For the past few years, the industry has been buzzing about a paradigm shift in digital book manufacturing, spearheaded in part by changing balance sheets and publishers’ need to better manage inventories. Though the reasons for the shift were sound, the challenge has always been in the development of digital printing technology that could achieve the quality, speed, and flexibility that’s been the mainstay of offset printing.
The trends supporting the increased need for digital book manufacturing have been well documented, and the realities reflect compounding “food chain” dynamics:
- Public. Today’s consumers are demanding greener, more ecologically responsible solutions. This translates to less waste and a healthier environment. In addition, end users want more attention paid to their individual needs, e.g., products that are personalized and/or customized.
- Publishers. Publishers want to satisfy the public—while developing new financial models that lessen waste (i.e., throw away fewer books) and allow for a shorter inventory cycle and less forecasting risk for newer titles.
- Printers. Book manufacturers and binderies recognize their customers’ challenges and want to meet their demands, both now and in the future. That means developing viable, innovative technological alternatives to once tried-and-true offset-driven workflow systems.
From the start, this recognition of the need for “offset substitution” was significantly challenged by offset’s proven capabilities in terms of volume, flexibility, substrate variability, and overall quality. And, although digital toner-based systems were available, they had relatively limited production capabilities and predominantly black-and-white-only capability in the important higher speed, continuous feed product lines.
That all began to change at Drupa in June 2008 when printers and industry professionals seriously started to take notice of the compelling developments in digital inkjet. At Drupa, 30” wide or more capabilities were demonstrated, and inkjet was getting closer to the standard width of an offset press. Moreover, speeds were being announced up to 400 feet per minute with promises for more in the near future. These increased production speeds meant more books could be manufactured more efficiently on a single digital book manufacturing line.
Today, many of the aforementioned roadblocks to “offset substitution” are becoming less of an issue. As inkjet’s quality improves and substrate variability widens (e.g., coated stocks), more and more of the market is taking notice. Clearly, the growth of inkjet technology over the last twelve months has resulted in an inkjet digital book revolution as major players, including HP, Kodak, Oce, Screen, etc., are now manufacturing highly efficient, quality-rich digital inkjet printing systems. Likewise, print finishing technologies are keeping pace as well, delivering solutions that can handle not only the current increases in speed and the wider widths, but also provide the scalability needed to meet the demands of future (and even faster) generations of digital print technology.
It has been estimated that a little over 3% of all books are done digitally today. However, with the continued migration to offset substitution, we can project 10-15% of books being printed digitally within the next three to five years. And many of these books will be printed utilizing inkjet. Toner based systems will still be used, primarily for photo books and some 1-off applications, especially when black and white is preferred. But digital’s Holy Grail has always been high-speed 4-color capability. The advances in inkjet technology will soon make that a reality.