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Commentary & Analysis

As Graph Expo Goes Digital, Where Exactly Is It Taking Us?

We’ll be happy to stand corrected if our count is wrong, but, after prowling the show floor of Graph Expo 2010 in search of lithographic printing equipment, we came up with only four fully assembled offset presses. Where did the heavy iron go? That’s not all that makes this year’s event seem a bit eerie when contrasted with the Graph Expo and Print shows of years past.

By Patrick Henry
Published: October 6, 2010

We'll be happy to stand corrected if our count is wrong, but, after prowling the show floor of Graph Expo 2010 in search of lithographic printing equipment, we came up with only four fully assembled offset presses: three DI models at the Presstek stand, and one small-format, two-color machine in the Baum booth.

Where did the heavy iron go? That's not all that makes this year's event seem a bit eerie when contrasted with the Graph Expo and Print shows of years past. The South Hall of McCormick Place, although still a big space to traverse, doesn't seem quite as tough on the knees, arches, and the Achilles' tendons as it used to. And, the show is quieter: the roar of big sheetfed presses isn't to be heard, because there are no big sheetfed presses. The tang of offset chemistry doesn't lace the air. The clatter of bindery equipment, although still part of the score, isn't as insistent.

In the place of what veteran showgoers remember as Graph Expo is a new event with a new meaning that everyone—attendees, exhibitors, and the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC) alike—will have to get used to. The "transformation" of the Chicago shows that some of us have been writing about for the last few years is complete, brought abruptly to term this year by market shifts and economic necessities that are changing everything about the practice and the business of graphic communications.

Had To Happen, and Has Happened

To state the obvious, the digital evolution of printing technology has turned Graph Expo (and Print, assuming that it comes around again as scheduled in 2013) into a digital technology show. As we'll try to make clear in subsequent reports, there simply is too much being invested in digital printing solutions for the GASC events to have become anything else if they were to remain worthy of the vendors' support and the printing community's interest.

This isn't to say that there won't continue to be a place, and a respected one, for conventional offset, but the suppliers of this technology have already signaled their intentions either by their absence from Graph Expo this year or by their refusal to go on bearing the heavy cost of bringing presses to it.

In North America, where activity in the litho market is coming to depend at least as heavily on service, parts replacement, paper and consumable sales, and consulting services as it does on sales of new printing machinery, the tradition of mounting a full-dress equipment extravaganza in McCormick Place is obsolete. Most of the press vendors that are here seem to doing quite nicely without their big iron, if the ample traffic at their booths is any indication (and it always is).

If they are realistic (and they always are), the litho press makers will have realized that the profound differences between their conventional solutions and digital alternatives can no longer be minimized by calling the two processes "complementary," a relationship they share uneasily at best. In one of the show's media briefings, Carl Joachim, vice president-marketing of Ricoh's production printing business group, was blunt but accurate about the deep inroads being made by digital printing into conventional offset markets. "Every page we print on a Pro C901 or a Pro C901S is printed at the expense of an offset press," he said, referring to Ricoh digital equipment designed specifically for high-volume graphic production.

Continuity in Change

But, even as the GASC events morph into showcases for their inevitable digital competitors, it can still make sense for the conventional press manufacturers to take part in the shows—provided that they do it in a way that reflects the new realities of their marketplace and the changing nature of their relationships with their customers. If that means foregoing equipment displays or even taking a year off from exhibiting, so be it—Graph Expo and Print can still be there for them just as they have always been there for Graph Expo and Print.

A competitive situation that may be much tougher to resolve is the one that seems certain to emerge between the Chicago shows and the annual digital printing conference and exposition known as On Demand. Now that Graph Expo and Print have earned full claim to being called digital printing shows, look for the vendors to begin questioning the need to support any other digital printing events besides these two.

For now, though, the focus will be on making the transformation of the GASC shows pay off in a renewal of enthusiasm that will keep them going strong. Werner Naegeli, president of Muller Martini, told journalists that he saw opportunities for his company in the churn of the print marketplace and in the transformation of the Chicago events. "This is an exciting year for Graph Expo," he said, noting that it has taken on a new, multidisciplinary character with the addition of special-interest sections such as the Newspaper Pavilion.

And, if the rise of digital technologies is changing the tone and the feel of Graph Expo, Muller Martini couldn't be more pleased. "We are surrounded here by digital people, and that's great for us," Naegeli said, noting that the more digital production there is, the greater the demand will be for the kinds of binding and finishing solutions in which Muller Martini specializes.

Never Off the Table

Despite everything that has happened to the Chicago shows and the industry they personify, the vendors' belief in the marketing value of the GASC events seems mostly unshaken—so far. Ursula Burns, chairman and CEO of Xerox, said her company remained committed to yearly events at McCormick Place because people like to see Xerox's wares in the hands-on setting that a trade show provides. What's more, she said, Xerox welcomes the opportunity to be compared by showgoers to competitive vendors across the aisle.

"As long as this is useful to us, we will be here," said Burns, but she added that Graph Expo's usefulness as a marketing venue isn't something about which her opinion could never change.

"I ask the question all the time," she said.

Patrick Henry, Executive Editor for WhatTheyThink.com is also the director of Liberty or Death Communications, a consultancy specializing in research, education, promotional, and editorial support services for the printing and publishing industries.

Patrick Henry is available for speaking engagements and consulting projects. To get more information contact us here.

Please offer your feedback to Patrick. He can be reached at patrick.henry@whattheythink.com.



By Ray fagan on Oct 06, 2010

This article was well presented! I am in the "heavy metal" business, and I will be the first (well maybe not first) to admit there have been drastic changes in our business model. It's all about cost. Large printing presses sell for the same or less money than they did 10 years ago, (much like print itself). There goes all the residual dollers that allowed us to bring the big toys to trade shows, and support many other facets of our industry. Lean and mean! This is the result! The Heavy Metal guys are still here, but its a good thing we are already known to the industry. I agree we need to keep a "presence" in these events, showing our other services instead of the big machines!


By Chuck Gehman on Oct 07, 2010

It's kind of amazing, I can remember a few years ago, Heidelberg had gigantic booths and frankly, they practically didn't even need to be at the show! (As Ray says above, "they were already known to the industry.") Their machines were at all the great printing companies, they had little competition, they could fly the serious buyers into their facilities in Atlanta or even to Germany.

Now they are absent at a time when most marketers would suggest they should be aggressively getting their message out. Whatever that message is!

But the problem is that there is no ROI for big iron manufacturers to appear at the show, when buyers are uncertain, and capital is scarce.

In contrast, the digital equipment manufacturers are going to enjoy a wonderful ROI on their expanded presence at the show-- they will sell a lot of their less expensive machines, which in turn offer printing companies an immediate top line benefit and short-term ROI.

I am neither an accountant nor an economist, but it strikes me that in the long term, this might help the offset press manufacturers, because the digital business will strengthen the balance sheets of the printing companies who are their past and existing customers, eventually allowing them to upgrade their offset capabilities. But it will very much depend on the big iron manufacturers playing their cards right.


By Patrick Henry on Oct 07, 2010

Pete Basiliere of The Gartner Group spotted two offset presses that I didn't. He writes, "Gronhi had a four unit it brought from China and Epson had a Ryobi demonstrating its paper plates." That would make a total of six...did anyone else find litho equipment that we can add to the tally?


By Vytas Barsauskas on Oct 15, 2010

What an exciting Graph Expo 2010. Digital printing is clearly segmenting offset print production by print volume and quality. With the demand of print decline and short run, next day turn around time requirements, we see mid to small printer digital print volume exceed offset production. We saw these digital production solutions at Graph Expo; Ricoh, Konica Minolta, Canon, Xerox, Riso and more. They continue to improve in color quality and production controllers, increased pages/minute output at affordable click charges and monthly lease costs. Compared to offset, this technology has minimal to no production complexity.
At the high volume part of the spectrum, print requirements for 133 line screen or less are effectively now serviced by the ink jet commercial presses. HP and Kodak had excellent presentations on quality, speed and capability. The non-digital mid to higher production volume printers will now battle out for print demand with the legacy offset technology. Theses are exciting times.

As Alan Greenspan states in “The Age of Turbulence”: "Capitalism expands wealth primarily through creative destruction—the process by which the cash flow from obsolescent, low-return capital is invested in high-return, cutting-edge technologies."
That statement screamed at us as we walked through the Graph Expo exhibits.


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