Looking for Mr. GoodPrint Gartner study indicates the decline of offset is underway
By Noel Ward
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.
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.
Major study 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professionals, offset's dominance has been superseded by digital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."
And the winner is. . . Overall,
the data show survey respondents think toner not only provides better
image quality than offset printing, but offset comes in last among the
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."
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
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
Value 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.
predictably, this trend was reversed in Germany, where the offset
preferring respondents had a much-lower regard for digital printing's
Mix of Color and Mono Expected to be Flat 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
My take 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.