What kind of year was 2017? (We will mercifully confine ourselves to the printing industry.) First of all, Tom Whitwell at Fluxx offers “52 Things I Learned in 2017.” Some vaguely relevant items he highlights:

The Pay-with-a-Selfie project is a micro-payment system funded by the Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation.

Vice media is worth more than the New York Times, Washington Post and Financial Times combined.

In August, Virginia Tech built a fake driverless van - with the driver hidden inside the seat - to see how other drivers would react. [This reminds me a little of “The Turk,” an 18th-century chess-playing “robot” that wasn’t quite what it seemed. —RR]

Beggars in China have sophisticated ways to collect payment; using QR Codes, WeChat accounts and in one case a Point Of Sale machine to collect donations. [“QR Code Blue,” perhaps? —RR]

A fifth of all the Google searches handled via the mobile app and Android devices are voice searches.

And, interestingly:

Pebble Post is a startup that lets websites send physical mail; if you abandon an item in an online shopping cart, you can get a reminder through the post the next day.

I recommend checking out the full list and associated links.

Anyway, as the year draws to a close, it’s time to take a final glance in the rear-view mirror before focusing on the road ahead. There’s no use sugar-coating it: 2017 has been the worst year for printing shipments since 2008 (or even 1995, if you want to take a longer look in the mirror), and even our own WhatTheyThink Business Conditions Survey (here in the WTT Economics and Research Center Data Analysis Bunker, I am scrolling through the preliminary results as we speak) shows that business has been less than stellar in 2017 compared to 2016. It’s not difficult to understand why; mobile technology continues to occupy a greater and greater portion of peoples’ lives, and as we enter the Age of Alexa and the Internet of Things, it’s not that anyone is particularly averse to print; it’s just that print is not high on a lot of peoples’ list of priorities, especially when compared to electronic, mobile, and social technologies and applications.

Skimming the business conditions survey data, it seems that 2017 was a lukewarm year for many print businesses: just about as many survey respondents were likely to say that revenues in 2017 decreased as say they increased. On the other hand, more respondents indicated that jobs/orders were increasing than were decreasing—ergo, overall profitability has been remaining “about the same” as 2016. (Looking at the most recent profits data, that gibes.) By far, the top business challenge cited by print businesses is increasing plant productivity, which is a good sign, as this isn’t usually a concern if you’re not busy. As they say, it’s “a good problem to have.”

(As we will explain in the report, these kinds of data need to be viewed through the lens of “survivor bias,” a term that does not refer to a predilection for “Eye of the Tiger.”)

So, in terms of business conditions, what can we say about 2017? Well, the overall market for print has declined (shipments)—no surprise there—and the industry has continued to contract in response to that change in demand. For those businesses that are left, the existing—and, let’s be fair, still substantial—demand for print is keeping them busy, even if they can’t charge as much as they’d like (revenues vs. jobs/orders—pricing is also a perennial challenge). And as we found elsewhere in the survey, they are looking to automation to help alleviate this productivity problem. (Oh, and print business owners really seem to think badly about their sales people; their capabilities are always a source of concern in these surveys.)

For several years now, us industry analyst types have stressed that some of today’s best opportunities for print businesses lie not in general commercial printing but in various kinds of specialty printing, especially wide format. And, it seems, they listened to us; our survey also found that businesses have already added these kinds of capabilities—or outsource them where needed—and those that haven’t aren’t even considering them. For now. So we need to at least entertain the possibility that the transition/expansion to wide-format printing may be largely done. Now, this is not to say that there are no more opportunities in wide format; there are plenty, and new applications, new substrates, and new inks will always provide new, lucrative opportunities. Rather, it’s that the wide-format “fever” has broken.

The full results of our survey will appear in our Forecast 2018 report, which is scheduled to drop later this month.

Turning to technology, one recurring theme over the past couple of years is that there has not been much true technological revolution, at least not on the hardware side. What do we mean by “revolution”? When the UV flatbed printer came to market in 2001, for example, that was a revolutionary product category that was, as per the overused phrase, “a game changer.” There hasn’t really been much like that since (some iterations of 3D printing technology, perhaps?), and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are only so many revolutions we can take at one time! Rather, what we have been seeing recently is more like evolution; vendors are building out technologies that already exist. That is, not reinventing the wheel, but putting new tires or flashy new rims on existing wheels. Manufacturers are concentrating on expanding their product portfolios and filling in gaps, so where there may have been only a high-end production device, there are now entry-level and mid-range units designed to appeal to the different needs of different shops.

If we have seen any kind of revolution, it has been in software. 2016 and 2017 were the years that automation not only dominated traditional commercial print, but started to be seen as a real necessity for wide-format and specialty printing. There’s still a long way to go, but recognizing the need is a good first step.

At the other end of the workflow, finishing has also been one of the highlights of the year, with new systems for both small- and wide-format graphics. Digital enhancements à la MGI and Scodix have been making substantial inroads and are allowing print service providers to charge a premium for various kinds of special effects, such as digital foil stamping, 3D textures, and more. In display graphics, silicone-edge graphics are proliferating. This is where you take something like soft signage, sew a rubber gasket around the edge, and snap it into an aluminum frame. They look elegant, are easy to install, and can be enhanced with various kinds of lighting effects.

Inkjet continues to conquer the world in ever-more print applications. Some quick hits:

  • Digital textiles are not new, but new dye and pigment inks—not just sublimation—are allowing digital equipment to print on all kinds of natural and synthetic fabrics. EFI, Epson, and Mimaki have some of the broadest fabric-printing portfolios on the market. Get used to hearing the term “fast fashion”—short-run, on-demand, perhaps even customized or personalized apparel.
  • Another phrase to get used to is “industrial printing,” or “printing on products that will be sold as products.” This is distinct from selling something as print. Yeah, it’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and we’ll be speaking and writing about it more over the course of the next year.
  • Inkjet for various kinds of packaging has been bruited about for the past couple of years and while I have my concerns that the market is as big or will be as inclusive as everyone seems to think, new opportunities in inkjet packaging applications are starting to emerge.
  • Digital labels are also touted as a high-growth market, which is only now just starting to be exploited, and this I think to be more likely than packaging.

One of the results of inkjet’s conquering the world—and a major theme of a book that would make a great stocking stuffer, by the way—is that specialty printing is now becoming mainstream printing. Virtually any item can now be a short-run, customized, or personalized promotional item. Traditionally called “ad specialties,” these items can be easy and relatively inexpensive to produce, and sold at a premium.

That’s a quick rundown of the year that was. In next week’s feature, we’ll move on  from this point forward 2018.