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Rapid advances in digital printing technologies are opening new markets to more printers than ever before.

It’s time to do your happy dance. Print services providers and packaging companies have the best of both worlds now due to recent advances in digital printing technologies that can mimic the gorgeous quality of offset printing while continuing to leverage the speed, convenience, and flexibility that digital’s known for.

That is, if you’re willing to adapt your business strategy around digital printing. If you don’t, you risk getting left behind.

According to data from Smithers Pira, a leading provider of market intelligence in the packaging, paper, and print industry supply chains, the 2010 global print market was worth $811 billion, with 9 percent of this revenue attributed to inkjet- or toner-based output. This share rose to nearly 15 percent in 2016, and it is projected to be 17.6 percent by decade’s end.

“As these technologies come to the market, not only does it provide better image quality for printers, it also provides new revenue opportunities they didn’t have before,” says Dave Erlandson, general manager of PODi, an industry association that promotes digital printing, market research, and sales training. “Small- to medium-size printers have pretty much the same capabilities now as the bigger guys, in terms of being able to deliver quality output.”

Here we’ll explore the advances in digital printing technologies, new markets opening up as a result, and the disruptive (in a good way) nature of high-speed inkjet so that you can determine the best digital strategy for your business moving forward.

Advances in digital technology

The image quality and functionality once found only in high-end digital presses such as the HP Indigo and Xerox iGen are now accessible to smaller printers thanks to recent product releases in the light- and mid-range space, says Erlandson. As a result, print services providers and packaging specialists enjoy:

Improved image quality. Erlandson notes that even just five years ago, digital image quality was still an issue for smaller presses. “With the cut sheet products that are on the market today, you don’t have those types of questions anymore,” says Erlandson. “The image quality is as good—if not better, in some cases—with digital technology.”

Added color options. “The capabilities beyond four colors are starting to come pretty fast,” says Lisa Pryor, division manager for Millcraft, a paper and packaging distributor. Brand colors, whites, clear coats, golds, metallics, neons, and pinks: These new possibilities bring new opportunities.

Take printing with white as an example, says Erlandson. White allows printers to run colored stocks popular in markets such as wedding and event invitations and the clear material used in store-window cling-ons. “These (high-value applications) are now available for the small- to medium-size guy to do,” he says.

Expanded embellishments. Enhancements such as gold foil, raised print, glitter inks, spot coatings—once associated with offset and offset finishing devices—are being done on digital finishing devices as well. “They work just like digital presses in that you can personalize if you want to,” says Erlandson. “For creatives, it opens up a whole new realm of opportunities.”

Increased variety of substrates. “In the past with digital printing, it’s been white paper—essentially you get what you get,” says Pryor. She notes that paper manufacturers are working hard to expand their portfolios of substrates for toner-based and high-speed inkjet digital presses, and their efforts are paying off with options that include colored and textured papers, vinyls, and more. “Now printers are realizing they can create a thoroughly unique experience,” Pryor says.

Unlimited scale. From massive insurance company campaigns run on high-speed inkjet to a run of one (say a photo book from your most recent family vacation), digital printing makes everything possible. “It really is pretty cool when you think about it,” says Pryor. “And much different than traditional printing.”

Growing markets that maximize digital’s advantages

Digital printing provides viable business opportunities for those printers agile enough to invest in and explore new business models. By looking beyond short-run color printing to print-on-demand, marketing fulfillment (e.g., digital storefronts), personalized marketing campaigns, and data-driven applications, print services providers can better serve existing clients and gain new ones.

Depending on your business model, you may wish to explore expanding markets, including:

Short-run packaging.

While the market for printing labels has been around for quite some time, Erlandson and Pryor agree that the printing of folding cartons, corrugated, and flexible film packaging is an emerging market. Pryor points to Birchbox, an internet-based beauty care company that sends unique boxes each month as a perfect example of the growing desire for personalized packaging experiences.

High-quality, high-volume direct mail.

Erlandson credits advances in coated papers, inks, and inkjet heads for fueling highly customized, higher-end direct mail pieces. What used to be done with an offset color print and laser overprint can now be done in one pass with a high-speed inkjet press, including adding variable color images in places where it makes sense.

Personalization and data-driven marketing.

Improvements in data mining, data collection and data reporting software, and digital press technology have come together to create tremendous opportunity with variable data printing and versioning of marketing content and collateral. Companies may choose to customize their mailings with recipients’ names or company names, offers based on past purchases or other known information, or varied images based on a prospect’s age, gender, or interest.

Book printing.

The ability to print books on-demand is revolutionizing the book publishing industry. “They used to think about the cost per book printed. Now they think about the cost per book sold,” says Erlandson. Less inventory and less waste equates to a lower cost per unit sold even though the cost per print might be slightly higher.

According to Smithers Pira, book printing will see a radical switch to digital across this decade. Its research shows that digital book printing started with a 14.2 percent share of the world market by value in 2010 and is projected to rise to 46.1 percent of world market value by 2020.

The inkjet disruption

“Whatever anyone knew about inkjet six months ago is obsolete,” says John Crumbaugh, media and ink product marketing manager for Canon Solutions America.

The roll-fed, high-speed inkjet presses used for large, transactional mailings are being joined by smaller, sheet-fed presses that can be used in commercial applications. The new presses take advantage of inkjet’s reliability, flexibility, and color and image quality.

“Inkjet is fitting all of the bill,” says Crumbaugh. “It’s less expensive [in cost per unit], the quality is there, it can print on different substrates, and it’s very fast.”

The advanced presses, because they’re so efficient, are now branching out and producing print marketing work beyond simple envelope-stuffed direct mail to more freestanding direct mail, collateral material, and even catalogs and publications.

“People who are on the cutting-edge realize that high-speed inkjet is where technology is going,” says Pryor.

The market is changing fast. Are you ready?

By Laurie Hileman