Taking a Closer Look at Production Print Trends in 2020

The opening year of this century’s third decade has already brought changes that could not possibly have been expected at the first of the year. The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on worldwide business have made us pause and realize that the status quo is a boundary that nature can change at any time. It has also allowed us to recognize that we can be resilient and resourceful in the face of change, searching for solutions that give opportunities to recover and even thrive in a “new normal.”

How does this relate to production print trends? Primarily as an analogy for those in the imaging channel to pause and recognize the changes in status quo to traditional print areas of the industry, and how production print can be a growth opportunity for channel dealers and resellers to survive and thrive in the new normal of the imaging industry.

Digital production print direction

The opportunity in the production print market is found in the continued movement of print from analog offset presses to digital presses. According to Smithers Pira, about 49 trillion A4 production print pages were produced worldwide in 2019, with North America accounting for approximately one-third of the volume, and that annual page volume is expected to remain the same through 2024. The share of those pages produced on digital printers in 2019 was 17% and that is expected to grow to a 21% share by 2024.

Digital print provides a lower cost, more efficient way to produce short-run print jobs and personalized printed pieces. Labor costs and the time-consuming setup process for offset make this type of job expensive for print service providers (PSPs) and their customers. Digital print technology enables commercial printers and in-house print shops to more easily and more profitably meet the on-demand print needs of customers.

Office equipment manufacturers introduced a variety of digital cut-sheet production print devices to introduce dealers and resellers to this production print opportunity some time ago. Today, many of those manufacturers also offer large format, continuous feed, digital label, and digital packaging print equipment to imaging channel dealers.  This reflects the expanding range of opportunities for digital transformation within the traditionally analog commercial and industrial print markets. The transition to digital output in these markets presents new avenues to capture new sources of profitable growth for those dealers willing to participate.

Cut-sheet digital presses

Most imaging channel dealers and resellers have been introduced to the production print opportunity using the cut-sheet digital production printers virtually all OEMs now offer. For entry-level production needs up to high volume commercial and in-house print jobs, the variety of cut-sheet digital production printers has never been more diverse. New, lower-cost devices make it more affordable for dealers yet to enter production print to do so, with lower speed equipment that delivers production level output quality and reliability.

Capabilities of cut-sheet digital production equipment continue to advance. Improvements to media support enable printing on stock up to 450 gsm (grams per square meter) in weight and on sheets up to 51 inches in length. This expands applications that can be produced on this kind of equipment. Some new models are engineered with sensors that can sense the type of media being drawn into the printer to automatically adjust printer settings, or have options that scan pages as they are printed and make adjustments to ensure consistent output quality. New B-size digital printers can print onto media up to 23 by 29.5 inches in size, as well as onto more and different substrates, expanding print applications to include labels, cartons, ID cards, books, and book covers.

Finishing options for folding, slitting, booklet making, saddle stitching and more are available from OEMs and third-party providers. Some new models now have an optional trimmer unit, inline creaser, and slitter options that are integrated with the equipment to allow for more seamless production of gatefold output and full-bleed trimming of output. With these types of finishing options combined with the digital technology that allows variable data printing for personalization of individual pages in high volume jobs, today’s cut-sheet digital production printers are output factories that will continue to migrate page volumes from offset equipment.

Large format and continuous feed

Wide-format digital printers have been available through the imaging channel for some time now. Capable of printing charts, maps, and technical drawings, they offer many more applications, sales and profits than their blueprint ancestors. Manufacturers continue to engineer advances in these digital printers to provide more assortment of widths, higher output quality, and wider substrate capability such as textiles or labels.

Large format digital printers are more than just wide. These digital printers are engineered to print on a variety of media including flexible media on rolls or in sheets, and rigid media such as board or stone. They have the capability to produce large scale prints that can be used for indoor signage, large posters, and banners. Advances in ink (UV, latex, etc.) enable applications such as outdoor signs, textiles, and wall and floor coverings to be printed on these digital printers. Applications are expanded with large scale cutters to cut out printed forms for standup signs or die-cut items.

Continuous feed and web type digital print equipment are becoming available to handle transactional, direct mail, and publishing applications. Previously, very high volume opportunities like this have been out of reach for many dealers. As manufacturers begin to roll out more affordable equipment positioned for the smaller niches of these application needs, dealers will find a growing opportunity to add to their print volume.

Digital label and package print

An emerging opportunity exists in digital labels and digital package printing. Expected to grow 9.9% over the next three years, this is another production print market imaging channel dealers and resellers may want to consider.

