Debating the tipping point: When will digital printing transcend offset?

When I attended GraphExpo2010 in Chicago last fall, I noticed something had changed. For the first time, the largest exhibit spaces—in previous years occupied by offset lithographic presses—had been taken over by the latest digital printing systems.

This seemed to happen suddenly and I wondered: have we reached the tipping point already?

Since the digital printing revolution began in the early 1990s, much has been written and said about its impact on our industry and markets. Books and research studies have been published and conferences and surveys have been held, all to illustrate the transformative effect of the new technology. The opportunities and threats of the disruptive innovation brought by digital printing—personalized, variable, on-demand, data-driven and zero makeready—have been thoroughly discussed.

More recently, the commentary has turned to a debate over the transition point at which digital will displace offset. I have collected examples of this dialogue and focused on those who have been so bold as to prognosticate on the subject.

• In June 2008, Canon Europe published a report called “Digital Printing Directions.” Based on a survey of 619 industry representatives worldwide, the report says: “The global printing industry is at a crossroads. … Digital printing in 2008 is at the point where offset was in 1968.” Next to a graph the report says, “Through 2020, offset will remain a viable process, even as digital printing grows, but after 2020, new digital technology may affect offset the way that offset affected letterpress.”

• In September 2010, NPES (the association for printing, publishing and converting technologies) published details of a study called “Megatrends in Digital Printing Applications.” The study surveyed 900 industry representatives and covered 12 applications: books, catalogs, direct mail, labels, magazines, manuals, marketing collateral, newspapers, packaging and specialty printing. The findings showed that few if any of the 12 applications will tip by 2020 but “the tipping point for most of the applications is decades away, if at all.” The NPES article contains a graph (Chart 2) showing how digital printing, while experiencing 11.3% growth from 2010 to 2014, remains a tiny fraction of total print volume.

• On November 10, 2010,’s Frank Romano made the following remark in a video entitled “Frank takes a look at when the tipping point for digital may be”: “Offset lithography dragged along for a hundred years and then all of a sudden it found a marketplace and within a decade letterpress was gone.  Now according to the (NPES) research, they say the tipping point for digital printing is decades away … I disagree with that … Now, I don’t think it’s going to take a decade for those two worlds to come very close together.”

Frank Romano
Andy Tribute

• On January 18, 2011,’s Andy Tribute published a commentary entitled, “When Will Digital Printing Take Over from Offset Printing?” Tribute wrote, “Overall I find that many projections I see for digital printing growth are pretty wild … it will take a long time before the ‘tipping point’ is reached where digital becomes larger than analog printing.”

These are differing predictions on the tempo and scope of the replacement of offset by digital printing. Some say in a decade (or less) and others say it will take longer (two decades or more). Some say total eclipse and others say partial and only in some categories. However, they all agree that the transition is coming.

As we reflect upon the present and the letterpress-to-offset and phototypesetting-to-desktop experiences of our past, keep in mind these key attributes of disruptive innovation: 1.) likelihood of dominant players to fail; 2.) requirement of a new value proposition; 3.) short-term increase in cost per unit, 4.) short-term decrease in quality, and; 5.) long-term tendency toward complete replacement.

For printing companies, these are strategic problems. The relative weight and pace of offset-to-digital within the print markets is not uniform. Therefore, digital adoption rates must be calibrated to meet increasing customer demand while maintaining competitive in offset long enough to exhaust its potential. In other words, companies must plan their own offset-to-digital tipping point to avoid having it foisted upon them the way that offset printing and desktop publishing were adopted.

Of tablets & printing

Not too long ago the word “tablet” likely conjured up an image of Charlton Heston in a scene from “The Ten Commandments.” This seems natural enough for graphic arts people, given that written communication—including modern printing processes—have their origin in ancient clay tablet writing that began 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamia.

Thanks to Apple, however, the “tablet” has a new connotation; i.e. the iPad and other slate-type mobile computing devices. As with previous digital and online technologies, the modern-day tablet has major implications for print media. What is different this time is the pace of the tablet’s impact, especially on various forms of publishing.

By any measure, the iPad has been a huge success. Nearly 15 million iPads were sold in the eight months since Apple launched it, more than twice the most optimistic analyst predictions. To be fair, the excitement about tablets is also driven by Amazon’s Kindle—with some four million units sold since 2007—and the Google Android, Microsoft Windows Mobile and HP/Palm based systems coming online presently.

The success of tablet devices—along with smartphones—is due to several critical technologies:

  • Powerful and low-energy mobile processors
  • Faster and accessible wireless broadband
  • High resolution, multi-touch display

The third of these is the most recent and most important. The replacement of the physical keyboard and mouse with a high-resolution touch display is a major step forward in human/computer interface design; all you need to operate the system is your fingers!

But as interesting as technological innovation is, the true value of these changes is as much about content and media consumption as it is about the popularity of the platform.

This brings me to printing and publishing. In the past month, two significant things happened:

  • On January 27, Amazon announced it had sold more ebooks than paperbacks for the first time. For every 100 paperbacks it sold in the last quarter of 2010, Amazon sold 115 Kindle books. In their press statement, Amazon said, “Last July we announced that Kindle books had passed hardcovers and predicted that Kindle would surpass paperbacks in the second quarter of this year, so this milestone has come even sooner than we expected; and it’s on top of continued growth in paperback sales.”
  • On February 2, The Daily was launched by News Corp. as “the industry’s first national daily news publication created from the ground up for iPad” with a “unique mix of text, photography, audio, video, information graphics, touch interactivity and real-time data and social feeds.” During the press conference News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch said , “No paper. No multi-million dollar presses. No trucks. … We’re passing on these savings to the reader, which is why we can offer The Daily for just 14 cents a day.”

This shows the growing thirst of the public for reading on tablet devices. It also reveals how publishers are using mobile technologies as platforms for new business models. Clearly, printed books and newspapers will continue to exist. But I think we can all agree that the role of print within the publishing spectrum is being shifted and encroached upon by its electronic and multimedia cousins.

It is this new reality that both the providers of print products and services and the creators and publishers of content must adapt their businesses. The quicker we find our way to the unique role and value of the ink-on-paper component of content delivery, the better we will be at taking advantage of the opportunities emerging out of the new, cross-media landscape.