Looking for Mr. GoodPrint

By | February 5, 2009

This article original appeared at WhatTheyThink.com.

About a dozen years ago I was at a trade show in San Jose, California, eavesdropping on two printers who were peering at prints from a big full-color digital press.

“You can tell it’s toner,” said one.

“Yep,” sighed the other, shaking his head with resignation, “It behaves like toner.”

Unimpressed, they wandered off.

I wonder what those two guys are thinking today. If they are like many of the people Gartner talked with in the course of its latest research on print quality, they may be saying something quite different.

Gartner has just completed a study of some 443 production print managers in the U.S., France, Germany, and the UK that provides convincing evidence that, for the first time, long-held preferences for offset printing have been up-ended. The companies contacted included financial services, insurance, utilities, communications carriers and retail enterprises, as well as print service specialists. Respondents were production print operation managers, senior-level managers overseeing an operation, or had responsibility for production print hardware and/or software purchases. The documents their operations produce encompassed bills and statements, direct mail, insurance documents, and book, magazine and newspaper printing. In the estimation of these print professionals, offset’s dominance has been superseded by digital printing’s quality and value for the money. As Peter Basiliere, a Gartner research director closely involved with the study, said to me over breakfast when we discussed the study, “2009 officially marks the beginning of offset printing’s long decline.”

The study was designed to provide unequivocal evidence about the perceived differences between the four main printing technologies. In one of its primary questions, the telephone survey asked respondents to rate the image quality of toner (dry ink), liquid ink (HP-Indigo), ink jet, and offset printing on a scale of 1 to 7, where 1 was “Poor Quality” and 7 was “Excellent Quality.”

Overall, the data show survey respondents think toner not only provides better image quality than offset printing, but offset comes in last among the four technologies.

Toner: 5.68

Liquid Ink: 5.40

Ink Jet: 5.24

Offset: 5.17

“With 443 respondents, differences of as little as 0.10 are statistically meaningful,” explains Basiliere. “The much smaller sample sizes commonly found in other surveys require a much greater difference in order to make a valid statement about the results.”

“The difference between toner (and, to a lesser extent, liquid ink) and offset is particularly significant,” he continues. “Ink jet is preferred over offset, but only by a slight margin, so those two are basically on a par. This means ink jet technologies still have a ways to go before there is a significant perceived quality difference compared with offset printing.”

There were some notable differences by country. France, for instance, preferred liquid ink over dry toner and had the least affection for offset printing. German respondents on the other hand — perhaps predictably– had a different take, preferring offset over digital printing by a wider margin than other respondents’ preference for digital over offset. Gartner thinks the difference may be in part attributed to the legacy of German print service providers using locally manufactured offset presses such as Heidelberg, Manroland or KBA, all capable of producing very high-quality printing.

But Basiliere thinks that perception may shift before much longer. “Germany is very environmentally conscious,” he says, “They are concerned with recycling, limiting waste, and reducing costs. And they’re interested in more color. I think we’re going to see a shift in Germany toward greater acceptance of digital as run lengths get shorter, and the capability of digital to print on a wide variety of substrates continues to improve. The quality is already there, it just has to be accepted by German printers and their customers.”

Image quality may be the most obvious measure for print providers, but value is a close second. Using the same 1 to 7 scale, respondents said digital printing, particularly with toner, provides the best value for money.

Toner: 5.58

Liquid Ink: 5.29

Ink Jet: 5.23

Offset: 5.13

Perhaps predictably, this trend was reversed in Germany, where the offset preferring respondents had a much-lower regard for digital printing’s value.

On average, color accounts for about 40% of all pages printed in respondents’ operations over the past two years, a share they don’t expect to change during 2009. Because of the mix of documents that the responding companies produce are biased towards transactional and direct mail, color growth may in fact be flat in this time of economic uncertainty. Whether this is true for graphic arts, where color is expected, is a deeper question that doesn’t seem to be addressed in this study.

In my opinion the data, with a sample of 443, is pretty much bulletproof. However —and this is a fairly big “however”— the companies surveyed are more involved with high volume production print than the “graphic arts” types of applications targeted by iGen, Indigo, Xeikon, and NexPress owners. This means the data does not necessarily reflect the opinions or experiences of users of those machines. But when you consider that many print providers with such devices have come to use their digital and offset presses interchangeably based on press availability, turnaround times and internal economics, it would seem that while Gartner’s data does not specifically address the graphic arts side of the market, it certainly confirms that the tide has turned and that offset is merely on the mountain, not at the top.

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8 thoughts on “Looking for Mr. GoodPrint

  1. George Alexander

    Noel, this is a very interesting report, and I’m impressed with the sample size. Personally, I believe that digital printing is destined to take large amounts of work away from offset.

