We’ve just wrapped up a year during which overall printing industry revenues have dropped significantly (at least 10%; likely much more). Concurrently, printing industry employment has dropped around 14% according to recent US figures. In addition, many printers have been forced to slow or entirely shutter operations. That is the bad news, but with the vaccination process beginning, there is hope that markets will rebound in 2021.

Although our industry is still reeling from the effects of the pandemic, there certainly is some hope to be found. First, in spite of the pandemic, mail-driven print has outperformed other markets. Transactional documents may even have been given a boost due to pandemic-related paperwork. Direct mail has not had a fantastic year, but it has done fairly well in comparison to other segments. Second, there is reason to believe that some impacts of the pandemic will work to the advantage of forward-thinking print service providers. I think this can be summed up in three words: value, simplicity, and opportunity.

The Value of Print

As we socially distanced and sheltered in place during the pandemic, one thing became clear—there are some imperfections in marketers’ abilities to reach new customers solely through electronic methods. How can you be sure that you’ve reached every household in a community when your lists of email addresses, phone numbers, and social media accounts are not tied to physical locations? We know that print has often served as a gateway to electronic media, but the pandemic has underscored this fact. Even so, marketers long for the ability to track return on marketing investment (ROMI) with print as they can with electronic media. As a result, simply reaching each household is not enough. Tracking the impact of print becomes that much more important, which is why personized messaging that drives consumers to e-commerce sites must be part of the bargain. The pandemic has convinced consumers to use e-commerce methods that they might not have considered in the past (for grocery deliveries, for example). In this sense, the pandemic has accelerated e-processes that had previously stalled. Using Zoom as another example, people who had never even heard of a videoconferencing application before this year are now enthusiastic users. Marketers will likewise begin to embrace job submission and tracking systems that provide them with tighter control over timing and results.

Where does inkjet fit in this equation? Its ability to produce one-step personalized color documents without the use of pre-printed shells has important implications for turnaround time and flexibility. High-speed color inkjet document printing systems take this value beyond shorter runs and extend it to larger campaigns that can be targeted and segmented in innovative ways, linking to other tools that marketers have to reach existing and new customers.

Simplicity of Operation

Even as the pandemic has accelerated the move toward e-commerce, it has also been having an impact on other transitions, and one of those is the transition from offset lithography to high-speed production digital printing. Offset printing volumes have been dropping over the past two decades for a variety of reasons, but two have predominated. First, there was the impact of digital print. Economical quick-turnaround toner-based digital printing techniques took away short-run offset work and then high-volume production inkjet systems (black & white and color) began to compete for longer run work while also providing digital print benefits like just-in-time printing and personalized messaging. Second, competition from electronic media moved marketers away from long-run, static “spray & pray” print campaigns (whether direct mail, catalogs, or other promotional print). These two factors have eaten into offset volume, leading to ongoing declines. And despite the fact that plenty of work is still best suited to long-run offset techniques, that market is shrinking, with competition coming from both digital print and electronic media.

There is also the workforce to consider. Printers whose hardware assets include offset presses are faced with an aging skilled workforce that will be difficult to replace. A post-pandemic world will be focused on productivity and ease of use. Doing more with less will be key. The simplicity of production inkjet digital printing systems in comparison to their offset brethren makes inkjet a more appealing technology to staff. Simplicity of operation, along with high levels of productivity and application flexibility, will mean that production print facilities of the future will likely be built upon inkjet systems. It will not just be inkjet, though. Automation improvements in prepress, bindery, and mailroom have the opportunity to bring other workflow benefits in collaboration with production inkjet printing systems.

Competitive Growth Opportunities

Looking at inkjet opportunities in 2021, one of the biggest is to move offset print volume to high-speed inkjet. This follows through on the reasoning described above concerning value and simplicity. From a value perspective, the high levels of inkjet productivity combined with digital print advantages such as just-in-time manufacturing and personalized print pave the way for more effective and targeted documents in print. You could say that value will be the theme for successful direct mailers in 2021, and inkjet has the ability to play a huge role in providing customer value. From a simplicity perspective, inkjet provides key operational advantages. One, of course, is that a production inkjet system is arguably easier to operate than an offset press, and can also typically be run by a single operator. In fact, that operator may even be able to operate more than one system simultaneously. 2020 has shown us that lean operations can be effective during a pandemic. Granted, some of the leanness in 2020 can be attributed to what some have called “inadvertent lean operations” that stemmed from operator layoffs or sickness, but today’s print service providers must nevertheless be able to roll with the punches, which sometimes means social distancing or furloughs that impact staffing levels. Automation can help you get through that, and inkjet is a key part of facilitating that automation.

Another aspect of inkjet simplicity is in its service requirements. Compared to toner-based processes, inkjet systems have shown higher uptime and greater levels of productivity. I fully expect that in addition to capturing offset volume, inkjet systems (particularly high-speed cut-sheet ones) will take away toner-based print volume.

The largest drawback with production color inkjet is the expense of its inks and printheads. So much of the technology is built into these components that care must be taken to fully assess these costs. High-coverage applications can be expensive due to the amount of ink consumed. For that reason, it is important to be involved early on in the design process so that attractive, yet affordable layouts are the end result.

Recommendations for Mailers

As we navigate through 2021, investigate how you can put the principles of value, simplicity, and opportunity into action. The market will not return to our old normal. Changes in business norms must be fully addressed and the impact of a pandemic economy will linger. Examining how the inkjet systems you own can be fully leveraged and integrated into your overall work is your task this year. Investments in new inkjet infrastructure should be considered when they offer opportunities to expand, diversify, and compete.

The concept of “print on demand” (POD) first came into our lexicon in the 1990s with the introduction of a wide range of toner-based color systems. These allowed the first implementations of the POD concept, that is, delivering what is needed, when it is needed, and in the exact quantity required. That was a good first step, but the productivity of toner-based systems limited the ability to fully implement the POD concept. With more than a decade of high-speed inkjet document systems behind us, today’s print service providers have the opportunity to take POD much further. For the direct mail market, that is a strong reason to look forward to 2021 and its opportunities.

Jim Hamilton of Green Harbor Publications (www.greenharbor.com) is an industry analyst, market researcher, writer, and public speaker. For many years he was Group Director in charge of InfoTrends’ Production Digital Printing & Publishing consulting services. He has a BA in German from Amherst College and a Master’s in Printing Technology from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

This article originally appeared in the January/February, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.