Having covered digital printing since the mid-1990s, I have been observing which early forecasts for the future of digital printing seem to be coming true, and which predictions have been disrupted by technological innovations (e.g. smartphones, digital signage, the iPad) and/or generational shifts in media consumption and buying behavior.
That’s why it was fun to attend two major printing conferences this fall: PRINT 13 in Chicago and the SGIA Expo in Orlando. My goals were to: (1) Get a more comprehensive view of the current state and future of printing and (2) Find a new crop of good stories just waiting to be told.
Working outside the printing-business bubble for a couple of years, I have paid close attention to how much (or how little!) many people and small-business owners really know about the new services and opportunities that printing businesses offer.
“Does printing actually have a future?” someone asked me before I left for PRINT 13. After all, even The Onion (which describes itself as “America’s Finest News Source”) wrote an obituary declaring that “Print is Dead at 1,803”
I returned from PRINT 13 and SGIA Expo knowing that print is very much alive. It will just be used for different purposes. Here are four broad observations (that I will go into in more detail in future posts).
“Printing” is being redefined.
The transformation from analog contact printing methods to production-speed presses that use non-contact inkjet printing technology is in full swing. Digital printing is now the beating heart of two shows that once focused primarily on offset printing (PRINT 13) and screen printing (SGIA Expo).
At PRINT 13, Canon, HP, Xerox, EFI, Kodak, Fujifilm, Xeikon, Ricoh, and others demonstrated an astounding variety of digital presses for printing books, photo books, magazines, labels, packaging, catalogs, direct mail, and magazines. At SGIA Expo, Agfa, Canon, HP, EFI, Epson, Kodak, Roland, Fujifilm, Agfa, Durst, Kornit Digital, and others displayed equipment for printing on fabrics, garments, wallcoverings, sign vinyls, rigid boards, and three-dimensional objects.
Durst, which started out making equipment for darkroom photo processing, has evolved into a leading manufacturer of industrial-grade inkjet printers for textiles, packaging, labels, exhibit graphics, transit advertising, and retail displays. Photo: SGIA Expo
All of these printing devices are creating greater opportunities for the customization and personalization of everything from books, clothing, and gifts to vehicles, art, furniture, and wallcoverings.
Many of the digital printing devices at SGIA will be integrated into the manufacturing processes for all sorts of products, because printing has always been used for much more than communicating ideas.
Early predictions about the enormous impact of digital printing are coming true.
When large-format digital printing was first introduced, some of the boldest predictions seemed wildly overblown (just like many of today’s predictions for 3D printing). For example, in the mid-1990s, it was hard to imagine that someday it would be feasible to decorate every window, building wall, floor, vehicle, and garment with customized prints or that every aspiring writer, photographer, and artist could afford to publish their own sellable-quality books and prints.
It was hard to believe that digital printing could bring sweeping changes because manufacturers of digital printing equipment and materials had to overcome many technical hurdles, as well as stiff pockets of resistance among traditionalists in fields such as art reproduction, prepress proofing, and commercial photo printing.
Today, it seems reasonable to believe that analog printing methods will eventually be regarded as “legacy” methods. Future generations might regard screen printing or offset lithography as “alternative print processes”—just like different forms of darkroom photo printing (e.g., silver gelatin prints) are revered today.
Digital printing continues to create new opportunities.
On my Creatives at Work blog, I have published dozens of posts that illustrate some of the ways digital printing has given millions of people around the world new opportunities for personal, creative expression. Digital printing has also provided entrepreneurs with thousands of possibilities for niche products, new services, and innovative business models.
The endless variety of new products and business models being promoted by creative entrepreneurs is simply amazing. (And I sense that things are just getting started!)
Print and online media will co-exist.
At PRINT 13 and SGIA Expo, I saw dozens of examples of how print and online media are being used in complementary ways.
For example, seminars at PRINT 13 showed how printed pieces could be made more valuable and interactive with technologies such as QR codes, NFC (near-field communications), augmented reality, and printed electronics. (One example of printed electronics was a print ad that could charge your cellphone while you read a magazine at the beach.) Visit the website of the NellyMoser agency to see some examples of some of the mobile-activated, integrated print technologies discussed at PRINT 13.
Also discussed was CinePrint, a technology that combines motion graphics and print. This YouTube video shows how Lexus used CinePrint and an iPad to bring a magazine ad to life:
At SGIA Expo, I saw examples of how video screens, projections, and digital signs were being used in conjunction with printed displays. To meet marketers’ expectations for measurable results, innovations such as EFI’s SmartSign Analytics can be used to determine how effective certain visuals are in catching the eyes of their targeted audiences.
At PRINT 13, the overall mood seemed more somber than at SGIA, mostly because owners of commercial printing businesses are now facing the same kinds of digital disruptions that motivated the earliest adopters of large-format digital printing equipment in the 1990s.
When digital imaging and printing started reducing the demand for commercial film scanning, photo processing, proofing, and enlargements, the companies that started out as commercial photo labs, reprographers, and prepress service bureaus were forced to either sell out, fade away, or seek new ways to generate revenues. Many of them successfully adopted large-format printing and reinvented their businesses.
Now that so many publications and documents are read online, commercial printing businesses find themselves at the same crossroads. Some have already gone out of business; others are seeking to sell their firms. But others are finding ways to adapt, either by reinventing their business models and/or finding ways to link printed and digital communications.
For example, some commercial printing and mailing services that already manage databases for their customers are repositioning themselves as marketing solution providers—offering cross-media marketing campaigns that blend “offline” and “online” marketing campaigns.
At SGIA Expo, the vibe seemed upbeat and entrepreneurial. Many of the earliest adopters of large-format printing equipment have grown over the years, and came to show seeking ways to add production capacity. They were also looking for ways to become more efficient or sustainable to meet the changing expectations of print buyers.
At both shows, I reconnected with some innovators and leading-edge thinkers I have known for a long time. I also enjoyed meeting new sources of ideas and expertise. Happily, it was easy to discover dozens of great stories just waiting to be told—particularly as a new generation of entrepreneurs seeks ways to create and market new businesses.