    But having said that, isn’t it possible that this could be a collection of very self-serving responses? To put it rather crudely, it might be possible to describe the results this way:

    A survey of 443 people (whose businesses primarily sell high-volume toner-based printing) found that they prefer dry toner over any other printing method, including offset.

    If that description is roughly accurate, then perhaps the survey has more to say about what the respondents want to sell than it does about the competition between digital and offset printing in the broader market .

  2. Bob Raus


    Your comment may or may not be valid, but in the end – it is the customers of these print shops that make the final call on whether the digital output quality is good enough. While not specifically called out in Noel’s report, I expect that – in order to be valid – the scores given to Gartner by these print shop managers would have to reflect the views of their customers and not be merely self-serving.

  3. Andy McCourt

    Heady stuff. It gets back to managing the processes for maximun return. One of the smartest quotes I’ve heard recently is from a senior European suit within the Reader’s Digest organisation. “The point about digital printing technology is not to have the replacement of traditional offset – it is knowing when to apply which technology to exploit it to its full advantage.”
    If I owned offset presses, my focus would be on what ‘full advantage’ means – and not to fight stoiclaly on the fields where digital has ‘full advantage.’ Make an ally of digital for the latter.

  4. Michael J

    My two cents.

    It’s another playing out of the great “good enough” question. I remember , back in the day, when we did one of the first promo pieces for Lintotype when the issue of desktop color was bleeding edge.

    The professionals said, “It’s not as good as what I do.” The newbies said “it’s almost as good.”

    Eventually the customer’s say “it’s good enough.” Then it doesn’t really matter what anybody says after that.

    I think Andy got it right. Use the right tool for the right job.

  5. Andy McCourt

    Thankyou Michael, except in my haste I misspelt ‘stoically’ so there’s the correction!
    Indeed we are in a ‘good enough’ world. The shoes we wear are inferior to the ones bespoke cobblers made 60 years ago, but they are good enough. My Van Heusen made-in-Indonesia shirts are inferior to Hathaways I bought in the 70s, but good enough. As a painter, Monet was technically inferior to Da Vinci or Constable, but Impressionists were ‘good enough’ for their times. On it goes. High quality is great but a lot of our industry is hung up on it overmuch, to their business’ detriment when quality is considered their only reson for being.

  6. Noel Ward

    When “good enough” satisfies the needs of the application then it is truly, in fact, “good enough.” I’ve maintained for years that the print provider is not the final arbiter of “quality” or suitability for the application: that’s up to the customer who pays for the work. If the customer accepts a job, pays for it, and comes back again, then the quality is “good enough.”

    Sure, an 8 color Speedmaster whatever may do a “better” job than an iGen, Indigo, NexPress, etc. But does it matter? Sometimes, but not always.

    The Gartner study is slanted somewhat towards transactional and direct mail, but so what? There are also plenty of other jobs in the world being printed on digital presses that were once run on offset presses. The landscape is changing, but it’s not an all or nothing game, and never will be again. You pick the technology that does a “good enough” job for the application.

  7. Rob van den Braak

    Being an old fashion printer I used to be on the site of “there is no good enough quality’.
    But for Drupa we produced a Pimp Your Colours Special together with Canon. The special was printed in offset on Heidelberg and Roland presses using the best screening and ink combination and digital printed on a Canon C1 and imagePRESS 7000. The Special was distributed to readers of printing, print buying, digital photography, large format printing magazines and was available on the Canon Drupa booth.
    What cured me from the “there is no good enough quality’ was the reactions of the professional photographers choosing the C1 output over offset and the print buyer reactions liking the 3black offset print but not willing to pay for the extra cost.
    Now we are doing a special on Black and white reproduction, again in offset en digital printed. The prints from Xerox, Canon and Océ are different from the offset sheets; they have more blacks and have more detail. Yes the price for more than 750 copies is in favour of offset but as Dutch customers explained in the special this is made up with quicker turn around time and the advantaged of printing on demand, not more printing than needed.
    So yes I agree with the Digest suite the name of the game is finding the right technology for the job. In Holland printers combining offset with digital production printing are the most successful they grow and they are making money.

  8. Andy McCourt

    Sounds like Rob van den Braak is in fact a very ‘new’ fashioned printer! You’ve hit the nail right on the head with: “customers explained in the special this is made up with quicker turn around time and the advantaged of printing on demand, not more printing than needed.”
    Yes, it’s the total service provided that delivers the ‘quality’ in the customer’s mind. 8-colour stochastic with specials and a spot UV delivered late with a cost overrun will not impress a customer.
    To use the rather clumsy marketer’s term it’s the ‘value proposition’ that counts – “how is this proposal to design, print and deliver, say, 750 8pp colour prospectuses good for my business and our relationship?”
    Digital colour offers so many more opportunities to answer this question with many positives – and can then lead to longer run offset jobs based on the same excellence of overall B2B experience.

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