Evaluating Print-On-Demand Services

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Brendan Connelly, Senior Designer

A Graphic Designer with over 30 years of experience as a freelancer, art director, and business owner.

September 20, 2021

“Print-on-demand” as a concept has actually been floating around since the Seventies, long before we had the technology to make it a reality. In those early decades, it was only related to books or other bound publications such as government documents and business reports. However, the potential for saving time, money, and raw materials was already an exciting concept.

In those days, photocopying was just becoming an affordable and user-friendly technology. Compared to the conventional method of printing and binding, copying made it possible to get short runs of long publications such as academic dissertations at a quick turnaround. The trade-off in quality was more than matched by the savings in price because at that time short runs of conventionally-bound books were simply not feasible.

Conventional Printing Limitations

To understand why and how the trade-off of price, quantity and quality works in printing — and in any type of manufacturing, really, including physical objects made of metal or plastic such as in 3-D printing too — it helps to know a little about how printing presses work. There are several different kinds, but they all work by putting ink on paper or card or sometimes fabric mechanically at high speeds. This is what revolutionized the process and made a “printing industry” even possible, and it works by the economy of scale. You can run off thousands of copies and because the machinery makes them so quickly, you now have lots of items, which can be of excellent quality, and the per-item cost is very low.

Print-on-demand - Conventional Printing
Conventional printing presses can be complicated to set-up and alter between jobs.

However, the machines aren’t cheap, either to purchase or lease, or to run and maintain and have many operational considerations:.

  • Ttime and effort to set up the ink and calibrate everything for the specific paper or other substrates
  • If only running off a few hundred or less, you will spend the same amount of money in overall set-up, so the individual items are going to cost you exponentially more. 
  • You often have lengthy lead times due to the tight booking schedules required to make them economical to own
  • and probably the most important of all, without tying up your entire budget in a massive inventory that you don’t need and probably won’t be able to use.

Digital Printing Flexibility

This was the case until digital printers became cheaper to operate, and even then the per-piece cost remains higher than traditional printing — it’s just that you’re free to only run off one or two or ten, and not commit to purchasing thousands of them that you may never be able to sell, because a digital printer has minimal setup time and is basically creating every copy as an individual run. (It is a little more complicated than that, but you don’t get much of an economy of scale, which is why you usually don’t get any quantity discount when you’re buying purely digital printed material. The manufacturing cost is the same whether you run ten or 10,000.)

Print-on-demand - Digital Printing
Digital Printing allows for short or individual print runs across many formats.

What on-demand printing offered was flexibility, a way to get a quality product very quickly. If you miscalculate and sell out sooner than you anticipated, it’s also easy and quick to reorder, at least compared to traditional methods.

Print On-Demand Limitations

This is true whether you’re ordering books, booklets, banners, posters, t-shirts, or “swag.” There are some things that can’t be done very well on what is essentially a glorified laser or ink-jet printer, just as there are some things that large format digital does better than the traditional methods because oversize full-color was impractically difficult until recently.

Depending on your vendor, many quick print shops have a lot of turnover leading to staff without a lot of experience as a result. When it comes to matching the quality of a professional traditional printer for business cards, for example, you just aren’t going to achieve the same standards because laser printers can’t handle the heavier materials and are difficult to align perfectly on both sides due to mechanical limitations. So then when you’re trimming them to size in small batches you’re more likely to have some come out crooked or off-center. The trade-off is speed because you can get them a day or two, or sometimes hours, which is helpful if you have a special event and the ordered ones aren’t here yet.

Achieving the same standard of quality as conventional printing is difficult because laser printers can’t handle the heavier materials and you can’t get them to align perfectly on both sides due to mechanical limitations.

One pitfall with print on demand that you do need to be aware of is that there is a lot of variation in image quality from one digital printer to another, and even between the output from the same machine at different times. This is an incredibly complicated and frustrating aspect of the business, and it’s primarily due to the fact that the laser printers’ imaging process works by static electricity, which holds a charge better or worse depending on the paper type, paper thickness, the ambient humidity and temperature, and the age of various internal components, their wear and tear and accumulated dust. 

Then there is the problem that different file types, programs, operating systems, and even different versions of the same, will convert the same pixels to percentages of toner colors in different ways, so the output may be darker or lighter, or more red or blue or yellow, depending on many possible variables in the rendering process. It’s a non-stop battle, and while there are things that can be done to mitigate it, they’re all time-consuming and costly and thus counteract the benefits of doing it this way. (These problems also occur in traditional printing methods, but it’s slightly easier to correct for them.) 

Print On-Demand Services the Modern Economy

It’s best to accept from the beginning that you are not going to get absolutely identical colors every single time, and especially not from different vendors or on different types of substrates, for example, if you want your same design on business cards, letterhead, posters, t-shirts and mugs. The better the vendors, the less variation you’ll have, but it will never be 100% matching across the line.

Another way that digital print-on-demand can be superior is if you have a need to update your content frequently. This could be a handbook or textbook that must conform to new standards or information, or in the case of an error that must be corrected, or just because you want to “freshen up” your materials from time to time with new graphics or color variations. In the past, as you will still find in some old library books, corrections would require a piece of paper with the new text to be glued into the book after the fact, because there was no way it was practical to throw out an entire run and start over. Now, it’s as simple as fixing the file and running off another copy.

Print-on-demand offers flexibility, nimbleness, and financial resilience in an area notoriously lacking in these qualities for most of its history. The trade-offs can well be worth it, so long as you’re prepared for them.

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