in want of a four-color offset press.” Jane Austen didn’t write it, but I used to assume it until two revelations—one statistical, the other anecdotal—suggested that some serious rethinking about trends in the print equipment market might be in order. In the February issue of NPES News, NPES president Ralph Nappi wrote in unambiguous terms about the ground being gained by digital presses at the expense of traditional offset. “Though initially marketed as variable data printing engines,” he said, “digital production presses have more recently been considered as an addition to, and in some cases a replacement for, traditional offset lithographic presses as cost per page has decreased, image quality has improved, and consumer demand has mandated quick turnaround and shorter run lengths.” His use of the phrase “and in some cases a replacement for” is an attention-getter, given that some of the largest and most influential members of NPES are offset press manufacturers whose official line is that digital presses don’t compete with their products, but somehow “complement” them. Nappi’s numbers, however, appear to give the litho press makers scant comfort: “According to our research, about 34,000 sites in the U.S. and Canada owned a sheetfed offset press or duplicator in 2006. The majority of these sites were commercial printers with fewer than 20 employees. Compare that to the nearly 28,000 sites that operated a color or monochrome digital production press, and we see there isn’t a lot of difference between installation of sheetfed presses and their digital counterparts.” (emphasis added) The majority of digital press sites, Nappi noted, were in-plant printers and printers with fewer than 20 employees. He went on to predict that within the next few years, revenues from sales of digital presses could equal 70% of revenues from litho press shipments. Nappi’s article made me recall a conversation I’d had with a printer at a dinner meeting of a Craftsmen’s club where I gave a post-drupa presentation last fall. He was the proprietor of a small family firm started by his parents after World War II, and his stock in trade was small-format commercial work, most of it in color, that he produced on a two-unit press and a digital copier. Business at the time was good, and I asked him when he planned to step up to the four-color offset capability that his workload seemed to justify. Not anytime soon, he replied. His color digital copier—more accurately, a compact digital press built for the low duty cycles of shops like his—was handling all of his four-color work very nicely. The operating cost was reasonable, the color quality was good, and the flexibility of production was a big advantage for keeping his customers happy. Here, in other words, was all of the evidence in support of digital’s inroads against offset that Nappi would cite a few months later in his article. With Print 09 approaching and its marketing fanfare ratcheting up, I’m wondering how many other small printers have concluded that acquiring a four-color offset press isn’t the necessary evolutionary step that it traditionally was held to be. I’m also becoming less patient with the litho press makers’ apparent complacency about the serious challenge to their hegemonies that digital presses represent. Recession-stifled 2009 probably isn’t a year in which we’ll see profound shifts in equipment spending patterns, but I’m 100% with Nappi in believing that over the next several years, watch out. Please let us know where you think all of this is heading.

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.



By Jim on May 29, 2009

New designers are comfortable with -- not threatened by -- digital technology. Print purchase decisions are moving out of procurement (cost-per-piece mentality) into executive suites (ROI mentality). Digital is now accepted for the added value it brings to the table instead of being viewed only as a substitute for offset. Digital technologies continue to get faster and less expensive. If that's not a "robust indicator" of future reality then we're not paying attention. We all know that most print projects are runs of 5M pieces or less and that makeready costs are a substantial component of overall cost, not to mention the tremendous related overhead required to support an offset press. It's really not a question of whether or not digital supplants offset, it's when. The only point that Nappi has missed is that he is still presenting offset as the relevant standard to be measured against. That train has already left the station.


By Paul Schiller on May 29, 2009

Some of the data I've analyzed and used to prepare communications to the Commercial Print marketplace suggest many placements of HV (high volume, 90+ppm) would be found in 20+ employee establishments not necessarily contrary to findings mentioned above by NPES, rather digital 'presses' need to be better clarified/defined in this article. These HV units I speak of, I would consider digital presses unlike some of the MV or light production devices that have 90 or below ppm or much lower duty cycles which might be driving the statement above. This statement is my own opinion and not necessarily shared with or in alignment with my employer, Eastman Kodak.


By Michael J on May 29, 2009

Since you ask . . . The big problem has been overcapacity in the States. It's the same problem in most sectors of the economy. We are over car dealered and over stored. It's not a End of Litho problem. Just a normal, but painful, adjustment of supply in the States to demand. As usual, it's exactly the increased efficiency of offset that has lead directly to the overcapacity and the need for less people power to produce more stuff. As in other sectors of the economy the growth opportunites for litho will mean more consolidation in what I like to call Euromerica and more sales in what I like to call Australasia. Moving forward in Euromerica is an ever increasing integration of every available print technology and a concentration on bringing that tech together to serve vertical markets.


By Joy on May 29, 2009

I definitely think that ultimately digital presses will become the standard. They clearly have superior efficiency and quality. They really just open up a whole other world of possibility. I've been working with a company (http://www.digitallizard.com/quality-online-printing.php) that uses HP Digital presses and provides same day service - who would want to regress from that?


