Reasons to be cheerful

So, here we are, more or less still at the start of a new year, usually a time full of dreams and hopes, but especially so this year. Last week I wrote about the major issues we saw in 2020 and now I want to follow that story up with a broad brush look at what 2021 might have in store for us. 

The table top networking area at the IJC 2019.

We’re still caught in the midst of a global pandemic – and the UK is just entering its third national lockdown – though now we have hope that the nightmare is coming to an end thanks to the vaccines that are beginning to be rolled out. But if we are to eliminate this virus and get back to travelling and trading with other countries around the world then we are going to have to vaccinate most of the 7 billion people living on planet Earth.

That’s a logistical nightmare, especially since some of these vaccines require extremely cold storage, and many countries have hot or temperate climates and lack both a decent healthcare system and a transport infrastructure. And of course, some richer countries will inevitably try to jump the queue, while poorer countries will struggle to pay for the vaccines. However, the nature of a globalised world economy means that nobody will be truly safe from this virus until we are all safe from it. 

The vaccination program brings with it the hope of travel, including the ability to start selling and installing equipment, the first step to breathing life back into the manufacturing world, including all the various parts of the printing industry. Travel also brings with it the possibility of face to face meetings. Most people have got used to video calling now and that’s not going to go away but sometimes its better to meet someone in person. Equally, I expect many more people to work from home because it’s simply a more comfortable lifestyle. But I doubt that we’re going to see a sudden downturn in the demand for office space because ultimately human beings are sociable animals and like the company of working with others. 

For the same reason, I expect that trade fairs will also bounce back, possibly as early as the second half of this year, hopefully in time for Label Expo and Fespa. However, it’s unlikely that every country will be able to vaccinate enough people to allow travel to return to pre-pandemic levels this year. So European trade fairs are likely to be just that – European – with far fewer visitors and exhibitors from other countries if only because it takes time to plan the logistics of shipping equipment to these events.

Visitors waiting to enter the Fespa 2019 show at the start of the first day.

Nonetheless such shows will play a part in stimulating new trends. For some sectors that is likely to mean a continuing move away from UV curable inks to water-based inks. This is already starting to happen in the corrugated market, and this year we should see the first installations in the flexible film packaging area as well. I would also expect to see the inkjet label press vendors looking into water-based inks for the same reasons. We can even see this starting to happen in wide format printing with several vendors now offering resin inks, sometimes called latex, for their roll fed machines. I would hope that this year’s Fespa show goes ahead and I would expect to see even more wide format vendors demonstrating solutions for both interior decor and industrial printing.

It is possible that we may see a flood of new machines appear as the restrictions from last year are gradually relaxed, and some of those that have already been announced finally start to ship. However, it is also likely that the economic carnage will lead to a slowing in innovation, as vendors cut R&D budgets, and customers hold off on big ticket purchases. 

At some point we will have to count the cost of the pandemic, and not just in the lives lost, bitter though that will be. There is also the very real financial cost, the huge debt burden that most countries now have to bear that will translate into higher taxes, less infrastructure projects and fewer opportunities for many citizens. Even if our economies do bounce back, many businesses will fail. But this also gives us a unique opportunity to recognise that many aspects of the old normal were not so great and could be improved upon. 

Here in the UK, for example, the economic outlook seems uncertain, and uncertainty is never good for business. Brexit has happened and there’s little chance of Britain ever rejoining the EU so there’s no option but to try to make the best of it. But it’s hard to see how Brexit will somehow make Britain a better or richer country. 

It is likely that the combination of Brexit and Corona virus will lead to some sort of recession in Britain – how deep and how long it lasts for is anyone’s guess but recessions do not generally lead to much progress in terms of new technologies.

Climate change protesters close roads around Trafalgar Square in London.

The situation is not much better elsewhere. America continues to be deeply divided, and Donald Trump’s refusal to recognise that he lost the election threatens to corrupt the rule of law and the very concept of democracy as well as undermining America’s claim to lead the free world. China has many questions to answer over its treatment of the Uighur people, and suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong, plus there is the worsening situation in the Pacific, particularly around Taiwan’s continuing existence. Meanwhile, Russia’s willingness to use a nerve agent against an opposition politician shows how deeply unhinged the country’s leaders are. The EU too has many problems ranging from its budget deficit to serious governance issues in Hungary, Poland and Malta. 

Many of you may wonder what all this has to do with printing but politics creates the conditions that allow business to thrive, or not. And printing is not something that happens in an isolated bubble. Print really touches everyone’s lives, even if most people aren’t aware of this. Print is far more than just books and magazines, or even labels and packaging. Increasingly, printing is also clothing and home furnishings, floorboards and table tops, as well as toys, automotive parts and industrial components. 

And then there is the ongoing environmental issue that affects everything from changes in our climate to pollution in the air we breathe and plastic in the food we eat. A first step in tackling many of these problems is to limit the amount that we travel and to produce more of our goods locally. Ironically, the pandemic has helped with this, allowing more people to work from home and forcing more of us to use video calling technologies in place of travel for face to face meetings. 

MS has demonstrated this factory concept at a previous Fespa show, making sportswear to demonstrate its textile printers.

Right now the printing industry is having to grapple with the public’s new found interest in packaging waste, which mostly means developing water-based inks and thinking about ways to avoid plastic in packaging. Most press vendors are hoping that the phrase ‘water-based inks’ will be enough to stop consumers asking about all the other chemicals that have been added to those inks.

As more people focus on caring for the environment, its inevitable that human rights abuses will also climb up the political agenda. That could lead to the public asking where their smartphones, cameras, and even printing presses and finishing kit is manufactured. Ultimately, I think that the idea of manufacturing products as cheaply as possible in countries with questionable human rights records, and then shipping them around the world to sell at high margins in so-called developed countries is going to seem increasingly old-fashioned. 

There is some evidence that manufacturers are already starting to think in terms of micro factories, using many smaller factories to allow for distributed production closer to their markets, rather than having to transport goods all over the world from a larger central site.

Both inkjet printing and additive manufacturing are ideally suited to this, with banks of smaller machines grouped together to provide a relatively low cost approach that can produce a variety of different products on demand. Indeed, a growing number of textile printers are already doing this. So print has a part to play in whatever new normal emerges from the chaos that we’ve all experienced in 2020. 

…with a little help from my friends

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