This Thought Leadership article is sponsored by Kodak.

Print is a manufacturing process built on technology. As new technological developments emerge, the print industry grows in capability, productivity, and value. In the last twenty years, a boom in global innovation has coincided with new business models and brought print into the fold in a lot of newfound industries. The most exciting thing is that the conditions we operate in today are projected to change more in the next two decades than they have in the last two. There is a bright future ahead for print as the industry continues to use software to question traditional approaches, adapt to new challenges and develop new tools for success.

Throughout my career in workflow automation development and management, I’ve had the chance to speak with print service providers who are operating on some of the most razor thin margins in modern manufacturing. In order to stay competitive and meet new challengers head on, they’ve needed to find unique ways to produce more, at a higher quality, and at a lower cost.

Most often, we see that those who have thoughtfully integrated the right technology for their organization are driving the most significant business growth, which in my personal experience has been especially true for workflow automation software. These solutions have opened up new capital streams that have allowed printers to reinvest in additional marketing, new equipment, and a more productive and empowered workforce.

Learning from these years of experience, it’s clear that being ready for what’s next is the only way to capitalize on new circumstances upon arrival. But what growth areas are most primed to explode, and what are the cutting edge technologies that will drive a new era of prosperity for print?

Putting Tech to Work: Finding New Applications

When it comes to the future of solutions being used in print, we see tremendous opportunity for an increased role for workflow in production digital equipment. Historically, workflow has been more closely associated with CTP devices, but we are seeing an extended, considerable opportunity for automation software to operate as standalone solutions for hybrid print shops. By extending its application to digital presses, we open the entire range of benefits across the full spectrum of print shops, and ultimately, to their customers.

The key for us on the vendor side is to stay focused on our core competencies in commercial print while continuing to allocate lots of research and development resources to the disruptive technologies of the future. Not only will workflow software, color management software, and digital presses continue to be refined, but we will commit those applications to some near adjacencies as well.

For example, the packaging space is already one that relies heavily on advanced printing techniques to gain a competitive edge in the market. Today we are pushing innovative applications for print technology in packaging further than ever before, as hybrid printing techniques become more appealing to clients who need to create hyper-targeted products at an affordable price. Hybrid printing allows packaging printers to use digital heads on offset presses to capitalize on the most valuable characteristics of each press.

Putting Layered Substrates to Work: Functional Printing

Moving further to the extremes of the manufacturing innovation spectrum, the rise of functional printing is often seen as the next wave in high-volume electronic production, with the potential to become a nearly $14billion market by 2020. Functional printing is a production process that deposits a functional material in a controlled and selective pattern upon a material. This process is an extended application of existing printing technologies for use beyond the standard printing of graphics to printing electronic components in a number of novel applications like photovoltaic, OLED displays, sensors, RFID, batteries, and OLED lighting.

This is still an immature industry, but one that will evolve much more rapidly in the coming years as processes are refined, technology improves, and the market demands more and more functionally printed electronics. This is true not only for inkjet shops but also with traditional offset solutions that can produce high run lengths on very large substrates. The impact of workflow automation on design and its application across multiple substrate materials for graphic printing has been tremendous, but without it, functional print would be nearly impossible.

A Debate Unsettled: Hybrid Cloud

Finally, one of the most interesting and controversial developments for the future of print is the role of cloud for influencing mobile business. Some highly vocal customers have contributed to the debate on both sides, but we see a significant need for evaluating its potential in greater detail. Moving forward, we will definitely be taking a strong look at cloud-based solutions, especially as it relates to prepress portals and providing customers with unrivaled job control and insight.

In terms of the mobile capabilities cloud enables, remote job management opens up an entire ecosystem that we need to take a fresh look at. In some cases, vendors will be developing that infrastructure. But with considerable hesitation among printers, for a multitude of reasons ranging from security to availability, there will need to be a more established ecosystem of partners working in conjunction to bring a highly valuable solution to market. This might happen sooner than you may think, as other industries are already rapidly committing to cloud for a variety of their applications.

The industries that thrive naturally tend to be the ones who prioritize innovation. Print has maintained a leading position in communications through the centuries by nimbly adapting to newly available technologies to provide high value products at attractive prices, which has been especially true in the past few decades. Developments in software have coincided with print’s recent, most significant evolution and will inevitably be at the core of its future. These few developments won’t be the only ones to watch as we move into print’s next era, but they’re definitely some of the most exciting.