by Melissa Donovan
Each August, Digital Output runs this State of the Industry report. Any other year, the topics seem relatively similar despite a dynamic and ever-changing industry. This was not the case in 2020.
Above: Seven 48×96-inch white, three millimeter 3A Composites USA DIBOND sheets were direct printed with an Agfa UV flatbed printer and then pieced together to form a comprehensive timeline that was installed at Bell’s Brewery’s Comstock, MI location.
In December 2019, China was hit with COVID-19 and things escalated from there; hopping from continent to continent the coronavirus became a global pandemic. In the U.S., stay-at-home orders and non-essential businesses closings affected many.
Luckily, many state governments deemed print service providers (PSPs) essential businesses. Shops remained open and although traditional service offerings dwindled, many pivoted and used a combination of business savvy and ingenuity to manufacture masks, fast-track printing of ever-changing informational signage, and create personal barriers for medical, hospitality, and retail environments.
New uses and demands for existing applications are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
Can’t Plan on the Same
Amidst this global pandemic, uncertainty abounds. The crisis immediately affected business at all levels. Many companies shifted support working remotely and events like trade shows, seminars, and conferences are being postponed, cancelled, or held virtually.
As we push forward business isn’t the same. Pausing for the peak of the pandemic was necessary, but now that things are running again, remaining flexible and adaptable is key.
Where and how we work is different. “Working remotely was already gaining acceptance and this crisis fast forwarded it to become more of the norm,” admits Jodi Sawyer, market development manager, FLEXcon.
Methods for reaching customers changed. Staying home and not being out in public brought to the forefront an important lesson, according to Mark A. Rugen, director of education, Mutoh America, Inc. “Shops must have both retail and ecommerce solutions in place so that business can at least continue remotely if necessary.”
Technology introductions and maintaining important connections differs. “It may take a while before we see the robust level of attendance that trade show organizers would usually expect—simply because there is a degree of caution among visitors. To offset that, organizers schedule virtual conferences and seminars, which fosters networking and ensures the industry remains connected and abreast of developments,” explains Dan Purjes, chairman, SA International.
For example, Amanda Smith, associate product manager, Mactac, says her team pivoted quickly once realizing customers would be at home under quarantine, re-thinking how to reach them. “We created webinars and virtual training tools that helped us discuss our products in today’s market trends.”
“Virtual demonstrations, training and service, trade shows or shows without equipment with remote demonstrations are options and could start to comprise the mix of how products are sold. For printing companies—unless local, less travel and more virtual meetings with customers and brands for selling, ideation, and content development are possible,” advises Tom Wittenberg, large format industry relations and events manager, HP Inc.
These are innovative ways to promote brands, like webinars, online trade shows, department video conferencing, and online training programs. “With these, many companies can assist dealers, distributors, and end customers with new modes of communication and product distribution,” agrees Sohil Singh, VP, StratoJet USA.
Ken Hanulec, VP of worldwide corporate marketing, EFI, believes that there is value in in-person events and he looks forward to a “sense of normalcy that will come when we can all start attending these events again.”
Treating the entire experience as an educational moment is helpful. “There are a number of lessons we can learn on different levels, each bringing with it a unique set of factors to consider. For example, having a diversified portfolio of print applications is critical to a business in surviving this type of crisis,” notes Jan De Roeck, marketing director, industry relations and strategy, Esko.
Another takeaway is the benefit of tracking data. For PSPs operating with a skeleton crew and a reduction in office hours, recording ways to save is integral. “This includes data to understand the costs of printing, reduce ink and media waste, optimize workflows with minimal staff, and show just how much media can be saved for every print job to maximize printability and control costs,” shares Jonathan Rogers, international marketing manager, Onyx Graphics, Inc.
Remaining optimistic, Sal Sheikh, VP marketing, large format solutions, Canon Solutions America, believes that when businesses like retail and restaurants are fully operational that “they will try harder to capture revenues with sales promotions, offers, and lots of advertising. This includes posters, banners, and other signage. This actually helps the graphic arts.”
