By Ron Ellis
In my consulting practice I come into contact with a wide range of customers, including organizations that buy great quantities of printing. Every week I meet someone who tells me they are buying printing overseas, usually in China or India. The stories they tell are interesting because they dispel some common myths about printing in China, and illustrate the reach of the global economy. Printing overseas is a growing trend and in five years China is expected to be the third largest supplier of printing in the world. There are more than 100,000 printing companies there. And while general growth in China has continued at a rate of 7 percent, the Chinese printing industry has grown at a rate of 10 to 12 percent. It is clearly one of the rising segments of the Chinese economy. In the near future, the United States print markets will see increased competition from overseas competitors.
There are many reasons that customers take their work overseas. One reason that is hard to ignore is price. Although it typically takes four to six weeks to get a job back from China, the price is dramatically reduced compared to domestic print prices. Marc Brindisi, a director of production and purchasing in publishing at and an industry expert said depending on the type of printing needed, it is tough to ignore offshore options.
“Manufacturing savings verses domestic printing on book work is in the range of 40 to 50 percent. Even when shipping is added to the final cost of goods sold, the range is 35 to 45 percent,” he said. “If you can plan for the extra four to six weeks of time in shipping, the cost advantages are difficult to ignore.”
Prices for services that are prohibitively expensive such as hand binding operations are inexpensive and affordable, and overseas printers can often perform very intricate operations for little additional cost. An additional reason for sending printing overseas is that it can be more efficient to print international products overseas where they will be used.
One of the biggest myths about printing in China is the belief that Chinese and other foreign printers produce a lower quality product. More often than not I heard the following statement from print buyers: “The quality we get from China is actually better than the quality we get in the U.S.”
This statement shocked me at first but is often repeated by print buyers I meet. “Quality is as good as anything you would receive domestically,” Brindisi said. “I have visited shops in China and spent considerable time in that environment. The machinery is comparable to anything you will find here. They make investments in state of the art equipment from prep through bindery. What is also important is that each person is specifically trained to do the task they do. Pressmen, bindery, truck drivers, etc. Companies can afford to have a ‘one-skilled’ labor force which leads to extraordinary quality control.”
While a few Chinese printing plants still have old outdated equipment, many have completely new and updated equipment. In the past 10 years, the Chinese government has focused on updating printing plants to more modern specifications. Operators print by adhering to specific numeric parameters on state of the art equipment rather than running by eye as less sophisticated operations in the U.S. and overseas continue to do. According to a number of customers I have spoken with, the plants actually offer better quality than their U.S. counterparts. Further evidence of this is the large number or photography books and packaging jobs that are printed overseas.
Another myth about printing overseas has to do with communication. Many customers tell me that communication with some of the plants is improved, that the staff is friendlier and more helpful than they are used to when buying printing in the United States. “Communication is fine. All of the folks that you have any "face to face" communications with all speak English,” Brindisi added. “The customer service is outstanding. A very strong work ethic prevails and the dedicated customer service person we have responds quickly. You need to get used to the time difference and understand that you will generally wait 12 to 24 hours for a response depending on when you make the request.”
With the advent of remote proofing and soft proofing many of the barriers to communicating accurate color are vanishing. In some case the US sales offices of foreign printers produce their own proofs here and ship them to customers. Some customers have bought their own inexpensive Epson proofing equipment, and with these have profiled the Chinese printing plants and produce their own proofs and ship them with the job to act as proofs.
It is not surprising that some US printers are moving plants overseas to stay in the business when producing competitive products in the US becomes more difficult. This follows a similar trend that has already taken place in many other manufacturing industries. An example in the printing industry is R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co., which has invested in and built printing operations in Shenzhen and Shanghai. More large printers may follow Donnelley’s example in order to remain competitive.
Although seldom discussed, ethics are an issue with some buyers. For example, do questions about the human rights record of the communist Chinese government mean consumers should not buy printing from Chinese printing companies? Because these buyers are buying from individual printing companies and not from the Chinese government, these concerns do not appear to be enough to stop overseas print sales. The questions about these companies and how they treat their labor does influence a minority of print buyers. With that said, price seems to be more important than these concerns.
Keep in mind that although overseas workers are paid lower than US workers, the overseas print employee is often in high demand and making a good living in their country.
There are a several things about the overseas printing trend deserve consideration. The first is that printers in the United States are not necessarily producing a product that is higher quality than the products produced by lower-cost offshore printers. Nor is staff at oversea operations less qualified or more difficult to work with than staff that work at domestic printers. Due to the economic conditions, many qualified printing staff exited the industry here after Sept. 11th and didn’t return. It is unsettling to think that the U.S. printing industry is thinly staffed, is potentially losing track of industry fundamentals due to automation, and is not preparing the next generation of future print staff for future challenges our industry will face.
There are currently 12 universities dedicated to the graphic arts in China, and more than 16,000 students studying printing technology. For the Chinese, preparing staff for the printing industry is a priority. The same commitment is not evident here in the U.S.
Of course, overseas printing may not remain as inexpensive as it is currently. One print buyer stated that turnover is one of the biggest problems facing overseas printers. As the market booms and demand for qualified staff increases, many workers will hop from job to job seeking better wages, just as prepress staff did here in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Eventually the labor costs will level off, but it is hard to believe this will not end up with U.S. printing industry employees making less, and US companies charging less.
Sheetfed, short-run web, and domestic packaging are predicted to be the safest markets for printers to remain in. One thing is certain; printing in America is no longer the domain of the U.S. printing industry.
About the author: Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.