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Casting a Light on Print-On-Demand

Print-on-Demand – what is it, how does it differ from conventional printing and is it eco-friendlier?

At NobleWorks Cards, we move fast. Our line of funny birthday cards, dirty Christmas cards and more includes plenty of pop culture, politics and current events that are happening right now. One of the reasons our cards are so funny is because they are still relevant. We had President Trump Christmas cards in stock right after the election, for instance, while grocery stores didn't have them for months.

Print-on-demand printing is one of the keys to our blazing fast speed.

Before the advent of digital technology, all printing—whether for books, newspapers, magazines or even greeting cards and invitations—was done by conventional printing methods, of which there are three main types: offset, gravure and letterpress. The most commonly used method is offset printing.

Unless it was for something special, such as wedding invitations, or a large quantity of the printed matter was needed, the average person would not even think of having something printed. It was a costly proposition.

Enter digital printing technology some 20 or so years ago. This changed the landscape—and cost—of shorter-run printed materials to be "printed on demand" or "printed to order." This process made it more affordable and easier for individuals to print smaller quantities of everything from books, greeting cards and invitations to stickers, calendars and even coffee mugs, only when ordered or in the small amount needed, at a more cost-effective price.

Offset vs. Digital Printing

To understand digital print-on-demand, you first need to know what digital printing is versus traditional offset printing, as well as the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Offset Printing is a process that uses etched metal plates that transfer the inked image onto a rubber "blanket," which then transfers the image to the paper. Its benefits include:

  • Cost efficiencies – the more you print, the cheaper the cost-per-piece.
  • Ability to accommodate special inks and colors (e.g., metallic inks, Pantone colors), special paper types and sizes, and custom finishes.
  • Control over the quality of reproduction of colors and images to provide the highest quality of printing with greater detail and color fidelity.
On the other side of the scale, offset printing requires:
  • More set-up time to etch the plates (one for each color used) and to apply them to the press rollers.
  • Warm-up time to get the press up to speed and the plates properly inked, which results in paper waste.
  • Additional costs to make any changes or corrections if discovered prior to going on press, which may not even be possible once the job is being run. Once the job is set up, changes cannot easily be made or errors corrected without starting all over again, thus adding to the cost of the job.
  • Space to store the quantity not being immediately used or sold.
Digital Printing uses electrostatic rollers or "drums"—one for each color—to apply toner to the paper. The toner is fused onto the paper by being passed through a high-heat unit. (It's somewhat like a very sophisticated copier machine.) Its benefits include:
  • Ability to print only the item or small quantity you need.
  • Low or no set-up cost or minimum quantity; quick turnaround time.
  • Individual pieces can be customized (e.g., names, addresses, etc. can be applied per piece or per number of pieces).
  • Original copy can be easily updated, corrected or changed since print runs can be done as needed, rather than all at once.
  • Less paper waste – the first one printed is just as good as the last one.

The Takeaway

For the individual, the advent of digital print-on-demand has been a boon. It has afforded the ability to create unique gifts (e.g., memory books, family recipe books, etc.) and one-of-a-kind printed pieces or having one's "great American novel" published. In the case of a self-published novel, it allows the ability to pay for each copy as it is ordered and paid for by the customer without having to provide a large upfront investment. But there is a trade-off: the cost of an individual item printed-on-demand could be higher than one might pay for something similar, although perhaps less unique, created in a mass printing run.

For commercial enterprises, print-on-demand offers flexibility in creating products and other printed matter. It offers the ability to test designs and desirability on a limited basis without having to stock large quantities on the speculation that the book, calendar or greeting card design will be a home-run hit. Print-on-demand also allows commercial enterprises to offer a line of products for sale without having to stock inventory. As the orders come in, the pieces are printed and shipped. It also provides the ability to customize products for individual customers, providing a unique touch or local flair.

As for the environmentalist, print-on-demand doesn't necessarily save much energy during the printing process as modern offset presses have become quite energy efficient. However, it creates little, if any, paper waste compared to offset. With large offset print runs—whether they are books, business forms, or greeting cards—if they remain unsold or unused, they end up going to the recycler or to the landfill. That is a waste of the paper as well as the energy used to produce, warehouse and transport the products.

Both traditional offset and digital printing have their place. Which one we use to produce what we want depends on quantity, quality of reproduction (to a degree), special needs (if any), time and financial input.