2023 signals POD turnaround; can it catapult into tech's big league

POD (print-on-demand) started in India in the late nineties. Some say POD started around 1999 when Xerox launched its Safida. But it was a decade later that it became a staple part of the industry.

26 Apr 2024 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Himanshu Pandey of Avantika says digital print saw traction around 2005 onwards. Authors, publishers, and event organisers were the first ones to get a draft copy out of a digital press to proofread. They were the ones who demanded POD.

Avantika invested in a Canon 1135 in 2010. Since then, the company has been adding finesse to the system. This included automating the flow of print work from order intake to printed product by automating the flow of work through their fleet of presses. This meant configuring the system to make production decisions for POD based on size, quantity, media, and page count. 

Around the same time Avantika was making its move, book major Repro purchased a Kodak Prosper. This was a huge turning point for POD. Initially, Repro deployed sheetfed digital machines for book printing. They had IBM machines, later they moved to Kodak Digimasters which were black and white sheetfed devices. 

The point is the Repro team gained experience before they migrated to inkjet. Also simultaneously, they worked on a solid software regime to manage content. This meant the removal of as many touchpoint steps as possible. What struck me was how the on-premises solution connected directly to print and finishing devices. A user interface was set up and controlled via web browsers. The net result: multiple levels of access privilege for different users (including overseas customers).

But POD continued to remain a niche. 200 books were the average run. The Indian POD mindset was that of a commercial printer; even though there was a digital engine on the shopfloor, it was a khichdi of everything. Different models and multiple raisons d’êtres. One or two dared to exceed their customers’ expectations with same-day or next-day dispatch. Gradually, that was the aspiration. To deliver a bespoke, personalised product in the same timescale that an off-the-shelf product can be picked and shipped. This became the goal because that’s what the book fraternity sought.

Back then, as it is now, everyone agreed that POD plays an important role in inventory planning. And those who implemented a digital print programme have benefitted. It was common sense. All those issues about working capital management and inventory woes. More and more players focused on the cost-benefit analysis of large print runs versus multiple short runs. But it didn't translate into numbers. Despite being backed by a massive book publishing industry, there were not more than ten serious POD players in India who were leveraging the technology.

An industry veteran, who has worked with two of the biggest digital press manufacturers told me, the POD business started in 2003, but the turning point was 2018. He said, “I don't think 2010 or 2012 were the inflexion point. I guess it started to come together when the Indian government put an embargo on refurbished machine imports in 2017. The jobber market exploded after that.”

Industry pundits concur with this view that POD for commercial printing became mainstream only in the last five years. The reasons are elementary. a) The volumes are on the rise for digital print; b) The cost to print is lower; c) The technology is inspiring confidence to ensure migration from offset; d) Inkjet may deliver (yes finally) its promise.

The digital press manufacturers are bullish and they see momentum in 2024. Our numbers at PrintWeek indicate 2,300 digital presses. All toner. Riso (inkjet) and inkjet Atexco web presses (three inkjet presses) are not included in this list of 2,300 digital presses. And so, in terms of equipment size (revenue of equipment sold in a year), this is estimated to be Rs 450-crore last year CY 2023.  It is being touted as the highest-ever CY.

2024 promises to deliver much more. What explains the turnaround? Primarily, four trends. One is the number of machines; two is volumes per machine; and three, this is the D for Drupa year.  And finally, binding. 

In the early days of POD, the focus was on the pre-press and the press. But it took aeons (at times longer than offset to supply the books). The printing press sat in the centre of the POD universe. The post-press was offline and the binding (quite often) was in a different location. An on-premise solution was required, which connects directly to finishing devices at a reasonable price. Something that takes into consideration the imposition, sheet size, press and other factors. More and more players started to realise that binding is the real glue between paper and the reader. That it can save a lot of effort in individual setups, and also avoid common points of error. Thus, saving time and labour effort, allowing more books per day to be turned around, and reducing waste and remakes.

The Covid years were a turning point. There was a huge demand from coaching institutes. Of course, they contributed to the mono volumes. I set out on a Sherlock Holmes mission. To investigate a bit about the thousands of coaching class institutions. More importantly, to understand their POD requirement. All I gathered is anecdotal evidence about education hubs like Kota, Hyderabad, Baroda, etc. As they say, watch this space for more...

One thing is clear. In a world of such dizzying change, nothing is certain. Of course, all those who predicted the printed book have reached the end of an era, have been proved wrong.

The humble book has come a long way from a minimum threshold of 1,000 copies to 200 copies and even a single copy now. The challenge of projecting quantities in publishing is quite tricky, unlike FMCG. One problem is one can project the print quantity based on the data we have of the number of copies sold in the last three months, six months or one year. But this will not guarantee that the pace will be the same for the next three months, a reader can change his mind.

The 2024 edition of the New Delhi World Book Fair in February revealed a shift. A bestselling title does not translate into 100,000 copies. While publishers are uneasy about divulging the number, "A bestseller in India means 3,000 to 5,000 copies." All the data points to lower volumes and more SKUs.

As Neeraj Jain, managing director at Scholastic India, said while addressing a gathering during the India Book Mission in Delhi, “The India Book Market Report 2022 pegs Rs 98,920 crore for the print book market by 2024-25. It was Rs 30,660-crore ten years ago.” He said as a result, there is an attempt to create a world-class publishing infrastructure in India through heavy investments. This includes upgrading the infrastructure both in the large volume (offset) as well as low volumes (print on demand).

A pharma specialist shared with me, "Looking at the success of POD in books, we could see a similar trend in packaging. Several packaging buyers complain of warehousing costs and sectors such as pharma destroy millions of unused or redundant packaging annually. The POD model may teach us important lessons."

And ultimately, this is the moot question. Is POD finally poised to unleash its blockbuster status in 2024...

Ramu Ramanathan is editor at PrintWeek and WhatPackaging?

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