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Rendezvous with Romano

Frank Romano was in town in April, making a Dubai stopover on his Queen Mary 2 world cruise. The who’s who of the UAE printing industry attended the half-day conference organized on April 18 at the Raffles Dubai, to hear from the global printing industry thought leader and visionary.

Frank shared his observations, personal experiences, and insights about global digital printing and packaging trends, focusing on what’s new at drupa 2016. His unique perspective on the future of printing comes from over 50 years of business, R&D, education, and consultancy experience in the printing industry and 44 years of analyzing drupa, having attended 10 editions of the expo since 1972.

Here’s the transcript of Frank’s keynote at the event titled ‘Rendezvous with Romano’.


“There’s no longer a segregation of printing applications among print service providers worldwide. Commercial printing, quick printing, package printing, and signage are more intertwined than ever because of the advancements in digital printing. A great leveler, digital printing continues to open new markets and expand existing ones. Short-run and variable data printing continue to evolve and change print communication, particularly in the publishing and marketing industries.

But what is a short run and to what extent is short run printing feasible? A short run is as small as 1 copy. When we analyze the short-run printing market, we observe the potential of variable data printing for personalization, print runs of up to 500 for on-demand books and self-publishing, and expansion of print runs of 500–2000 with roll-fed inkjet presses. At a print run of 2000, based on our analysis of machines, consumables, and paper at Rochester Institute of Technology, we’ve observed a crossover point where the effectiveness of digital printing declines and that of long-run, offset printing increases. This is a fact we must accept, and this trend will not change until manufacturers reduce the costs of digital printers and consumables.

The cost per unit in digital printing is based on the speed of the machine and the cost of consumables. At present, digital presses are getting faster and relatively inexpensive, and the consumables make money for the manufacturers. As the costs of presses and consumables go down, we will see digital printing go mainstream in the 2000–10,000 print run market, probably with machines printing in the B2 size. For longer print runs, we still need offset printers, and because of its advantages, offset printing technology and processes will be used forever. So, we live in a world where digital competes with analog printing technology, but each of them has its own strengths and applications.

Digital printing will have the upper hand as more PSPs realize how they can save money and get more features for their investment. Furthermore, the costs of maintaining offset presses have gone up significantly. The cruise ship I travelled in to Dubai and many others have replaced their offset printers with digital printers. What happens when a printer breaks down in the middle of an ocean? Such an environment demands reliability and durability above everything.

Simultaneously, the market for offset plates is booming because they are being used for short-run printing, although they are not designed for it.

Another great advantage of digital printing is that we can integrate folding, collating, saddle stitching, tape binding, and perfect binding inline. For offset printing, we need to move large sheets of paper from the printing to the cutting, folding, and binding stages, which still make it a manual process. As long as we have to move the paper from one place to another, the process is inefficient. The next generation of robotic systems needs to address the issue of handling large sheets.

Print is not dead! Its applications are only growing

In the old days, there was no other way to communicate without print. However, today, in a very competitive market, printing will play a role only if is relevant to this generation.

To understand where printing is headed, we must find the right answer to the basic question of what is printing. I say printing is not a single concept, application, or industry, but it is a variety of things associated with different scenarios. Its applications can be grouped into 13 categories – advertising and promotions, packaging, direct mail, technical documents, directories, catalogs, books, newspapers, periodicals, forms, stationery, financial reports, and others such as greeting cards.

The biggest category, advertising and promotions, includes brochures, flyers, booklets, pamphlets, and other materials that are distributed to people. The reason the printing industry exists is so that someone can sell something to somebody else, and print service providers help produce the materials that describe products and services.

From the very introduction of variable data printing technology, most people couldn’t understand why each printed paper or item needed to be different. Marketers are starting to realize that personalization is the key to engaging with consumers. Direct mail from retail stores in the US is a great example of how variable data printing is used to target specific customer groups according to their preferences. Sales go up when a message is personalized for every customer and conveys something that relates individually to them. Data analytics and data cleansing are crucial in the effectiveness of variable data printing.

Packaging is the category attracting everybody’s attention and investment. Considering the increasing number of brands worldwide and demand for packaging customization for demographic segmentation, the market presents huge opportunities. The question for PSPs is what technology will they use for package printing and which specific part of the industry will they cater to – labels, folding carton, or flexible packaging.

