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Market Trends

The State of Print Part 2

In the second part of his investigative series, Brendan Perring reports back from his travels around the UK as he tries to definitively tie down the trends and forces shaping our industry

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Domino Printing Sciences fields a vast array of technology, with specific strengths now in full-colour printing and the variable data market

Grasping the future

Last time I reported back from my national tour as the industry was building up to the first ever edition of The Print Show. And in part one of my investigative article series I concluded that the answer as to why initiatives such as this have done so well in the face of a seemingly sluggish or even declining commercial print industry, is that the latter is just not the case.

Rather the industry is split into two sections, those printers and suppliers that have doggedly stuck to old business models and production set ups from the ‘good old days’, and those who have got in front of change and radically altered their product and service offerings accordingly.
 
If you are catching this article series for the first time, then part one is well worth a read, as it sets out a broad topographical map of today’s UK print industry. And if you have not got a copy of Print Monthly October to hand, then just head on over to printmonthly.com and search 'state' in the navigation bar to read it.

For part two of this trilogy, I wanted to concisely present some ideas and arguments to you from three manufacturers who all produce products that are experiencing a boom in demand. In each case its technology is helping the print industry to pump higher-quality, value-added print products that are increasingly becoming a 'must have' for modern commercial print firms.

Tech boffins

Inca is one of the original pioneers in industrial flatbed printing. Indeed, it was the very first firm to bring the technology to market back in 2000 and has now spent the intervening time continuing to develop its systems. Winding my way through Cambridge traffic I was ushered into their head-quarters where inventive examples of what can be produced on their technology cover the walls and the steady hum of a focused industry is audible in the background.

“We are pushing the boundaries and allowing people to take digital to the next level. When we started, the technology was new and the quality was OK, but it allowed screen printers to do what they couldn’t do before. Mainly companies who were entrepreneurs using their own money to invest in their technology were our first customers,” says Heather Kendle, director of sales and marketing at Inca Digital Printers.


Heather Kendle, director of sales and marketing at Inca Digital Printers, is a firm believer that commercial printers need to fully re-evaluate their product lines and production methods to ensure their long-term future
 


She continues: “We went through a huge learning curve in our early days as to what screen printers really wanted to do and what they wanted from the technology. Combined with our know-ledge from a few engineers back then, and motivated by the advances around inkjet print heads and what you can do from getting UV ink onto a substrate, meant there was a real push to realise the potential of this technology. Everyone’s expectations as to what you could do, to where we are now, is miles ahead from where anyone though it would be.”

Inca's whole approach to building its printers is engineering-focused and it has a very sizeable research and development team, as such its name has always been synonymous with pushing the boundaries of print technology.

“We started off using linear motors and encoders to get very precise positioning, because we had come from technology at Cambridge Consultants. Hardly anyone came from print, so they were able to bring technology from other industries. Unlike others in the industry, we came from a different direction without any preconceived ideas of things that would or wouldn’t work.”

Keep it clean

Another firm that has taken this approach is Meech International, which produces a wide range of ancillary printing technology from air systems to static control and web cleaning systems. Founded in 1907 and with offices and plants as far afield as the USA and Asia, it has come a long way from its small family firm roots.

The firm’s sales director, Adam Battrick was on hand to give me a tour of its manufacturing site in Witney along with its marketing director Iain Cameron and business unit director David Rogers. Right across its operation, there is a hive of activity that spans everything from backroom staff, through logistics teams sending and receiving parts around the world, to its engineers and electricians manning the production lines. Battrick also gave me a sneak peek into its brand new manufacturing, testing facility, and ware-housing areas—explaining that sustained growth has meant a need to expand.


The Meech CyClean now features an all singing and dancing touch screen. “This a huge step change from the industrial fan-type units to something much more sleek and practical. It saves you money and it saves you space. For the average printer, it is a huge attraction,” says the firm’s sales director Adam Battrick



As we walked around he gave me his view on the shape of today’s commercial print market: “The number of potential customers has dropped from historic levels. But when you visit a successful printer now it’s a nice clean environment and the mind-set is very different from days gone by. They are far more interested in saving material than before, eking out every last drop of efficiency, and producing the very best quality products.

When you visit a successful printer now it’s a nice clean environment

 
“A lot of smaller guys have fallen by wayside, but there are prosperous companies that have had the foresight that they needed to adapt. Part of that is employing technology such as ours, because it means you can very tightly control your production process and remove variables that effect quality.”
 
Battrick says that his anecdotal experience is that the levels of investment in new printing machinery has only very recently begun to recover in the UK, and is still lower than other regions in which Meech operates.


(Above & below) Meech International boasts an extensive administration, manufacturing, production, testing, and logistics facility in Witney that has helped drive its global growth.
 


He caveats this view: “But having said that the presses are very highly specified and this includes implementing web cleaning, air and static control technology. The new digital and litho presses going in really are fully loaded, and we also see existing presses being upgraded to improve their competiveness and longevity.”


 


Sitting down to lunch with Meech’s Rogers, he is also emphatic that the companies approach is less ‘build it and they will come’ and more, ‘build them exactly what they want, how they want it’. Indeed, it has recently developed a technology that replaces traditional AC static control bars driven from a transformer. Its 924 system rather avoids many of the issues surrounding such systems by using a 24 volt input routed through a high-voltage transformer, with Roger’s commenting that it will, ‘transform the lives of many printers’.


