- We all know that print can serve as a gateway to electronic media, but the pandemic underscored this fact.
- The pandemic has served to accelerate a number of trends, and one of these is the transition from offset lithography to high-speed production digital printing.
- Automation improvements in prepress, bindery, and mailroom have the opportunity to bring other workflow benefits in collaboration with production inkjet printing systems.
By Karen Kimerer
There is no question that we live in a digital world, and the already rapid pace of technological advancements only accelerated when the COVID-19 pandemic became a part of our everyday lives in early 2020. As much as we’d all like to put this global health crisis behind us, the Delta variant has sparked new fears and reminded us that COVID has changed the world forever.
Like many others, the print industry is still reeling from the ongoing effects of the pandemic. There have been some bright spots, however. For one thing, direct mail communications have generally fared well in comparison to other marketing techniques. Although few would argue that printed communications are the sole pathway to future success, direct mail has seen something of a resurgence in this era of digital fatigue. There is reason to believe that forward-thinking print service providers (PSPs) can use inkjet print technology to their advantage and capitalize on this opportunity.
The Value of Print
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that there are some imperfections in the strategy of attempting to reach new customers solely through electronic methods. How can you be sure that you’ve reached every household in a community when your lists of email addresses, phone numbers, and social media accounts are not tied to physical locations? We all know that print can serve as a gateway to electronic media, but the pandemic underscored this fact. Even so, marketers struggle to track return on marketing investment (ROMI) with print as they do with electronic media. Tracking the impact of print is more important than ever, so personized messaging that drives consumers to e-commerce sites must be part of the equation.
With its ability to produce one-step personalized color documents without the use of pre-printed shells, inkjet printing has important implications for improved turnaround time and direct mail flexibility. High-speed color inkjet document printing systems take this value beyond shorter runs and extend it to larger campaigns that can be targeted and segmented in innovative ways, linking to other tools that marketers have to reach new and existing customers.
The pandemic has served to accelerate a number of trends, and one of these is the transition from offset lithography to high-speed production digital printing. Offset printing volumes have been dropping over the past two decades for a variety of reasons, but two of these reasons have predominated:
- The impact of digital print: Economical quick-turnaround toner-based digital printing techniques took away short-run offset work, and then high-volume production inkjet systems (black and white and color) began to compete for longer run work while also providing digital print benefits like just-in-time printing and personalized messaging.
- Competition from electronic media: This moved marketers away from long-run, static “spray & pray” print campaigns (whether in the form of direct mail, catalogs, or other promotional print).
These two factors in particular have generated ongoing declines in offset printing volumes. Despite the fact that some work is still best suited for long-run offset techniques, that market is shrinking due to competition from digital print as well as electronic media.
The offset printing industry is also grappling with an aging workforce. Printers whose hardware assets include offset presses typically have older skilled workers that will likely prove difficult to replace as more of these individuals reach retirement age. As we (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, the focus will shift to productivity, ease-of-use, and doing more with less. The simplicity of production inkjet digital printing systems in comparison to their offset counterparts makes inkjet a more appealing option for the future. Simplicity of operation, along with high levels of productivity and application flexibility, will mean that production print facilities of the future will likely be built upon inkjet systems. It will not just be inkjet, though. Automation improvements in prepress, bindery, and mailroom have the opportunity to bring other workflow benefits in collaboration with production inkjet printing systems.
Competitive Growth Opportunities
Looking at future inkjet opportunities, one of the biggest is to move offset print volume to high-speed inkjet. This follows through on the reasoning described above concerning value and simplicity:
- From a value perspective, the high levels of inkjet productivity combined with digital print advantages (e.g., just-in-time manufacturing and personalized print) pave the way for more effective and targeted printed documents. You could say that value will be the theme for successful direct mailers going forward, and inkjet can play a huge role in providing increased value to customers.
- From a simplicity perspective, inkjet provides key operational advantages. One, of course, is that a production inkjet system is arguably easier to operate than an offset press, and can also typically be run by a single operator. In fact, that operator may even be able to operate more than one system simultaneously. 2020 showed us that lean operations can be effective during a pandemic, even though some of this leanness stemmed from operator layoffs or sickness. Even so, today’s PSPs must be able to roll with the punches. During the height of the pandemic, this meant social distancing and/or furloughs that impacted staffing levels. Automation can help, and inkjet is a key part of facilitating that automation. Another aspect of inkjet simplicity is in its service requirements. Compared to toner-based processes, inkjet systems have shown higher uptime and greater levels of productivity. In addition to capturing offset volume, inkjet systems (particularly high-speed cut-sheet ones) will likely take away toner-based print volume.
The largest drawback with production color inkjet is the expense of its inks and printheads. So much of the technology is built into these components that care must be taken to fully assess these costs. High-coverage applications can be expensive due to the amount of ink consumed. For that reason, it is important to be involved early on in the design process so layouts can be attractive yet affordable.
The Bottom Line
As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, investigate how you can put the principles of value, simplicity, and opportunity into action. The industry will never return to our “old normal.” Changes in business norms must be fully addressed, because the impact of the pandemic economy will linger for quite some time. Examining how your inkjet systems can be fully leveraged and integrated into your overall work should be a priority. Investments in new inkjet infrastructure should be considered when they offer opportunities to expand, diversify, and compete.
The concept of print on demand (POD) first came into our lexicon in the 1990s with the introduction of a wide range of toner-based color systems. These allowed the first implementations of the POD concept—delivering what is needed, when it is needed, and in the exact quantity required. That was a good first step, but the productivity of toner-based systems limited the ability to fully implement the POD concept. With more than a decade of high-speed inkjet document systems behind us, today’s PSPs have the opportunity to take POD much further. This means a great deal of future potential for the direct mail market.
Karen Kimerer of Keypoint Intelligence has experienced the many challenges of expanding current market opportunities and securing new business. She has developed a systematic approach to these opportunities, addressing the unique requirements of becoming a leader in our changing industry. She is well-versed in 1:1 marketing, web-to-print, direct mail, book publishing, supply chain management, data segmentation, channel integration, and photo products.