by Melissa Donovan
Statements, whether for billing purposes or record keeping, are often still printed and sent through the mail. This didn’t stop during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and it is predicted to remain relevant into the future. However, external forces are at play, such as paper shortages and lack of skilled operators.
To keep up with demand, transactional printers are faced with a dilemma—outsource or implement new technologies and standards to remain relevant. Those looking to retain their transactional printing services, adopting production inkjet, finishing equipment, and automation is essential. Luckily, cutsheet’s cost effectiveness—especially in regards to printing high-quality color—makes it attainable for most.
The pandemic had an interesting effect on the transactional print segment. And the subsequent fallout from the pandemic continues to play a role in its trajectory.
With much of transactional print involving must-have bills and statements, demand didn’t differ too much during COVID-19. “Most pure transaction printers saw little to no dip in volume because utility bills and statements are a regulatory requirement. Transaction printers who send marketing direct mail saw a steep volume drop at the beginning of the pandemic, but they have since returned to pre-pandemic levels or higher,” notes Mark Hunt, director of strategic alliances, Standard Finishing Systems.
Of course, the demand for transactional print did not vanish with the pandemic. “Bills, statements, and notices still need to be sent out through snow and rain and heat and gloom of COVID-19. The challenges are on the supply side, as with other print markets—paper and labor resources are more constrained than ever, but transactional printers still have to carry on, getting paper where they can, finding people to run their shop where they can,” adds Scott Peterson, product marketing manager, Tecnau.
With paper shortages and difficulty finding skilled operators, print is decreasing. “Direct mail printers report turning away some new work due to paper sourcing challenges. Paper shortages are forcing providers to look to other paper sources, often of lower quality. Additionally, COVID-19 exacerbated what was already a growing problem in the printing labor market. Many providers are finding it difficult to find qualified operators,” continues Hunt.
According to Scott Draeger, customer experience officer, Quadient, “the shape of the transactional print segment of the market is changing radically as the number of communications per customer increases while overall print volumes decrease.”
Labor shortages and supply chain issues drive communications towards electronic delivery and, therefore, reduced print. “These factors accelerate the drive for automation, which provides lower costs, faster processes, and fewer errors. That translates into less reliance on humans, improved profitability, and increased customer satisfaction,” notes Ryan Semanchik, president, Transformations, Inc.
This presents several possibilities. “Some transactional print experts take the opportunity to become proficient in more channels. Others seize opportunities for newly outsourced jobs as the economics of in-plant transactional print shift more jobs from in-plant facilities to outsourcers,” adds Draeger.
“Organizations that currently operate an internal print and mail production facility face these labor and supply chain challenges, along with the large shift to remote working, which will most likely cause management to have the ‘should we outsource’ conversation at some point. Since the pandemic, there is a clear trend emerging that outsourcing print/mail production to a reliable, knowledgeable print and communications partner makes business sense to many enterprises,” agrees Kemal Carr, president, Madison Advisors.
Latest Advancements and Drivers
The latest advancements in transactional print and finishing equipment focus on efficiency, which is driven by the need to do more with less staff. For example, newer finishing equipment focuses on decreasing changeover time. Quadient’s DS-1200 G4i and DS-600i Folder Inserters are designed for smaller jobs where rapid changeover is essential to profitability and efficiency.
Increasing speeds and a movement away from pre-printed paper are related trends. “Press speeds are now up to 590 feet per minute (fpm), so there is pressure on finishing equipment manufacturers to deliver solutions that can keep pace. The paper shortage has accelerated the turn away from purchasing pre-printed, pre-perforated, and pre-punched rolls, helping to reduce the reliance on third-party paper converters and relieve paper shortages. Instead, transactional printers are performing dynamic perforations inline with the press. Fanfold inserters, while still in use, are now being converted from pin-feed to pinless, and fanfold perforations can be applied inline with the press,” explains Hunt.
The Standard Hunkeler Roll-to-Stack-to-Booklet system supports conventional offset stack production or it can deliver sheets directly to the Horizon StitchLiner Mark V Saddlestitcher for variable sheet-count booklets to be produced with sheet- and set-level integrity. This productive combination solution handles a range of coated and uncoated stock, from 27 lb. text to 12-point card stock, and it features advanced automation, high-speed capabilities up to 590 fpm, and web width support up to 22.5 inches.
Carr provides another example of enhancements driven by cost and efficiency. “As inserters got faster and more efficient you could take out four inserters and replace them with one. This can drive your costs down by 75 percent and a print provider can be more competitive with pricing. The same thing happened with printers. Printers got faster, offering more capabilities—like color inkjet—so a company can replace a number of slower printers with just one and cost efficiencies are gained.”
