The Demand For On-Demand
Print-on-demand (POD), like so many new technologies that have threatened to shake up the status quo of the publishing industry, has garnered its fair share of attention from both enthusiasts and naysayers. But philosophical debates and questions about its potential aside, there appears to be little doubt about the benefits of POD. Continuing, technological advances will most likely erase any nagging doubts about quality and profitability.
One thing is clear, the market for POD is growing. In 2000, U.S. companies spent $3.1 billion for black-and-white POD systems and related services and supplies, according to CAP Ventures (www.capv.com). The research firm projects the market to reach $8 billion in 2005, growing at a rate of 20.4 percent per year. Further evidence of POD's increasing popularity: Of the 312 print providers interviewed by CAP Ventures in a July 2001 study, only six percent reported they planned to purchase high-speed analog copiers in the following year, while 28 percent planned to buy POD systems.
Claiming its piece of the POD pie, Pittsburgh, PA-based Tri-Ad Litho (www.triadlitho.com) wisely anticipated the promise of the digital age, expanding its offset offerings to include digital on-demand printing. Since the expansion, the 30-year-old printer has witnessed a healthy increase in new clients and revenues. Dan Makuta, account executive, says, "We've doubled our revenue in three years. We were grossing about $950,000 and now we're at $1.8 million."
The transformation from an offset printer into a predominantly digital on-demand service bureau was relatively smooth for the nine-person outfit. After investing in Adobe PDF prepress tools (www.adobe.com), two Xerox DocuTech NP6135s, a DigiPath and a DocuColor 2045 (www.xerox.com), Tri-Ad Litho witnessed an evolution in its business plan. Today, 75 percent of the printer's business is digital, with the other 25 percent stemming from conventional services.
The new printers and software have allowed the company to streamline its processes greatly. "When we send a file through the system, we don't need an operator to spend hours comparing fonts, line endings and page breaks," says Makuta. "[In the past], had we received a PageMaker document created on the PC side, for which we didn't have the fonts, the operator would have had to spend countless hours getting the fonts to appear similar. But they still wouldn't be exact, creating reflowing and repagination issues. But with PDF, the file is correct when it leaves the customer's site."
Further south, Hagerstown, MD-based Phoenix Color (www.phoenixcolor.com) leverages the capabilities of its Book Technology Park and Book Component Division to produce POD materials, leading to a higher-quality end-product. Kelly Hartman, marketing manager, believes that Phoenix's manufacturing set-up reduces such POD hazards like cover peel. "Since we utilize our Book Component Division to produce our POD covers, the covers will not peel and curl," she explains. Interiors are printed on an Océ web press.
Concerns about cost and quality
Herb Johnson, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology's School of Printing (www.rit.edu), believes that the high cost currently associated with true on-demand printing is inhibiting its growth. "The thing that is holding POD back is not enough people know what it can do. On-demand can be done, just not economically [per unit]. But the quality will get better and the prices will get cheaper for the equipment and output," states Johnson.
According to Jim Hamilton, CAP Venture's associate director, run length is not as important as total impressions in regards to pricing. Hamilton recalls a recent conversation with an offset book printer who noted he could give a better quote for 200 copies of a 350-page book than for a 200-page book. "This makes sense particularly for conventional printers that have larger-format presses, either web or sheet, that handle large signatures," explains Hamilton.
Seasonal print volume also effects printer costs, notes Hamilton: "[Printers] have plenty of work at certain times, but cannot afford to let the equipment stand idle during slack times. The successful digital book printers have generally diversified their market to account for the peaks and valleys."
Makuta refers to this concept as cost sheet losers. "No one thinks of the issue that you have to pay for the machines and people even when they're not running," he reasons. "Let's say the typical cost center charges $150 an hour and the job only makes $100. You still made more money had the machines not been running." He recommends that for short-short-run POD, it is wise to save batches of work for slow times.
In addition to cost, one of the big knocks against POD is the quality of the end product. But Makuta contends that when dealing with digital black-and-white equipment, quality is not an issue. "The [DocuTech] machines monitor the print quality and when the quality gets bad, it shuts down. At 600 dpi, the human eye cannot tell if a black-and-white piece has been traditionally printed or digitally printed," he says. "On the digital side, with black-and-white on a DocuTech, you can actually print blacker than on a traditional press. You can create 98 percent shadow dot and two percent highlights. On a litho press, you can't do that."
Presstek's (www.presstek.com) Vice President of Sales and Marketing Efrem Lieber thinks it is valid to be concerned about POD materials produced on toner-based machines. "But for ink on paper, there's no reason why POD can't be of high quality," asserts Lieber. Consequently, as the press-ready process of ink-based printing systems become quicker, the more efficient those systems can print on-demand.
According to Hartman, manufacturers are continuing to raise POD standards. "I am aware of concerns retailers have for selling POD products, but these concerns should be alleviated as a continued emphasis is put on quality," she notes.
Calling all consumers
Mirroring the current POD trend, Tri-Ad Litho has found success in the corporate arena, but how has the printer fared in the consumer market? "We are doing a lot of vanity publishing, about 30 to 40 titles a month," says Makuta. "The workflow is the same. We work with an editing shop; they create a PDF of the book and the PDF comes into the system via the Internet, as a rule. Then we process through the DigiPath. We then try to impose them to get the best mileage out of the DocuTech." The company produces POD books that range anywhere in size from 64 to 200-plus pages, with two- to four-color covers. Using a semi-automatic Vijuk perfect binder, the operator is able to produce between 250 to 300 books per hour.
Currently, POD requests comprise approximately 13 percent of the work produced at Phoenix's Book Technology Park, where the emphasis is on traditionally printed one- and two-color books. "We do not have any figures on the vanity press percentages, but mostly our work is for non-vanity, pre-existing customers," states Hartman. "These customers appreciate the ability to have short runs printed quickly with premium components."
Johnson believes that the market for POD-produced consumer books will grow, but in what capacity, he is not sure. "Publishers can use the technology to produce books that have already been published but are on the verge of going out of print. But, I don't think [publishers] will start a new edition off using POD. But there may be a window there, especially for limited-edition publishers," he says.
Obviously, the equipment and technology used by various printers has, and will continue to have, a large impact on the profitability and quality of POD. On the market for 10 years, Presstek's patented DI system has been installed by more than 2,100 printers around the world. DI, short for direct imaging, reduces the time necessary to change press plates.
According to Lieber, "The concept of DI is to put plate imagers directly on the press. By doing so, the plates need to be protected because the press is a hostile environment. The plates are put in a roll inside the cylinder of the press itself. The plates are then rolled out as needed. Thermal imaging exposes the plates on the press. All four or five plates can be changed at the same time; fresh plates can be advanced in 20 seconds." By decreasing the time needed to change plates, DI lends itself nicely to printers specializing in POD and short run. In fact, CAP Ventures indicates that printers who use the DI system average higher profit margins than what National Association for Printing Leadership (www.napl.org) calls its highest performers.
Such reports can only point to a bright future for POD.