Commentary & Analysis
Looking Back – Looking Forward
After 50+ years in the printing industry, and over a thousand articles, Andy's final article looks back to where it all began and looks forward to what the future may hold.
By Andrew Tribute
Published: September 25, 2012
This article is a significant one for me. More than twenty years ago I decided to write a monthly article and hopefully get it published by the leading print magazines around the world. I was already writing very regularly as the International Editor for Seybold Publications. For readers who do not know of Seybold, the Seybold Report was the "Bible" of the industry for prepress and pre-media technology and markets. I stopped writing for Seybold in 2000 but have continued with the monthly articles. This article is my last one as on reaching the age of 70 I have decided that's enough and I should be putting my energies into other things. I have not counted how many articles I have written but I believe it is over 300 monthly articles. In addition to that I have written a weekly column for whattheythink for the past ten years. There will be one final WTT article, probably a video, on October 9, my actual retirement date. With those articles and all the Seybold articles I believe I have written more than 1,000 articles covering technologies and markets for the printing and publishing industries. That is in addition to all the work I have done as a consultant since 1985 when I started my own company. Prior to that I had been working very much at the cutting edge of implementing printing and publishing technologies for both printing companies and prepress and computer suppliers since I started by career in the industry in 1961. In all that is 51 years in the industry, and of that I have spent 44 years working with computer technologies to digitize the printing and publishing industries.
Looking back on that time there is a consistent thread to everything I have seen in companies being successful in these industries. This is to identify trends, or windows of opportunity, and having the vision and courage to implement these trends for the future of an organisation. Many people and companies may see the trends but lack the courage or expertise to utilize them for the future of the business. This is often through concern about the impact on their current mode of business. In the supplier side of this two classic examples are Kodak and Heidelberg. Kodak identified the trend of digital photography before any other organisation, in fact they invented the technology, but poor management let the opportunity slip through concern over the impact on their film business. Heidelberg saw the opportunity for digital printing at an early stage, but their then arrogant approach felt they could build a better digital press than the existing suppliers like Xerox. The result was an excellent press, heavily over engineered, far too expensive and without the ability to link with digital finishing equipment. Heidelberg's sales force also failed to understand the potential of digital printing and almost always pushed for an offset press sale instead of selling digital.
A key message that comes from this that applies to all businesses. It is your future business should replace your current business before someone else replaces it. Again one can look at many organisations that have either failed to identify trends, or failed to move fast enough and aggressively enough to stop newer and more agile businesses from taking their business away. Most newspapers are a key example of this.
I have been lucky with my career to have been at the leading edge of many technologies and either been with companies working with the latest technologies, or in my consulting and writing career of identifying and helping to implement these trends. In this a few items standout. In the early 1970s I worked on ultra high speed typesetting where we did 100% full page make-up of data from company databases for products like airline timetables and tariffs, technical documentation for the motor industry, book catalogues, etc. This was some twenty years before digital printing of data from databases was just starting. In the early 1980s desktop publishing (DTP) started and this fundamentally changed both printing and publishing. I had just started consulting and saw the real potential of this as a disruptive technology. The impact of this was massive a brought about huge change in newspapers, colour printing and publishing, and all forms of prepress. The companies that did not pick this up and run with it often went out of business. I was the major advisor to a number of newspaper groups, and in one the changes brought about by computerisation and DTP ended up in making around 6,000 staff redundant while making the newspaper vastly more efficient.
An area I have been heavily involved with since the early 1980s has been digital printing. I was one of the small consultancy team that helped Benny Landa launch Indigo into the market. I also helped Xerox over a long period of time in entering and succeeding in the graphic arts market. In this I coined a phrase I used in many of the public presentations I did around the world when speaking to printers. This was "go digital or die." It surprised me how long it was from the time when Indigo and Xeikon launched digital colour printing before most printers started to implement the technology. The early adopters, who were predominantly prepress service companies, or database or direct marketing specialists, got a major start in this area and today most leaders in digital printing were not printing companies before implementing the technology.
This brings me to today when the industry is in a major state of change driven by technological trends in other markets. This is predominantly the impact of the Internet, and the trends shown by cross media or multiple media marketing. For printers this is a much more difficult change than other changes such as DTP and digital printing. Those earlier changes were technologies that moved the industry forward and were relatively easy to see their impact and how to implement them. It was lack of vision or concern over impacting an existing business approach that stopped printers being early adopters in these cases. Today's changes are very different. Printers have already implemented the Internet to increase the efficiencies in their businesses with technologies like web to print. Many printers have also implemented many added value services like logistics and creative design. This helps them to work with their customers to be a provider of some cross media services. It is however a major step change for printers to become full marketing services companies with extensive cross-media capabilities.
To predict the future for the printing and publishing industries is very difficult. There are a few very successful printers who have made that major step change in their business and are succeeding in this new cross-media market. I honestly feel for most printers this will be a step too far by themselves, and once again I feel the future for these printers is to find partners where they can participate as a media contributor.
The past fifty years of printing has been one of constant change. We moved from letterpress to litho in the 1960s and 70s. The driving force for this was the move from hot metal to phototypesetting. In the 1980s digital prepress colour from companies like Crosfield, Hell and Scitex made colour printing easier and cheaper, and this drove offset and gravure printing forward In the 1990s DTP killed high-end colour systems and made publishing easier and much faster in getting publications on the press. In the 2000s digital printing ushered in shorter print runs and showed that printing with variable data capabilities could be an integral part of the marketing communications process. We are now in the 2010s, and we see high-speed inkjet printing potentially changing the publishing process allowing for shorter runs, personalisation and different ways of doing business allied to Internet and Cloud based workflows. The big question however is just how does the average printer fit into this scenario?
As I retire from the industry where I have made many friends around the world, I have to admit to being very lucky to have found myself on the leading edge of most of the driving technologies that have changed the industry. I have been privileged to be able to work with many of the key people and companies who have changed the industry. These include Apple, Adobe, Associated Newspapers, Crosfield, Efi Arazi, Hell, HP, IPC, Kodak, Derek Kyte, Benny Landa, Randy Davidson, Jonathan Seybold, Xerox, X-Rite and many others. I have also had my writing career as a mouthpiece for my opinions, and these have sometimes been quite controversial. A good example was in May 2003 when after reading Heidelberg's annual report I stated the only solution for the company to succeed was the get out of both digital printing and web offset. I was heavily criticized for this from around the industry stating I was wrong and did not understand the business, but in December 2003 Heidelberg announced it was to sell off both operations.
It is all very well to look back on past success, but I feel we can learn a lot from such changes. I think that it is still the case that one has to pick up trends early and then have the courage, expertise and luck to change ones business to leverage on these trends. Also to remember if you don't replace your existing business with your new business that someone else is most likely to do so.
I have had a great 50 plus years in the industry and it has been very good to me. I have now stopped writing but may still do a few presentations if asked while I still understand what is going on. I would like to thank all of those I have been associated with, many of whom are friends or customers, and I wish the industry well as it moves into another period of major change.