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on sales of new printing machinery, the tradition of mounting a full-dress equipment extravaganza in McCormick Place is obsolete.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.