The status of the printing industry as a living, breathing business sector is worth examining, frequently and at length. Some of the principles which defined the printing business in less technologically advanced eras have fallen away, leaving companies with a new playing field. The same digital revolution that limited the market for documents has empowered print service providers to become faster and more responsive companies that are keenly aware of their clients' needs.

Of course, there are market factors that go beyond printers' own status and capabilities. The overall environment that includes the printing industry is worthy of study, as leaders will have to make tough decisions in the years ahead based on changes that occur beyond their own sector.  With that said, it's time to see what the experts think. What factors from 2016 will paint the way to the 2017 printing industry and beyond, and how should leaders react to them?

Opportunities for growth
Printing Impressions' Paul Reilly and Peter Schraefer recently gave a detailed look at the macro factors that affected print shops in 2016. The experts pointed out that a general rising economy has buoyed the market, and many of the largest organizations are staying strong. They noted, however, that there are a few factors pointing to overall lean times ahead – recessions tend to work in five-year cycles, which means one is overdue. Furthermore, the second year of a president's term is a likely time to suffer an economic hit, which points to 2018.

While the aforementioned concepts apply to every industry, Reilly and Schraefer mentioned a few printing-specific indicators, as well. For instance, they explained that private equity has returned to the printing industry, a distinct change from the post-recession days when investors seemed to have these companies on a "blacklist." The experts went on to note that the simplest way for printers to grow in the years ahead will be a merger or acquisition, with companies combining their strengths to improve their position in the market.

Of course, merging isn't for everyone. Schaefer and Reilly noted that it's only a good idea to buy or sell a print business when there's a strategic reason to do so. Organizations can grow on their own through three tried-and-true strategies, namely keeping a consistent product line but finding more customers; developing new services and waiting for others in the market to leave. Every print service provider's best path forward will prove unique, as no two are alike. Regional differences, product line diversity and current customer bases will set every printer on its own path.

A thawing market
Reilly and Schaefer weren't the only industry insiders to offer a picture of the industry. WhatTheyThink contributor Cary Sherburne pointed out that there is more financial freedom in the print world than at any time since the recession. Companies are investing again, making valuable purchases. This is a basic pillar of any thriving sector, and something that was severely limited in the years following the financial crash. When service providers aren't always in locked-down survival mode, innovation is free to occur again.

What kinds of solutions are companies opting for in this renewed climate? Sherburne indicated that the next phase of industrial operations has arrived in the printing industry, and it's all about digital solutions. While print will always be a physical sector due to the nature of its products, companies can't just think in terms of hardware when they're hoping to innovate. The high-tech and intuitive systems organizations use to manage their internal operations, and the products they employ to reach out to customers, will be important in the years ahead.

Competition and innovation
Whatever 2017 holds, it's natural to view the year in contrast to the leanness of 2008 and the direct aftermath of the Great Recession. With that frame of reference in mind, it's clear that the current climate is better. Print providers are free to innovate, improve their offerings and compete for customers in the new, digitally empowered environment.