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.