Heidelberg 8 colour sheetfed offset printing press

The printing industry has seen many changes over the years and it has always been the most progressive companies that survive. As technology changes, so do the needs of the customers and so we have to change with it. The world of offset printing has changed forever and it will never return to the volumes that we saw just 10 years ago. Many printers feel that we are in a recession and that waiting out the current “cycle” is all they have to do till everything returns to normal. Problem is that this is the new normal for offset printing and things will not return to the way they were. If you are selling offset printing today you may as well be selling CD’s or CRT TV’s. There comes a time when new technology renders the old technology useless, expensive or just too slow. It is no different than when letterpress gave way to offset printing in the first place.

In order to see into the future, we must first look to the past as a guide.

The process camera was once a necessary part of the printing chain. Now obsolete.

Letterpress was the dominant source of communications for a very long time. It was very labor intensive and the quality level was very low compared to today’s standards. It was the operator and his abilities that determined how well a job turned out and the skill and knowledge of the plant determined the final quality of the product. When offset printing was introduced, it cut the labor required to produce a job from every aspect. Jobs shifted from setting lead type to paste-up and film work and introduced a whole new skill-set to the industry. Offset printing gave us the ability to create incredible looking full colour communications material that everyone wanted. It opened up whole new markets that many printer’s allowed to exist outside of the industry because they themselves were too slow to adopt. In the early days, a cameraman used to provide colour separations by shooting an image with different filters. This was a process that took hours to produce a good result.

CCD scanners have made all of the past scanning technology obsolete.

They actually had to complete the whole printing cycle to get a proof and often had to make corrections. A process that took days and lots of money.

Digital Cameras have eliminated the need for color separations.

This process was replaced with million dollar scanning and separation machines. They also introduced a film proofing system using film and pigmented materials. It is important to note that film assembly and colour separation became separated from many print shops. The cost of process colour printing had come down at the loss of labor and income to the print industry. The film house became our supplier instead of the industry adopting the process themselves. The film houses also became our customers as they began to deal directly with the end customers. Technology continued to evolve and CCD imaging technology, postscript, laser imaging and computers allowed lower cost of entry into the business. Those who adopted the technology drastically reduced their operating costs and with continued improvements, greatly reduced need for film stripping and scanning systems. Computer to plate implementation completely wiped out the majority of the film business.

The Creo Trendsetter is a computer to plate machine that eliminated the need to image film.

Offset printing began in the 50′s and started becoming popular in the 70′s. Process colour started becoming popular in the late 80′s. Everything before that was letterpress. Almost all printers are now digital or computer to plate. The entire life of the litho film industry was about 40 years. Considering that the early adopters of CTP began eliminating film in 1990, it took 20 years to phase out film. Looking further back, phasing out letterpress took even longer.


At the same time that offset printing evolved, there were other printing technologies that have emerged over the years. Photocopiers and laser printers have become dominate forces in the industry and have put the power of printing into most households. Inkjet printing has given the average person the ability to print just about anything depending on the limitations of the machine. If it wasn’t for the high price of the inks & of course the finishing, people would be doing much more of their own printing. If we look at the printing market of the 70′s, a lot of the work was still black & white with some spot colour. The work that started the offset revolution started shifting to digital devices back in the 80′s. As printers, we never considered the photocopier to be a real printing device. So most of us stayed out of this market and allowed the quick copy segment to grow and prosper.

The Internet & Smart phones

The internet is the true evolution of printing. Printing has always been about communicating visually and sharing information. The high cost of printing allowed only those with enough cash to share their knowledge or message. The internet gives just about everyone the ability to reach the world from any location with minimal cost. Smartphones just extend our reach. Information is now and up to date. Not hours, weeks or months old. Sales reps and customers can be connected to live updated information whenever they need it. The world is evolving to the internet and it is time to wake up and see it for what it really is

Trade Printing

Another thing that has happened in the industry is a consolidation of work. While many printers still produce one job at a time, the printers who initiated gang run printing and a more streamlined and efficient workflow have taken the lion share of the work from the regular old-school printers. This takes many of the “bread & butter” jobs away from the local printer as it is hard to justify a price 2-4 times higher than what is easily accessible from a trade shop or one of their dealers.


With the decline of print volumes, we also have another problem in our industry. Many print shops bought high capacity machines that drastically improved the throughput of jobs. The same amount of work is now produced in a fraction of the time and all of our value added services are gone. For the work that is left out there, there is probably enough machine capacity sitting idle to handle at least 5 times the amount of work available. There is simply too many printers fighting over what is left so it has become a buyers market. Cheapest price wins. Welcome to the commodity market.

Global Market

Regardless of how efficient we have all become, there is still high costs associated with printing. Cheap labor and a lack of environmental concerns in emerging countries make it less costly to produce large runs. Manufacturing companies have moved their operations to these countries and the print that goes along with them. It just does not make any sense to produce a product in China & then print the packaging in Canada.

The Sharks

The shark is nothing new but in today’s market, they make things even for difficult for everyone. The shark is a printer who is dominating the market by buying key business with low prices and unethical business practices. While some printers will buy existing companies for their sales, others use the money they would have spent buying the company by underpricing the jobs and taking the work from the competition. Take enough top accounts away from the competition and the lack of volume just drives up the cost for the competition making it even more difficult to survive. The end goal of the shark would be to force the competition into closing. For probably less than it would have cost to buy 1 competitor you can put 5 or 6 out of business.

So what does the offset printer have to look forward to in the upcoming year?

Printing has evolved and if you have not, you will not survive. Printing is ever evolving all around you and the doors of opportunity are opening and closing faster and faster with the pace of technology. It is those who open new markets and develop their own opportunities, who see where things are going in the future and embrace the change. The future of offset belong to those that support the offset business with other services and have demoted offset as their core business model. The internet and digital printing in a wide variety of formats now rule the world of print. Offset is just one of many options. If it is your only option then you will have difficulty hanging on to what business you have left.
This is not the death of offset printing. There will a need for quite some time however the volumes will constantly decline similar to how the need for film declined. Even if everyone returned to their old marketing budgets, they just have so many options and a good marketing campaign will utilize all different media types.

What will it take to bring back offset printing production back to where it was?

The internet would first have to collapse and manufacturing would have to be brought back to North America. Lets face it, if the internet was to somehow collapse, the whole economy would be going with it & you would probably have to take out electricity as well. If a solar flare hits earth and wipes out electronics it takes out the modern press with it…then were back to movable type. A 2012 disaster scenario or nuclear war could do it but then we are ALL screwed. The collapse of the financial system could do it but that would be extremely ugly. If we were to heavily tax imported goods we could bring back manufacturing. Driving up the price of oil and transportation…but then none of us could afford to drive or heat our homes. It’s time to face it that the world is not going to step back and the once large print volumes are gone forever.

It’s time to quit waiting for things to come back. The world of printing is evolving with or without you. Those who create new processes and develop new markets will thrive. Those who follow will survive. Those who stay the same will become obsolete. What are you doing to ensure your future?

If you are looking for ways to evolve and survive? Looking to tune into what the future can look like for you? I can help. Contact me by email.

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