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Spring 2014: Some Call Digitial a Disruptive Technology; We Call It Proven and Profitable By Alon Bar-Shany

April 9, 2014


Contrary to popular assumptions, Johannes Gutenberg did not actually invent the printing press. However, Gutenberg and his movable type did pave the way for the first practical printing press. Unfortunately, history also tells us he died a broken and impoverished man.

What can we learn from Gutenberg’s accomplishments and failures? I’ve determined four key lessons:

  1. Never underestimate the power of workflow. Gutenberg’s true genius can be seen in the workflow efficiencies he incorporated into his movable type. His workflow innovations increased efficiency by decreasing the time required to print uniform, error-free publications. Gutenberg was a true short-run, quick-turn pioneer!
  1. It pays to diversify. Early on, as Gutenberg tinkered with his press, he did a brisk business in printing shells where he mass produced indulgences (pardons) personalized with the purchaser’s name. But, and modern-day printers can relate, overcapacity soon became an issue—more competitors came into the indulgence market, and it was quickly saturated. To differentiate his business from the commodity printers, Gutenberg decided to diversify by undertaking his most famous printing job—the Bible. From day one, it’s been clear that every printer needs to diversify and establish areas of competitive differentiation.
  1. “Just” being a printer is not enough. In addition to his printing business, Gutenberg was also a blacksmith, goldsmith and publisher. Many of his print innovations resulted from his related business experiences. Success in today’s graphic arts business still requires service providers to be more than “just” printers—they need to provide marketing and communications expertise and be comfortable working with a wide variety of communications media.
  1. Surround yourself with good advisors. Gutenberg was an excellent innovator but a poor businessperson. His lack of expertise in financial and legal issues ultimately meant he didn’t realize a cent from the machine that changed history. By adding a board of advisors with financial and technical expertise to his team, Gutenberg may have been the Bill Gates of his day. And in today’s print business environment, this advisory board lesson applies more than ever.


After Gutenberg got the ball rolling in 1439, printing technology evolved at a slow and unspectacular pace. Indeed, most of the progress can be charted to the past 150 years:

  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">Letterpress gave way to offset,
  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">Hot type yielded to cold, and
  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">The craft entered the computer age.

While those innovations were all essential in the evolution of the print industry, another key entry on modern printing’s timeline occurred at IPEX in 1993. That was when Indigo introduced the E-Print 1000 digital printing press, one of the first commercially available digital presses.


Geoffrey Moore, author of Crossing the Chasm, theorizes that new technology is generally met by five types of users: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

According to Moore’s theory, the difficulty doesn’t lie in selling the first 50 digital presses—as innovators and early adopters will try practically anything. The real challenge, which has clearly been met by digital press vendors, is providing a solution that goes beyond the risk-takers to become an essential part of a modern print shop.

The advent of digital print was not just about the adoption of new technology by existing offset shops but also the appearance of “digital-only” shops, which specialized in short runs, fast turnaround and variable-data printing. Digital printing required people with expertise in silicon and bits rather than hot metal and glyphs. This trend has become stronger over time, as witnessed by the increasing demand for quality IT personnel with print-specific experience.


The pace of digital printing adoption was (and to a large extent still is) dependent on these factors:

  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">Technology (speed, quality, prepress, substrates, color matching and finishing)
  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">Marketing (short runs, variable-data printing, fast turnaround, web-to-print)
  • http://americanprinter.com/site/templates/images/ld_kranglist.gif); background-position: 0px 4px; background-repeat: no-repeat no-repeat;">Operations (cost effective, easy to operate, minimal downtime, service)

Many vendors and commercial printers felt that the future was in digital printing, but when would it move beyond its initial short-run focus and into mainstream applications? During digital printing’s earliest days, it was easy to discern how a job had been printed. Printing digitally sometimes meant quality or substrate trade-offs and limited binding options. But in 2014, that’s no longer the case.

Digital vs. offset quality debates have long since faded away. Vendors introduced improved features to support digital applications, while commercial printers explained the digital advantages of short runs, variable data and fast turnaround to their customers. Digital presses can do it all!


In the early years, the passion of the innovative equipment vendors, along with the applications produced by entrepreneurial print shops, eventually led to the success of digital printing both from a technological and business perspective. The timing of the introduction of the Internet was also crucial, as digital print is tailor made for web-to-print.

As digital solutions more effectively met the needs of commercial printers and demand for digital solutions increased, the entire industry, including vendors, partners and customers, crossed the chasm into the era of digital printing. Now, companies are looking beyond just cost per page: They evaluate the total cost and the added value of choosing digital solutions. Digital can transform value chains, removing the waste of unused print or the complexity of sorting. Digital can capitalize on variable data, enabling more personal and more impactful delivery.

As printing volumes decline, commercial printers are constantly looking for areas to expand business, lower supply chain costs and increase their bottom line. With the maturing of the digital press, print shops now have the choice of proven digital equipment integrated with the latest prepress and finishing equipment.


For those pioneers who survived the early days of the digital revolution—congratulations, history has proven you right. However, true innovators never rest on their past accomplishments; they are always looking for a new disruptive technology that will drive the industry for the next 20 years.

ALON BAR-SHANY is vice president and general manager, Indigo Digital Press Division, Printing and Personal Systems Group, HP.

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