The Rise of Digital Printing in the 2000s

Digital printing has come a long way since my inception into the print industry in the late aughts. I remember feeling incredibly lucky to get the practical experience working with the digital presses at my alma mater, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and being thrilled we could print variable images on a 12” x 18” high-quality press. Since this short time ago, Digital printing has seen significant growth in an industry that has been founded on analog printing for most of its existence. Societal impacts, improvements in technology, & trends in marketing, have all played & continue to impact the growth of digital printing.

While analog printing is still holding strong as the dominant print technology in the industry, Digital technology is starting to play a larger role in the conversation. According to Smithers, digital print will account for nearly a quarter of the global value of all print worth $230.5 billion, so there is definitely cause for attention on the matter. 

Societal Impacts

With marketing budgets growing tighter through the pandemic, print volumes have seen a direct impact. According to Gartner, Marketing budgets dropped as much as 15% in some cases, within the year during the start of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. While marketing budgets are starting to slowly recover 2 years in, attention on spending & the need to make an impact is greater than ever. Digital print allows for materials such as direct marketing to be more targeted and customized to the end user with little cost impact to the marketing budget.

As the topic of sustainability becomes a larger focus in today’s world, it’s important to highlight the sustainable side of digital print as well. As make-ready and printing plates are all but eliminated from a digital print run, there is a direct impact on the amount of paper & materials needed for a project with this reduction. Digital Inks and chemicals used for production are also more environmentally friendly than traditional offset inks, as a whole.

Improvements in Technology

Despite the fact that offset printing brings about great quality, longevity, and the ability to add special coatings, digital technology is beginning to become a close rival to offset litho. As digital technology continues to improve, products that would have traditionally been printed via offset litho have made the switch. Press size has also played a factor, widening the scope of possibilities. The HP Indigo changed the game when their Indigo 10000 press increased its sheet size from the aforementioned 12” x 18” up to a nearly 21” x 30” sheet. A Xerox iGen 5 can print up to a 35” length with their newest iteration. These seemingly small capabilities have had a major impact on what pieces can be produced in a digital format at a more efficient & economical rate, while not compromising quality.

Inkjet technology has also seen a great leap in the last two decades. Both HP and Canon have released high-speed inkjet web presses that have been instrumental in speed-to-market for personalized collateral such as financial documents & disclosures, variable direct marketing, and even on-demand book prints. 

Trends in Marketing

Alongside technological improvements, marketing trends have played a part in the popularity and rise of digital printing. Products best suited for lithography such as newspapers, magazines, and annual reports have seen a decline in production and overall volume (Smithers), while products such as direct mail, custom holiday cards, and bespoke catalogs have become more prevalent, all of which are well-suited for digital printing due to their low setup costs and variable capabilities.

One of the biggest drivers for the switch to digital is due to the ease of variability & personalization in consumer marketing. Digital technology allows for every piece in a print run to be customized to fit the specific consumer, with information as simple as name personalization or as complex as variable images or personalized QR codes. While a large focus of marketing in the early 2020s has been on digital marketing in the wake of the pandemic, personalized direct marketing provides an opportunity to stand out among the rest.

Written by Jenny Gonzales

Sources: Smithers, Gartner