How Xerography and Digital Printing Changed the U.S. Mail
Have you noticed more people sending personalized holiday cards each December, using family photos printed not on photographic paper, but on heavy card stock, like those produced by major greeting card companies?
These cards and the range of other photoproducts that can be ordered online today with a few keystrokes and photo uploads are a good example of what xerographic printing and mail has meant for entrepreneurs. Once xerographic digital press image quality rose to the level of rivaling photographic prints, entrepreneurs created a new market for photo greeting cards, calendars, books and other photoproducts that is projected to generate a worldwide retail value of $10 billion1 by 2018.
Photoproducts are one of many innovations that digital printing technologies have brought to the production of items distributed through the U.S. Mail. Here’s a timeline listing some of the bigger breakthroughs.
1937—Chester Carlson makes the first xerographic image.
1959—Xerox introduces the first automatic plain-paper copier, using xerographic technology. The Xerox 914 and subsequent models provided a convenient, cost-competitive alternative to commercial printing for producing multiple copies for mass mailings, to carbon paper for duplicating personal correspondence, and to routing originals when sharing mail.
1969—Gary Starkweather of Xerox invents the laser printer.
1977—Xerox introduces its first laser printer, the 9700, designed for printing from mainframe computers at speeds as fast as 2 pages per second. It replaces slower, lower quality line printers that use continuous pin-fed paper to produce statements, invoices and reports and introduces many of the capabilities that enable the high degree of automation in modern print and mail shops.
1990—Xerox introduces the DocuTech 135 Publishing System—the first laser printer capable of rivaling the quality of traditional offset printing of text and images. With the DocuTech, a new set of graphically sophisticated documents, including books, manuals and marketing materials, became eligible for printing on demand, with orders fulfilled from electronic repositories rather than warehouses, saving time and money.
2000—Color digital presses, introduced in the mid 1990s, begin to achieve the quality and consistency necessary to complement and compete with traditional commercial printing. Again, a new range of printed pieces requiring high-quality color become eligible for print and fulfillment on demand, including just about every type of marketing document. Increasingly, print orders are placed on the Web for automated fulfillment on digital presses. Wider adoption of personalization—varying text and images in a long print run to make the content relevant to each individual recipient—begins to increase the business effectiveness of direct mail.
Mid-2000s—In 2005, the number of camera images shot digitally surpassed film for the first time—about the same time that the image quality from digital color presses began closely rivaling that of photographic prints. Entrepreneurs begin applying the online-ordering-for-automated-print-and-fulfillment business model to photoproducts, and a new industry was borne for automated production of greeting cards, photo books, calendars and posters from personal photos.
2010—Inkjet print technology gains traction as a digital printing alternative to xerography for print and mail facilities, offering higher capacity, lower production costs and ever improving image quality. It once again expands the range of printed documents that benefit from the automated, personalized, print-on-demand processes that digital printing brings to print and fulfillment. Its promise is so compelling that production color inkjet print is projected to account for 57 percent of the total production digital color page volume by 2019, taking over volume leadership from xerography, according to InfoTrends2.
An Automated Print and Mail Line in Action
A PARC Vision Shaped Modern Print and Mail Centers
PARC, a Xerox company, is widely recognized for having envisioned the modern office through its many technology innovations in the early 1970s. These include the first personal computer, the first graphical user interface and the invention of the Ethernet networking protocol. Yet the one PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) technology around which Xerox built a successful business at the time was applied not to transforming the office but to print and mail centers.
The technology: laser printing. Xerox’s first laser printer, the 9700, was introduced in 1977 and connected directly to mainframe computers in corporate data centers and independent service bureaus to output a remarkable two, cut-sheet pages per second (120 per minute).
The 9700 had critical advantages over the line printers that were then the dominant means of printing mainframe output in the form of statements, invoices, checks and internal reports. Line printer shortcomings included low image quality, a small number of available fonts, an inability to print images or line art, and a cumbersome work process. Most used pin-fed, perforated continuous form paper that required the edges to be torn off and the individual sheets to be bursted and then collated.
The 9700 improved upon line printers with business-correspondence quality printing (300 dots per inch) and the capability to print most any fonts and graphics, expanding the range of documents that could be printed to include, for example, insurance policies. For the first time, policies and other documents could be stored on computers, rather than in warehouses, and printed in always-current form, in response to orders, saving time and money.
Furthermore, the 9700 introduced a streamlined production process. On the front end, the printer could produce an electronic monochrome form as well as its contents in a single, time-saving pass, eliminating the need to load pre-printed form stock or stationery for each job—though pre-printed stock could be loaded, for example, to introduce color. And on the back end, collated, cut-sheet pages were delivered all ready to be inserted into envelopes for mailing. These critical breakthroughs are prime enablers of the highly automated print and mail centers of today, some of which require no human intervention from the releasing of a print job to the insertion of a finished mail piece into the mail stream.
