Given what I learned at the recent very successful Inkjet Summit in Austin, Texas, and after most of the last year I’ve spent digging into the brains of business owners and managers I am increasingly of the view that digital printing, and increasingly inkjet technology, has become the logical path for the commercial printing segment. In fact, the recent rise and renewed relevance of direct mail can be directly linked to the benefits of digital. Among these benefits are more granular marketing, the use of data to personalize the user experience, and a different model that pushes high-value printing instead of standardized approaches.
While the inherent benefits of digital printing are well known and transforming printing as we have known it for decades, it was the upheaval of our pandemic and – eventually – post-pandemic world that brought the value of numerical beyond the simple impression value.
The work solution
One of the main challenges facing the printing industry (and all other types of employers) today is the need for skilled labour. While the benefits of digital printing discussed above are certainly game-changing, commercial printing companies using offset technologies are increasingly faced with the challenge of replacing skilled press operators as a generation whole of them are heading for retirement. The workforce has changed. Print business owners and managers see this reality of work as an opportunity that will bring faster skill training, less adherence to craftsmanship, and lower labor costs resulting from employees who require fewer skills.
Simply put, high-speed inkjet presses require fewer employees to operate, and I’ve spoken with business owners who said they’ve, for example, changed an offset press, which required three people to operate, for three digital presses that can be operated by one person. In today’s tight labor market, this new equation is proving very attractive.
The paper solution (sort of)
While the current paper shortage seems to be a challenge for the printing industry just as much (or more) than labor shortages, it is important to consider that digital printing, overall, wastes less paper and other substrates. Make-ready resources spent on colorizing a press and other steps are not needed in a well-managed digital workflow, saving paper, ink and the time you press operators move from job to job.
Digital printing capabilities have altered the model in additional ways. By using digital to produce a higher value impression, the model goes from high quantity of impressions, low cost, to low value with low expectations; to items with wider impact, better response rates and increased relevance. Fewer impressions, so less paper, printed with a higher margin.
The automation solution
If labor and paper are certainly the biggest challenges facing printers today, then the biggest opportunity they are looking for is certainly automation. The need for automation is driven by several factors, including (again) lower labor cost, higher quality, and more reliable production control. And while analog-focused automation – the link between mechanical devices – has been present in offset shops for a very long time, fully digital automation uses online storefronts, printing technologies, control software digitally equipped finishing systems, even job tracking and shipping, to create a complete process with minimal keystrokes and increased efficiency. For some operations, in fact, the only physical touch of the work occurs when it is placed in a box to be sent to the customer. Robotic elements are increasingly used in the printing industry, adding reliability and efficiency to the physical movement of substrates, book blocks and other elements. Smart technology abounds.
One of the most impressive aspects of the rise of digital printing has been its evolution from what started as a new way to print differently to an opportunity machine that changes the business model. Although digital is a choice among print processes, it is a process that is rapidly increasing in share and continues to bring change, new opportunities and compelling benefits.