Looking at the Coming Year

Quick printers today are called upon to produce just about every type of printing—laser, inkjet, digital, offset, duplicator—as well as provide a variety of digital graphics processing services. While you may still be running your A.B.Dick for some jobs, today it probably shares the pressroom floor with a high-speed digital copier-printer, a four-color offset and/or inkjet press, and a full-color digital printer of some kind. "Press ready" items arrive on disk or via email, and a percentage of your new business may come from your virtual storefront. Customers, of course, still need everything tomorrow, but today they actually expect to get it.

Perhaps the largest change brought about by digital technologies has been to make color reproduction affordable and more readily available, significantly boosting the demand for full-color printing. Variable data printing (VDP) and personalization also have become an affordable option. Additionally, our Information Age has expanded our horizons, enabled global commerce, and given us all a greater awareness of our limited resources and the need to protect the planet.

All of these broad, general movements will continue throughout the year and even beyond. The question is: How will they impact quick printers? From the perspective of an ink supplier, these innovative and economic developments will be influencing ink quality control and environmental printing. I predict quick printers will also experience the rising demand for personalization and, unfortunately, rising production costs.

Ink Perspective

While many quick printers experience rapid business through urgent customer orders and swift fulfillment, they can't afford to sacrifice ink quality and consistency for speed. For an international ink supplier, utilizing dependable and local raw materials and ensuring that the quality of these materials and their manufacturing processes are consistent from plant to plant can be problematic—especially from continent to continent. Because the quality of local materials can vary widely, it's virtually impossible to produce consistent pigments at every facility around the world. Any ink product is the result of a chemical process, and if there is variation in any element in the formulation, storage, or application process, the results are unreliable.

Due to these facts, ink quality control is likely to become more of a challenge. Printers will need to determine and enforce their own standards to ensure customers that their products maintain the appropriate color consistency. One solution is for printers to seek ink that is manufactured in one locality—especially if they plan on using ink sold and manufactured internationally.

While quick printers may develop their own preferred standard for ink quality requirements, we should note that currently the industry has no recognized standard for "green ink," primarily because so many different types of ink and printing technologies are available today. Once again, printers will need to develop their own standards for utilizing processes and compatible inks that produce reduced or zero VOC emissions. The National Association of Printing Ink Manufacturers (NAPIM) will eventually address the standards issue and will probably arrive at a resolution that resembles the "best qualitative and quantitative practices" for printers and their suppliers.

Printers may, however, choose from many options to market themselves as environmentally friendly printers, depending upon which printing processes they provide. For example, they can utilize vegetable-based inks on recycled stock, or employ UV inks for certain applications, or substitute aqueous coatings for lamination. All of these methods reduce VOC emissions and even the energy required for print production. However, until NAPIM adopts a set of standardized procedures, rising innovations will often have the final word in helping quick printers officially establish themselves as "green" printers.

Printing Perspective

Aside from color control and environmental innovations affecting quick printers, the demand for personalization will continue to grow. This can range from addressing preprinted direct mail items to Web-to-print. The ink printers use will need to be compatible with every printing technology involved in every step of the production process.

Though highly personalized VDP is now possible, more typical is the use of forms that are at least partially pre-printed with only a few variable or personalized elements—customer name and address, a block of text, or a graphic image—added later. Offset printing is certainly the most efficient and affordable way to produce these pre-printed forms in volumes of more than about 2,000 pieces, especially in full-color.

In producing this kind of mixed process or hybrid work, printers must consider both the ink and the paper they use for the job, and also the compatibility of the ink and the paper. A printer's best choice may be to utilize inks that can tolerate the intense heat of downstream digital printing processes and have been tested and proven to work well on both offset presses and on digital papers.

Both ink manufacturers and printers have been impacted by the side effects of a sluggish economy, including fluctuating energy costs and uncertain economic conditions. The price of high quality raw materials is increasing as a result of increasing global demand. In consideration of international economic developments, every ink maker has been compelled to increase prices due to these unfortunate business trends.

On a happier note, ink usually represents only 2% of the total cost of a print job, and ink makers are supporting printers by developing inks that ensure the best coverage possible, by offering inks that can be used with different types and brands of presses on the shop floor to maximize efficiencies, and by providing consistent and reliable quality inks to help you get "up to color" quickly and reduce waste.