Where will printers make money in the future? Some say it will be from digital printing. But digital printing is usurping analog volumes and analog volumes are not growing. In order to grow, the printing industry must find new products and new services.
The move to offset lithography from letterpress opened new doors to profitability. Offset could handle full color more easily than letterpress. Virtually overnight, it was like that scene in "The Wizard of Oz" when the screen goes from Kansas gray to blazing color.
The best example of “new print” is wide-format inkjet printing. Go back to 1995. The first wide-format inkjets were seen as proofers for color printing. Suddenly, signage became a hot market. Not just signage, but color signage. Signage was done by screen printing, but full-color reproduction was not typical. The wide-format machines got bigger and bigger. Commercial printing companies added them to their fleet of production devices. Today, well over half of all printing firms have wide-format inkjet. They make money with a technology that was never predicted.
Predictions are hard. Back in the late 1990s, I gave a talk at RIT and said that there would be half as many printers in 10 years. I was booed, and that was by the faculty. I remember when offset was said to be only for “quick and dirty printing” and when PostScript was just another printing driver. Many new technologies are at first criticized, and over time, become mainstream. Inkjet started as “good enough” and may now have exceeded offset quality levels.
There are no leading indicators for the future of technology. Not only did no one expect the Spanish Inquisition (sorry, Monty Python), but no one expected Facebook and Twitter, etc. In fact, no one ever predicted the internet.
So we come back to the original question. If printing services are to prosper, they must find new products and services. Paper-based printing volumes are declining. Therefore, printers must print on something besides paper. Some already do. Those printers invested in flatbed inkjet printing. They can print on foamcore, glass, plastic, ceramics, textiles, wood, metal and more.
It is true that there are industrial plants that print on these materials right now. Of course the quantities are in the millions and there is little customization. But new print markets are evolving, like industrial design, home décor, specialty signage, promotional items, unique digital packaging and other decorated items.
As I travel the world and visit printing companies. I have seen the early adopters of wide-format inkjet and flatbed inkjet. They found new markets with new technology. There are even companies printing holograms and printing on odd-shaped objects.
Some say this is convergence. I say it is much more than that. From the days of Gutenberg, print meant printing on paper. Now it means printing on anything.
There was media and then new media. There is print and there will be new print. Call it whatever you want, but answer the question: where will printing services make money in the future?