The need to advertise and promote products is more important than ever as society creates more space and distancing in everyday life. “These practices promote growth in new directions for our industry. This is an exciting time to be more creative than the routine of our past. More effort is being made to identify each market group, along with promoting new applications and uses for printed graphics to them,” advises Jeff Cheatham, director of product development, Fisher Textiles.
Keeping a Brave Face
Despite being deemed essential, many PSPs experienced a lack in normal business orders and were faced with two options—continue on their existing course or think outside of the box and pivot operations.
Throughout the crisis, there was a heightened call for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the medical community. Facilities equipped with the right finishing equipment and ability to source materials stepped up to meet demand. “Many used routers to cut plexiglass for face shields, or knife and laser cutters for gowns and masks,” explains Leonard Marano, VP, product management and marketing, automation systems, Gerber Technology.
“Shops became innovative and shifted their focus to making needed medical equipment. This shows that innovation and inventiveness is at the core of any print shop. PSPs using that same spirit of innovation and inventiveness thrive all the more so in a better economy,” agrees Rugen.
When the general public were asked to wear face masks, PSPs leveraged their expertise and translated it into opportunity. “For example, those with dye-sublimation printers printed custom face masks for the general population,” adds Sheikh.
Printed signage remains an essential means to communicate important shifts in business. “Restaurants and food outlets changed their offerings to take-out services only, reduced menus, altered hours. They needed to communicate this to customers and traditional printed collateral is one way to do so,” suggests Purjes.
“PSPs should never lose sight that they provide a stable means of communicating policies, and expectations. The concept is the same as before, though the message has changed. Any provider of signage, decals, banners, window graphics, or floor graphics should take comfort that these essential communication platforms are needed now more than ever,” advises Michael Maxwell, senior manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.
Floor graphics also gained popularity. With essential businesses remaining open to serve the public, social distancing became increasingly important. What better way to mark the appropriate distance than with colorful, eye-catching graphics—both in and outdoors.
The demand for social distancing graphics remains strong. “Floor graphics—and even window and counter graphics—inform customers about in-store guidelines and practices to keep them and their employees safe,” notes Sawyer.
Silicone edge graphics (SEG) are also useful. “We see much more signage printing related to medical and safety messaging, directional and wayfinding signage as well as SEG frame graphics, which are utilized as creative barriers, printed walls for medical screening, and brand messaging,” says Mike Compton, product marketing manager, TVF.
Cheatham adds that protective screens and barriers are now used in grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, and other essential businesses that cater to the general public. Another emerging application is printed media backdrops. “These are made from wrinkle-resistant fabrics and being used for teleconferences, virtual fitness classes, and online church gatherings.”
“The need for safety and informational signage increased for hospitals and municipalities, wayfinding for drive through testing, and any business deemed essential such as grocery stores and gas stations. The industry response is pretty incredible and speaks to the ingenuity engrained in the signmaking community,” admits Kevin Duffy, VP, sales and marketing, Vycom.
The upcoming months bring the fear of COVID-19 rebounds, but many hope that we have a better idea of how to conduct business in this new world. PSPs prepared for a return in demand for printed products are in the best position.
Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US LLC, believes a substantial pop of business will occur. “Retailers will recognize the opportunity to launch new campaigns and get customers out buying goods and services again.”
“Smaller businesses will want to announce their return. Community groups will want to thank first responders and frontline workers. Banner advertisements at the top of websites or in email newsletters won’t be enough. They’ll want to hang giant banners in their local malls, put posters in the windows of their local shops and not only attract business to themselves but thank members of the community for standing by them and helping out their neighbors,” predicts Deborah Hutcheson, director of marketing, Agfa.
To prepare for this moment, Purjes suggests staying in constant contact with existing customers and potential new clients.
