August 29, 2015, marks the tenth anniversary of the Louisiana landfall of Hurricane Katrina, and it got me thinking about a few lessons of the past.

As we all know, Hurricane Katrina was one of the most profound and expensive natural disasters to occur in the U.S. The approach of the storm was of particular interest to the staff of SGIA: the annual SGIA Expo was scheduled for New Orleans in late September. Following the storm reports, we could tell it would be bad, but we were hopeful. Over the next day or so, the storm ravaged the city. Then the levees were breached. It soon became apparent that not only would the SGIA Expo not happen, but the city had become a physical and humanitarian disaster area.

Faced with the second cancellation its trade show in a four-year span (the other cancellation was in September, 2001), the staff of SGIA—fueled by the leadership of President and CEO Mike Robertson—scrambled to find alternatives. In contacting exhibiting companies, staff found that those companies solely or primarily screen-printing or analog-based were happy to skip the year. Those companies focused on wide-format and other inkjet and digitally-based printing technologies were not interested in losing a year of potential sales. In response, SGIA quickly booked convention center space in Phoenix, and announced the one-time SGIA Digital Expo, to be held December 8–10.

In just 12 weeks’ time, SGIA staff planned the event, recruited key exhibitors, assembled a full educational program, and received registrations from almost 5,500 attendees. It was a surprising success. It was also pivotal moment for SGIA in particular, and for the specialty graphics industry in general.

When the 2006 SGIA Expo opened, a palpable shift had taken place. You could see it and you could feel it. Those wide-format inkjet devices—the very ones that had been either embraced as low-productivity alternatives to analog processes, or dismissed completely by those who couldn’t see what was coming—had gained more than a toehold in the industry. They had instead become the future of the specialty graphics segment.

Since that time, digital printing technology has not only revolutionized the way signs, display graphics, exhibit displays and POS/POP are conceived of and produced, it has also opened new avenues of revenue—niche areas that now have their own niche areas. Take, for instance, the vehicle wrap market. Back in the analog days of our industry, vehicle graphics were limited to decals and striping placed on the vehicle, and were often done for fleet marking, given that fact that analog printing needs longer runs in order to be a) worthwhile to the printer, and b) affordable for the customer. Today, vehicle wraps, aided by the easy, short-run variability, are ubiquitous, and its sub-niches include race cars, sport-fishing boats, and even consumer-owned vehicles.

Another pivotal moment was when SGIA—again fueled by Mike Robertson—brought the fledgling Digital Printing and Imaging Association (DPI) under its wing in 1995. At that time, wide-format inkjet technology was used by an enthusiastic group of early adopters, made up of representatives of the graphics and sign, photo and reprographics industries, who were using the technology to add value to their existing businesses. Print speeds at the time were glacially slow, color was difficult to control, and the mix of ink systems and media limited most prints to short-term indoor uses. Long-established analog printing companies had a choice to make: they could either embrace the technology, train, and see where it goes; play a “wait and see” game, and get in when the time was right; or ignore it and hope it goes away. For many companies, the decisions they made at this time, on this topic, was a key indicator of future health (or even existence). Pivotal moments indeed.

Today, wide-format inkjet technology is truly commonplace. In our industry segment, it is the go-to technology that serves nearly all of our vertical market and end-product areas. To own a wide-format printer, and to know how to use it, in today’s printing industry does not make any company exceptional. So what does? What are today’s leading companies building, testing, and adopting that is taking them to the pinnacle of the wide-format segment? From recent discussions I’ve had with top imaging business owners, many of them are miles past the novelty of what wide-format digital can do, and are also miles past the challenges of print quality and color control. The challenge today is maximizing the capital investment in technology by maximizing sellable throughput. In an industry where the price-per-square-foot has moved from the stratospheric highs of the early days to the increasingly tight margins of today, automating the system and focusing on workflow have become critical components.

And those who follow printing should see this as no surprise. It is, in fact, evidence of a mature industry. As commoditization grows, those companies who lead the industry focus on maximizing profit by reducing cost and investing in efficiency. More production in less time: It kind of sounds like printing “before the revolution,” doesn’t it?

So this brings us back to Hurricane Katrina. For the city of New Orleans, conditions in the city will for many years be referred to as either pre-Katrina or post-Katrina. But the city moves forward, and the choices it makes as a community decide the future vitality of the city and its people. For some printing companies, the wide-format digital revolution was cataclysmic; for others, it was a chance to redefine, retool and set a clear path—a chance to create a pivotal moment of their own.