When print service providers think about how they'll spend their 2018, retreading 2017 isn't a useful option. The underlying economic facts of the printing industry are extremely malleable in the era of digital communication and shifting demand, and staying ahead of the curve means innovating and thinking of what's coming next rather than what just happened.

While there is still life and energy in the printing business, the sheer fact that numerous service providers have had to close their doors in recent years demonstrates the industry is divided into those surviving and those falling behind. Companies have to stay aware of their options and the changing tides of customer demand to ensure they stay in the former camp.

The open question facing print providers as the new year gets underway is what changes they'll make as a response to evolving demand. From new ways to provide traditional products to altogether fresh offerings, printers will have to master several new capabilities.

Committing to change
Keypoint Intelligence's Barb Pellow, contributing to WhatTheyThink, noted that going all-in on innovation and new business priorities doesn't always come naturally in print. The need to constantly create positive value, and to not let operations shut down for any extended period of time, may be keeping printers from retooling their offerings. Pellow urged companies to overcome their hesitancy to change, and to begin by admitting that their present operational approaches won't be valid forever.

Customer interests can change rapidly, and printers that suit what people are looking for in the moment may prove more successful than less malleable competitors. Pellow explained small printers shouldn't put the burden of innovation solely on the largest names in the industry. Instead, these companies can embrace the flexibility and adaptability that come with being small companies, making effective use of small budgets and offering new products and processes that directly target their customers' needs.

Innovation comes from experimentation, rather than emerging into a production environment fully formed. Pellow acknowledged the need for disciplined work on new strategic initiatives, with leaders balancing their feelings about possible new business offerings with empirical evidence on whether those products and services will deliver sought-after value. Not only do print firms need a fresh and frequently refreshed supply of new ideas, they also have to be willing to use empirical facts to determine whether their experiments are working.

While becoming such an innovative print service provider may appear challenging, it's far better than the alternative. Companies that don't change their approach in the year ahead may end up aimed at market segments that no longer exist. Demand is the main driving factor behind the industry, and it can change appreciably in a short time.

Replacing equipment to update offerings
Instead of relying on their current assets, companies may have to replace their hardware fairly frequently to keep up with the pace of innovation. That may seem like an onerous financial burden, but as Printing Impressions contributor Don Piontek pointed out, there has been a natural shortening of the replacement cycle for major printing purchases, especially in the finishing department. Once upon a time, shops could purchase assets and realistically expect them to function for a decade. Today, however, the lifespan of such tools has halved to five years.

Piontek explained that new digital press technology will be introduced at a previously unseen pace in 2018. Companies will have to assess and deal with a flood of new options for every step of the print workflow, determining whether these assets will bring sufficient value to be worth the prices. Some of these processes are undergoing the difficult journey from traditional to digital printing. For example, stitching and binding technology was far faster in the days of offset printing. Whether this will lead to the development of high-speed digital options remains to be seen.

The right 2018 mindset
Approaching 2018 as "just another year" is both wrong and right for print service providers. This is a wrong approach because there is no value in sticking with ideas from 2017 and before if they're no longer subject to great consumer demand. On the other hand, once print shop providers commit to changing with the times and being reactive, they should make this sense of responsiveness and openness to innovation into a new standard. In that way, 2018 is just another year, the first of many when evolution will be an everyday undertaking.

The era of digital communication hasn't killed print, but it has done away with the sense of a relatively settled status quo for printing. Listening to what customers want may lead printers to enter a state of constant experimentation and progression.