There are few questions more relevant to printing than where the industry will go next. Being a print service provider in this transitional time is a challenge, one defined by digital technologies. The field was once dominated by traditional printing presses, but these have fallen away in favor of digital solutions. This is on top of the obvious bite digital media takes out of the printing business in areas such as marketing and internal business communications.

But one thing to always bear in mind is that there is a future for print. New printers are always debuting, improving the actual output a printer can offer to customers, and the links between clients and providers are deepening as the former group turns the latter into strategic collaborators. When the dust settles, there will be a new printing industry where the old one once stood. Intelligent leaders are already asking what it will look like.

Digital's promise
At Graph Expo 16, one of the industry's premier gatherings, EFI CEO Guy Gecht held a valuable recap of where the field stands and where it might go next, according to Printing Impressions. He weighed up whether the online revolution has helped or hurt the print sector. This is a complicated question, and more nuanced than it may seem at first. The obvious answer, that online and cloud-based information dissemination is destroying some of print's main opportunities, is definitely true. But, at the same time, the most exciting offerings dreamed up by printers today are online-based.

Gecht gave some specific examples of new methodologies powered by the internet, such as online ordering and personalized print jobs. Furthermore, the greater digital space has given the world new types of printers and the ability to perform printing on demand. Those bemoaning the rise of IT-based technologies in business are lamenting a certain version of the print sector, but there is another one rising to take its place – and digital methods are a major part of its DNA.

The industry CEO explained that as print shops go digital, they are give themselves new ways to reach their customers. During the heyday of the printing-press era, individuals and companies had to wait to get their orders printed, and personalizing individual items in a print run was complicated. Now, service providers can offer highly customized print jobs through online stores that are available at all hours, creating high-quality products that reflect the immediate needs of consumers.

When it comes to expanding the digital workflow, there is still uncharted territory for bold printers to claim. Gecht suggested that expanding custom and personalized printing to corrugated cardboard is one such venue for expansion. Others will no doubt emerge over time as new models of printer emerge and become commonplace. Companies that are in search of new value to offer their clients will be able to find it, provided they can create viable business models that target real needs.

Which kinds of organizations will survive the march to digital? It's hard to say for sure, but as the number of companies embracing new methods increases, it's becoming clear that there is less space available for organizations that stick to old-fashioned tactics or fail to acknowledge that things have changed. As always, consumer demands are the voice that print shops should follow when deciding which methods make sense for them.

A generational divide
With the advances promised by digital printing coming down the pipeline, what's to become of offset methods? As recently exposed by QP Consulting's research on the state of the market, several shops are letting go of their traditional printing arms gradually. Rather than firing their press operators, they are letting them retire and failing to replace them. This gradual transition away from offset is indicative of an industry operating along generational lines. The employees just starting at print shops now will always have existed in a digital-first world.

The research organization pointed out that today's printers don't call for full-time operators the way older presses do, which means the transition between the two methodologies will involve a general realignment within organizations. This internal movement will coincide with the introduction of new and convenient print offerings described above, presenting potential future clients with a fresh new print industry ready to serve their present-day needs.