Episode 5: Around the World in 105 Days

Actually, I am circumnavigating the globe in two stages: Westward New York to Southampton, the long way from America to Europe, and then in July, Southampton to New York, the short way from Europe to America. The Queen Victoria gets 50 feet per gallon. In Hong Kong we took on 1,000 tons of bunker fuel oil (not diesel) at $500 a ton. 800-850 tons of water per day are needed and the ship can make 1,560 tons per day. 1958 was the last year that more people crossed the Atlantic by sea as air travel grew. But today, cruising is a major activity and industry.

The more printers I meet with, the more I see the commonalities we all share. I start my sessions by saying that we share a common language -- print. No matter what their native language or nationality, printers are united by CMYK, PostScript, PDF, Photoshop, Powerpoint, Macs and PCs, and all the software and technology we use to reproduce information on paper. Even in Thai they say CTP. Even in Vietnamese they say VDP.

But, as printers we are subject to forces often beyond our control:

1. World trade
World trade is based on the lowest price. I noticed that most of the people I met in the different countries I visited dressed more or less the same. The Samoans and Fijiians dressed up in traditional garb for the tourists, but most clothing is now coming from China and other parts of Asia -- and so people dress pretty much alike -- the jeans and shirts and jackets are similar. We all drive similar cars and use similar cell phones. I see McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, etc. everywhere. Most of the items sold in tourist shops are made in China; thus, I haunted the small markets of local artisans. American hotel brands were everywhere. Satellite-delivered Fox and CNN are everywhere. Many people can travel the world and never be exposed to local culture. My point is that trade is what makes the world go around (that and gravitational forces).

2. Industrial base
Printing usually follows a country’s manufacturing base. Countries with more industry have more printing, but this base keeps shifting due to labor rates. Developing economies have a manufacturing advantage and governments are supporting the growth of selected industries. GATT -- the global agreement on trade and tariffs -- tries to create a level playing field but nations often try to get around the rules. In Asia I saw smaller container ships and asked about them. Goods are manufactured in one country and then containerized and shipped to another country for finishing. Some of the activity in that workflow is done in countries that have lax safety and environmental controls. I saw pollution and haze a lot.

3. Global competition
There are no borders, at least, if you want to trade. Canada’s printing industry depends in large part on the US. Western Europe is losing printing volume to Eastern Europe. Australia has a free trade agreement with China and this is affecting printing. If the print you print is needed in less than a week and used less than 20 miles from where it is created, then you need not fear global competition. But if the print you print has a longer schedule and gets shipped to other geographic areas, it is fodder for offshore printing. Trust me, no one is immune. I met a print buyer for a catalog marketer who saved $1 million by printing a catalog in Asia. I judged a book competition last year and noted that most of the textbooks were printed in Asia. A large percentage of Maylasian and Singaporean printing is for export.

4. The Internet effect
Buildings in New Zealand and Australia have their website addresses in giant lettering. Internet cafes are mobbed all over the world. Even on the Queen Victoria in the vastness of the South Pacific I have connected with many of you (at 50 cents a minute!). In Hong Kong every human being had a mobile phone (or hand phone, as they say) and they were texting in the toilets where you have to bring your own toilet paper. In Vietnam I found two words on many signs that I understood” Internet and Photocopy.

5. Commoditization
Lower prices lead to commodization and world trade is based on commodities. Although there are gourmet items that sell for more -- I found a coffee that is $100 a cup because the beans are eaten by a certain kind of monkey and then reclaimed after excretion (honest) -- world trade is built on socks that are made for a few cents and sold for a buck. I live in New England and once had a typesetting company that occupied an office in the American Woolen Mills building in Andover, MA. Raw material would come from the south and be made into yarn by legions of workers who lived in company dormitories. The same was true of Lowell and Lawrence, MA. But time and economic changes moved much of that activity offshore. Those buildings stood empty for years and are now being re-born as condos and high-tech offices. That’s what happens to an industry when its products are commoditized. It moves away.

