10 February 2020 Business

Will print always be about printing?

The technological changes coming to print over the next decade are already underway and so predictable. The challenge is to understand how demand for print will change through demographic and social change. These will have more impact on how print develops says Gareth Ward.

The start of a new decade prompts widespread speculation of what the industry might look like in another ten years. This is relatively easy: more automation, continuing rise of inkjet, decline of litho and other analogue processes, increasing use of robotics and robots to cope with shorter print runs and faster turnarounds. Artificial intelligence will make many of the decisions about production paths and schedules. And so on, all this is relatively predictable. These are what might be called the known knowns.

These are continuations of existing trends. Inkjet, for example, is becoming faster, more resilient and given the right conditions can replace offset litho work. The scope will only increase after this and the next Drupa. It may eventually become cheaper. Even Landa presses will become unremarkable before long. Printers and print specifiers will stop worrying about which technology is being used.

Is there another print technology on the horizon that has yet to be invented? Possibly. Xerox made a presentation about ‘digital offset’ a year ago and if this proves practical it would have a significant impact, though Xerox’s commitment to the investment needed is questionable. Ten years is also too short a window for a brand new technology to arrive, be optimised and come to market in a significant way: inkjet was first seen at Drupa 2008, Landa four years later.

It is simple too to predict further consolidation between printers and those that are suppliers to them as the market shifts. There will be substantial growth for printers able to accept orders online, whether the giants or smaller businesses. In the cover interview, Gary Peeling talks about a small number of £100 million online printers in this country. That revenue has to come from somewhere and it is not through expanding overall demand for print. Government statistics examined in this issue show which sectors are shrinking, which are expanding, and while the overall market is holding up, paper consumption continues to drop.

Chinese equipment suppliers will become as sophisticated and as acceptable as suppliers from Japan and western Europe, though not in offset litho. China is still one of the largest untapped markets for print where plenty of the shifts to hit European printers have yet to bite. Again Drupa will underline how far Chinese companies have come with equipment that is no longer just copies of European equipment, but highly automated, low cost and robust machinery. The leader in this respect is Masterwork, now a 13% shareholder in Heidelberg, and manufacturer of class leading platens, folder gluers, foilers and inspection technology. There will be other Masterworks.

Robots will take on the repetitive tasks that humans no longer want to do while artificial intelligence will begin to make its mark in deciding how to produce a job and in what sequence. At the Horizon open days in Japan at the end of last year, robots were moving paper into feeders and moving sections from one process to another. Expect to see more on robotics at Drupa because it is necessary to automate to this extent. Otherwise the short runs that customers want will be neither practical nor cost effective. People in future will not apply for mundane level jobs.

This will also mean the end for many of the jobs traditionally associated with print. No more works managers, bindery assistants or prepress operators. A decade ago these were familiar roles. In many places these positions have already gone and certainly by 2030 they will have vanished.

The new jobs are both eccentric in description and completely new to print. But by the end of the decade, if not before, they will be essential. As proving a company’s sustainability moves from nice to offer to an essential part of a company’s DNA, sustainability will be a full time job even in smaller businesses. A look at LinkedIn turns up printers who are already employing data architects, workflow architects, baton wielders, data analysts, social media experts.

These are the jobs that the Millennial generation, Gen Z and Generation Extinction Rebellion aspire to. They are screen based, creative, problem solving and as far away from the jobs moving paper around a factory, plates from one device to another and into a recycling bin, as Linotype operator, gravure cylinder engraver and film retoucher are removed from today’s industry.

By the end of this decade those teenagers who have taken to the streets to protest about the harm to the environment will be in decision making positions. Before then print will have to shoulder its share of decarbonising the economy. This will mean slashing energy use, or at least switching to verifiably renewable sources, which in turn favours on site battery storage or electricity consumption at times when domestic demand is lowest, perhaps during windy nights.

Having an ISO 14001 certificate will not be enough. Roofs ideally should have solar panels, plastic needs to be eliminated if possible and recycled if not. Nothing goes to landfill or into the atmosphere except as the last resort. Water must be saved for reuse as grey water, consumables purchased from verifiable sources and flying accounted for.

Networked print, with jobs shared across a cobweb of plants to reduce travel to the point of its consumption, rather than printing centrally and shipping over long distances, will be commonplace aided by light touch lights out print technology, colour controls and artificial intelligence algorithms. Gelato’s business proposition is a start in this direction.

The very nature of work comes into question for the first time in more than two centuries. People will choose how much they are willing to work, an extension of job share on the one hand and the gig economy on the other. The interface between work and leisure will become blurred. Is running an Etsy site and selling home crafted foods, clothing, furniture or books a leisure activity or does it count as work?

Courses for these kinds of crafts are hugely popular: pottery, letterpress printing, calligraphy classes can all be oversubscribed. When keyboard and screen work dominates, there is a search for some IRL activities, some of which can be monetised.

This growing interest in making things, opening the potential for enterprising print businesses to open their doors to welcome local groups and individuals for hands-on evenings.

A Minuteman franchise in Norwich last year invited local bloggers to an evening where they came and saw printing in action, making bags, T-shirts and other articles and then publishing what they had done to their audiences. Photography groups might be invited in to see how photobooks are produced and perhaps walk away with a sample. Consumers want to have a relationship with the products they buy and use, print included.

Local businesses can learn about print marketing, about what is effective in terms of papers, enhancements, personalisation. These are the new customers for print and they currently know nothing about it. The link that existed in the past now needs to be restored. A further benefit from engagement with local communities is that people will hopefully see that print is an interesting industry to work in.

Screen based work will free employees from location based employment. It is already feasible for someone to come into the factory at the start of the day, queue up the jobs for that day, and then leave knowing that an app and mobile phone will provide realtime updates as production progresses. It may even become acceptable to carry a mobile on to a golf course to stay in contact with work. Or not.

Video conferencing thanks to 5G replaces a lot of menial travel as meetings can take place in cyberspace thanks to immersive video technology. Expect to see dedicated pods offering this kind of immersive experience as telephone kiosks were once used for those who wanted to speak to someone before becoming libraries, greenhouses and home for defibrilators.

There will be no reversal in trends towards shorter runs and away from ephemeral printed products. Where print has been used in the past because there was no practical alternative, simple forms for example, it will continue to disappear. The logic of the Millennial generation is that we are all individuals. A mass market magazine, catalogue or direct mail drop is not for us. We want to be communicated to as if we are in ourselves valuable, not just revenue fodder for big brands. Emotions come into play far more.

In the next ten years the stuff we own will be because it has an emotional resonance, because we have participated in its production and because it has personal significance. The next decade will be the experience decade, away from mass consumerism. That could have the biggest impact on print, regardless of technological change.

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