Another advancement is geared toward privacy requirements. This is achieved by “offering friendlier reports that confirm each piece was properly and completely processed. In the rare event of an error, reprints and adjustments are easier to correct,” explains Draeger.
“The ever-changing industry regulations and compliance requirements play a large role in the advancement of equipment and software. Compliance and quality control continue to be major factors in the transactional market. Many of our customers have added camera systems to their inserters and we have integrated them with our software to provide fully automated, piece-level tracking. Along with our file encryption technology, this provides an audit trail from file receipt through production to delivery—all tracked and protected within one system. Manual processes alone cannot meet the new security requirements, so they require the use of technology and automation,” comments Semanchik.
Hunt also stresses the importance of compliance and security. “We all know that oversight and inspection are extremely important for the transactional segment of the market in particular. Shops that can automate their production from prepress to post-press and who take advantage of the advancements in vision and inspection systems are able to significantly cut down on waste and human error as well as keep track of sensitive data for compliance purposes.”
“High uptime and ease of use have always been important, but now they’re more important than ever. Highly reliable inkjet presses enhanced by vision systems minimize waste, both of expensive press time as well as of valuable paper by catching errors quickly. User-friendly finishing systems maximize the available skill sets of less experienced operators. Higher speed presses and automated finishing further maximize scarce resources,” says Peterson.
Dynamic perforating/scoring/punching systems like Tecnau’s TC 1530 family eliminate touch points to get transactional documents into the mail quickly and allow users to source more easily available unconverted sheets. Automated cut/stack systems like Tecnau’s Stack 1010 cut larger sheets down to finished size, again minimizing touch points and getting documents into the mail as soon as possible.
Role of Cutsheet
The latest cutsheet inkjet technologies play an important role in transactional print. “While the transactional market still seems to be declining, statement printers turn to sheetfed inkjet presses like the Canon varioPRINT iX-series because this class is still highly productive and accommodates variable run lengths,” notes Lisa Weese, director of marketing, Canon Solutions America, Production Print Solutions.
According to Weese, sheetfed inkjet presses like the Canon varioPRINT iX-series also offer benefits like cost-effectively running monochrome and color or monochrome-only jobs on one device, an end-to-end workflow solution with inline finishing, native IPDS and seamless workflow integration for data integrity, and NCR printing as a unique sheeted application.
“The latest cutsheet inkjet technologies bring the cost of color down and the quality up. This allows for creative combinations of multiple jobs that give the advantage to print facilities that deliver large volumes of postal mail to secure maximum postal discounts in an era where prices can increase at six month intervals. Cutsheet inkjet is bolstering the business model in a period of uncertainty by increasing run sizes,” says Draeger.
Takeway on Offset to Inkjet
Many have migrated from offset and/or EP technologies to inkjet in the transactional print market. Weese says many statement printers have already transitioned, mainly due to the ability to cost-effectively produce high volumes of variable data.
Almost all transactional printers have migrated to high-speed inkjet, agrees Carr. “It is a good migration for most companies because inkjet is faster and more cost effective. Many service providers have told us that the least expensive page they print is on their inkjet device. Even if it’s full color, it’s still cheaper than doing it on a toner-based device because of the labor, the cost of the device, and throughput.”
Many Transformations customers in the transactional space have either converted completely over to color inkjet or begun the process in the last couple of years, according to Semanchik. “These printers have become more affordable and quality continues to improve. Also, you no longer have to manage multiple forms when you make the move to a color inkjet workflow. In addition, the software has improved and printed PDF output at manageable sizes and fast speeds has made moving to inkjet much more feasible.”
“Whether you focus on versioning, personalization, or hyper-personalization, inkjet technologies allow for a greater degree of design variations in a single job, while also allowing savvy production facilities the opportunity to combine work for multiple customers. This pairs well with the innovations in reporting technology from the finishing equipment that allows for complete and accurate reporting of aggregated print runs that deliver critical communications for multiple customers,” explains Draeger.
According to Johan Laurent, director of business operations, Standard Finishing Systems, “some of the newest inkjet presses are up to twice as fast as the EP printers they are replacing, which leads to higher productivity per square foot and per employee. Inkjet makes sense for this market segment, although of course this ultimately depends on the unique needs of each print production environment.”
While transactional printing is targeted as a declining segment, it still represents an important portion of the total industry. The adoption and advancements of production inkjet as well as finishing paired with automation have a big impact on efficiency and productivity in this space. dps
Sep2022, DPS Magazine