6. Governmental policies
Governments support certain industries, but international agreements may void such support. It is a constant battle to create a level field in world trade. What is a subsidy? If American farmers get tax credits or price supports, is that a subsidy? Every country plays this game in an attempt to protect certain industries. Japan can buy rice from China cheaper than it can grow it, but does not want to lose its rice industry. Every country supports certain industries. No Western nation supports printing, but the governments of Thailand, Vietnam, Sigapore, and Maylasia do.

7. Technology changes
Change is global in nature; no country is immune from the forces of new technology. Printers down under are now firmly entrenched in digital printing. In Vietnam new digital printing businesses are springing up. Copy shops are metamorphosing into digital printing services. Commercial printers are upgrading and CTP is commonplace. There was more IT capability in Asian printing companies than in US printing companies.

8. Consumer changes
New generations of kids are more video and audio based. As consumers, we want the cheaper price. The price we pay may appear to be cheap but it is at the expense of domestic manufacturers. The international trade in textiles represents over 10 percent of all global imports and exports. For instance, wool could come from New Zealand, spun and woven in Italy, made into a jacket in Indonesia, from a design created in Brazil, and sold to an American consumer. I bought a winter coat for $60 that was made in Indonesia. Would I pay $200 for it just because it was made in the US? Would you? We also love our gadgets and media centers and all those neat electronics, mostly made in Asia.

9. Labor Rates
On most cruise ships the majority of the crew are Filipino. Back home they work for $8 a day, and thus consider anything above that a small fortune. World trade is really based on wage rates. I saw thousands of Toyotas at the dock in Thailand, where they get the engines from Japan and then assemble all right-hand drive vehicles for the world. Countries with low wage rates make goods for less and thus exports increase as they ship such goods to countries with higher wage rates. Even after markups by wholesalers and retailers, imported clothing and toys and other items are cheaper than the same items made at home.I was amazed at how much of the world sees American TV shows. I bring this up because eventually those low-wage workers will want the blessings of the material world -- cars, flat screen TVs, iPods, and more -- that they see on television. Wages will rise and we will run out of low-wage places on this planet. It is happening in China now. China is subcontracting work to Vietnam because their labor is cheaper. We could also train apes, be we all know how that turns out.

10. Global communications
At one time you bought print from the printer down the street. It was a local business. When I see printers in New Zealand doing printing for companies in Fiji, and printers in China doing printing for companies in Australia, and printers in Singapore doing printing for companies in the US, I realize that print is now global. Satellite and other communications compress time and space and increase competition. Files fly through the ether; soft proofing and annotated PDFs speed preparation. I remember the days of messengers in large cities with bikes that collided with pedestrians. They are still there but not in the numbers of the past. They were replaced by modems and so far no modem has collided with me.

Print is no longer an island, impervious to forces thousands of miles away. Today, we are all cogs in a giant global eco-system where money and labor and goods flow from country to country and print follows along.

Printers are literally their own nation, with a language and culture that is unique. In Dubai, 250 printers from the Middle East attended my seminar and their questions were similar to the questions I got in Los Angeles and Melbourne and Sydney and Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. I visited a book printer in Chennai (formerly Madras) India and that plant could have been in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The small printer in Bangkok looked just like one in Boston. The package printer in Thailand could have been in Wisconsin.

Oh . . . so far I have not met a printer who was not high quality or one that did not profess superb service. Like Diogenes, I will keep searching the world for all those mediocre poor service printers that lose all those print jobs.

I have discovered a new species of tourist -- digitalcamerus snapicrazi. At one time we were limited to 24 or 36 shots on a roll of film; now, we can shoot forever. Little old ladies were swapping 1 GB SD cards and bragging “I have 10 megapixels!” I would yell “Look at that” and two hundred cameras would turn and shoot in a cacophony of clicks and beeps. At some point digital cameras may suck up all the imagery of the visible world.