If there has been one major trend over the past 10 years (at least), it’s that print has transformed from a stable portfolio of products to a perpetual quest for new things to print. Us analyst types have been talking and writing endlessly about how commercial print volumes have been dropping and that wide-format, signage, and display graphics were where all the new opportunities lie.

So when several speakers at last week’s InPrint Industrial Inkjet Conference said things like “wide-format and display graphics have plateaued” and “there are now fewer opportunities in display graphics,” it was on the one hand disheartening—all good parties have to end at some point—but on the other hand encouraging, as inkjet technologies are creating new and newer opportunities in what has come to be called “industrial printing.” We’re still putting inks on substrates, but those substrates—and by extension those inks—are changing, leaving older print applications and products by the wayside. So it goes. (We'll take a longer look at the status of wide format in a future feature.) 

Definitions of industrial printing have traditionally been fairly amorphous, but as the sector rapidly evolves, it is becoming clearer as to what we mean: printing done as part of a larger manufacturing process. “There are 16 markets we will call ‘industrial,’” said Mark Hanley, President of I.T. Strategies, in an opening presentation titled “The Re-Birth of Industrial Printing.” These, said Hanley, are characterized as “low-volume and high-value applications” and if that sounds like our old friend wide-format graphics, well, wide format is, in I.T. Strategies’ estimation, one of those industrial markets. Other top-growth industrial markets include textiles, labels, packaging, and “direct-to-shape” which was a recurring application throughout the conference. (See our video interview with Mark Hanley recorded at the conference.)

It’s often unclear for whom industrial printing is intended. Is it for manufacturers—companies making physical products that have some kind of printing? (In some sense, tag printers used to fall into this category; companies that manufactured furniture, for example, would have to attach various printed tags; the “do no remove under penalty of law” mattress tags were an emblematic example of this kind of “stealth” printing.) Is it for brand owners—Nike printing custom sneakers, Coke printing personalized soda cans, etc.? Is it for the folks who early on adopted wide-format printing—hip on technology but, like Alexander the Great, now pining for new worlds to conquer? Is it for commercial printers—incessantly egged on by us analyst types to conquer those new worlds?

Well, yes, yes, and—sort of—yes. And what this comes down to is what I see as an emerging bifurcation of industrial printing.

What is this bifurcation?

One tine of this two-pronged fork (so many metaphors, so little time!) is what we may really mean when we say “industrial printing”: think of an auto manufacturer wanting to customize vehicle dashboards or other internal or external car décor. At the InPrint conference, Steven Calov of Heidelberg presented a case study wherein Ritzi Automotive used a Heidelberg Omnifire 4D direct-to-shape press to custom print speedometer housings for Mini Cooper. Other print service providers serving the automotive industry custom-print dash patterns and other décor-related items. (Ritzi Automotive comprises separate business entities that specialize in auto parts, as well as printing. I dare say they are fairly unique in that respect in that they had a foothold in both ecosystems.)

The other tine of the industrial fork is what we have traditionally called “ad specialties”—tsotchkes, essentially. These comprise custom-printed smartphone cases, golf balls, pens—all the stuff we usually find in goody bags given out at...well, at conferences like InPrint. This is kind of a no-brainer for print service providers, since it doesn’t require trying to tap into larger, more abstruse ecosystems like automotive production, but can simply be a unique product to offer existing customers. While your average commercial printer that usually specializes in business cards, brochures, or marketing collateral is probably not going to be printing dashboards for BMW (but you never know!), it could very well custom-print specialty items—T shirts, golf balls, etc.—for existing customers’ events. You can pick up a Mimaki, Roland, and/or Epson system for under $50,000—or an Omnifire for a bit more—and be well away.

So we need to be clear what the specific opportunities are, and that they are within reach. I’m reminded of the Monty Python sketch about the accountant who suddenly wants to become a lion tamer—a pretty big occupational jump. “You don't think it might be better if you worked your way towards lion-taming, say, via banking?” offers the vocational guidance counselor (John Cleese). Likewise, the commercial printer looking to get into some kind of industrial printing might be better off pursuing this logical offshoot of commercial printing rather than buying a new piece of equipment and immediately phoning up BMW.

For me, the InPrint Conference was a series of epiphanies about the future—and even the present—of print. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be running the video interviews we conducted with some of the presenters at the conference, and they are quite enlightening. Us analyst types like to think we have all the answers, but I've found that reaching a point where we can ask the right questions is the better part of the battle.

Commercial printing today has become a never-ending quest for new things to print, and navigating the nuances of those new things. Some phrases you’ll likely be hearing a lot more in the months to come—if you haven’t heard them already—are “fast fashion” (essentially, digital textile printing—Cary Sherburne has been taking a deep dive into fast fashion since we launched our Textiles section earlier this year), “direct-to-shape” or “direct-to-container” (Jim Lambert, VP of Digital; Sales for INX International, gave a presentation at InPrint about the growing market for digitally printed beverage cans, and I wrote about the emerging short-run beer can printing market last year), and “digital décor” (Rachel Nunziata, Product Development Manager for 4Walls, gave a presentation on how digital technologies are enabling what she called the “democratization of design,” in which “more designs are available to more people” and end users can even design their own wall décor, furnishings, etc.).

All of this is enabled by inkjet printing technologies, but lost among the “running of the inkjet bulls” is a much-needed reality check: for all its advantages and all the opportunities it engenders, inkjet is not a wonder technology that is perfect for every application. It is maturing, yes, but it still has a long way to go to be suitable for many commercial and industrial applications in the areas of print quality, adhesion, and cost. Wade Neff, Strategic Business Unit Manager for Strategic Factory, offered that reality check in a presentation in which he discussed the limitations of inkjet; companies pursuing inkjet need to be realistic—both to themselves and to their customers—about what it can and can’t do. Many surfaces and substrates still are problematic; print quality is not superb 100% of the time; some brand and Pantone colors can still be problematic. And so on. So the trick is to capitalize on where inkjet excels, while understanding where it is still lacking. “The biggest challenge is having a marketing staff that understands the technology,” said Neff. “You need to invest in a sales force to sell the capabilities.” He was speaking specifically of the digital wallcovering market, but the same applies to all facets of industrial printing. You don’t want to oversell your capabilities—that just leads to customer disappointment—but you also don’t want to undersell them.

A major theme of the conference was that many print businesses are locked by habit and culture into outmoded ways of selling print. Today, demand for specific print applications is driven more than ever by changing demographics and cultural trends, and print businesses need to be attuned to those changes if they hope to keep their capabilities current.