It is traditional in December to look back at the past 12 months to pick out the numerous highs and lows. However, this year it is also the end of a decade, so there is reason to extend the nostalgia to the past 10 years. For print, this is a useful exercise as, since 2000, the landscape of the print industry has changed enormously as many of the big technological advances have come through one sector – digital.

Although digital technology may not have been brand spanking new at the start of the noughties, it was certainly a market that had yet to mature. In the 10 years since, engine speeds, print quality and workflow have all come on leaps and bounds and the print industry has taken the leap and invested in the technology. Today, it’s rare to find a commercial printer that hasn’t got a digital press. But how did digital get to where it is now and how did the market shift so that the technology is eating into part of the litho market?

Humble start
“At the time [10 years ago], we were an emerging technology in a non-existent market,” explains Alon Bar-Shany, HP’s vice- president and general manager of the Indigo division. “The business was limited. In terms of the number of digital pages printed, in around 1998 it was significantly below 1bn. This year, it’s 10bn.”

Bar-Shany has seen the sector grow since he was part of Indigo back in 1993. By 2000, digital presses were being bought by niche businesses and pre-press houses. Ricoh’s UK associate director for marketing, Chas Moloney, supports the view that the early adopters were much smaller than the commercial printers that invest in digital presses today.

“Machines were being sold to smaller printers more akin to the copy shop environment,” he recalls. “The number of manufacturers selling products was also small while the quality was not as good as litho.”

Prior to joining Ricoh, Moloney was with Canon. At the start of the decade, Ricoh and Canon manufactured smaller devices that weren’t really suited to the commercial print world. But by the mid-point of the noughties, they were developing presses that could go up against the more established players like Xerox, Kodak, Océ and HP.

Improved quality
By 2006, Canon signalled its intentions in the digital colour production market by unveiling the ImagePress C7000VP. It received an enthusiastic response at Ipex that year, with several orders throughout Europe, including the UK. A couple of years later, Ricoh unveiled the C900, its first production colour press, following the lead of fellow newcomers Konica Minolta and Screen.

“At the start, there were discussions about quality,” explains Andreas Nielen-Haberl, Kodak CGC product category manager for Europe, Africa and the Middle East. “The question was: could digital achieve the same quality as offset. It took a while, but over the course of the years, those quality discussions have gone. It was the same for offset 50 years ago.”

Kevin O’Donnell, marketing manager for graphic communications at Xerox UK, explains that improvements in productivity and, crucially, colour have helped drive the market.

“It’s about colour consistency,” he says. “Our latest presses are capable of delivering consistent and high-quality colour. There have also been developments around substrates. Ten years ago, you had to coat the substrate or ask for a specific stock. Paper manufacturers have worked hard to change that.”

“The print quality of digital is not good – it’s excellent,” adds Steve Wilson, Océ UK business unit director for production print. “We have improved the speed, quality, workflow and finishing of digital. What’s been added to that over the past decade is a reduction in cost. Certain business models encroach on offset, but it depends on the application.”

With the ability to incorporate variable data, it’s no surprise that as the decade went on, digital manufacturers were talking up the opportunity to do one-to-one direct mail. To help drive the market, the likes of HP, Xerox and Océ were pitching digital print not just at the printers, but also marketing agencies.

“Ten years ago, digital was just seen as a printing technology – now it’s seen as a marketing technology,” says O’Donnell. “Two of the greatest applications have derived from the UK. Back in 2003, DSI produced ticket booklets for Thompson Holidays. Inc Direct also produced a highly personalised campaign for the Carphone Warehouse. These are campaigns that have been recognised globally, but neither would have happened if we had not engaged
the marketers.”

He explains that the nature of the customer has also changed. Back in 2000, clients didn’t know, or particularly care much about the printing technology – “print was a dark art” says O’Donnell. While some customers still don’t care and can’t tell the difference between digital and offset, some marketers have become more print savvy and understand that digital can represent the most cost-effective way to communicate to their customers on a one-to-one basis.

The rise of digital in the past 10 years has also meant that print companies themselves have shifted their focus, as well as understanding better how to sell digital print. There are still plenty of firms out there that continue to be common or garden “ink on paper” printers, but others have realised that they’ve needed to move away from thinking that print is a commodity.

Business focus
“It’s about business and the technology is simply the enabler,” explains Océ’s Wilson. “The most successful companies are the ones that are au fait with how to utilise the technology, the ones that have an entrepreneurial mindset.”

These print firms have not just embraced digital print technology, but other channels as well, such as the internet. They’ve become data handlers, not just printers. “More and more of our customers are becoming marketing service providers,” explains HP’s Bar-Shany.

Punch Graphix UK managing director Chris Matthews adds: “Those that have embraced this approach have moved a step forward. However, there are still some dyed-in-the-wool printers who will not change.”

Matthews’ words suggest that digital print hasn’t quite
broken through into every market. While the digital print market is obviously more mature than it was 10 years ago, it is still maturing and Both O’Donnell and Bar-Shany agree that
digital has more potential.“ I still believe we are barely scraping the surface,” says Bar-Shany. “High-end printers are doing digital work, but the penetration rate is still relatively small.”

As the decade draws to a close, litho still dominates the long-run market and most in the digital sector acknowledge that it will remain the case for some time as digital has proved to be a complementary technology to litho. However, digital has made some significant inroads into the short-run litho market and the feeling is that if the application is right, and then it’s almost a no-brainer not to run a job digitally.

Digital evolution
“B3 presses are hardly sold in the western world,” claims Bar-Shany. “Not too many printers will survive by being litho-only. There is certainly a need to evolve and there are several family-owned print companies that are now onto a second or third generation. They have to take the next step. Printing is not going away, but it’s evolving.”

“There will always be room for both litho and digital,” adds Matthews.“However, where customers in the past may have replaced a B2 litho with another one. Now, more are purchasing a digital press instead.”

The next stage in the evolution of digital is likely to throw in maturing inkjet technology, on-demand book printing and the powerful possibilities of web-to-print. It’s testament to how far digital has come that many commercial print firms now have a digital press sat in their factory. The next 10 years are likely to take digital on to an even higher level. If the experts are to be believed, in terms of new applications and market growth, the last decade was just the tip of the iceberg.