Rise of the Digital Color Press

Over the past few years, the printing industry has seen an evolutionary leap in the equipment category that was once referred to as color copiers. About 15 years ago, as the print world became more firmly entrenched in digital technology, we began calling them color copier/printers. Even that seems inadequate now, as most manufacturers prefer to brand these output devices as digital presses.

There is a faction that seems to enjoy arguing the merits of what criteria the equipment should meet in order to be called a press, but that is really just semantics. While digital color will never be the same as offset, it has been firmly established that it has created an enormous niche of its own.


Steady Growth

According to the June 2011 issue of Larry Hunt’s Color Copy News, “Color copying has been growing steadily, both in dollars and as a percentage of total company sales. There is every reason to believe that this growth trend will continue for many more years. And this growth has been happening even though selling prices have been declining steadily over this 20 year period.”

The report goes on to illustrate that in 1991 the average selling price of a color copy was $1.55, with an average monthly volume of 3,000 copies. So, in 1991, average monthly sales from color copies totaled $4,650. Ten years later, the selling price had fallen to $0.85 per copy (by then they were more accurately referred to as prints), and volume was up to an average of 8,000 pages per month, for average monthly sales of $6,800. By 2010, the average selling price per page was down to $0.41, but average volume had hit 38,000, producing average monthly sales of $15,580.

Keep in mind that during that same time period the cost of producing those color images had just as steadily declined, making the output more and more profitable as the market grew. In 1991, the average cost to produce a digital color print was $0.17. By 2001 that had fallen to $0.08, and last year the average cost was down to $0.02. Add in the increased productivity of the equipment—which averaged five ppm in 1991, 11-12 ppm in 2001, and 50-70 ppm in 2010—and we begin to understand why this is one of the most consistently popular technologies available.

It is no surprise that color digital output was the highest single category in the breakout of percent of sales by job type for both the Quick Printing Top 100 (see June 2011 QP) and the Annual Franchise Review (see April 2011 QP). It made up 17% of sales ($90,459,983) for the Top 100 and 23.3% of sales ($382,002,455) in the 2011 Franchise Review.


Hot Color, Cool Features

We can parse numbers all day long, but in the end, the driving force behind this growth is the simple fact that today’s equipment does a whole lot more than just deliver color images. The manufacturers have stepped up to the plate to deliver capabilities that early color copier owners probably never thought they would see.

First, let’s be clear that we are strictly talking about the high-end, production level, cut-sheet, toner-based devices. Some years back, a dividing line appeared that clearly delineated the difference between low-end and high-end machines. Equipment at the lower end of the spectrum is fine for retail and office work, but it is not intended for the rigors of production work.

Since we are also not including super high-end equipment such as HP Indigo and Xeikon equipment or inkjet devices, the field is narrowed down to four primary manufacturers: Canon, Konica Minolta, Ricoh, and Xerox. (Yes, arguments could be made for other companies to be included, but these four have pretty much defined the segment.) These manufacturers stand out for having invested heavily in R&D to deliver features that allow their products to be differentiated from one another while maintaining a baseline of productivity that is far beyond what any office copier or MFP could ever deliver. Nonetheless, competition is keen, which creates an excellent market situation for potential buyers.

Some of the advanced features that have become fairly well standardized are variable data capabilities, near offset-quality color—mostly due to the development of extremely fine particle toners—the ability to print on heavy or unusual stock, including glossy papers, and a wide variety of finishing options.

But there are more specialized capabilities that printers can leverage to truly build a specialty niche or to give them an edge over other printers in the market who don’t have these features (see sidebar).

A list of features that are commonly available and dramatically boost productivity include:

• Advanced editing features and increased job memory

• De-curling

• High-volume paper trays and stackers

• On-the-fly changeovers for paper and toner

• Duplexing at full rated speed

• Monthly duty cycles up to 500,000 images

• Touch panel controls

• 1200x1200 dpi resolution or higher


Whatever your needs, whatever your market, there is a machine that will perfectly suit your needs. There are models that offer everything from convenience and pleasing color at an affordable price to near-offset quality from units that are swimming in options—and which require proportionally higher investments. The choice is up to you, and Graph Expo provides a great opportunity to compare these machines head-to-head in a single venue.