The print buyer’s conundrum

Corporate printing centres account for almost half of all digital printing in North America. Inplant printing operations made the transition from ink-on-paper to toner- and inkjet-on-paper over the last two decades. Offset duplicators were replaced with high-speed copiers, which were replaced with high-speed digital printers, which were replaced with digital colour printers. Today, less than ten per cent of all inplant operations utilise offset litho.

The inplant operation may be centralised in one large facility or dispersed into satellite operations throughout an organisation. At one time, all printing had to be submitted to the inplant operation for right of first refusal, but this mandate has been modified and, in most companies, print buyers can choose between in-house and out-house procurement. Inplant operations must justify their existence in terms of cost and performance.

Print buyers see the inplant operation as another printing company and use the job requirements as a guide. As a result, 80 per cent of what inplant printing centres print is utility materials: forms, reports, presentations, proposals, invitations, small signs, etc.

I visited with print buyers at a large electronics manufacturer recently and toured the largest of their multiple printing centres. Old offset duplicators had years of dust on them but the digital colour printer was running all the time. Wide-format inkjet printing was producing signage and displays for trade shows. They were about to implement a web-to-print capability to speed ordering and tracking.

These operations existed because of security concerns, short runs, and very quick turnarounds. Higher quality and more complex printing was outsourced, one-third to online print services (business cards, stationery, envelopes, etc) and two-thirds to commercial printers (mostly promotional and some publication material).

According to an InfoTrends study, more than 60 per cent of print buyers expect the amount of print produced in their internal facilities to increase in relation to print produced with outside vendors over the next two years. Theoretically, inplant operations should have an advantage over commercial printers – – no tax, no sales commission, and no profit mark-up. But in many cases they are burdened with too much overhead in terms of non-production personnel (multiple managers and supervisors).

As digital printing is moving in-house, this is placing more pressure on print buyers to support the internal operation. But here is the conundrum: spot colours. Just over 65 per cent of print buyers’ companies require the use of corporate colours. Other than one digital colour printer, all others cannot print some percentage of the Pantone suite of colours. In a few cases the digital colour printer can get close enough, but in most cases, only offset litho can hit the colour to the satisfaction of both marketers and designers.

When we asked print buyers if they really needed corporate colours, they overwhelmingly (97 per cent) replied that it was a corporate decision, not theirs. I personally do not see the difference between the Aetna red, Xerox red, Avis red, Kodak red, or many of the other corporate reds. Fuji green is unique and gives them an environmental edge. Agfa’s orange is almost red. Heidelberg is blue, and I could go on. Corporate identity today is a combination of the typeface used for the name, a graphic element and a special colour, and heaven forbid that you mess with any of them.

As new high-speed, high-quality inkjet printing is installed, it will change some of these dynamics. Some of these new systems will support spot colours. At first they will be used for transactional and trans/promo materials and then usurp some percentage of direct mail printing. Colour will dominate in all printing and the power of personalisation will be applied on a wider scale.

Commercial printers will have an advantage for promotional work with better finishing, coating, and ancillary services. Thus, I think that the market will pretty much progress as it has been progressing, with print buyers balancing what their inplants can do versus what commercial printers can do. Print buyers will do what is best for the company in terms of print quality, cost, and effectiveness.

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