Strategically Speaking: Is Digital Printing 'Ready for Prime Time'?
Short-run digital printing is unquestionably a technology whose time has arrived. Its quality and capabilities are improving steadily, and inline/near-line binding solutions promise to make an already capable technology even more so. Many digital printers' equipment and skills have improved to where we have moved away from the Henry Ford Model A approach to substrates ("any paper you want as long as it is (50) uncoated offset") to manufacturing of case-bound, four-color textbooks printed on (60) gloss coated stock.
In short, digital printing is clearly ready for prime time, but it remains a second-tier technology to many publishers for well-known reasons. On a unit-cost basis, offset printing still has the edge on longer runs and will continue to have the advantage until digital manufacturing migrates to the next level of technology—inkjet printing.
If the economic advantage remains with offset, why should publishers consider giving digital manufacturing a broader role in their production and inventory strategies? No doubt offset printing has a role to play and will continue to do so for some time, but I suggest that near-term changes in the marketplace for books may warrant more conservative inventory strategies—for reasons that have as much to do with fundamental changes in product and distribution channels as recession-related pressures.
Here are five factors that may argue for accelerating the shift from offset to digital manufacturing:
1. Introduction of the iPad. At the time this column was written, the iPad had been on the market for about two months and appears to be a remarkable success, with sales of 2 million units per month and the international release underway.
While the jury is still out on its impact on the e-book market, the iPad is certain to stimulate competitive responses from e-reader manufacturers in the form of e-readers with a broader range of capabilities and, more importantly, lower prices. Lower-priced e-readers mean accelerated uptake of the e-book—and more e-books inevitably translates to fewer print books sold.