The future of the printing industry is a hot topic today, as there's no doubt it will be very different than the present. The change from primary communication method to value-added activity has affected print service providers in all regions and targeting all verticals. That said, as long as there is demand for printed products, there will be money to be made in creating them. It's interesting to break down snapshots of how the printing business is proceeding in the near-term and see what credible sources believe will happen over the next few years.

One pertinent question, one which draws a line between the way the industry has been run and where it's going next, is whether organizations are still interested in maintaining offset printing departments or if they're completely committed to going digital. The physical printers companies use are the heart and soul of the business, and trends affecting them may point the way to larger evolution to come.

Digital gaining ground
The recent QP Consulting survey of the printing industry attempted to determine the definitive state of the market regarding the use of offset or digital printers, and found conflicting information. This may indicate a time of transition, where neither traditional nor digital printing has complete control of the sector.

While there is still evidence of offset print use, the pattern is clear: More print shops are interested in going digital, and the work is shifting in that direction. The QP consulting survey found that 70 percent of respondents have shifted work from offset presses to digital printers. Some have already made the decision not to run a traditional press at all, and in a few of those cases the transition already happened years ago. Countering these voices, however, are the holdouts interested in still using offset, sometimes as a differentiator.

The source accepted comments on what stance respondents are taking regarding print format, and why they are doing so. One explained that it's good to have an offset press around on an as-needed basis, but not necessarily for everyday work. Another noted that when customers are interested in simple prints without color, offset printing is still the method of choice. Still, another offered the interesting view that, at a time when many companies are moving to all-digital models, those still using offset printing have found a niche.

Offset operators still employed
Despite the shift to digital printing, the employees behind offset printing are generally keeping their roles. QP Consulting explained that in the past 18 months, only 11.5 percent of companies terminated a press operator, and even fewer plan to remove one in the next year and a half. Respondents noted that in some cases their employees have retired or otherwise left, but the overall rate of termination is incredibly low. For now, there are some products that call out for offset work, and as long as those are important to companies, they'll keep their teams intact.

One such offering commonly handled on offset printers – envelopes – may be in the midst of its own mini-transition. The survey found that 55 percent of companies already have such a device – though a few of them are less than thrilled with their respective purchases. All told, 42.1 percent are considering getting a digital envelope printer soon while 14.8 percent have definite plans to do so. More than one-third (35.2 percent) are happy with offset, while 11.4 broker these jobs instead of handling them in-house.

The overall picture of the printing industry is one split between two ways of doing business. While the QP study revealed a doubtful future for offset, it remains an industry presence in the present.

Industry sources on the move
What did this year's drupa conference reveal about the battle between offset and digital printing? According to WhatTheyThink columnist Barb Pellow's report from the time of the conference, this is the year that inkjet systems made their major pitch to displace traditional printing once and for all, allowing commercial printers to move forward with plans to modernize. She explained that the past three editions of drupa have shown the steady march toward the new status quo, with high-speed inkjet methodologies emerging at 2008, developing in 2012 and reaching maturity in 2016.

Pellow called the impact of inkjet at this year's conference "something very symbolic." Buyers and print shop owners who have been in the industry for eight years or more have watched as the technology has risen to its current stature. They saw the concept devices and watched as they became practical for use in high-speed commercial environments. Now, when they go to buy their next generation of hardware, they have a valid choice to make.

According to the author, new availability is another game-changer for inkjet printing this year. It has gone from being a future option to the present. Observing the gradual but noticeable trend away from offset printing, the ascendance of digital methods gains new significance.