In the US, we call packaging the last 12 inches of a product’s marketing program, because after spending a fortune on advertising on TV, radio, newspapers and other channels, the marketing effort and budgets make sense only if the customer reaches out and selects the product in a store after noticing the packaging.

How does printing technology contribute to this huge market? Go to a supermarket and find packaging with the picture of a person on it. We can’t print halftones properly with flexography. However, digital is slowly overcoming such limitations. Imagine the burst of color and imagery possible with new developments in package printing. At drupa, expect to see technology that can print full color on plastics used in flexible packaging. At least 40 digital label printers will be showcased at the show.

We hear the media reporting that print is dead. This misconception is due to the narrow view of printing in our society. The majority of people believe that printing is only related to books, magazines, and newspapers, and when they see how these media are going digital with e-books and websites, they start believing that printing has no future because demand for printed books is falling. Books form only 6–7% of all printing jobs worldwide, and a decline in book sales will not affect the printing industry significantly.

The good news is that on-demand book printing has changed the landscape of the book publishing industry. The biggest growth in this on-demand printing market will come from photo books. Nowadays, people take thousands of photographs and store them on hard drives with terabytes of storage, but the photos are likely to get erased in the future. There is no guarantee that digital photos will be preserved. The only way people can keep their memories alive through photos is by printing them.

Categories such as periodicals, newspapers, stationery, forms, greeting cards, and financial reports have suffered from falling revenues because they are being replaced by their electronic versions.

As you analyze every category, you discover the stories and reasons behind the decline or growth in each printing market segment. There’ll always be a decline in certain segments, but the most interesting stories are those of growth, innovation, and new opportunities.

Technology is moving fast for us to keep up

Digital printing quality is no longer an issue. In many cases, most people cannot tell the difference between digital and offset printing quality. Technology has solved a lot of problems faced by printers, improving everything from resolution, speed, and sheet size, and sometimes the high resolutions we have today are not necessary.

Toner based machines are now perfect for short runs, variable data printing, direct mail, and on-demand books. Powder dominates toner technology across the world. However, at drupa 2016, at least six major companies will introduce liquid toner technology. 

While toner technology is growing gradually, inkjet technology is growing exponentially.

Drupa 2008 was the ‘inkjet’ drupa. The 2012 edition started what I called ‘inkjet drupa on steroids’. drupa 2016 will take it to the next level with bigger, faster, and more capable machines.

Inkjet technology has been around since the 1950s, and no company played a bigger role in its initial development than AB Dick Company, the American copier manufacturer and office supply company. The grandson of Albert Blake Dick, the founder of AB Dick Company, was making a fortune in the 1940s. He approached Stanford University with a proposition that he would fund any project that could invent the technology that would put him out of business. The university developed a technology that spat ink out of a nozzle onto paper with poor printing quality. The machine was called the Videojet. It took them a while to find a market for the machine. The first market they discovered was the beer industry for coding their labels. The second market was more interesting; Reader’s Digest became the first company in the world to use variable data printing to send mailers to their readers. Since then, inkjet printing has been adopted by manufacturers and suppliers. It reached its peak in the 1990s when wide format inkjet was introduced along with color printing for inkjet.

It was wide format inkjet technology that saved the printing industry in the US when they faced decline in printing volumes. It opened new markets for commercial printers not only for signage printing but also printing on oddly shaped and thick materials.

A lot of companies that focused on toner based technology are shifting their attention to inkjet technology. Now we have different ‘flavors’ of inkjet – thermal, piezoelectric, and continuous, using aqueous, UV, and solvent inks. However, the problem with any ink is that it doesn’t print on all kinds of paper. I expect manufacturers at drupa 2016 to present solutions to the problems with ink and substrate compatibility. 

There are more printing technologies and processes today than in any other time in the history of the world. It’s difficult to deal with these fast advancements, and its gets harder to make decisions based on technology alone. As the quality and speed of inkjet technology improves, it penetrates new market segments.

What’s next?

The big question is where are the new markets? We understand graphic communications well and are beginning to understand package printing. Decorative printing and functional printing are new market segments that are evolving and we have much to learn.

The future is digital with a mix of some offset, flexo, and gravure. Toner dominates in sheet-fed printers. Inkjet and liquid toner dominate roll-fed printers. Inkjet dominates flatbed printing too and is opening up a lot of new markets. 3D printing is gaining huge traction all over the world and there’s no about its big role in our future.

One thing’s for certain about the future our industry: relentless change will continue.”

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