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Print on Demand: When does it make sense?

Until the advent of high quality digital printing, print buyers really had no choice but to print their short runs on an offset press. Even for a few hundred copies, printers had to make plates, set up the printing press, clean-up the press, etc. This was really expensive for short runs. Of course, with digital printing, those short runs have become much more affordable. This has led to versioning, variable data printing and all sorts of options in the one to one marketing space. But, how does one make the decision to print digitally or print in bulk?

There are a variety of factors that affect the decision to print digitally or not. Up front and long-term costs, speed to market, obsolescence, number of versions, storage availability and your printing partner. Let’s take a closer look at these issues and why digital print makes sense for some pieces.

Here’s the crux of the issue. Offset printing has a relatively high setup cost before the first sheet is printed, but once the press is rolling, the cost per piece can be pennies or a fraction of a penny. Generally speaking, the longer the run, the lower the overall unit cost. Conversely, digital printing has a very low setup cost but a relatively high per piece cost that does not decrease with the quantity. Depending on the size of the piece, each press sheet could be $1.00 or more which adds up fast as the quantity grows.

At first glance, it may seem less expensive to print 2000 pieces all at once rather than print the 500 pieces per quarter that you expect to use. It really depends on when you think you will be making changes to it. We often find that marketers start out with good intentions to update their content every three or four months, but generally we find that clients reprint the same piece over and over. The decision to print in bulk would have saved them considerably. On the flip side, if you do change the content frequently, digital print wins the day. If you print in bulk, you will need someplace to store it and someone to manage the inventory. This is not a big issue for 2-3 SKUs but is much more complex and costly for 200 – 300 (or more) SKUs.

So, what is a print buyer to do? Well the first step is to make sure that your printing partner has multiple printing technologies to choose from, offset, digital, wide format, etc. If they only have digital capabilities, guess what? Everything runs digitally and vice versa. Ideally, they also have a professionally managed warehousing and fulfillment operation with online ordering capabilities since you will need help managing all the different SKUs and print methods. The next step is data. Order history can help you determine how frequently you are ordering, what quantity is ordered, and what those orders cost. If you don’t have this information, the order history should be available from your printer. Once you have the order history, your printer can help you make informed decisions on which pieces make sense to print in bulk and which make sense to print digitally. A qualified print partner can help you factor in all the available data including, budget, versions, obsolescence cost, storage costs, etc., to help you tighten up your program and save money. In our experience, a blended approach works best with some items produced digitally and some printed offset. The trick is identifying the intersection of lowest cost and highest flexibility for your marketing plan.

We can help. Give us a call if this is a challenge at your company. Baesman has been helping companies, small and large, to navigate the complexities of printing and fulfillment options for over 65 years.