Monochrome in a Color World

In an industry fixated on short-run color, digital monochrome production printing seldom sees the spotlight. That's a shame because it's a major profit center for many quick and small commercial printers. In QP's Annual Franchise Review, the results of which appear in this issue, digital monochrome output accounted for 13.2% of total sales or $265.1 million.

According to Larry Hunt's annual surveys of this segment, the major players in the quick and small commercial arena are Canon, Xerox, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, and Océ. We contacted each company for their read on the status of digital monochrome production printing.

All five agreed that digital monochrome now accounts for a great deal of the work that used to be printed single-color offset. However, that does not necessarily mean that it has replaced offset completely. "Although it is true that offset work continues to transition to digital," says Canon's Forrest Leighton, "We believe that there still is a large need for offset and for many, digital serves as a nice complement for specific types of work."

That said, there are some distinct advantages that digital monochrome has over offset.

Konica Minolta's Mike Fego points out that one of these advantages is simpler job setup using digital files. That "enables true on-demand printing with fast turnaround times and the ability to do shorter runs profitably."

Digital monochrome also tops offset in the area of variable data printing. "Digital monochrome can easily manage VDP applications, whereas offset is best suited for static print," says Ricoh's Kurt Konow.

"Only digital printing can support dynamic page printing," agrees Océ's Eric De Goeijen. "For many users, especially in book printing, it is the ability to print on demand or just as many copies as are needed at an affordable price."

So, digital monochrome has some advantages over offset, but what about the quality question, which early on dogged digital printing. "The quality of monochrome digital presses has reached a point where most print shops are evaluating it as a viable option for their operation," says Xerox's John Santoli, who also points out such advantages as in-line finishing.

"With advances in imaging technologies, improved toner quality, as well as new developing units, the quality of digital monochrome is almost indistinguishable in appearance when compared to offset," adds Leighton.

Konow goes even further. "Some would argue that digital may be better than offset with 1200x1200 output. Others would argue and say it is very close."

Applications

Digital monochrome printing lends itself to a wide variety of applications, such as on-demand books, manuals, newsletters, personalized marketing materials, etc. "Some good applications for monochrome printing for quick and small commercial printers are variable input mail pieces," says Fego.

Konow agrees. "Any VDP applications are perfect for digital, such as direct mail, personalized postcards, rebate checks, transpromotional, booklets, manuals."

What about color? Essentially there are two ways to approach adding color to monochrome digital printing—insert digitally printed color pages or print monochrome on pre-printed offset shells. "The combination of offset shells and monochrome digital print compliment each other well," says Santoli.

Integration

While there are an increasing number of all-digital operations, most seem to be a combination of offset and digital. "Depending on the volumes, a shop may still have enough work for their large offset jobs, or they may eventually want to transition to digital completely," says De Goeijen.

"Digital monochrome and offset are often found side by side," says Konica's Fego. "Long run, static work is well suited to offset, whereas shorter runs and variable input applications are better suited to digital."

"As the print production landscape migrates more toward digital technologies there is definitely a need to converge both the analog and digital technologies," says Leighton. "One such system available to help with the transition would be a solution created by Heidelberg called Prinect. This solution allows the company to have the option of either sending work to the analog press, the digital press, or both presses if they choose."

Growth?

Will digital eventually take all the black-and-white work off the offset press? Probably not, but offset could someday take a considerable backseat to digital monochrome printing.

"Our philosophy at Xerox is to compliment the investments our customers have made in their existing presses and compliment their business by offering a black-and-white digital system." says Santoli. "The overall market for black-and-white offset print has been relatively steady and, as a result, monochrome digital technology has advanced to where it now is a realistic alternative to those traditional print shops that cater to the needs of short-run applications."

Konow says that digital can certainly replace offset when a shop has a certain specific job mix "where shorter runs, tight processing windows, and VDP applications exist."

Says Leighton, "In general terms, the days of printing high volumes on offset and keeping them on the shelves are soon to be behind us. The need is growing for short-run work that can be changed at a moment's notice. I recently visited a shop in Albany that is primarily a digital shop. In addition to their digital equipment, they have one offset press, which they use infrequently."

Improvement

De Goeijen notes that digital monochrome is constantly improving with more reliability, better front-to-back registration, energy efficiency, and productivity.
Fego also sees continuing improvement as monochrome digital printers "get faster, with higher image quality and lower cost per impression—all positives for quick and small commercial printers."

"As the quality of the digital monochrome engine improves, more opportunities will be available for quick and small commercial printers," says Leighton. "With the advent of high quality digital presses, quick print shops and commercial shops will be able to afford these devices and produce the same quality work as the analog offset devices."

Santoli says that he sees improved speed, productivity, duplexing, finishing capabilities, and MICR capabilities come to this arena. And Konow says that "improvements will continue to evolve in the areas of better workflow and automation, additional in-line finishing options, and improved document management tools integrated in the digital print controllers."

Profits

No matter what the technology used, printers won't stay in business without making a profit. Hunt's survey of the digital monochrome market found that the average selling prices of jobs with varying run lengths, number of originals, and monthly copy volumes have been relatively unchanged over the three year period between 2005 and 2008. In his High Speedy Copy News (www.larryhunt.com), he notes that "Just because the average selling prices have remained steady over this three year period, it doesn't mean that there is not a lot of variation in individual pricing. I am constantly amazed at how great a difference there is from one shop to the next."

Hunt goes on to observe that this means "you do not have to provide the lowest prices in town in order to do a good monthly copy volume. Customers buy from many printers for many reasons, with the price level being just one of those reasons."

He concludes: "So, when you are establishing your selling price schedule, you should set it up so that you will make a good profit in your copy department. That will probably cause you to be somewhere near the industry averages."

Recap

So, there is no doubt that digital monochrome devices are taking work off of offset presses and will continue to do so, although co-existence will be the norm in many shops for quite some time. Offset can provide high quality output, but is best suited for longer runs of static content. Digital monochrome quality has improved greatly and rivals—some say even surpasses—offset.

There are still improvements to come for digital monochrome presses in the areas of productivity, reliability, quality, finishing, and duplexing capabilities. The technology has many applications, especially in the area of short-run and VDP printing, and it can be profitable if priced correctly. In other words, digital monochrome printing will continue to be a major profit center for most quick and small commercial printers well into the future.

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