“We are surrounded here by digital people, and that’s great for us.”

If other vendors of conventional printing systems didn’t share Werner Naegeli’s take on the opportunity that Graph Expo 2010 offered to their segment of the equipment market, they either weren’t at the show or were in need of considerable attitude adjustment as exhibitors. Making this remark during a media briefing, Naegeli, president of Muller Martini USA, put his finger not only on how the show has changed, but on why the change shouldn’t alarm traditionalists who miss its old style and character.

Graph Expo 2010, agreed Eric Frank, director of marketing for KBA, let the company “introduce ourselves to people who are more digitally oriented”—so digitally oriented, in fact, that some of them might not realize what offset lithography can do for them. These digital producers, Frank said, were part of a “very decisive crowd” with whom KBA closed some “serious” deals for the web- and sheetfed lithographic equipment it sells—and this despite the fact that KBA brought not a single offset press to Chicago.

In contrast, Presstek brought three of them—half the total number of litho machines on display at Graph Expo 2010—to an exhibit that included the first showing of its newest direct imaging press, the Presstek 75DI, in North America. Believe it or not, said Joe Demharter, vice president of sales, there are still some printers out there who don’t know what on-press plate exposure with DI is, even though the technology has been marketed by Presstek and others for nearly 20 years. No question, then, that Graph Expo 2010 was the place to be for Presstek whether there was lithographic equipment in anyone else’s booth or not.

Out of Sight, but Not Out of Mind

This break in the connection between showing heavy printing equipment and selling it made Graph Expo 2010 a watershed event for the Graphic Arts Show Company (GASC), a producer of trade expositions traditionally built around dense concentrations of conventional printing machinery. But not anymore. This year, unlike previous years, the GASC show in Chicago was not predominantly an offset show. Its reinvention as a venue of equal importance for non-impact digital printing was unmistakable, and behind the shift was more than just the absence of several leading manufacturers of offset equipment.

The fact is that the GASC shows are beginning to model the new technological profile of the printing industry, and the equipment mix at Graph Expo 2010 was a natural reflection of this. Printing Industries of America (a co-owner of GASC) has forecasted that while conventional ink-on-paper sales decline by 2% to 3% per year through 2020, output from digital printing systems will see annual increases between 3% and 4%. According to NPES (another GASC co-owner; the third is NAPL), global combined sales of inkjet and electrophotographic presses will outstrip those of conventional sheetfed presses just three years from now, in 2014.

The GASC shows, in other words, were due to reach an inflection point, and it seems clear that at Graph Expo 2010, they reached one from which there will be no turning back. For the first time, the show’s keynote presences belonged not to lithographic press manufacturers but to HP, Xerox, Kodak, and other suppliers of digital solutions. As a result, the look, feel, and the takeaways were entirely different.

Toward “A New and Relevant Platform”

The biggest draws were no longer the biggest litho presses, because there were no big litho presses. Where souvenir posters used to be printed on full-size offset equipment, they now came from wide-format inkjet devices. Digital workflow, Web-to-print enabled e-commerce, digital documents, and color management were the technologies du jour—the show-and-tell about platemaking, paper and ink, bindery, and other mundane production topics went on, but at a lower key.

For attendees with a history of coming to the Chicago shows, Graph Expo 2010 was what GASC urgently needed to give them, and did—a genuine back to-the-future experience that established a new and relevant platform for shows to come. But at Graph Expo 2010, being “relevant” also included the marketing, if not always the physical installation, of conventional printing systems and equipment. It couldn’t have been otherwise, and it won’t be in future editions of Graph Expo and Print, where offset lithography and its allied technologies will continue to have a respected place.

Conventional ink-on-paper printing isn’t by any stretch of the imagination a form of production on which the sun is setting—it still accounts for three-quarters of total printing volume in the U.S. It’s true that offset’s contribution to the volume will decline as digital’s increases, but just comparing slices in a pie chart doesn’t tell the whole story.

Essential to understand is that the processes will remain synergistic even as the older technologies yield ground to the newer ones. Printing plants that survive the transition, says the PIA report from which the statistics in this article are taken, will be “multiprocess in providing conventional (sheetfed or web) integrated with digital (toner based/inkjet) that can match the technology to the job and combine multiple technologies in the same job.”

About one in 10 jobs now combines litho and digital production, and digital’s share will go up. This means that there will be plenty of work for both processes to do as print manufacturing is redistributed—and plenty of incentive for their respective vendors to continue to leverage the promotional opportunities that the GASC shows offer them.

Going with the Flow

For digital providers at Graph Expo 2010, the marketing advantages of the show’s new profile were obvious. Among those capitalizing on them most explicitly was xpedx, which networked its entire booth and the various output devices it contained for a live, continuous demonstration of personalized printing within an automated workflow.

As previously reported, high-volume digital printing systems were what principally gave Graph Expo 2010 its new buzz. However, for some of these exhibitors, it wasn’t only about selling digital presses. Kodak, Fujifilm, Screen USA, and Agfa (now with the acquired assets of Pitman Co.) had the added opportunity of being able to sell CtP devices, plates, and workflow to their conventional customers. Presstek, which positions DI technology as a form of digital printing in its own right, also brought a full complement of plates and platesetters. No vendor of prepress technology is likely to forget that its best venues for face-to-face selling are still in Chicago.

There are bright spots for makers of conventional equipment as well. As KBA’s Frank points out, the crowd at any digital event is bound to include visitors from all-digital shops for whom offset will be a novelty—and, for those expanding into longer runs, a necessity. Offset press manufacturers, turning increasingly to workflow, service and maintenance, consumables, parts, and consulting as sources of revenue, can always promote these offerings at the GASC shows whether they elect to bring equipment or not. At Graph Expo 2010, KBA did so with its Service Select program, and manroland made similar good use of its time at the show by promoting its Printvalue service portfolio.

It’s Okay, We Understand

But the best news for the conventional vendors is that they no longer have to make budget-busting investments in elaborate displays of equipment at the GASC shows in order to achieve the marketing impact they desire. A precedent lies in the fact that it has been many years since a commercial web press was last seen at Graph Expo or Print—showgoers have always understood that the expense of transporting, erecting, and dismantling these massive machines was too great. At Graph Expo 2010, however, this reality did not stop KBA from promoting its new C16 commercial web press or dim manroland’s enthusiasm for highlighting the webs in its Rotoman, Euroman, and Lithoman lines.

Now, the same cost-saving exclusion can be applied to sheetfed presses, but without penalty or prejudice to any of their manufacturers. Big offset presses will always be welcome at the GASC shows if anyone wants to bring them, and it would be foolish to predict that they never will be seen again in McCormick Place. With or without the iron, they and their counterparts will make the most of Graph Expo 2011 simply by being there.

Something Good in the Air

Having brought Graph Expo 2010 to a reassuring conclusion, GASC gets credit for doing a good job of shoring up the reputation of an annual event that looked, in its incarnation last year as Print 09, to be in serious trouble in terms of both attendance and exhibitor satisfaction. Rebuilding the head count will remain a challenge until economic recovery sends more printers with more investment capital in search of the technology solutions they need to grow their businesses. For exhibitors, the changed atmosphere of the Chicago shows should prove easier and more invigorating to breathe, even if it’s less heavily laced with the distinctive perfume of offset ink.