Labels and packages are everywhere, from goods in a grocery store to labeled packages from your favorite online retailer, or any of a million other items that require some form of labeling. Many large firms, and particularly new cottage industries springing up in the gig economy, are calling for the ability to print more affordable shorter runs and reduce packaging obsolescence and waste that traditional litho or offset presses find difficult to deliver. For labels and even corrugated folding box containers, the desire for “on the fly” personalized printing is growing. That need alone is driving an almost 26% growth in corrugated box digital package printing through 2022.

The range of digital label and package print equipment, from new tabletop models to larger models for higher volume needs, gives dealers and resellers a variety of ways to enter and grow with the market. Additionally, finishing options that contour cut labels and remove the matrix waste provide additional sales and service revenue. Digital package print is considered one of the next frontiers of digital printing and, properly positioned, a dealer could find that this frontier holds great promise for their print business.

A side of embellishment and enhancement

An adjacent market opportunity to digital production print, whether printing cut-sheets, large format items, or packaging items, is found in the increasing print embellishment and enhancement space. By 2022, it’s expected the equivalent of 385 billion A4 size sheets will be produced with some form of decorative embellishment. That represents a 10% CAGR from 2017.

Some cut-sheet digital printer manufacturers have offered additional toner (fifth color) stations to use with the traditional four toner stations of CMYK for some time now. The ability to lay down neon, white, clear or custom color toner can enhance a printed piece and make it more valuable to the end consumer.

Advances in equipment that can add varnish to create 2D or 3D effects on a printed piece, whether that piece comes from a cut-sheet (including B-size print), large format or continuous feed digital printers are more affordable. To bring higher value-enhanced print service to in-house print services, tabletop embellishment solutions that can add foil, metallic color, laminate and spot gloss to documents are being introduced. All this new equipment enables imaging channel dealers to more easily add another line of equipment, supplies, and service sales into their business.

Studies have shown that embellished items are 2.5 times more attractive to consumers. Yet only half of marketers are aware that 3D textures and other enhancements can be added to a printed piece to help their product stand out, and 40% of them are not aware that variable embossed foils are possible. Two-thirds of PSPs plan to offer print embellishment to customers, and that embellished print item can be priced at a 39% premium. As PSPs promote these higher-margin items and educate their customers on the value of an embellished print item, an almost perfect storm of demand generation from the consumer to marketer to PSP to dealers will build.

Color, black and white, toner and inkjet

Color remains at the forefront of digital production print equipment sales. Although there is still a need for black and white equipment, new color equipment offerings continue to expand. Some manufacturers are introducing their first color production equipment. Veteran manufacturers in the color production space are expanding offerings with lower speed, lower-cost models and capabilities in higher volume, more costly models. Going forward, expect to see even more growth in color.

In the cut-sheet digital production area, toner is still the most widely used imaging technology. Inkjet drives the equipment used for most continuous feed, large format, and B-size printing. Inkjet and ink technology have evolved to support and print on a wider variety of media than before. As time goes on, manufacturers will look at moving inkjet technology down into lower cost, lower volume, cut-sheet digital equipment. However, toner will continue to be the primary technology used for cut-sheet digital production print for some time.

Summing it up

In a time of slowing growth and pricing pressure in the office market, there are more reasons than ever for imaging channel dealers to pause and think about the changing status quo in the traditional areas of the industry and what kind of opportunities those changes provide. Digital production print certainly provides one of those opportunities. Whether a dealer has only thought about entering that market or is already participating in that market, the new business and growth that production print offers has never been better. After all, talking about print in volumes of hundreds of thousands to millions, or measured in square meter versus pages is an enticing prospect to any dealer.

New equipment models from manufacturers make it more affordable and profitable to enter and thrive in this market. Emerging opportunities like digital label and package printing can expand a dealer’s business in areas not thought possible just a few years back. Adjacent areas of print embellishment and enhancement can help a dealer add more value, revenue and profit to a production print solution by helping customers print more highly valued output. Not every part of the digital production print market is for every imaging channel dealer. However, the trends favor growth in this area. With the right partners, a dealer can reap the rewards of this growth better than ever before.

leads the Business Intelligence Services and Product Planning organization for Konica Minolta Business Solutions. In this role, he is responsible for the growth and innovation of the company’s technology, solutions, vertical markets and ECM practice. Previously, he oversaw all corporate marketing initiatives and was responsible for the planning and development of new products for Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc