The printing industry is about more than just surviving. Ambitious print service providers have room to thrive today, despite the encroachment of digital communications in several sub-fields that were once the domain of physical media. While it's true that some shops have folded in recent years, those that remain have become more attuned to data use, and the wishes of their clientele. These are the printers that are still excelling in otherwise difficult times.

In the digital-enabled era, the printing business has continued to evolve and change every year, so it's worthwhile to check in every few months to see which direction the leaders of the industry are moving. The priorities and progress of the print world show that companies are becoming exceptionally good at evolving to give clients what they're looking for.

Priorities under the microscope
As WhatTheyThink contributor Richard Romano recently explained, activity among print shops is relatively focused on increasing capacity and improving workflows. This is a promising contrast to Commerce Department projections that portend a slow year for print shipments across the board. According to Romano, shops' focus on workflow automation and more productivity reflects the way business is done today. Print runs are shorter, and to stay alive, print service providers are juggling a lot of these contracts, as opposed to settling in for long-term projects.

The wide-format section of the industry came under particular scrutiny in Romano's analysis. Nearly one-fifth of respondents to WhatTheyThink's priorities study explained that they are planning to buy a printer capable of 24-inch or greater production in the next year. Romano noted that wide-format printing tends to be done on an especially short-run basis, and runs into very exacting production standards. Companies are hoping to take on increased numbers of jobs with their large printers, but they can't sacrifice quality in a quest for speed.

When it comes to the nature of print jobs, digital origin is becoming the default. Romano stated that companies are in need of new logistics management tools as they work with clients digitally and attempt to fill niche needs. The long-term offset printing contract isn't extinct, but it's in decline. This has set print shops on a new path, as they attempt to figure out the best and most efficient ways to become a need-fulfilling partner for a larger number of clients.

Finishing goes custom
Fitting unique needs is a priority for printers of all kinds, and this can extend to all stages of the production process. Printing Impressions contributor Don Piontek explained that finishing has become a venue for printers to show creativity, spurred by ever-escalating client demand. He stated that such an evolution is a natural part of maturing printing processes – during the peak years of offset technology, a similar quest for interesting and novel effects ensued.

Printers that decide to enter the fray and offer unique finishing processes will have to balance their priorities and needs. Piontek noted that delivering a truly distinctive digital finishing process is a matter of both hardware and software tuning, and print shops and equipment providers will have to work together to get the results they're looking for.

The potential to become locked into one finishing method is very real for printers – if they use custom hardware and software to offer a signature method that clients request, they may harm their flexibility. However, Piontek contrasted this danger with the potential upside: Getting unique hardware can make a print shop stand out in its field. The years ahead may see close collaboration between printer vendors and the shops they deal with, as they work together to make print clients' goals achievable.

The future is a moving target
The printing industry of 2017 is different from what it was in 2016 – and hugely changed from 2006, or the turn of the millennium. The fact that the industry is in the midst of a digital landscape is undeniable, but that doesn't mean that every year within this period is the same.

Printers that find a way to please their customers today will do so through a careful mixture of strategic direction, hardware and software selection, and consumer research. Becoming a top print service provider today means something different than it did in the recent past, and the future will doubtless bring new requirements to meet.