For decades, the printing and publishing business has been a highly mechanized affair. Computer technology has nibbled away at the edges, turning such tasks as typesetting and design into digitized jobs, but the heart and soul of the business -- production printing -- has remained largely mechanical. Now that's beginning to change.

In the early 1990s, companies introduced digital printers that could take an electronic file, such as a report from word-processing software or a newsletter from desktop-publishing software, and create bound copies in low- or high-volume. Printers no longer had to mess with camera-ready copy, blue lines or plates, nor did they have to wrestle with the grease and ink of offset printers. Digital printing revolutionized the functionality, capacity and flexibility of printers.

Today, the fastest-growing field in printing is digital. While it only represents $13.3 billion of the overall $105.5 billion printing market, it's growing five times faster, according to CAP Ventures, a consulting and market-research firm based in Norwell, Mass. Fueling this growth is something called on-demand printing. Instead of ordering long print runs for documents, reports or books and warehousing the results, customers can now receive just-in-time printing when they need it.

Increasing the shift to digital, on-demand printing is the growth in multi-purpose machines, faster networks, increased bandwidth and the Internet. Copiers no longer just copy, they also print, scan, fax and are linked to corporate networks. A document scanned on a copier can be sent as an e-mail attachment or made accessible on the corporate intranet, explained Charles A. Pesko Jr., managing director of CAP Ventures.

With the Internet, a customer can use a Web browser to place a print order online, check the status of the job and view the job at any time, added Pesko during a keynote speech last May at the On Demand Digital Printing Conference in New York City. "The Internet is a phenomenal digital accelerator for print providers," he said.

Something else is going on in the printing world. Large corporations, organizations and governments are outsourcing their printing and publishing work. Instead of tying up precious capital in expensive printers and labor, they are turning to print providers who will do the work for them. "The federal government's GPO (General Printing Office) only does 27 percent of its own printing," said Cary Sherburne, director of CAP Venture's document-outsourcing consulting services.

Print outsourcing allows a government printer to add new capabilities it otherwise couldn't have offered. According to Pesko, outsourcing services run the gamut from digital-document and Web-page design to document management, printing and mail-fulfillment services.

Another trend is the customization of these and other services. Print providers and full-service document companies are offering organizations and governments a buffet of software, equipment and services that cover the entire spectrum of printing and

publishing. "In fact, there's a big convergence between the Internet, customization and outsourcing," said Sherburne. "These are the three megatrends of the printing industry."

Make or Break Situation

Printing is a big business in Oregon. The annual budget of the State Printer is $50 million, and that doesn't include postage, which is another $25 million annually. The State Printer handles more than 2.3 million pieces per month, including license renewals, unemployment compensation checks, warrants from the state treasurer, tax refunds and more.

With no general funding from the state or mandate that agencies use its services, the printer has to "make it or break it," explained Michael Freese, state printer. Unfortunately, for some time, the printing and mailing process has been less than ideal. Typical of other printing operations, Oregon's State Printer treated each aspect -- printing, addressing, finishing and mailing -- as a separate operation, which led to a fragmented, expensive and error-prone process. A lengthy state-budget cycle also meant that printing equipment was often obsolete by the time it

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor