PRINT 13: Back from the Brink?

As I recover from my annual trek to Chicago, my thoughts about “the printing industry” are all astir. The GASC-sponsored event this year was the quadrennial PRINT show — replacing the smaller-profile Graph Expo event. Frankly, it was hard to tell the difference.

In terms of floor space at McCormick, PRINT 13 was roughly the same size as any recent Graph Expo. If anything, it seemed a bit smaller, occupying only the South Hall. The mega-vendors of past shows, notably Heidelberg and Screen, were absent, while others like Manroland had greatly reduced booth sizes. Kodak — which apparently signed on at the last minute — had only about 300 square feet at the extreme south end of South Hall. While this year’s event was a few days longer than a Graph Expo show, it was hard to find the same enthusiasm I had witnessed at previous PRINT shows.

I did find more optimism in the conference sessions. (Full disclosure: I was invited to speak this year, so I am biased.) Hal Hinderliter’s excellent seminar, “Making Print Come Alive,” is a case in point. His provocative session included multiple examples of out-of-box thinking when it comes to print — all of which resonated with the audience. Clearly there are many in the industry who want to leverage print as PART of a total media experience — not a doomed “either-print-OR-digital” philosophy.

The devil, however, is most definitely in the details. Traditional thinking was still very evident throughout the show, with the same print and equipment salespeople targeting a zero-sum, commodity-oriented market. To me, it spoke of an industry that would like things to change (perhaps by going back in time?) but are unwilling to actually change themselves. Printers and their suppliers have heard that they need to become collaborative partners, with a full repertoire of media expertise. However, making that ideal a reality is a lot harder than finding ways to cut costs and sell commodities.

Some printers have mastered the supply chain aspect of this business: supplying other businesses with printed materials at the highest quality, in the shortest possible time, and at greatly reduced costs and inventory overhead. The bad news is that there’s a limited demand for efficient print-only deliverables. The survivors in that market will be only a few large providers.

It will be the breakout companies — the oddballs — that pull the printing industry back from the brink, and towards a forward-thinking, innovative path. The companies themselves may not even think of themselves as printers, but they’ll certainly carry forward the notion that images and words on a substrate — in concert with MANY other media — are a powerful way to tell a story.