The Print: Challenges, Past, Present & Future
It’s no secret that over the last decade, Print has faced some very real challenges. Many smaller companies have had to re-think the way they operate in order to survive the changes, and those that didn’t have fallen by the wayside.
The previous ten years has seen a significant reduction in the amount of print required by customers and consumers. In the past businesses would use printers for bulk quantities of lithographically produced brochures, letterheads, invoice paper, and so on. With the rise of email and digital technologies, the focus of print has moved away from this and towards downloadable files that are then printed out on a business printer, or even at home. Delivery firms, fire inspections and the like, no longer use NCR (No Carbon Required) pads –previously produced by print firms, instead everything is signed off on hand-held digital pads.
The only way for print firms to survive the extensive changes was by rethinking the way they operate. For us, the decision was to become even more service lead, requiring a greater investment in equipment in order to be more responsive to customer requirements. These days, print orders tend to have shorter deadlines, posing its own challenges. Lithographic printing generally requires longer preparation times in comparison to digital printing, yet historically has produced a better quality finished article. Lithographic printing also had the ability to use a wider variety of substrates, and be better able to incorporate special finishes such as spot UV, foiling, and embossing. However, digital printer manufacturers and associated print-finishing equipment suppliers have made leaps forward in terms of capability. Previously, digitally printed items had a lower quality threshold, were perceived as too shiny, and were incapable of dealing with different substrates. Here, modern technologies have improved too, with the dry ink used by most digital printers becoming more litho-like on the finished article, and so helping give the item a higher tolerance to the traditional litho finishes mentioned above. These days it is possible to get a short run of digitally printed items produced and delivered within a day, with the quality vastly improved over that of ten years ago.
Paper companies have had to respond to the consumer’s shorter lead times. Instead of having more lead time to move reams of paper from storage to the printers, now, shorter bundles are required but need to be delivered much more quickly. This time constraint has seen many paper merchants consolidate, and any remaining businesses have had to restructure to allow them to become more agile and responsive to customer demands.
The industry is far from static, however. New technologies will increasingly blur the lines between digital printing equipment and lithographic presses and it’s likely the speed at which either material can be produced has reached its zenith. There has been a swing away from a marketing mix that had been dominated by digital, back towards a more cross-channel style that incorporates direct mail. Printed communications are tactile; they connect with the customer in a very real and very literal way, and companies are realising the return on investment is both measurable and significant. Combined with a cross-channel approach, direct mail has the potential to impact the customer in a far more urgent manner than non-personalised digital methods. The main challenge for the future is big data and getting smaller companies to recognise the value of it.