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What is the Future of Print?

sean smyth

Cost and selling price continues to fall in like-for-like products.  Print has to be economically viable, the return on investment increasingly measured.  But there are more short runs, better targeted and more relevant to the final print consumer, with special effects no longer the sole preserve of luxury products.


Print competes for advertising expenditure, by proving it is the right media for the task in hand.  Content is more relevant, print is part of a broad media choice and will help individual access e-commerce sites; consumers receiving a personalised, printed catalogue are more likely to buy than those who don’t receive one, and they will spend more money.  But there are major issues with advertising in other media, not least brands and advertisers questioning if they are getting value for money from on-line, and the placement of advertising content on inappropriate web sites.

There are more embellishments with textured and patterned paper stocks, speciality inks and varnishes, thermochromic and security inks, foiling, and tactile/haptic finishes.


Labels and packaging are an increasingly important part of the overall print market, with volumes and value growing as populations grow and brands bring us more choice.  There are hidden barriers for commercial printers looking to enter these sectors, where material properties of the pack are critical and finishing/converting is more complex than the printing.


The environmental impact of print is a concern, from the paper manufacturing and transport to merchants and printers, then printing and finishing, distribution to customers and end users, then end of life recycling.  While the industry knows paper is recyclable and from managed forest sources that are increasing the biomass of forest in Europe, with more inks produced from sustainable sources.


The topic is much wider than the impact of a printed sheet.  Changing the process from litho to digital will eliminate platemaking, but the energy per sheet consumption is higher.  The impact of press manufacturing in terms of materials and energy will be greater for a litho press than most digital – but the ability to just print what is required means less print is unsold or unused. Digital is well-suited to this, but litho can also be very efficient.


Print having to fit in with wider communication choices, critical is the end-user preference.  The Millennials have grown up as Internet and Social Media natives, new generations who will soon become consumers and enter the print supply chain workforce.


So, there are lots of drivers affecting the whole printing infrastructure.  We see digital increasing in share, particularly inkjet with better quality and sheetfed machines opening a wider range of applications.


Ultimately the future volumes and opportunities are driven by the final end users, a group the industry doesn’t usually consider too deeply.  Their communication preferences are changing as the choice of media channels widens and print has to fit in with this changing landscape.  Publication print is in decline, as is the volume of much commercial print although value is holding up, while there is real growth in labels and packaging.  There is also growth in textile printing, and other industrial print applications from décor and laminates, ceramics and various promotional applications.  Some print companies will look to new sectors including functional print with bio-medical applications growing for diagnostics and drug delivery, while printed electronics including displays and photovoltaics are potential opportunities.


It means making print more engaging and relevant to the end users, and it has to be produced efficiently and effectively, with less waste in manufacture and across the supply chains.  This is pushing digital and litho print, with slick web-to-print and sophisticated low-touch and no-touch workflows to increase efficiency.


So, to answer the question on print’s future. Yes, there is an encouraging future for printed items, lots of them that provide human beings with information, education, entertainment, promotion and helps them in transactions.   In the UK the value of print is growing – in real terms – and this is the case throughout the world.  There are now alternatives that provide the same functions as print, e-mail, electronic and on-line versions, and social media provides new communication channels.    These are taking share of material that was previously printed.  Print won’t be the same as it used to be as innovation continues apace with new print applications driven by on-line and new capabilities, particularly Big Data.  As clever print suppliers explore the potential new print products that are useful, engaging and noticed by end users will develop and drive new print business.  It’s a whole new world of opportunity, not the end of the world as we know it.

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