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 In the estimation of these print professionals, offset’s dominance has been superseded by digital printing’s quality and value for the money.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.
Liquid Ink: 5.40
Ink Jet: 5.24
“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.
Liquid Ink: 5.29
Ink Jet: 5.23
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.