What were the principal take-aways from drupa 2012? What was new and exciting in the exhibit halls? Where is the industry headed?

They’re fair questions to ask of anyone who has just returned from drupa 2012, but answering them sensibly takes time. In our case, there are two reporter’s notebooks filled with longhand script and goodness knows how many gigabytes of vendor p.r. material to plow through before we can frame a response. In the meantime, here are some general observations about drupa 2012 as we experienced it in five days of media briefings, one-on-ones, and show-related social events.

Paging a Sense of Perspective

No other drupa that this writer has attended ever got off to a more lopsided start in terms of publicity than drupa 2012. Never before has one vendor succeeded in attracting—if “hijacking” isn’t a better word—most of the attention that the principal exhibitors usually share more or less equally with their show-opening product announcements.

But this year, on the day before drupa opened to the public, one vendor did just that—not just with the debut of what it called a radically new inkjet technology, but with the fairly startling news that three leading suppliers of offset press equipment have lined up to license it for co-development.

Another offset supplier, coming to drupa with a new inkjet technology of its own, immediately faced questions about why it hadn’t made the same leap of faith as its competitors. Hardly a press conference followed in which these popcorn-munching developments didn’t take some of the oxygen out of the room either in caught-off-guard reactions from other vendors or in urgent questions from journalists and analysts swept up in the unanticipated drama of it all.

We’re referring, of course, to Landa Corporation, its nanographic inkjet project, and the nearly simultaneous moves by Heidelberg, Komori, and manroland sheetfed to go mano a mano with nano—for the three, a risky, not-invented-here technology that is months if not years away from commercial marketability. Rest assured that you will be offered heaps of commentary about this uncanny realignment of the planets both here at WhatTheyThink and in the other trade media you may be following.

As you ponder the punditry, though, please don’t be misled into thinking that this piece of news was the central event of drupa 2012 or that the undertaking behind it looms anywhere near large enough, yet, to warrant being called a game-changer. Right now, the Landa nanographic inkjet technology is “disruptive” only in the sense that it has mashed up the usual mix of news that we’ve grown accustomed to receiving in neater, more discrete bites at drupa in the past.

Landa’s unveiling of nanographic inkjet may well be the most elaborate technology roll-out ever mounted at a drupa event, and for sheer marketing dazzle, it deserves every bit of the notice it has earned on those merits. But, the dazzle shouldn’t blind us to the fact that nearly 2,000 other drupa exhibitors have packed the halls with technology demonstrations of their own. While we can’t write about them all, we feel certain that none of them has been overwhelmed in any serious way by the clouds of nanoparticles that seemed to be swirling around everything we encountered in the heady first few days of the show.

The Never-Ending Fight Over “Short and Sweet”

If the technical presentations at drupa proved anything, it’s that the location of the “sweet spot” in digital printing—the run length range within which digital is thought to have the biggest cost-per-sheet advantage vs. offset—is no closer to being validated than it was 20 years ago. In one of the press conferences, a vendor CEO showed a visual indicating how his company’s digital solution fills a “huge gap” in economical performance that supposedly exists between 1,000 and 10,000 sheets—a range where, in actual practice, offset and digital can both be successful.

Another very high-ranking digital print executive was heard to say that is isn’t practical to put a job of 2,000 copies on an offset press—a claim that surely will raise eyebrows among printers who routinely do it on their litho equipment. Their astonishment certainly would be shared by the offset CEO who said that his company’s short-makeready presses can fill the aforementioned “gap” between short and long runs as cost-effectively as any non-impact printing system.

Also heard anew were competing assertions about which digital process achieves the lowest cost per page—a question complicated by the entry of next-generation inkjet inks and liquid toners into the mix of marking fluids.

It’s both fascinating and frustrating to witness the same ground still being fought over so long after the vendors first began trying to segregate digital from offset according to volume. But, as each process pushes deeper into run-length territory it used to be thought ill-equipped for, we’re watching the opposing armies clash by night with no clear definition of “victory” to underscore their claims of having won it.

Mutatis Mutandis at the Messe

It’s impossible to imagine a drupa without conventional offset lithography. Offset, after all, is the process that provides the critical mass that gives the event a reason to exist. But, in 2012, it’s just as hard to avoid concluding that offset no longer is the primary reason to attend.

