The year for living dangerously?

The start of a new year always feels like a good time to pause and look at where we as an industry are heading; well, at least it gives us something to do in between waiting for the holiday hangovers to pass and work to get started properly!

Clearly the print industry in general will continue to become highly automated. This is already true for offset and digital presses and will become more so for flexo and wide format. Automation will drive more standardisation, continuing the ongoing transformation from a craft industry to a manufacturing business in which every service provider is expected to produce high quality prints with consistently accurate colours. It will mean tighter quality control for things like inks and other consumables and an increasing focus on efficiency and cost per copy.

I think the general trend in wide format will be towards bigger printers, both flatbeds and hybrids, which will allow service providers to realise economies of scale in ink and media usage. Similarly, new narrow web flexo presses will probably be wider and with servo motors throughout so that they can challenge for packaging applications. Equally, expect to see a new generation of inkjet printheads leading to faster production digital printers. Who knows, we might even see a Landa press in the wild, though I think that Landa is gambling on the next generation heads becoming available sooner rather than later if it’s to deliver the sort of specifications that were quoted at last year’s Drupa show.

In any case, the smartest investments for print service providers will continue to be in software and workflow management. This will yield the most efficiency and lead to higher profits relative to overall investment. But such investment is not always easy as it involves much more commitment than just switching to a different workflow or implementing an MIS. Rather, printers will need to rethink the entire basis of the company and question whether or not every single process is still needed or can be done differently. This is as much about managing existing staff as it is about choosing new technology.

It’s worth noting that many of those companies that supply technology to the printing industry are also increasingly looking at selling print solutions to other sectors. Thus Agfa, for example, has a range of metal conductive inks, Kodak is developing materials for 3D printing and Durst is selling a couple of industrial inkjet printers in the IP series. HP is just about to launch a series of 3D printers, while Ricoh is 3D printing some spare parts for its graphics printers. It seems increasingly likely that future technology developments in the graphics printing industry will be driven by the needs of other industries. The question will be whether or not any of the print service providers can take advantage of this.

Then there is the economy. It’s clear that western economies in general, and Britain in particular, are not as robust as those running for office would have us believe. The simple fact that interest rates have remained low, currently 0.25 percent, for so long shows how precarious our economic recovery is and how little room for manoeuvre is left to government and the central bank, which is also true right across Europe.

For now, most of the offset and flexo vendors have reorganised their European business around service and support of existing customers so they are less reliant on new sales. But the high speed inkjet presses will need continuing investment over the next decade or so, which in turn requires printers to have confidence in the economy.

The Brexit negotiations are bound to lead to much turmoil over the next couple of years, with fevered headlines speculating on every aspect of the coming split. We’ve already seen a fall in the value of Sterling and a general rise in prices of imported goods and the government has yet to formally trigger the article 50 process. Recent figures from the Bank of England show a rapid rise in consumer credit debt close to the level of the 2008 crash. If British consumers lose confidence and stop spending we could see a halt to our economic recovery; if this leads to a drop in advertising then it will affect investment in printing infrastructure.

Finally, we have to consider whether or not the incoming US president, Donald Trump, will have any real impact on the printing industry. Frankly, it’s hard to see how someone who has gained a reputation as a racist and a misogynist, not to mention possibly being helped into power by a Cold War enemy, can really make America great again. Moreover, the willingness of people everywhere to rebrand lying as post-truth is more worrying than ironic. The new administration is likely to take a more protectionist stance, which may in turn have some impact on vendors trying to export printing presses and other kit to the States. Trump may also force a revaluation of the Chinese currency, which may make goods manufactured in China a little more expensive and could go some way to alleviating pressure on British manufacturers.

Ultimately the economic conditions will play a major role in the development of new technology, and more specifically whether or not British companies can afford to invest in that technology. The next few years will be turbulent at best and I think that vendors will have to demonstrate real productivity gains rather than iterative improvements if they are to tempt print service providers to invest.

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