Is print still relevant?

It’s tempting to start the new year off with some predictions but that would be too easy. The print industry has been moving in the same direction for some years – shorter run lengths and greater use of automation and digital printing. So it’s a pretty safe bet that we’re going to see some new digital presses this year, with the Ipex organisers hoping that these will all be on show at the Excel centre at the end of March.
Most of these new presses will use inkjet, partly because inkjet has proven to be capable of high speed, but mostly because inkjet is a relatively simple technology, which means potentially lower manufacturing and maintenance costs. Note the word ‘relatively’ – getting millions of droplets of ink to land in exactly the right place every second is an enormously complex business so that anyone that has not got close to developing an inkjet press right now has probably missed the boat.
But the more interesting question is what kind of things will we be printing in the future, and will we still print as much. Some sectors have already seen a dramatic downturn. Consider newspapers, where most national titles have seen their circulation drop from millions of copies per day to just a few hundred thousand, or books, where the majority of titles are now printed in short runs of less than a thousand.
It’s easy to think that digital media will replace print and that’s probably true for many things. I certainly think that the future for most newspapers lies in digital editions because news by its very nature needs to be constantly updated, and it’s become commonplace to include video and audio reports. But most people would probably still prefer to read a Sunday paper in print. Equally, travel guide books probably make more sense in an easily portable format such as a tablet, but a novel is still easy to read in print.
Nonetheless, the press manufacturers are clearly worried with most having found a sudden interest in the packaging sector on the assumption that products will still need to be packaged. But the main function of print in packaging is to help sell products off the shelf, which will be of less use if we continue to buy items online and have them delivered direct.
But of course we’ll continue to shop and packaging will still be important. But I think that it will be more functional and that we’ll see greater use of lighter weight and recyclable materials so the ability to print on mixed substrates is going to be important.
And of course commercial printing will continue to play a role. But it’s clear that we are seeing change in two distinct ways. Firstly, few printers now define themselves by a single technology with most now having digital and wide format as well as offset all working side by side. That in turn means that the workflows that integrate all those technologies will have to improve considerably. This will mean more automation and deskilling as printers look to cut their wage bills. It also means that the post press operations will have to become more automated, and more integrated with the print workflows. I think we’re not far off the days when print factories will be run by just a couple of people, controlling everything from an iPad.
The second area is that print will continue to integrate into digital media. This has been happening for some time now but I think that this integration will become much tighter. For example, I see some brands experimenting with adding printing to their packaging lines, rather than outsourcing the printing. But it also seems that printers are becoming more successful at dealing with consumers and providing a more personalised service.
Those printers that survive will be the ones that learn to handle data efficiently. Printing is becoming more automated, less dependent on the skill of operators. The technology is becoming more reliable and that means that it is going to be harder to make money simply out of putting marks on paper. But the ability to handle data, to partner with customers and to integrate print elements into other areas, from packaging through to coordinated marketing campaigns can genuinely add value and lead to higher profits.
None of this is new, and plenty of companies have been doing this for some years now. But it’s by no means the majority of printers, even though this is clearly the direction that the industry is moving in. Print still has one major advantage over any other form of digital media – handling print is a tactile experience. We often take the sense of touch for granted, but it is one of the major factors that makes people human and that can only be a good thing.
The new year also means some changes for this website, starting with a change of host to get around the problems from last year when the previous host, Macace, managed to lose most of the posts from November and December and didn’t bother to keep back-ups. Hopefully, there won’t be too much disruption over the next couple of days while the changeover takes effect.

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