Getting ahead is key. “Businesses that emerge on the other side should first and foremost look at how they interact with their customers, the print buyers. They must consider how their business has changed and get ahead of the new situation; comply with the new normal—don’t fight it—and provide a level of customer service beyond expectation,” recommends De Roeck.
“Businesses need to make an effort to reach out to their customer base, which causes our industry to be more aggressive with advertising and direct marketing. This is an exciting time to rewrite your company’s purpose and reinvent yourself,” suggests Cheatham.
Positioning yourself as a true partner goes a long way. Andrew Oransky, president/CEO, Roland DGA Corporation, believes presenting new ideas about how newly-opened businesses should promote themselves makes a PSP a valuable partner.
Additionally, printed t-shirts, banners, posters, and cards for first responders, supermarket workers, healthcare professionals, and other essential employees go a long way toward showing appreciation in the community. “At the same time, it also reminds people that you’re here and ready to fulfill an important function,” adds Oransky.
An influx in the demand for labels and packaging is noticeable. “The crisis bolstered the primacy and importance of packaging, especially with the continued rise of ecommerce. There is continued opportunity fo produce corrugated packaging to address the rise of specialized, higher-end ecommerce and subscription box businesses,” admits Hanulec.
Short-term messaging continues to be prevalent. “This includes directions about doing business, floor graphics for standing distance, and instructions for proper movement in a store. It’s important that PSPs take time to investigate and become familiar with temporary signage media, things like removable adhesive-backed vinyl, removable window graphics, and lightweight and cost-effective banner media,” shares Rugen.
Mike Gertz, marketing manager, Master Magnetics, Inc., points out that a lot of essential businesses open during stay at home orders were using handmade signs, and these same businesses will require signage as the economy opens back up. Savvy business owners will seek professional looking graphics to communicate “social distancing, health, cleaning, and safety instructions for themselves and their customers.”
Physical distancing requirements and heightened hygiene awareness is not going to disappear, says Duffy. “Safety and informational signage—from simple reminders to more elaborate policy graphics—are incremental business opportunities. For example, the safety panels at cashier stations in retail environments will most likely endure, and are excellent candidates for decoration or adverting opportunities.”
Policies at public places are going to adjust and need signage, agrees Marano. “This includes gas stations taking hygiene precautions, supermarkets requiring traffic to go a certain way and customers to practice social distancing, restaurants going to curbside pick up. All of these conversions require signage communication.”
“Public facing signage is essential. Due to the dynamic situation, important announcements and indications, like distance regulations, must be fast, flexible, and above all clearly visible,” agrees Compton.
Faster turnaround times drive demand for stable technology that produces and delivers efficiently, according to Maxwell. As more PSPs adopt new equipment to address this, it heightens demand for wide format roll-to-roll printers.
Wittenberg refers to a recent report from I.T. Strategies stating that in the immediate post-COVID-19 climate, print orders are expected to be small, making digital print ideal or short runs. “To prepare for this, PSPs need the right equipment, mentality, and processes. Fast turns need to be taken into consideration when making plans.
A practical way for PSPs to prepare for an influx of orders is to ensure equipment is running smoothly and consumables are in stock. “The immediate and sharp demand for social distancing signage made floor graphic media as hard to get as toilet paper. A well-resourced shop needs to work with vendors to secure ongoing supplies to meet this demand,” recommends Jerry Hill, VP of sales, USA, Drytac.
“Make sure every printer runs at least once a week, color profiles are done and inspected, and upgrades or new buys are completed well beforehand. When non-essential sectors open back up, there will be much less time to prepare,” suggests Singh.
Improvements in Products
Normally this article focuses entirely on the latest product introductions as well predictions on what is to come. This includes hardware, media, ink, and software.
Sheikh doesn’t expect to see any true disruptive technology in the next six to 12 months. “Rather there will be continual improvements to current printing technology delivering ever higher print quality as well as workflow improvements.”
