Digital to press advantage over litho in next five years

Digital technology is set to see wider adoption worldwide - particularly in Asia
Digital technology is set to see wider adoption worldwide - particularly in Asia

The print market is moving to an “increasingly digital future,” according to the latest Smithers industry report.

The Future of Digital versus Offset Printing to 2027 report highlighted the threat posed to offset litho  by inkjet and toner as digital presses become more advanced and customer demands change.

Digital’s faster turnaround, low-cost customisation, and better cost profiles on short runs have made it particularly attractive in the advertising and commercial print sectors.

In response to these threats, litho manufacturers have focused on improving the efficiency of their presses, above all by minimising downtime.

The report predicted that push-to-stop style technology, machine learning and AI software would be at the forefront of this push. 

Manufacturers, it said, have already begun to put an emphasis on post-sales services in order to maximise their customers’ returns. The use of very-large format presses, meanwhile, may increase to take advantage of economies of scale.

Mark Willis, managing director at KMS Litho, runs a mix of digital and litho technology. He told Printweek that while litho manufacturers are trying their best to combat the “onslaught” of digital technology, it was inevitable they would lose some ground.

Part of this, he said, was in the increasing cost efficiency curve, where digital presses can now reach higher volume jobs that were previously only cost-effective on litho.

He said: “Litho has a place still, but I think for the traditional, smaller, printers like ourselves, you need to be using it for more niche areas, like Pantone, for instance.”

Digital’s low-volume price advantage has been further extended by rising printing costs, according to Dominic Hartley, commercial director of multidiscipline printer Lexon.

Speaking to Printweek, he said that with recent increases in the prices of paper, consumables, energy and salaries, the price break for inkjet sheetfed had lowered compared to litho sheetfed. More jobs that were litho, therefore, are now being produced digitally.

Previously, Lexon could only quote a 24pp A4 booklet up to 500 copies for inkjet, or over 1,000 for litho - now, however, Hartley said, inkjet is competitive up to 1,000 copies.

Continuing advancements in the quality of digital printing have raised a similar problem for litho, with some machines now indistinguishable from offset litho production.

This increase in quality has even affected the digital market: the latest generation of B1 and B2 format inkjet presses has begun to erode demand for toner printing. A significant amount of mono continuous commercial work has moved to high-speed inkjet machines.

The cost of these advanced machines, however, may prove damaging to small businesses.

Willis said: “The cost of these [new digital] devices is prohibitive to smaller businesses like myself - but then again, I can’t see businesses of our size [£1-2m turnover] surviving in this industry unless you are specialising or diversifying into niche areas.

“Digital technology is getting better all the time, and I’m sure it’s going to take over from traditional sheetfed litho houses, the smaller and medium size businesses.”

The report predicted that over the period until 2027, advertising would represent the single highest increase in volume for inkjet printing, though packaging, commercial print and books were all growing strongly.

Toner, it said, would see moderate growth in commercial and graphics applications, including for specialty products like photobooks.

Other analogue processes like flexo would prove resilient thanks to expanding demand for labels and packaging print.