Wild is the wind

Normally as each year draws to a close I like to review the major stories and trends but since the Corona virus and attendant CoVid-19 illness has blown through 2020 like a tornado, laying waste to everybody’s plans, there’s really only one story worth commenting on.

According to the World Health Organisation, 81 million people have been infected and some 1.8 million have died. Most of the dead have been older people and those with underlying health conditions, which doesn’t make their deaths any easier to bear, and plenty of younger and healthier people have also lost their lives. 

These figures do not include all those who died of other causes because the pandemic restricted their access to health care, or those who will die in the next few years because their cancers or other treatable diseases were not caught in time during the pandemic.

In addition, many thousands of those who survived have suffered the debilitating drawn out ‘long covid’ that has  left previously active people severely ill. We still don’t know what the long terms effects of this illness are. This may yet be the most significant issue if Dr Mark Ryan, who leads the WHO emergencies program is correct in saying: “The likely scenario is the virus will become another endemic virus that will remain somewhat of a threat, but a very low-level threat in the context of an effective global vaccination program.” He goes on to point out that this depends on how how much take-up there is of these vaccines and how effective they prove in the long term.

More than ever, Britons have relied on the National Health Service.

Almost every country in the world has been affected, some far worse than others. But it does appear that the developed economies, which should have had better access to healthcare, have instead suffered some of the highest mortality rates. In the UK, for example, 71,000 people have died directly from CoVid-19, while Vietnam has had just 35 deaths from 1454 confirmed cases.

This is largely due to the first world countries having optimised their economies around generating wealth with no margin for dealing with emergencies. This includes large numbers of people commuting and travelling some distances, as well as many people gathering together, in offices, shopping centres, cinemas and so on.

As a result, many governments thought they faced a choice between imposing restrictions on freedom of movement to limit the spread of the virus and save as many lives as possible, or saving their economies, which mostly benefit the relatively small number of people that count themselves as being well-off. For now it remains to be seen how many voters will keep faith with leaders that believed watching tens of thousands of us die was an acceptable price to pay. 

It’s already clear that there was plenty of expert advice, going back over more than a decade warning about the risks of a pandemic. And even when we manage to get control over this virus, there is nothing to stop a different virus wreaking the same kind of havoc all over again if we don’t learn the lessons this time around. Ideally that means world leaders putting aside their differences and reporting new diseases as they emerge and taking steps to limit their spread.  At the very least we also need to develop better systems to track outbreaks and to cope more effectively with them, as well as hardening our economies to deal with the impact of these events. 

Social distancing and deserted streets – life in 2020

In reality, many western economies are built on sand, relying too heavily on mountains of consumer debt and badly in need of restructuring. It turns out that lawyers, advertising and PR executives are not so vital to the smooth running of our economy. Journalists, maybe 🙂 But care workers, delivery drivers and cleaners, some of the worst paid, and worst treated people in our societies, are the key workers that we really depend on. And some printers, at least anyone involved in packaging and labels, particularly for medicines and food stuffs. Yet, most of these people don’t even rate a secure job contract with far too many key workers struggling on zero-hour contracts. This sort of inequality will eventually fracture most developed economies if we don’t do something about it. 

In the meantime we are seeing the short term impact in job losses and bankruptcies in all sectors including printing. It’s clear from the quarterly figures released through the year that all the major equipment vendors have suffered badly as a result of the pandemic. This is mainly because most countries have imposed some restrictions on movement, including almost complete lockdowns of their economies, which has prevented many planned equipment installations. This has also hit sales and, to a lesser extent, some maintenance. 

In addition, many printing companies have had to scale back their operations, leading to less demand for parts and consumables such as inks. Most economists predict further economic damage and such uncertainty always translates into less equipment purchases. However, almost everybody has suffered from these problems so there is little room for anyone gain a competitive advantage. Inevitably, the bigger companies with better credit lines will weather this storm easier than some smaller businesses. The economic outlook is the same as the medical view – those with underlying problems are at greater risk.

These samples were printed by Aptech Graphics using its Mouvent LB701-UV inkjet label press.

The Labels and packaging sector appears to have been most successful, particularly those with digital printing capabilities, as they have been able to adapt quickly to serving those markets better positioned to cope with the pandemic – namely food and health products.  

Beyond this, most of the stories that I had planned to write in 2020 fell by the wayside. I spent a couple of weeks at the beginning of the year travelling around Japan, including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, and met with many people. Most of those stories ended up being put on hold as product launches came and went with little chance of any actual installations. So this has been a year of frustration, glimpses of new things promised but not yet fully realised.

Nonetheless, a number of vendors have announced corrugated inkjet packaging presses, including Domino’s X630i and Xeikon’s idera, so this is clearly a growing market. However some of these announcements feel a bit premature – as if they were timed around Drupa rather than commercial availability. That said, many of these launches have been hit by the pandemic as it’s very hard to market a new type of press without being able to physically show it off anywhere. And, of course this is compounded by the practical difficulties of installing machines amidst all the restrictions and the fact that many potential customers have been left wondering if their businesses can survive the pandemic. 

This year we have also seen the first tangible signs of inkjet presses being developed for the flexible film packaging market. The most notable of these are Screen’s Pac 830F and the Miyakoshi MJP30AXF, both of which I will write about in more detail in the next few months.

The other interesting market that seems to be picking up speed is inkjet interior decor printers. This includes a number of different areas, such as wooden boards for flooring and counter tops. Koenig and Bauer already has a strong presence in this market with its RotaJet and Agfa has recently announced its own InterioJet. Quite a few textile printers also target the soft furnishings and wall coverings side of this market, which I covered in more detail in a report from Heimtextil right at the start of 2020. Roland DG has gone a step further adapting one of its solvent wide format printers to create the EJ640 Deco printer, which uses a water-based resin ink to print to wallpapers, lampshades and so on.

This Agfa InterioJet is based on a Jet Tauro but prints water-based inks to decor paper.

Finally, Messe Dusseldorf announced earlier in December that it had given up on Drupa this time around and would revert to its original schedule, meaning that the next drupa is now planned for 2024. The purpose behind all trade shows is to stimulate the market and help the vendors sell more kit. But the market is in tatters and we still don’t know whether or not the pandemic will yet lead to a wider recession or even how much travel will be possible in the next couple of months.

Besides, Drupa is much more important to the overall print industry, more of a light on the horizon that allows all the vendors to plot their R&D and their marketing, and shows up the trends that govern the increasingly diverse strands of the printing industries. It will be at least a year, probably two, before anyone is ready for another large trade show. It’s not been helpful this year to have these fairs constantly postponed and rescheduled, given the resources that go into these events.  So setting up 2024 as a point to aim for is probably the best outcome, allowing everyone time to understand the impact of the pandemic and to carry out any necessary restructuring over the next couple of years. 

Next week  I will write about the outlook for 2021. In the meantime I hope that everyone enjoys whatever socially distanced celebrations you have planned to see in the New Year. See you all on the other side 🙂


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