Brent Moncrief, VP, strategic marketing and brand management, Fujifilm North America Corporation, expects the next year to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. “Most industry suppliers will focus on digital inkjet imaging solutions to supplant and in some cases replace analog processes.”
2020 originally being a drupa year, many companies planned to introduce or preview new products. Some still did, while others are saving debuts for the rescheduled drupa in 2021. True industry disrupters are generally in development for a long time, so for those “in the know” there are educated—abet loose—predictions of future introductions.
According to Jim Lambert, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co., digital low-migration UV ink for consumer packaging has been in the pipeline for some time—the COVID-19 situation accelerated its development.
“The essential need now is condensing the shipping process from the point of fill to the point of use. This is important since it satisfies a need that previously wasn’t a necessity. Retailers, shippers, and all involved in providing packaging to the consumer market challenged to devise more efficient methods to get product to the end user,” he continues.
For media, Compton says manufacturers continue to be proactive in providing and developing new fabrics that address the influx of applications like PPE, distancing signage, and personal barriers in public areas. He predicts self-adhesive, anti-microbial materials will become more common.
“One of the outcomes is the introduction of anti-microbial properties in graphic print media and lamination films. Touch points like countertops, order screens, entry door push plates, and railings are the first targets,” agrees Hill.
Referring to these materials as “healthful,” Cheatham says that fabrics will have a “positive contribution to a healthy environment through performance attributes such as flame retardancy for safety, water resistance treatment for durability, and anti-bacterial treatment for cleanliness.”
The environment is also a concern. “The focus on sustainability increased when sorting through the detritus of pandemic. So much product used was disposable—and for good measure. But, as the world focuses on recovery, it also must focus on recycling what it can. Temporary medical facilities need to be dismantled and applicable components including partitions and signage need to be recycled,” says Duffy.
Purjes predicts continued change in how technology is accessed. On a macro-level, from phone contracts to movie streaming platforms, we live in a pay-as-you-use world and is also evident in our industry. “This is illustrated by software being purchased via monthly or annual subscriptions, which allows users to avoid upfront capital and better manage their costs.”
According to De Roeck, an acceleration in digital transformation means more automation, cloud computing, and integration between disparate systems. “Automation will go far beyond individual machine or process step automation, and be considered at plant level, even on business and multi-geography levels.”
“The reality is print shops are under increasing pressure to do more with less. It is important to institute technologies that provide automation and optimization to the print production workflow as well as useful data to make better business decisions, directly affecting the bottom line,” shares Rogers.
Two key areas of automation are, “software that provides for a higher integration with the end client and automation throughout the manufacturing process. Customer-facing software solutions like web to print, ecommerce storefronts, soft proofing approvals, and systems that allow clients to build their content live and online. These create a stronger connection and partnership between the print provider and their client,” explains Hutcheson.
“Smart printing manufacturing is beneficial, but currently more popular in Europe than North America, with only 21 percent of North American respondents in a Keypoint Intelligence study saying their processes were mostly or fully automated. In other words, there is an opportunity to get ahead of the competition and be disruptive in your market. Many of the products are free, so without any investment one can take their business to a new level,” adds Wittenberg.
Moving forward, D’Amico also feels strongly that to effectively compete, PSPs will need to invest in software tools that streamline internal processes. “So many companies still use outdated methods that require numerous touches and analog steps, like job bags.”
Learn from the Past
We are left with uncertainty as we head into Fall. We don’t have all the answers, but we do know that thanks to PSPs’ cleverness, there are a number of new ways to sustain business activity into the coming months.
We pair the State of the Industry with the Application of the Year awards. This year we congratulate Tier One of Tualatin, OR—whose winning application is truly illustrative of the past six months. Images of this year’s contest winners are included in this piece. Read more about the application at digitaloutput.net starting in August. Thank you to StratoJet USA for sponsoring this year’s awards!
Aug2020, Digital Output