April 2008
What’s the next big thing?
The question is not as easy to answer as it once was. But here are several predictions.
At a recent industry event, a very successful printer came up to me and asked where I thought the printing industry is headed. What is the next evolutionary step for the industry? He has built a fair-sized company. He has seen the end of the letterpress era, the dominance of offset, the success of desktop publishing, the growth of colour copying, the evolution of digital printing, the era of computer to plate and the birth of variable printing. He has adopted and profitably benefited from most of the innovations that have come along over the years. His question was, what’s next? On what new path is our industry headed?

The answer is not as easy to answer today as it may have been in the past. The industry is, in fact, going down several paths at once. Not all will lead to fundamental change. Some will narrow into niches and remain that way. Some will pave over previous developments. Indeed, some of the changes coming our way are not even of a technical nature but of a social one.

On the technical side, one possible industry altering development is web to print, but not the standard private-customer template websites. While useful for online proofing and much more efficient than faxing back and forth, a template website is just a tool that speeds up a process without altering the industry in any drastic fashion.

The e-commerce sites such as Vista Print and Print Pelican, however, are changing the dynamics of who buys print and where they buy it. They are eliminating print sales reps and opening up markets with a greater geographic range. I know one Canadian envelope printer who sells special envelopes in England through his website at more than $50,000 per order. Vista Print is doing in excess of US$290 million per year.

But surely, the main candidate for the next big thing in the printing industry is inkjet technology. Bugs still have to be worked out with respect to quality and speed, but like the early days of desktop publishing, improvements are coming almost at a daily pace. The number of manufacturers entering the market is growing at an almost exponential rate. The development of different inkjet technologies—thermal, piezo, continuous, solvent based , water based—is creating better quality.

Inkjet can print on almost anything, not just paper, but plastics, fabric, rolls or rigid flat surfaces. Variable printing is not a problem for inkjet because it’s digitally driven. Speeds for black and white are already not bad, but colour inkjet is where faster speeds will really make the difference. Inkjet is not just for wide-format applications or posters but is being used for other printing, such as short-run labels, envelopes, promotional products, plastic cards and even forms printing. HP has just announced a new 30" inkjet web press, for example. And, because of its flexibility the number of applications keeps growing. As volumes increase costs come down, and the relative compactness of inkjet heads also produces space-savings advantage.

But perhaps, the key fact about inkjet is that most players who have embraced it—manufacturers and printers—are making money at it. And that’s the most important ingredient for anything that wants to claim to be the next big thing.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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