By bill zervis on May 31, 2009

what about quality? response please


By Phillip Crum on May 31, 2009

Interesting comments. Jim said that print purchasing is moving out of the print-buyer realm into the boardroom. Not. If what he meant is that the print purchase mentality has shifted, or is shifting, from cost-per-piece (because that's really all you have as an objective standard upon which to base purchases if your position doesn't come with budget authority)to a C-Level mandated requirement to account for results, then I agree 100%. And glad for the change which substitutes actual cognitive processes for mind-numbing purchase criteria. Paul Schiller's statement calling for a better, and I'm adding, "standardized", definition of what a "digital press" actually is and isn't is dead on. A color copier is NOT the same thing as a digital press. I like Michael J's response for the most part but overcapacity is a symptom of the real problem which is a failure to stay current with changing technology. Digital presses are the next step in the evolution of offset printing. Offset to digital. Purchasing the latest and greatest in offset equipment isn't "keeping up with technology", it's simply sharpening the knife you already own. It is NOT the next generation of knives. Digital presses are. Our facility is now ALL digital. Small format, large format, all digital. We spent the past year migrating most of our color work (1-4 colors) to the digital press. Once our actual offset volume was reduced to <5%, out the door with the offset presses. This always raises a couple of the same questions so here's the answers. 1. We send what little work we can't do on a digital press to one of a dozen offset printers within a 2-mile radius, all of whom are chasing each other to the bottom of the commodity pricing scale as fast as they can. I expect the need to outsource this small volume of work to dissipate or disappear altogether as color matching continues to improve at the light-speed in which it is currently progressing. 2. Once the offset presses were removed, there was no need anymore for a number of expenses including: pressmen, platemakers, chemicals, film, constant repair of presses, and other related monies. yay. 3. Since we migrated before pulling the trigger on "fully-digital" we've had ZERO problems with production and customer expectations. 4. Did I mention we don't have to have a pressman, now? The problems associated with that people group have been well documented in the many, well-papered literary halls of truth-tellers with more recognizable monikers than mine so we'll forego the repetition. Suffice it to say I sleep better since not worrying about, "what the pressman will do today." Digital is not, "the wave of the future." It's been here for a while and the technology including speed, quality, and cost reductions is getting better each day. When we're no longer able to say that about digital then it's replacement is probably already in the room. When was the last time offset had a major improvement in quality, speed, cost reduction, turnaround?? (Just because you moved up within the offset category doesn't indicate an improvement in that technology bracket. It just means that you can now afford the technology your neighbor's already had for quite a long time.) As Jim said above, "that train's already left the station". Wish I'd said that first.


By Melanie Turner on Jun 02, 2009

One thing to note as well is the trend that more and more print buyers are looking for eco-friendly alternatives to traditional offset printing. I think digital printing is certainly a major player in environmentally responsible printing.


By Michael J on Jun 02, 2009

@Philip, Your points are well taken. Your experience of carefully migrating from offset to digital instead of declaring your company is a Market Services Provider makes so much sense. A rare commodity in much of the blablabla. I agree that offset is a mature technology. Further incremental improvements are to be expected, but just as a book has been described as hammer, so offset is just getting to be more and more of an awesome manufacturing tool. The further improvements will be strengthening the networks that allow a different and more specialized division of labor. Your description of outsourcing the offset is a standard process that the industry has used for load balancing through brokered printing. The notion of one stop shopping has been discredited in the financial industry with the dismantling of the Citigroup. It would be good to stop that kind of talk for printers. You've perfectly described a well thought through and executed migration based on your customer's needs, not that latest blablabla du jour.


By Michael J on Jun 02, 2009

I just took the click to your website. Your slogan of helping small business grow faster is just right. Real words. Real customers. Real needs. Not a hint of market service providing.


By George Alexander on Jun 03, 2009

Bill Zervis asks “what about quality?” I imagine he’s wondering about the print quality of digital vs. offset (with the implication that offset quality might be better). I think it has been pretty well proven in the marketplace that the highest-quality digital printing is comparable to offset for at least 95% of print jobs. But “quality” is an elusive term. A recent Fogra symposium in Germany on the subject of comparing offset and digital came up with differences in the areas of reproducibility, dot gain, color variability (at different points on a sheet and on different sheets of a print run), registration, streaking, speckling, the reproduction of fine lines, and the size of the color gamut. On some of these criteria, digital was better; on others, offset was. I think it’s safe to say that there is no longer a meaningful answer to the question “which is better?” The only remaining question is “is job X better suited to one rather than the other?” More detail on the Fogra symposium is at: http://www.beyond-print.de/site/content/en/channel_news/news_0983.html


By bill zervis on Jul 26, 2009

george, i was not aware that highest quality printing is comparable to offset for at lease 95% of print jobs. yes the job determines toner or ink thank you


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