Current and would-be specialty graphics printers thronged the Las Vegas Convention Center as the SGIA Expo 2016 kicked off yesterday. It’s become something of a cliché by now to point out that this year’s event broke all previous Expo records for attendance—and floor space. (Speaking of floor space, vendors now have to be extremely selective in deciding which units in their growing portfolios to bring, and more and more are relying on videos. Given how massive wide-format equipment is becoming, the first manufacturer who can figure out how to orient one vertically will likely be an automatic Product of the Year winner.)

In Wednesday’s opening day SGIA press conference, it was announced that this year’s event boasted 23,000 pre-registrants, 46 percent of whom were first-time attendees, and 17 percent of whom were international.

SGIA President and CEO Ford Bowers, who took the reins of the organization in February, summarized the current state of the association as well as the “specialty graphics” industry. One of the strengths of the association—and simultaneously one of its challenges—is that it, like the industry at large, is becoming increasingly diverse, encompassing not only wide-format printing (itself an increasingly diverse category), but also apparel printing and decorating, other forms of textile printing, industrial printing, printed electronics, 3D printing, and many others, both analog and digital, although there is no denying that the latter is what has been driving the diversity. “[The Expo] is not just a trade show,” he said, “but a collective of diverse print communities and this diversity is only increasing.”

So one of the challenges the association faces is “creating a greater sense of relevancy in the services provided and a sense of community for each of these segments, however they may identify themselves.” They all have the shared challenge of incorporating digital technology into an analog environment. The result has been the recognition of the need to develop and share a greater common body of knowledge and experience, an endeavor that should be undertaken year-round and not just at the annual Expo. SGIA is in a unique position in that it sees how new technologies have been incorporated into one particular segment, and can use the lessons learned to help other segments navigating the same technology adoption.

The association looks to accomplish this through a combination of educational programs, publishing, events, sponsorships, and, said Bowers, “a more outward-looking orientation coupled with a strong effort to create many and varied opportunities for high-value exchanges that benefit our members.”

As a result, the nature of the trade association is changing. The way an association has traditionally operated is to have industry expertise centralized internally within the association and then that expertise is shared with the membership. Bowers said he hopes to pivot away from that to a new strategy. “Our strength is in catalyzing the interconnectivity among these communities,” he said. “It would be impossible for us to have all the expertise in all these communities.” The process going forward, he said, will be to facilitate this interconnectivity and the sharing of knowledge among these communities. Look for some new initiatives to roll out in the next one to two years.

He also added that there are even other communities not yet in the SGIA fold. “The technology is creating some commonalities,” he said. The graphics world has whole-heartedly embraced digital technologies, but “other areas are just beginning to see adoption, like packaging,” Bowers said. “So we have a lot of lessons we can share.”

At the same time, new technologies will inevitably emerge, some of which are starting to appear and will wreak their changes sooner than later. “Single-pass will be the next technology to change the landscape,” he said.

This year’s SGIA Expo also marked the debut of the SGIA Product of the Year competition, and the winners were announced at a special event Tuesday night. There were winners in 149 categories that included inks, media, printing equipment, finishing equipment and materials, and even screen printing. A complete list of winners can be found here.

We will run down the new product announcements and other show floor highlights in our next report.