Offset commercial print volumes shift to digital

Commercial printers increasingly add digital presses

Commercial printing in India: toil and trouble
The printers' associations, dominated by commercial offset businesses, are asking members to build their digital capacities.

The 2022-23 financial year is witnessing a resurgence of print. Offset printing is enjoying increasing volumes and success in book printing and, especially, in book printing exports. This explains the high number of 8-color sheetfed offset machines being imported and installed in this financial year – which at the last count were three new such presses and at least one second-hand good condition machine. Many if not most of the two dozen commercial multicolor offset presses to be installed till March are for book printing.

However, an industry insider says that while offset print volumes for book printing may continue to rise, for general commercial, including marketing collaterals and various other kinds of information leaflets, pamphlets, and even stationary – these volumes will never come back to pre-Covid pandemic levels. While the print industry is recovering, the comeback in general commercial printing is much stronger for digital than for offset. 

Thus while more than two dozen multicolor presses are likely to be imported and installed by March 2023, the number of digital press installs is of a much higher order – above 1550 digital presses, including about 375 monochrome presses and about a dozen digital label presses. Ricoh seems to be the biggest gainer – its market share likely rising from almost negligible in the previous year to double digits, behind Konica Minolta and Canon, for digital press installations in the current financial year. 

From early industry reports of installations in the first half of the calendar year, Xerox is likely to lose the highest proportion of its digital market share in India this year, although there will also be a dent in Konica-Minolta’s overwhelmingly dominant share previously. The biggest gainer is likely Ricoh, which has two distributors and will likely sell more than 225 machines till end-March 2023.

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted commercial offset printing most and accelerated the shift from offset to digital printing in India. While this shift was expected to take longer than in developed markets earlier, the two-year disruption of schools, colleges, hospitality, and in-person retail has deeply affected general commercial printing that is not likely to return. 

The war in Ukraine and the disruption of supply chains in Europe and China have also driven up the price of paper and other raw materials, which also makes less or no waste digital print more compelling. It certainly makes fewer quantities and zero inventory a doable cost-saving measure. 

We have written earlier about the cutback in general commercial printing and stationary by corporates to one-tenth of their pre-pandemic budgets. The new normal means a pronounced and quicker shift to digital commercial printing, variable, on-demand, and short-run print. For now, book printing continues to be dominated by offset – but this may also be a matter of time before it shifts further to digital print. Many European and American publishers who import printed books from India also prefer shorter runs. 

It is no wonder that the Indian printers’ associations, which are dominated by commercial offset businesses, are now suggesting to their members that apart from packaging and labels, there is little alternative but to build digital capacities.  

The Covid-19 pandemic led to the country-wide lockdown on 25 March 2020. It will be two years tomorrow as I write this. What have we learned in this time? Maybe the meaning of resilience since small companies like us have had to rely on our resources and the forbearance of our employees as we have struggled to produce our trade platforms.

The print and packaging industries have been fortunate, although the commercial printing industry is still to recover. We have learned more about the digital transformation that affects commercial printing and packaging. Ultimately digital will help print grow in a country where we are still far behind in our paper and print consumption and where digital is a leapfrog technology that will only increase the demand for print in the foreseeable future.

Web analytics show that we now have readership in North America and Europe amongst the 90 countries where our five platforms reach. Our traffic which more than doubled in 2020, has at times gone up by another 50% in 2021. And advertising which had fallen to pieces in 2020 and 2021, has started its return since January 2022.

As the economy approaches real growth with unevenness and shortages a given, we are looking forward to the PrintPack India exhibition in Greater Noida. We are again appointed to produce the Show Daily on all five days of the show from 26 to 30 May 2022.

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– Naresh Khanna

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