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What Is Just-In-Time Printing and Why Is it Important?

By January 16, 2024March 15th, 2024Insights, Fulfillment, Logistics
Published Date: Tuesday, Jan 16, 2024
Last Updated on: Friday, Mar 15, 2024
Just-in-time printing reduces printing costs.

Believe it or not, the secret to reducing your printing costs could be… paying more per unit!

As counterintuitive as this may sound, the conventional model for printing (and manufacturing as a whole) that uses massive production runs to minimize cost per unit, may actually be more expensive. The inefficiency and waste created by this practice, as well as its inflexibility, means you could be pouring money down the drain in your pursuit of greater cost-effectiveness.

In this article, we will talk about the alternative, “just-in-time (JIT) printing.” We’ll look at the major drawbacks of conventional printing, what JIT printing does to overcome these, and the best use cases for each, so you can make the right decision for your business.

What are the drawbacks of conventional printing?

Modern manufacturing strategy is all about employing mass production to maximize efficiency, and printing is no different. Printing in bulk involves churning out large runs all at once, in order to optimize machine utilization and reduce per-unit costs. 

Print companies and print salespeople are heavily incentivized to sell large print runs – often hundreds of thousands of copies – even if they know that the client has no need of such a large quantity. This is done to optimize productivity and maximize the printing company’s profit margins, but rarely considers the client’s cash flow, their ability to store the materials or the environmental impact.

This conventional method comes with major drawbacks that can far outweigh any perceived cost savings:

Inefficient inventory management: The entire run will be printed all at once, then shipped to the customer in bulk. Once delivered, it’s no longer the concern of the printing company. This often results in massive inventory stockpiles, as businesses print more material than they need to avoid running out of stock. The result is excessive storage and handling costs, space constraints and an increased risk of materials being damaged.
Increased chance of obsolescence: By overproducing material to avoid shortages, businesses risk a large percentage of it expiring. This excess stock incurs storage fees while it is still potentially viable, then additional disposal fees once there’s no longer any use for it and it needs to be thrown away.
Reduced flexibility: Conventional printing makes it difficult to accommodate sudden changes in demand or printing requirements. Once a run is printed and delivered, the printer’s job is done. If more volume is needed or an error is found, there can be a large delay before new materials arrive, as printing companies try to keep their schedules full.
Higher environmental impact: Conventional printing contributes massively to deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions due to the unnecessary use of paper and energy. Pulp and paper are the third-largest air, water and land polluters among all industries in the U.S. and Canada. This places them in the same bracket as mining, chemical production and energy generation. Paper and paperboard also make up over a quarter of all solid municipal waste in landfills, and as much as 30% of print jobs are never even picked up from the printer.

Finally, despite the per-unit costs being lower, large print orders require significant upfront payments. These can strain a business’s cash flow and be a sensitive line item on the quarterly P&L sheet.

Conventional printing is inefficient and inflexible.

How does just-in-time printing avoid these issues?

With just-in-time printing, materials are printed as and when they’re needed, rather than being churned out all at once. This results in much faster turnaround times than conventional printing, so businesses don’t need to stockpile in order to avoid running out.

Despite the higher per-unit costs, this approach can prove to be far more cost-effective than conventional printing, and brings a whole host of other benefits:

Reduced inventory costs: By only printing what is needed, when it is needed, businesses avoid having to allocate large amounts of space for storage. This saves a lot on storage and handling costs.
Reduced waste: Businesses print only the amount of material they need. As a result, when a run comes to an end or the material becomes obsolete, the amount that will go to waste will be far lower, both as a percentage of the volume created, and as an absolute value. This makes it a much more efficient use of resources.
Greater environmental sustainability: JIT limits the amount of environmental impact of any particular run. The amount of paper or paperboard required for a run is lower, the proportion of it that will be used is maximized, and wastage is minimized. In short, JIT ensures that minimal material will be created only to be disposed of, unused, later.

With reduced inventory costs, smaller amounts being produced and lower quantities being wasted, JIT can be much more cost-effective over the course of a run than conventional printing.

Just in time printing is efficient, flexible and cost-saving.

How is just-in-time printing best utilized?

Whether it’s pharmaceutical companies that need medication package inserts, retailers that want marketing materials, or financial fact sheets that have to be updated every quarter, with variable data depending on audience, almost any industry can make use of JIT printing.

The nature of print on demand does make it more suitable in these situations, however:

When storage space is limited: Just-in-time printing removes the need for large inventory stockpiles, greatly reducing the amount of storage space used, as well as lowering handling costs. This space and the employees that would be used for handling these stockpiles can be reallocated, potentially increasing efficiency elsewhere.
If demand varies greatly: If demand for your printed materials (or the products associated with them) is unpredictable, JIT printing is a more sensible financial decision. Instead of printing a large volume all at once and risking stockouts (if there is high demand) or having to dispose of a large amount of leftover material (if demand is low), with JIT printing you can simply print as much as you need and replenish as you go.
When greater personalization is needed: With conventional printing, all materials are printed at once. This makes personalizing or customizing essentially impossible. JIT printing doesn’t have this issue, as varied or customized runs can be ordered at any time.
If content changes frequently: Likewise, if content varies a lot, either due to short associated product runs or because amendments are needed, conventional printing does not have fast enough turnaround times to make adjustments. Upfront costs also make frequent alterations expensive, and if you have already printed out a large volume, there will likely be a significant amount of wastage.
Where there is greater risk of obsolescence/spoilage: With smaller print runs, businesses are less likely to have outdated or damaged materials sat in storage that will have to be disposed of or recycled.
To limit environmental impact: By minimizing the amount of paper that will be disposed of when it is no longer needed, JIT printing greatly reduces the environmental impact of a print run.
To optimize cash flow: JIT printing can also streamline cash flow. By breaking the cost of a run into chunks, businesses can better align their expenditures with their cash flows. This flexibility can be particularly beneficial for businesses with seasonal demand or unpredictable revenue patterns.
What Just in time printing is best used for.


On the other hand, just-in-time printing will likely prove to be less cost-effective in these situations:

Large runs with predictable demand: When demand for printed materials is high and predictable, conventional printing can be more efficient and cost-effective, as the per-unit cost is lower.

One-time or low-volume printing: If a business only needs to print a small number of copies of a specific document or marketing material, conventional printing may be a better option. This is because the setup costs for JIT printing may not be justifiable for such small print runs.

If your partners are less reliable: JIT printing also requires much greater coordination between suppliers and logistics partners. Lower volumes of stock in reserve make it easier to run out, so replenishment needs to be prompt. If you don’t have faith in your fulfillment partners to achieve the fast turnaround times necessary, JIT printing may not be suitable for your business.

Final thoughts

As businesses feel the squeeze from inflation, and there is constant pressure from C-suite executives to cut costs and improve ROI, JIT printing could be the solution many are looking for. 

A just-in-time approach offers more than cost-effectiveness. It’s a strategic shift toward a more sustainable and responsive printing model. By embracing JIT printing, businesses can align their practices with modern manufacturing principles, optimize operational efficiency and contribute to a more environmentally conscious future.

If you’d like to learn more about how JIT printing can help your business do more with less, why not get in touch? At Harte Hanks, we operate a high-quality just-in-time printing service as part of our fulfillment and logistics divisions. No matter your industry, we can provide you with a solution that works for you.

Contact us today.

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