Printing - An Industry in Search of Itself -- drupa - May 28 to June 7, 2024 - Messe Düsseldorf

Printing - An Industry in Search of Itself

By Jean Poncet, Chief Editor MP Médias - France

Finally, drupa! After 8 years, the printing industry has undergone a transformation and is barely recognizable. Drupa 2024 showcases this change as it now covers even more aspects of the printing industry, stretching from publications and packaging to large format printing for point-of-sale displays, decoration, textiles, wood, linoleum, and ceramics. We recall Benny Landa, the creator of Indigo, predicting that the world would become digital, and printing would not escape this shift. Undoubtedly, he was correct and visionary. Going beyond digitalization, or perhaps because of it, everything can indeed be dematerialized, but more importantly, everything can be printed - on any material!

This evolution has undeniably shaken the market, especially for printing companies. Commercial printing has seen a decline, to say the least, with major brands once deemed "too big to fall," such as American Kodak, Belgian Agfa Gevaert, or German Heidelberg, having to reinvent themselves. Paper and cardboard suppliers - both producers and distributors - have had to transition into the packaging sector. For instance, French company La Galiote has shifted away from direct mail advertising, expanding their services to clients by offering packaging solutions, including boxes and folding cartons. The sector has experienced a remarkable transformation in a short period. But what does the future hold?

As most of you are entrepreneurs, your interest lies in what can be built and what can be hoped for! Here are some questions that must be pondered to move forward. I use the word "ponder" because I'm uncertain if I have the answers.

  • Will sustainability continue to be a crucial driver?
  • Will digitalization continue to advance?
  • Is specialization still the key to success?
  • Is web-to-print and web-to-pack the ultimate solution?

Saving the Planet

It's hard to deny the crucial importance of environmental issues, and there's no turning back, which is undoubtedly a good thing. However, who can say for sure if the responses we offer now will remain the same tomorrow? In November 2022, I witnessed the anxious (if not terrified) faces of paper and cardboard industry players during the CEPI congress, the European Confederation of Paper Industries. Everyone was awaiting the European directive - the famous PPWR - and trembling because it seemed that the future of packaging might solely rely on reuse, eradicating the term "recycling" from the equation. Ultimately, both concepts are included in the directive, giving some relief to paper and cardboard, which are relatively less reusable. The guillotine was narrowly avoided. But for how long?

It must be noted that the fervent backlash against plastics gave way to a plastic-loving trend thanks to reuse. We aimed to eliminate plastic, yet it has become stronger. When plastic checkout bags had to disappear in France, polymer industry actors compensated by producing thicker film bags of over 50µ thickness. The intention was to reduce plastic usage, but ultimately, we ended up increasing the total tonnage used! Therefore, yes, we must engage in the environmental debate, but, in my opinion, we need to stay ready to react quickly in the short term: what is true today may be contradicted tomorrow, and vice versa.

Changing Reference Points

Yes, digital printing is a process that continues to grow and will keep evolving, so it should not be overlooked - but who would want to or, more precisely, who could afford to ignore it today? Nonetheless, so-called conventional processes have improved and developed responses that allow them to compete with an all-digital approach. The breakeven point regarding print run length, which determines when to switch from digital to offset or flexo, and vice versa, has significantly decreased.

Printing 100 posters on a sheet-fed offset press or a large-format inkjet press is practically the same, and, in all likelihood, the quantity can even be reduced. Moreover, it doesn't take any more time. Let's not deceive ourselves; very small print runs are not so common among "industrial" printers. In the label industry, digital printing represents less than 10% of the printed area but accounts for nearly one-third of the value added. In corrugated packaging, digital printing constitutes an infinitesimal portion of the total output. The CEO of a digital press manufacturer for this sector stated during the last drupa that if digital printing reached 2% of the market, it would be a boom for manufacturers. We are far from that point.

A printer who utilizes various printing processes recently confided that while they offer digital services, it doesn't constitute a significant portion of their revenue or livelihood. Perhaps that is why hybrid printing is gaining traction: a combination of different printing methods or, for the more ambitious, all possible printing techniques with a single production line, and above all, it holds unmatched appeal for the younger generation, which is vital for recruitment in an age where the term "industry" is met with resistance in schools.

Being a Jack of All Trades

Undoubtedly, it's the big question: should one specialize to be the best, the sharpest, the most responsive? Or, on the contrary, is specialization a thing of the past, and should businesses now offer the widest range of services to their clients? It's not easy to answer this question definitively, as there will always be counterexamples. One thing is certain: the economy and entrepreneurial priorities work in cycles, and the cycle of specialization has lasted for a long time in an era of rapid acceleration. Moreover, market reconfigurations compel companies to find substitutes for declining activities.

It's evident that commercial printers, witnessing a decline in volumes and orders, had to adopt the firefighters' motto, "save yourself or perish." Many initially offered complementary services (such as commercial monitoring based on their prints, augmented reality, etc.), and eventually expanded to provide large format printing, labels, and even folding cartons. Similarly, label printers ventured into boxes or flexible packaging, like Stratus Packaging diversifying into sleeves, in-mold labels (IML), or large format printers producing American-style boxes.

In an ultra-competitive world where price pressures are immense, buyers often lack time for small orders or ancillary purchases, leading them to rely on their well-referenced suppliers. Everyone benefits from this approach. Therefore, keeping an eye on diversification is essential; it not only generates revenue but also fosters customer loyalty.

Putting Quality into Perspective

I may receive some backlash from most online printing service providers, but the rise of web-to-print or web-to-pack corresponds to a shift in priorities from quality to price and, above all, service. Let's begin with quality: printing has made such progress, aided by software advancements that optimize images, resulting in nearly everything being printed reasonably well. Consequently, web-to-print has managed to find its place and quality of prints is satisfactory enough to please the customer, offering local brand owners a chance to bring products to market without significant risk. However, not everyone can engage in web-to-print, as this activity requires volumes and sophisticated processes to achieve profitability. It demands an extensive catalogue of print types and enough materials, a precise and complementary machine park, and, above all, a qualified workforce to manage the print flow and a considerable team to manage shipments. Printers have recognized this and are increasingly providing collaborative tools that offers kind of web-to-print, but they remain reserved for their regular customers. For web-to-print, the decisions regarding the machine park and the software around remain critical, which is why attending drupa is essential.

However, initially, each one must have the courage to make decisions about the direction of their own business. Frankly, it's not an easy task! We will need the entire duration of drupa to try to gain insights and understand where our industry is heading, at least until the next drupa in four years.

About the Author

Jean Poncet joined the printing and packaging press about twenty years ago. He currently leads the editorial teams of MP Médias, which includes several specialized magazines in France: Etiq&Pack focusing on labels and printed packaging; Pap’Argus, the reference magazine for paper and cardboard markets; Premium & Luxe, a publication covering the world of luxury packaging; Liquides & Conditionnement, dedicated to liquid containers and bottling; and finally, S’E’, a magazine focusing on large format printing for POS. MP Médias also organizes conferences on these topics. Jean Poncet is also the President of the European Digital Press Association (EDP).

He can be reached under LinkedIn


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