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Offset printing: rethinking the future: after 500 years as print's star process, offset printing is finally facing some competition.

We may have reached the digital age, but those who believe it heralds the paperless society are the ones still working through the 300 cases of bottled water they stockpiled against Y2K. Print is certainly changing, but it is far from dead. As one of the most traditional printing processes, offset printing faces the biggest challenge from new digital processes; but these changes do not mean the end of a technology that stands as one of our society's true landmark developments.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. printing and publishing industry had total sales of US$ 210 billion in 1997, and has grown since then. Offset printing has long been its workhorse process. Current estimates are that offset makes up about 70% of the U.S. printing market Magazines, newspapers, books, advertising flyers--most products that rely on dependable print quality and high volume are offset printed. Because the process is so well established, it boasts a stable cost structure and a surfeit of vendors willing to provide services that range from inexpensive, quick turnaround jobs to high-end printed products that use special inks, paper stocks, coatings, or other elements.

However, digital printing, and digital information delivery, are pulling demand away from offset printing. By the year 2010, estimates show that offset volume may increase slightly as the total print market continues to expand, but its share of the market will have dropped to about 40%. Print on demand, which uses digital technology to eliminate the traditional plates used in offset, offers a highly customizable product in smaller quantities that can be easily updated--a perfect combination for many of today's advertisers and publishers. It is the fastest growing segment in the printing industry.

Digital information transfer, via Internet, Intranet, e-mail, or disk, is also moving plenty of volume away from the offset presses and into more personal surroundings. "Even though print changes, the volume of paper probably goes up, because people will still print something out of their printers," according to Frank Romano, vice chair of education for the Electronic Document Systems Foundation (EDSF). In an interview with Print on Demand magazine, Romano stated, "Sometimes you'll print for backup; sometimes you'll print out tot other reasons. And it will be on cut-sheet paper. The growth in paper is going to be in cut-sheet."

In the yew short term, offset printing demand staggered following last year's 9/11 events, which prompted a sharp drop in advertising spending expected to last into early 2002. 'A precipitous drop like the one we saw in the last four months of (20011 had an extremely negative effect during a time when we traditionally earn 40% of our operating income," said Charles G. Cavell, president and CEO of print giant Quebecor World. As economic conditions improve, so will general printing demand. The Gartner Group predicts an increase of about 10%-20% per year through the early 2000s.


For the near future, suggested Romano, offset printing's lifeline will be special work. "(Currently,) the toner-based engines may not be able to handle high-quality jobs like annual reports," he said. "After 2010 they probably will, but you're still going to have presses out there to do certain types of work. The presses can handle a wider range of substrates, a higher quality for the short term, and more complicated kinds of printing--for instance, eight-color work."

Still, it is clear that offset printing, once the industry mainstay, will no longer be the "star attraction" on print's growing roster of processes and technologies. To manage this change, printing industry experts are advising a new strategy. "Successful printing businesses of 2010 will look different than the printers of the past decade. Successful printers will make the transition from a manufacturing model to a service model: from simply producing documents to helping customers manage their information," said Bernhard Schreier, CEO of printing equipment manufacturer Heidelberg.

What does this mean for papermakers? The key may be to follow suit with their own more service-based business models. Boise Cascade's recent name change--under which Boise Cascade Office Products will become Boise Office Solutions, and its Paper Division will become Boise Paper Solutions--is an example of this new thinking. By closely following print technology trends, papermakers should be able to adjust their product offerings to match the needs of the changing printing industry.


For more information about this focus topic, try these web-sites:

Printing on Demand magazine:

NPES, the Association for Supplier of Printing and Publishing Technologies:
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Title Annotation:Four-Minute Focus
Author:Bottiglieri, Janice
Publication:Solutions - for People, Processes and Paper
Date:May 1, 2002
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