The “New Print”: Separated by a Common Language

Frank Romano, Ron Gilboa and Jim Hamilton
Apr 7, 2016

Note: This blog is a result of an ongoing discussion about market definition that began with a conversation that Frank Romano and Ron Gilboa had at SGIA last November. Jim Hamilton joined the discussion later and after a few exchanges Frank suggested that we present this in point/counterpoint form. Frank will go first.

Frank: Separated by a Common Language

When you are on a ship in the South Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles from any land, and the satellite connection is down, you start to overthink things. Some people multi task; I multi think. And I started to think about all the new technology we will see at drupa for printing beyond the traditional. But as I read the releases, articles, and punditry, I wonder if we are all on the same page.

Take the three terms that are now bandied about: industrial and functional printing, and decoration.

  • Industrial Printing: the product is produced using multiple technologies in an integrated manufacturing process. A prototype gear that becomes part of a mechanism is industrial. A container that has its identification printed at the factory where it is filled is industrial. Printed display screens are industrial. Most printed electronics is industrial.
  • Functional Printing: the product is sellable in and of itself. A brochure is functional. A sign is functional. A 3-D printed model of a person is functional (your own personal mini-me). A package is functional. A printed T-shirt that changes color in the sun is functional. Products that change color due to external influences such as light (UV/black light), temperature (heat), pH changes, or water contact are primarily functional. “Smart” textiles and wearables are functional. Home decor wallpaper, fabric, and floor coverings are functional. The argument may be made that everything has a function, so why have two categories. But we must distinguish between products where commercial printing may be integrated at the point of manufacture, and products that may be produced by outside services.
  • Decorative Printing: adding type, color, and imagery to existing products. This would include inkjet food decoration, printing on glass, wood, textiles, and other material. In the late 1800s they figured out how to print on metal, and beautiful tin boxes were produced for both home use and packaging. Embossing, coating, and die-cutting are decorative. This category may not be necessary, but Ron likes it.

There is overlap of course. The more artistic the image being reproduced, the more it is decoration. Some products may be in all three categories.

Jim & Ron: The Market Landscape

This InfoTrends graphic about four key market segments speaks to Frank’s point. The categories shown here are graphic communications, packaging, decorative, and functional. Production digital printing has evolved from being a focused tool for producing graphic communication documents, beginning in the early 1980s to a wide range of adjacent applications in packaging, decorative, and functional printing. This graphic shows the range of applications, the types of toners, inks, and materials, as well as the range of substrates (or in the case of 3D printing, the total lack of a substrate). This view also speaks to the important ongoing impact of inkjet, which touches all of these areas, and is rapidly catching up to toner methods in graphic communication.

InfoTrends production digital landscape - 592 pixels

There are certainly overlaps in these categories. For example, a package has a functional role as a container. Even a book cover has a functional role in protecting the pages inside.

Jim: What Is Functional Printing?

I disagree with Frank’s point about brochures and signs. (“A brochure is functional. A sign is functional.”) While it’s true that everything has a function, brochures and signs are primarily promotional, and if we are talking about function, then a transaction document or a book has a function as well. One of my biggest complaints with 3D printing is that some seem to see the largest potential in the printing of knickknacks (a personal bobble-head, etc.). I’d argue that though they are fun, knickknacks are basically functionless. For 3D printing there is also an important differentiation between proofs & prototypes and actual functioning objects. You may be able to print a gear that is the right size and shape, but will it hold up over time in functional operation?

Frank: What Is Functional Printing? (2)

Let us consider the question: is a variable data printing job of 100, a run of 100 or a run of one, 100 times? We may think of functional printing as shorter runs and even one-offs, and industrial printing as longer runs and integrated mass production.

The whole purpose of this exercise is to understand where the printing industry can provide a service. When packagers use a laser to etch a code number into a plastic bottle at the time it is being filled, that is industrial process integration. A printing service is not involved. Printing will be integrated into many manufacturing lines. But if the bottler affixes labels to the container, then a printing service is involved. Our market involves the mass customization of products where a substance is applied to a substrate as a service and for a price. I am calling this new world “new print.” There was media and it faced “new media.” And so print will face “new print,” where new products and services will evolve from new imaging technologies.

Jim: New Print Is Old (and So Is Digital Printing)

Some of the “new print” you are talking about is fairly old (coding on bottles, for example), but I don’t disagree with the basic point. Digital printing is fairly old as well.

Ron: The Value of Digital Print

I’m not sure that new media and new print are completely accurate. New media (or the way to communicate with an audience) has changed significantly and evolved from carvings to printing to radio, television, and now smart phones and the Internet. These are fundamentally different ways of carrying a message to audiences.

Regarding Print: Printed communications, decorative, and functional printing have been produced for centuries using varying methods but fundamentally their function has not changed. Naturally there are exceptions when new innovations create new industry segments (i.e. wearable electronics and printed biomedical materials).

Though graphic communications, as Jim mentioned, serve a function, like most other printed products InfoTrends does not put them in the functional or decorative segment. The same is true of wide format, which typically has a promotional purpose.

All of these methods of printing use technologies that deposit a material on a surface using a variety of processes.

For me, the place in the supply chain and a product’s end use helps to determine which category is the best fit for it.

An important point to keep in mind is that the key applications that will move the industry forward are less glamorous from the ones we usually tout (like a 3D mini-me). Three-dimensional dies made from super-strong plastic will have a more significant impact on manufacturing processes and the supply chain. The same holds true for applications like digitally printed ceramic tiles.

The value in digital print processes lies in the market demand for mass customization that is driving companies to seek advanced manufacturing tools and other innovations that quench that thirst (while allowing them to make a buck or two in the process).

Frank: “New Print” and drupa Themes

We really should try to understand it and define all this stuff because drupa will have lots of “new print.” The two major themes will be “digital” and “packaging,” but they may be overshadowed by functional and industrial printing. The challenge will be finding those niches where a service can be provided profitably.

The argument I get from printers is that much of this is not printing as they know it. How about wide format inkjet printing? It has saved many printers because they were able to offer new services using new technology and that new revenue made up for what was lost as offset volumes declined. Wide format inkjet is less than 20 years old. If I told commercial printers 20 years ago that signage and flatbed printing of plastics and other materials would be major money makers for them, they would have said I was crazy. By the way, I did and they did.

We just have to define all this new stuff and figure out where 3D printing and printed electronics and other “new print” fit into a service business.

Jim & Ron: See You in Dusseldorf!

Looking forward to continuing the discussion at drupa!

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