Litho remains resilient in the face of ongoing digital growth

Richard Stuart-Turner
Monday, May 8, 2017

When Benny Landa presented the first Indigo press at Ipex 1993, commercial colour digital printing as we know it was born and all sorts of predictions were quickly made about the impact digital would have on the industry and how much longer litho would dominate.

Fast forward to 2017 and the latest figures from Smithers Pira show that digital currently accounts for 16.2% of the global print market value and 2.9% of the volume. This is up from 2.1% of the volume in 2012 and the transition is expected to increase to 3.9% by 2022.

Digital is clearly on the up, then, driven by factors such as continued innovation in the inkjet space as well as changing trends meaning more printers are turning to digital devices to handle shorter runs, fast turnarounds and variable data work.

Yet digital’s market share is still some way behind where predictions anticipated it would be by now.

“Digital print is growing steadily, mainly in the transactional, book, commercial and outdoor sector. However, the growth is considerably slower than originally announced 24 years ago,” says KBA marketing director Klaus Schmidt.

“The main reasons for the slower growth of digital print are not technical and quality issues anymore, but higher consumables costs and much lower output compared with litho.”

But inkjet is expected to take digital speeds closer to litho and the rapidly evolving technology is expected to accelerate digital’s market saturation over the coming years.

“This trend will speed up because more manufacturers are bringing presses to market. With cut-sheet inkjet at B2 and above, that part of the market is hotting up,” says Mark Stephenson, Fujifilm digital printing and press systems product manager.

“Heidelberg’s Primefire, which has Fujifilm Samba heads, is coming very close to shipping and the quality is going to be good. As soon as people see that quality in a B1 format, albeit on a packaging press, then they will demand that on a commercial press – the Fujifilm Jet Press brings that quality, but not on that sheet size yet.”

Some in the industry believe – like Benny Landa – that his Nanography technology has the potential to revolutionise printing. The first beta press installations are due later this year so the next few years should give a clearer idea of how disruptive this technology could be.

While this flurry of activity may well help digital to increase its market share more quickly, litho has more than stood its ground and continues to dominate the global print landscape in terms of the number of pages printed. By 2022 Smithers Pira says litho will still account for more than 70% of the world print output.

Komori UK managing director Neil Sutton says: “Litho is a very robust form of print that has had to reinvent itself many times over because it’s been under pressure.

“We went from single-sided printing to double-sided printing, we’ve seen the advent of long perfectors and we’ve seen more and more automation on presses in terms of reducing makeready time and reducing waste. Now we’re looking even further into the process, i.e. the drying processes, the printing processes and adding value.”

Indeed, UV’s instant drying capabilities have made shorter runs more commercially viable on litho presses and encouraged many printers to return to litho – or at least delay investment in digital.

Furthermore, litho efficiency improvements such as Heidelberg’s ‘Push to Stop’ autonomous printing technology are enabling users to get the very most out of their machines – making them ever more competitive with digital.

“The ‘Push to Stop’ concept has opened up the issue of low operational effectiveness. Few businesses run their machines at the maximum capability, so could get much more for their existing capacity if they did a makeready in three minutes and always ran at 15,000 or 18,000 sheets per hour,” says Smithers Pira print consultant Sean Smyth.

“Ease of use and automation will boost productivity when running to standard conditions, making litho more efficient.”

But many printers use both litho and digital technologies in tandem, for different purposes, rather than using one or the other exclusively.

“The early fights between digital and litho are a thing of the past. Both technologies have their strengths and weaknesses so they are used today together by many printers and for commercial reasons this will be the case for the years to come,” says Schmidt.

Sutton adds: “The two technologies will sit side by side in the future and it makes life more interesting and gives the printer more choice, which creates opportunities.

Heidelberg UK sales director Jim Todd agrees that printers have a lot more choice now than they have ever had historically, with litho and its various drying options as well as toner-based digital and inkjet and all of the various format sizes available for each technology.

“It’s quite a complex situation. There’s a big volume-based part to the decision and it also depends what existing technologies you have – if you’ve already got an offset machine and platemaking and it’s a technology you understand then buying a new offset device isn’t a major process obstacle.

“But if you’ve grown up with a B3 digital machine then the logic says you go to a B2 digital machine next, albeit it might be more cost-effective to go for a B2 offset machine.”

Ultimately, while it’s true that litho remains dominant in a world where digital’s market share continues to grow, it is difficult to accurately predict where the market might be in 10 or more years time. Projections in the past have been wide of the mark and there are now more variables than ever in the equation.

As consumables costs fall and inkjet is more heavily adopted, digital’s market share will undoubtedly grow, but at what pace it is hard to tell – all the signs suggest that litho is here to stay for some time yet. 

For now, it seems that those using the benefits of both technologies to their advantage will be best placed to prosper.


Inkjet growth will continue but litho still wins on cost

john-charnockJohn Charnock, director, Print Research International

Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s the impact of inkjet that is helping digital’s market share to grow, and will continue to make the difference.

All of a sudden you’ve got inline finishing, you’re producing higher volumes and you’re seeing it used for books – there isn’t a book company out there that hasn’t got inkjet. Perhaps the model is slightly different to the Xeroxs and the Konica Minoltas where the click rate is still relatively high – with inkjet you’re definitely seeing that coming down.

The cost of unit per item is still too high for digital to do the high-volume work, but I think it will continue to grow, inkjet especially – we’ve already seen the likes of Xerox and HP moving quite dramatically into investment in inkjet.

Push back

My view is that there is also a counteraction to that, which is the number of digital guys who are investing in litho technology – especially with UV – in order to deal with the longer-run, digital-type non-variable work.

Lots of people thought there was going to be loads of variable data but we’re not seeing as much as expected. There’s a lot of on-demand and shorter runs in more frequent order cycles, and there are some specialists, but in the general commercial space I would say there isn’t a great deal of variable data being done in large quantities and so some of the digital guys have decided to put in a fast makeready UV press.

And it’s not just UV helping litho to fight back but the fast makeready as well. Automation and workflow is having an impact, for sure, and also the realisation that there are a lot of digital printers who are working very hard but making very low margins.

If you look at the amount of money a digital printer is paying in clicks, maintenance and everything else, it’s a very big number and they will naturally look at that to see how they can reduce it.


Where do you stand on the digital vs litho debate?

garth-davisGarth Davis, managing director, Lexon Group

“With our particular work, we’re noticing that runs are becoming shorter and customers are starting to find better materials – being able to print those digitally means that we haven’t got the high cost of a makeready that you have on traditional presses. I do think digital will continue to grow but I can’t see it being dominant in the short term because of the cost. That said, I do seriously think that with the strides the digital manufacturers are making, I’d personally put 10 years on litho, especially when Landa actually gets going.” 

jon-lancasterJon Lancaster, managing director, Falkland Press

“We’ve got four sheet sizes here – two digital and two litho – so we’ve got a lot of choice. I’ve been building some software recently that chooses which press each job should go on, based not just on margin but many other things. We use both digital and litho a lot – our website feeds in jobs to both and the break points vary dramatically depending on the imposition, the finishing processes and the size of the job. Digital is a very prominent part of our business but it in no way replaces litho.” 

mark-willisMark Willis, managing director, KMS Litho

“We’ve had a digital facility for 15 years, starting off with a Xerox DocuColor 252 – we were told it was going to take over litho but I think it’s fairly stagnated. That said, we currently have a Heidelberg Versafire CV and we couldn’t be without it. Digital quality has come a long way and it really backs up what we do on our litho side. But I’m closely monitoring litho LED-UV drying at the moment – I could see that staving off the onset of commercial entry-level digital machines for a time to come.”


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