Print in the digital age

Print in the digital age

Gareth Ward, publisher and editor of Print Business, has been writing about print for decades. “Eventually, the industry figured out it should not be selling ‘variable data printing’ but rather ‘personalised communication’.”

“The concept is simple. The [book]store no longer needs to hold as great a range of stock and can be sure that nothing will go out of print. The customer can browse for the title required via a kiosk and order it on screen. (…) A few minutes later the book is printed and the store has a sale”. This is how Gareth Ward in 1998 described the concept of print in demand in ‘Publishing in the digital age’, his book looking some 15 years into the future of our industry. There is a certain irony in the fact that today, this very book turns out to be ‘temporarily out of stock’ and not available in any digital form – although Ward is pretty sure he still must have the original floppy disks, somewhere.

Today, Gareth Ward is the publisher and editor of Print Business. He comes from a printing family, and, by now, has been writing about print for decades. In 1990, he became editor of ‘Printing World’ – a leading printing industry magazine in the UK. As managing editor of the Miller Freeman Print Group (which included ‘British Printer’, ‘Prepress World’ and the website ‘Dotprint’), he was invited to share his thoughts and insights on print and publishing in the digital age, as part of a series of books explaining how new technology (‘the internet, CD-ROM, VR’) would impact on work of different kinds (Financial Services, Retail, Education, etc).

Luckily, ‘Publishing in the digital age’ is still available from various libraries – and you may even find some used copies in very good condition on Amazon. The book proves highly accurate on many things, such as Ward’s conclusion that by 2010, “even where paper retains its place, the production technology that has printed the book, magazine or newspaper will be a digital system or, at the very least, will incorporate elements of digital printing.” (It is probably just the CD-ROMS that did not quite live up to expectations.)

In the book, Ward dates the revolution caused by digital printing to “1991 and the introduction of the Docutech, the Xerox high-speed laser printer”. Digital full colour production printing was, in 1998, clearly still in its infancy. “Kodak and Heidelberg have announced a joint venture to develop an entirely new machine”, noted Ward, “backed by figures showing that the transition to digital short run printing is unstoppable”. However, five years after their simultaneous premier at Ipex 1993, ‘Indigo’ got mentioned only once in all together 140 pages, and ‘Xeikon’ remained unnamed.

‘A natural evolution’

Looking back now, 20 years on, Ward explains how he went on a press trip to Spain in 1992 to see the Docutech in action during the Olympics in Barcelona: “For me, that is where it really began. You could see somebody standing next to this device, and he or she could have the results from any event or match printed out immediately – because everything was now part of a connected system.” At the time, he says, he was already well aware that ‘digital colour printing’ was on the brink of becoming a reality: “It did not land out of nowhere. We had already seen Iris inkjet, and the Canon CLC – it was a natural evolution really.”

When Xeikon invited the industry to Belgium for its unveiling of the DCP-1 in June 1993, Ward and his team however missed out on the opportunity: “I am not sure why we did not go, really. We probably did not quite grasp the importance of the machine and nobody knew Xeikon as a company yet, so we actually may have just discarded the invitation.” Some months later, though, he did attend both Xeikon and Indigo presenting their digital printing technology at Ipex. Ward remembers: “Xeikon’s press conference was rather low key, almost like ‘this is it, but we don’t exactly know what to do with it yet’. Indigo was a different thing altogether and it seemed ‘the hottest thing in town’ instantly.” A whole new world opened up in a way that never had been done before, says Ward: “But the question remained: where is the opportunity?”

Short run and VDP

He considered ‘short run printing’ as the main application for digital printing: “I did not really see how personalisation was going to happen, because where was the data going to come from? Printers did not have the data and they did not have the right kind of relationship with their customers or end-consumers to get their data. Of course, personalisation did already exist in invoicing and statement printing, but these new colour printing technologies were far too slow for that.” He witnessed some early attempts of personalized print: “There were brochure that featured your desired car in your favourite colour, or personalised offers for white-goods, but these never really took off. At that time, it proved too difficult for people to get their heads around it.”

Eventually, the industry figured out it should not be selling ‘variable data printing’ but rather ‘personalised communication’, Ward says. The highly personalised welcome packs by Carphone Warehouse from 2005, that included some 80 variables, were very successful and “cleverly done”. Also TUI got it right with its personal travel packs: “You started to see how this really could work.”

Other promising applications that he expected to take off quickly, failed to do so, however: “Collecting educational content from various sources to put together customized materials for individual students has ran into copyright issues. The same goes for personal recipe books – there ought to be place for it, but somebody still needs to crack it. You need control of the content.”

A great future coming

Short run printing has established itself in many sectors, such as books and labels. “That is not so much about printing, but rather about costs and efficiency. Publishers and brand-owners want less waste and are looking to reduce warehousing. These trends will eventually also drive digital printing for cartons and packaging – although for now that segment is still very much focused on ‘cost-per-unit’”, says Ward. “Versioning could also be a big opportunity in packaging, but that would require the industry to overcome new challenges in stock management and distribution.”

Looking another 15 years ahead, Gareth Ward expects digital printing still has a great future coming: “Will it dominate the printing industry? Probably not: offset is so highly versatile and efficient that it will retain a key place. But new opportunities will boost digital printing. Both on demand printing and personalisation will be driven by ‘pull’ instead of ‘push’, as consumers are looking for relevant information and an ever more personal experience. Versioning is already big and will be getting even bigger. Increased demand for flexibility, cost-reduction and efficiency will drive volumes to digital presses as well.” “Also, new technologies will have an impact. As we are now getting into Artificial Intelligence and self-managing workflows, it is not hard to see how digital printing is best suited to fit in with that. I think a lot is still yet to happen, and I am sure it will be very interesting.”

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