 

 
Rogers continues: “Digital presses operate on very tight lease arrangements, and you can only get so much out of these machines and it doesn’t take long to get on the wrong side of profitability. On a large HP digital press if you lose five minutes every hour because of jams then this system will start to run at loss. If they just had the right control or cleaning systems installed it would not be an issue.”

O Factoid: Meech can be traced back to its founding in 1907 as a small family business. The word Meech is medieval in origin and means ‘gentle natured’. O


The key conclusion from the assembled knowledge bank I met with at Meech is that the days of commercial printers running ‘knackered old presses in draft print halls’ is over. Their collective view is that today you need to be able to ‘eat your food off the floor’, be in full control of every environmental variable, and treat every miss-feed and jam as a serious issue.

Battrick concludes: “Savings to a company investing in our systems depend on the type of customers, as there are a whole range of materials being used. The areas that most make savings are more products through right first time, but the added benefit is the confidence that they will not have this problem. One of our customers has said that the system allows them to pitch for jobs that were not able to before.”

Right dot, right place

Returning to Inca and this philosophy of control is one that is very much celebrated, as Kendle explains: “It’s all well and good quoting the DPI, but if your drop doesn’t land where you think it lands, then those numbers are irrelevant. That is still the focus of what we do; through software and controls, we are putting the print where we think we are putting it.”

This focus on speed and best-in-class quality is something which Kendle says has been mightily appealing to commercial printers, who embrace both elements as second nature. Her experience is that many printers are suffering at a level where she, ‘cannot comprehend how some of them can survive on their margins’.

Kendle continues: “They are all fighting a never-ending battle for a pretty consolidated market, which means they are driving the price down. At the same time, both the printers and their customers put work out elsewhere that is much more profitable than the business they do today. That is still where flatbed and UV sit.

“The profit margin has reduced over the years, with return on investment not as fat as it was, but you’re still going to pay it back within a year to 18 months. You won’t do that with many offset presses as they are much more expensive and you’re not making any money on it. Commercial printers really need to look beyond their normal work and really focus on quality and value-added services that are growing in demand rather than trying to just do their core services cheaper and quicker.”

Inkjet horizon

Just ten minutes from Inca is Domino Printing Sciences, which evolved out of the same melting pot of engineering and technical excellence in the region. With 2,500 employees worldwide, earlier this year Domino was acquired by Brother in Japan, and is now in collaboration with them on a number of projects. The idea behind Brother’s acquisition was to move into industrial applications, potentially using some of Domino’s technology, while the latter gained access to a significant amount of new development capital.
 
The company’s offices and demonstration centre are as clean and crisp as a Formula 1 technology centre, and talking to its director of Digital Printing Solutions, Philip Easton, it is clear to see how it has managed to attain its enviable reputation. With the company for 20 years, he has climbed up the ranks to his current top position, giving him a very broad overview of both the company and the markets it operates in.


Speaking of digital printing, Philip Easton, director of Digital Printing Solutions at Domino Printing Sciences, states: “If you’re not in it now, it will continue to evolve, and if you don’t take action now, it will be even harder to change later on.”



Easton takes up the story: “In 2009, we made a significant decision to move into full-colour inkjet digital printing. We mainly saw opportunity for growth within labels and packaging print, but also in general printing terms such as books.”

Listening to Easton, he explains that if you are heavily involved with transactional mail, then a move into direct mail would be a very natural move. His view is that this is a stable market and that in addition printing firms need to really be looking at setting up a full digital print workflow that can cater for products such as this to succeed in the long-term.

He continues: “It gives a huge amount of scope for differentiation to make their business different and give them a better business model. There are a number of challenges, such as trying to sell it, but I don’t see a circumstance where more printing becomes more digital.

“If you’re not in it now, it will continue to evolve, and if you don’t take action now, it will be even harder to change later on. As soon as you enter a downward trend for not having it, it is difficult to reverse out of it. I don’t really see much of an opportunity for conventional printing to grow.

The other areas that Easton believes there is a lot of potential for growth in is print packaging and labelling. For example, Domino was very involved in commercial print and opted to branch out into packaging and label print, and its business has dramatically grown because of that.

Easton continues: “I don’t believe growth in this sector is astronomical, but there is room for expansion here. I’d also say that because of digital, it is a good time to move into this market. You don’t want to move there when everyone is established with one technology and you come along with the same and try to be successful as well. Digital in general is disruptive in this industry. If you are a print company, you already have plenty of knowledge about the technology, so it is just about the application.”

It seems clear listening to Easton, Kendle, and the guys from Meech that what is going to be printed in the future is going to be an entirely new set of products, but whether the market will once again achieve sustained year-on-year growth and in what exact direction is yet to be confirmed.

What is also clear is that some sectors will grow, while others seem to have reached a level of long-term stability—just take the coffee table book market for instance. What also seems certain is that less material will be printed, but the value of what is printed will be greater.

As Easton fittingly concludes: “I’d say to any marketer customer, don’t bother doing an e-mail campaign because, if we’re being honest, who is looking at it?

“The key thing going forward in the print industry is picking your markets and choosing what you do. People need to look at the younger generation and their behaviour, as that is going to be very important and it tells you a lot. A lot of people have false hope and they need to embrace change.”


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