Still, a question remains. PARC was established in 1970 with the specific mission of envisioning the office of the future. So why did the laser printer’s inventor, Gary Starkweather, develop a printer better suited to centralized computer center deployment than to the office?
“Xerox was in the high volume computer copier business,” Starkweather explained in an oral history interview with the Computer History Museum. “That’s where all the money was perceived to be. Therefore, they had these little small machines, but the small machines were considered Pee Wee profits compared to the big devices.”
Indeed, the digital printing industry that the Xerox 9700 helped to spawn today generates more than $120 billion in global annual revenues3, while vastly improving the way business mail is produced—and fueling a very successful, ongoing decades-long business for Xerox.
Building a Photo Publishing Business
Boosting the Value of Business Mail in the Digital Age
A few years ago, an Internet information company seeking to boost response rates and drive traffic to its Web site was somewhat reluctant to use printed direct mail. After generating so-so results in numerous online channels, however, a direct mail test produced the highest response rates and the most stickiness of any medium they used — even for the coveted, new-media generation of 18 to 35 year olds.
The moral: “Sometimes you find a role for print in the areas you least expect it,”
said Matthew J. Downey, vice president, Anderson Direct & Digital, agency to the Internet information company.
Indeed, print and mail have been finding many new and unexpected roles in the evolving landscape of digital business communications. And the new contributions of print derive almost exclusively from digital printing. That makes sense, because ultimately, digital printers output directly from the same data that fuels digital communications, permitting them to more easily integrate and interact with digital communications systems. Consequently, digital color production printing volumes are expected to continue growing—from about 182 billion impressions in 2014 to 336 billion in 2019 in the United States4—while overall print volume is in decline.
Here are some of the key ways businesses are finding value in digital printing today, and what that means for consumers.
Personalization—Digital printing is unique among print technologies for permitting content, both text and images, to be varied from page to page in a long print run. Businesses use this capability to make their offers more relevant to individual recipients—car dealers, for example, might target a customer who’s lease is expiring for a special new car offer. The technique has been shown to boost response rates and sales for businesses, and among individual direct marketing media, print pieces generally deliver the highest response rates. For example, direct mail’s response rate among existing customers is a healthy 3.4 percent—nearly 30 times more than email’s 0.12% percent, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). For consumers, these techniques mean that direct mail is evermore likely to make offers that are close to what you are actually looking for.
Complementing digital media in multi-media campaigns—Modern marketing campaigns use a mean of three media, according to market research and strategic consulting firm InfoTrends. Studies have shown that the use of multiple media boosts response rates over single-media campaigns, and that print can play a valuable complementary role in this mix. Print is often used to introduce consumers to new electronic content, for example. Studies show that many consumers prefer to browse printed catalogs and make purchases online, and that most consumers prefer direct mail to marketing emails. And advertisements are generally perceived as more credible in print than online. Consequently, consumers can expect more campaigns to use a wider range of media, including print.
Interactive print—QR codes, augmented reality and near-field communications can link printed pieces to electronic communications with a simple scan of a smartphone. These techniques make it easier for consumers to discover new content, get more information or make purchases, while advancing the communications goals of the sender.
A less hurried alternative to digital—Consumers are so bombarded with marketing messages in the hyperactive online world that print and mail can offer a more relaxed alternative. Some businesses are using print to stand out, as well as to complement digital media. As a result, consumers should expect to receive offers in the mail well into the future.
A State-of-the-Art Print-and-Mail Operation
Faces the Digital Future
If a savvy industry veteran were permitted to build a print-and-mail facility from scratch today, what would it look like? How would the operation account for ongoing shifts in consumer preferences for receiving digital communications versus paper formats? How would management plan and build for the future? Industry veteran Craig Hall, recently had this opportunity. As the managing director of Document & Information Services for U.K. business process outsourcing leader Capita, Hall had a mandate to bring some big volumes of its outsourced transactional print back in house. In this video, he describes his vision.
Xerox is helping change the way the world works. By applying our expertise in imaging, business process, analytics, automation and user-centric insights, we engineer the flow of work to provide greater productivity, efficiency and personalization. We conduct business in 180 countries, and our more than 140,000 employees create meaningful innovations and provide business process services, printing equipment, software and solutions that make a real difference for our clients – and their customers.
Our digital production printing systems have played central roles in automating print and mail facilities since 1977, when we introduced our first product based upon our invention of laser printing. Today our wide range of xerographic and inkjet production printers help these facilities automate production and distribution of a wide range of high-quality printed products, including statements, invoices, catalogs, direct mail, books and photo products, such as greeting cards, calendars and memory books.
- 1. Smithers Pira (2015) and Xerox Analysis
- 2. Global Production Printing & Copying Market Forecast: 2014-2019, InfoTrends.
- 3. Smithers Pira
- 4. InfoTrends’ U.S. Production Printing & Copying Market Forecasts, 2014-2019