You’d be hard-pressed to find very many people who have nice things to say about 2016, a year that had very little good, and quite a lot of bad and ugly. Heck, even the seemingly immortal Abe Vigoda died back in February, and it just went downhill from there.

However, fortunately for us, in the wide-format printing world, things were quite a bit sunnier. We saw a few new technology introductions—it was a drupa year, after all—and a proliferation of other products, especially in the entry-level and mid-range categories (however you choose to define them), that are not only bringing specific wide-format printing capabilities further downmarket, but also boosting speed and productivity. We are even beginning to see the emergence of category we can refer to by the somewhat contradictory term “entry-level industrial,” of which HP’s new Latex 1500 is perhaps the most emblematic example.

We have also continued to see wide-format overlap with other kinds of specialty printing, especially packaging. It could be argued that drupa 2016 was a “corrugated drupa” and that certainly seems to have been the case. In Düsseldorf, EFI launched the Nozomi C18000, a 1.8m LED-based single-pass inkjet corrugated press said to run at speeds up to 75 linear meters per minute. HP previewed its new PageWide C500 Press, an industrial direct-print corrugated press that uses water-based inks that are deemed safe for food packaging. Durst also announced a single-pass corrugated and label solution, the 9,350 square-meter-per-hour Rho 130 SPC, whose aqueous inks use Durst Water Technology.

It’s telling that back in April the International Sign Association (ISA) announced that 2017’s Sign Expo will be colocated with the CPP (Collaboration in Packaging Production) Expo. If we are talking about retail and POP signage, then signage and packaging are the two great tastes that taste great together, falling together under the category of “brand management.”

We are also starting to see manufacturers embrace entire imaging ecosystems, rather than just the discrete bits of it, such as printing or finishing equipment. For example, at the SGIA Expo in September, Fujifilm was touting its new Fujifilm Inkjet Technology (FIT), a combination of inkjet printheads, inks, and color management software based around the company’s Samba single-pass piezo printheads and Uvijet inks. The goal of FIT is image optimization, speed, and flexibility, and has been incorporated into the new Inca Onset X3 flatbed UV printer.

And at drupa, EFI and Esko announced that they partnered to develop workflow systems specific to the packaging market, beginning with the integration of Esko’s Automation Engine, EFI’s Packaging Productivity Suite, and EFI’s Fiery front end.

A major theme for 2016 was automation, and this was certainly true in small-format commercial printing, but even those in the wide-format and other specialty printing markets are starting to see the need for some kind of automation. In 2015, Enfocus and Caldera had joined forces to link Enfocus’ Switch to the Caldera RIP (via a Nexio connector), and Enfocus also teamed up with Tilia Labs to link Switch to its Phoenix wide-format imposition and planning software. In 2016, Ultimate Technographics added the Nesting Optimization Engine to its Impostrip suite of automated imposition software, which automatically nests or gangs as many images on a page or board as possible, helping keep materials costs down. Front ends from EFI, Onyx, and Caldera also offer nesting and other automation features, as does Tilia Labs’ forthcoming Griffin.

At SGIA in September, Epson was previewing a new online storefront from Pulse-Micro called Vivx that automated the production of specialty printed items such as T-shirts, coasters, and other items.

It’s no surprise that automation is such a hot topic; it has now become vitally important to speed jobs through a shop as fast, and with as few human touches, as possible. And it’s not just software. At drupa, Canon Europe had been demonstrating a prototype of what it was calling “View & Cut” (the name is also a prototype), a workflow automation system that is the product of a partnership with Zünd Skandinavien. View & Cut is designed to automate the finishing of output from Canon wide-format printers on the Océ ProCut G3 and S3 flatbed devices. Agfa had also been demonstrating automation options for its Jeti Tauro flatbed press, and Esko had been showing a prototype of a robotic arm that works arm-in-arm, as it were, with Esko’s Kongsberg cutting tables that automatically loaded and unloaded boards. The arm option will be officially launched in 2017. (By the way Zünd has been demonstrating a robotic arm for its own cutting tables for a couple of years or so.)

In 2016, textile printing—be it dye-sublimation, latex, or direct-to-garment—continued proliferating. Durst, Epson, Mimaki, Mutoh, Roland, and others have carved out niches in the dye-sublimation space. We are also starting to see more direct-to-fabric dye-sublimation printers starting to appear in greater numbers, and this alternative to transfer-based dye-sub has advantages for certain applications (like flags). Soft signage has become a much-desired go-to textile printing application (more so than garment printing), and latex printers have proven to be a versatile technology for printing both fabric and non-fabric substrates without the need to invest a fleet of different printer types.

Additive manufacturing (aka “3D printing”) also moved into wide-format, with Massivit’s Massivit 1800 3D printing unit. Using the company’s Gel Dispensing Printing (GDP) technology, the Massivit 1800 can print objects up to five feet nine inches tall, four feet nine inches wide, and three feet nine inches deep. Last month, the company announced that since its unveiling, the Massivit 1800’s sales have been in the double digits.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work on the State of the In-Plant industry report for the In-Plant Printing & Mailing Association (IPMA), and, as I wrote in this space last fall, I was struck by how large a role wide-format is currently playing in in-plants—and how much room there is for it to play an even larger role. It can also help solve what we found to be one of in-plant departments’ biggest challenges: proving their value to the parent organization. It can also help an in-plant increase its value to third-party customers, should they be allowed to take in work from outside the parent organization.

As Dr. Joe and I point out in our brand new special report, Printing Forecast 2017, virtually all corners of the printing industry continued to build up momentum from what could be considered 2015’s industry renaissance. Our WhatTheyThink Fall 2016 survey found very high levels of optimism in the printing industry, both about the past year as well as the next year. One of those bright spots? Wide-format.

Next week, before WhatTheyThink goes on holiday hiatus, I’ll offer a wide-format forecast for 2017.