New Year, New decade

Now that the holidays are over, it’s time to get back to work. We’ve seen an enormous number of changes over the past decade, and since the phrase 2020 also signifies perfect eyesight, it seems appropriate to kick off the year with an assessment of some of the trends that we can expect to encounter over the next few years.

The past decade has shown four big trends for those of us involved in printing – the growth of inkjet, the emergence of industrial printing, the development of additive manufacturing and a general embrace of cloud computing – and naturally these will continue and, most likely, define the next decade, at least in terms of the printing industry. 

Of course, inkjet printing existed long before 2010 but this decade has seen the widespread adoption of inkjet, with single pass inkjet presses now an accepted part of commercial printing. Equally, most label converters now see a market for short run digital production and in this decade we have seen a gradual acceptance of inkjet in packaging with several presses targeting the corrugated sector just starting to hit the market. It’s obvious that this will continue and that inkjet will take a bigger slice of the printing pie, to the detriment of other print technologies.

But I think that the most significant trend over this new decade will be the growth of industrial printing, which has the potential to change the way that many people think about printing. Industrial printing is mostly about inkjet technology, though there are other print technologies involved. It’s hard to pin down just what we mean by the term industrial printing, which can include everything from floorboards to t-shirts. The common denominator is the ability to print to different substrates and, increasingly, different shapes. This is driving the development of inkjet, and particularly inks, right across the printing spectrum, especially for printing to packaging. But this is also affecting all sorts of other sectors, such as fashion. If you doubt this, then just ask a teenager, because the younger generation are spearheading the adoption of personalised clothing. Ten years ago none of us in printing thought that we were going to be discussing garment production! 

Print technology has allowed many of the interior panels and surrounds of this Smart Car to be customised.

Continuing with the industrial theme, this last decade has seen a massive leap forward in 3D printing. Ten years ago most 3D printer vendors were chasing the consumer market but that bubble has well and truly burst. Instead, the technology has continued to evolve to the point where additive manufacturing is now an accepted option in many industries, and offering many different materials, including ceramics and various types of metal. 

I know that many people in the printing industry are still doubtful that 3D printing is something they should think about. But just consider HP, which not only produces a number of 3D printing machines but also uses additive manufacturing to build parts for its Indigo and DesignJet printers. There is no doubt in my mind that this next decade will see 3D printing playing a bigger part in the graphics world, whether that’s press vendors developing 3D printers, or using 3D printed components to build their presses, or component suppliers like Xaar catering to the 3D market, or printing companies offering manufacturing bureau services. At some point in this new decade everyone involved in graphics printing should think about whether or not they also want to be involved in 3D printing, in exactly the same way that everyone involved in conventional printing had to think about digital printing in the first decade of this century.

HP showed this Metal Jet 3D printer at Formnext 2019, which is able to produce metal parts.

The fourth big trend is the growth of cloud computing. There’s much talk about Industry 4.0 but this is just about using automation, which manufacturers have been doing since the start of the industrial revolution. It’s just a question of the tools available, and right now the newest tool available is cloud computing. This will allow us to collect and to analyse much more data, to squeeze the most out of assets, such as presses. But there’s much more to cloud computing. For a start, it also allows us to overcome the major limitation in computing, namely the huge cost in having to constantly upgrade the IT hardware needed to run our businesses. Shifting the heavy lifting to the cloud will help everyone cut their IT costs. It’s not really a new concept – back in the 90s we called it thin computing – but connecting everything through the Internet has opened up new possibilities such as remote diagnostics and data analysis. It seems to me that most people have now got over any scepticism about losing control of their IT, or their workflow, or their data, and are willing to accept regular ISP hosting fees as a cheaper alternative to running all their own IT infrastructure.

This in turn is changing the perception of how presses are sold, with less emphasis on the hardware and the print quality it can produce, more on the data analysis and how to squeeze the maximum productivity out of the hardware. For now, this means that companies such as Heidelberg are developing new data services but it’s inevitable that printers will eventually realise that its their own data they’re paying for.

So much for the bigger picture, but what about 2020? Looking back over last years stories I was struck by the close correlation between product launches at shows, with new wide format machines announced in time for Fespa, and plenty of label presses appearing in the run up to Label Expo. This year is going to be dominated by large trade shows, especially Drupa, so we can reasonably expect the first half of this year to be crowded with new product announcements, particularly around single pass inkjet presses, some of which might even be available by the second half of the year. I’d expect any vendors using Kyocera printheads to adopt the new heads announced last year so we’ll likely see a raft of new press announcements. 

We can reasonably expect that many of the new presses will target the packaging sector, as most vendors believe that this is where the volume, and hence likely investment, will come from. We can also expect that most new inkjet presses will use water-based inks, mainly because UV is too expensive for truly high volume use, and because of its issues with odour and food safety. This in turn means that most vendors, such as Xeikon, which is developing an inkjet corrugated press, will focus on printing to paper-based packaging, which is the easiest target for water-based inks. But one of the most interesting question for Drupa will be to see what progress has been made with printing water-based inkjet to flexible films. 