Too many digital alternatives to offset have come into being, and the suppliers of these solutions are now among the largest exhibitors at the show. What’s more, given universal agreement that no printing business can have a long-term future without acquiring digital capability of some kind, the focus of drupa predictably has shifted in the direction of providing those answers.

This isn’t to say that drupa has turned into a digital printing show or that the conventional processes are in any danger of losing their drawing power as exhibits. One reason that is that digital systems have made deeper inroads into some applications than into others—for example, publishing and commercial printing, where there is much digital utilization, as opposed to newspaper production and packaging, where digital’s penetration is shallower. Because the exhibits at drupa naturally reflect these uneven adoption rates, there is a built-in limit on the extent to which the show’s overall emphasis can change.

Still, drupa’s days as a show keynoted by heavy iron would appear to be behind it, even though there are many tons of press metal to be seen and appreciated at this year’s edition of the show. That appreciation, lest we forget, continues to drive significant amounts of spending that earns bragging rights at the stands—witness, for example, Heidelberg’s announcements during the show of major sales of its Speedmaster XL 106 sheetfed presses to customers in Germany and the U.K.

Once upon a time, though, Heidelberg’s news wouldn’t have had to vie for attention with HP’s equally compelling show announcements that it has sold 10 top-of-the-line Indigo 10000s to Consolidated Graphics and two of its new 42" inkjet web presses to a printing house based in Hong Kong. Hints of offset’s loss of primacy at drupa were there to glimpse in 2008, 2004, and even in 2000. The new order of things in full view at drupa 2012 has become a matter of record.

Sorry About That, Inkjet


It just goes to show how prone to contradiction playing the drupa name game can be. You know how it works: tack the name of your favorite emerging technology onto the name of the show, and get a magic password that somehow decodes the meaning of everything in all 19 halls of it.

Bur those who came to came to the 2012 event calling it “the inkjet drupa” soon discovered that “the liquid toner drupa” would have been just as appropriate in light of the many announcements about progress in that imaging method. If “the automation drupa” was your preference, you couldn’t really be criticized for sticking with that appellation, either.

“The value-added drupa” had a nice ring to it as well—never before were the halls more full of solutions for making substrates inviting to touch, beautiful to look at, and difficult to resist as media for promotion and packaging. So, feel free to dip into the word cloud and label drupa 2012 “the _________ drupa” that best suits your sense of what’s transformational.

Americans Abroad

At drupa 2008, visitors from North America accounted for about 6% of the total attendance, and it’s safe to assume that most of them came from south of the U.S. – Canada border. When the head count is in for drupa 2012, the percentage of attendees from that continent probably will have shrunk, with U.S. participation down accordingly. Economic pressures being what they are, fewer U.S. and Canadian firms can justify the expense of international travel even to something as valuable to their strategic planning as drupa.

We don’t have the number of North American exhibitors that took part in drupa 2008, but we wouldn’t be surprised to learn that there were more of them four years ago than there are on the fairgrounds now. Nevertheless, more than 100 vendors from North America have made the investment in exhibiting at drupa 2012. About 30 of them are making a very respectable showing in Hall 15, where they constitute the “American Pavilion” co-sponsored at every drupa by NPES.

That trade association, representing 400 member companies that sell graphic communications equipment and related products in the U.S. market, hosted a breakfast meeting for American journalists and analysts at drupa on May 5. The presenters were Ralph Nappi, president of NPES, and Tom Saggiomo, president and CEO of Diversified Global Graphics Group (DG3), a multinational provider of visual communications services.

We’ll recap their remarks in detail in another article, but it’s worthwhile to mention here that neither man tried to sugar-coat in any way the damage that the “Great Recession” has done to the U.S. printing industry. As volumes decline and establishments continue to vanish, they warned, there is no salvation to be found in the old ways of manufacturing print and selling it.

But there also are upsides that encourage carefully qualified optimism, according to Nappi, who hopes that some of it will be evident at Graph Expo 2012 (co-produced by NPES) this fall. And, Saggiomo epitomized the industry’s staunchness in the face of adversity when he spoke of his pride in being a printer—even when it means, he said, that “in certain circles, I am regarded as the devil.”

Saggiomo and Nappi both indicated that even in a business atmosphere as harsh as this, there are still ways for the devil to get his due. In due course, we’ll report what they are.