I also feel that software in general, and workflow in particular, has been neglected in recent years. For too long workflow software has been dominated by a relatively small number of larger developers, mainly because of the need to ensure connectivity between the different pieces of software. But I see quite a few software vendors now taking a more open approach so that it’s becoming increasingly easier for printers to develop a workflow that works for them. On this front, I’d recommend keeping an eye on the Canadian developer Tilia Labs. This company is using cloud computing to take workflow automation to a whole new level and it should be interesting to see what it shows at Drupa.

The EFI Reggiani Bolt is a single pass textile printer, seen here at Itma 2019.

I fully expect that environmental concerns will play a bigger role in our lives in this decade. Indeed, given the mess that mankind has made of the environment and the dangers that we all now face through climate change. I would hope that we would all think more about the rock that we are living on. Many vendors will make much out of the environmental benefits of digital printing. There is some truth in this, in that digital has allowed shorter, more targeted runs, with less waste. And in some sectors, particularly textiles, we could argue that the widespread adoption of inkjet printing is essential to reduce water pollution. But before we get carried away with this, we should also remember that fast fashion inherently means increased production of garments with short life spans, which will bring its own environmental problems. We can mitigate some of this with better recycling, and I suspect that the printing industry is going to have to take a much more proactive approach to recycling the things we print. 

It’s worth noting that the FT is reporting that the EU is reviving its plans to tax non-recyclable plastic, which is likely to have a significant impact on the packaging market and possibly also wide format printing. This is a win-win for the EU as it will help to reduce the amount of plastic waste and fill the gap in its budget caused by Brexit. This is also bound to lead to further debate about how we actually recycle plastic because, let’s face it, recyclable plastic isn’t actually doing anyone any good if we don’t also have an efficient means of collecting it and sending it to a recycling facility. This is the same problem that has undermined paper-based coffee cups, which can in theory be recycled, but usually aren’t.

Lion in Trafalgar Square, London.

And then there is Brexit. Here in the UK we have just elected a prime minister who, when told that many business leaders were justifiably nervous about Brexit, is reported to have said “Fuck business”. This sort of attitude hardly bodes well for the British economy.

As far as I can see, many printers serving local customers are ambivalent or openly supportive of Brexit, whereas the press, software and component vendors, who have to sell internationally, are generally opposed to Brexit. Nonetheless, the electorate has spoken, the Tories have won a clear majority on a platform of pushing through whatever Brexit deal Johnson feels like imposing and we have to accept that Britain is leaving the EU. Well, England and Wales anyway; it remains to be seen if Scotland and Northern Ireland will want to continue as part of the United Kingdom and the next few years could well see a growing demand to revoke the relevant acts of union that bind them. 

Meanwhile the rest of the free world is in such good shape that the most powerful leader in the world can routinely find time to harass a Swedish teenager. It would almost be funny, except that Thunberg’s analysis is spot on – not only do we need to listen to our scientists and modify our behaviour to protect our environment – but we are being failed by our leaders inability to do this. 

Assuming that Trump survives his impeachment, as seems likely, Americans will have to choose whether or not to re-elect a man who has proven himself to be a liar, who is probably corrupt, quite likely a racist and who’s major policy aim is to unravel everything that his predecessor achieved, a president who makes decisions on a whim without consulting experts and is willing to risk war by winding up America’s enemies whilst routinely insulting its traditional allies. Then again, in Britain, we’ve just elected a leader who is also a stranger to the concept of truthfulness, is facing his own corruption charges and still can’t count all the children he has fathered. The concept of Western democracy was based on values such as truth and decency, which have sort of prevailed despite our indulgence in colonialism and slavery, and yet we risk losing our own identities if we continue to elect such leaders.

But this is one area that print really can make a difference. There have been plenty of studies that show that the printed word still holds a gravitas that is beyond electronic communications. At the same time, there is growing evidence that Twitter, Facebook and social media in general are all highly prone to being used to run disinformation campaigns. More worryingly, further evidence has emerged just this weekend of the way that Cambridge Analytica combined data mining with social media to run dirty tricks campaigns in multiple countries, making a business out of undermining the very concept of democracy and self-determination. So while the social media companies have proven highly skilled at manipulating tax loopholes, I don’t think they can be trusted to combat this problem without regulatory help.

Print, on the other hand, is reassuringly expensive. There is a perception that if somebody has taken the trouble to print something then it must have some value. At the very least, we instinctively know that somebody had to oversee the design, proofread the text and sign off for the printing. This is true for everything from packaging to newspapers, and it is this oversight, or process control, that guarantees the contents within, be that products within packaging or information in newspaper. So I’d suggest that striving for better process control might be a good resolution to start of this year, whether that’s something practical like colour management, or more esoteric, like journalism.

I know the irony here is that I’m publishing this on a digital platform but, to quote Osgood Fielding III, nobody’s perfect. Happy New Year.


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