By Melissa Donovan
Many of us expected 2023 to be a breakout year compared to the ones prior. Annually we partner with IT Strategies to review the last 12 months and forecast into the next five years. Marco Boer, VP, IT Strategies, shares in his report that wide format graphics inkjet revenues will grow five percent annually between 2020 and 2028. However, even at that growth rate, vendor revenues aren’t expected to return to 2019 revenues until 2028.
While the predicted growth is a bright spot, there areas of concern, specifically market maturity, consolidation, and higher productivity equipment. These influence where the graphic arts market goes next. To get a greater idea of this, we connected with key manufacturers servicing the industry for their opinions, and compiled it into this year’s state of the industry report.
Above: AMI Graphics, Inc., based in Strafford, NH, won second place with its work for Now & There Inc. Artist Yenny Hernandez, part of Now & There, designed a colorful, gigantic display titled Ponle Vuelo A Tus Sueños/Let Your Dreams Take Flight for the Prudential Center in Boston, MA.
Did we set lofty goals for 2023? Perhaps. The first part of the year seems to have been an interesting mix of achievements and setbacks depending on who you speak with. Of course there is hope for the second half of 2023.
Positivity abounds, for example in sourcing substrates. “The industry is in a better position in terms of film supply versus this time last year. 2023 got off to a slow start but this was due to a mixture of normal seasonality and stock work down. There will be growth in the back half of the year, as raw material availability and stocking levels stabilize,” explains Alex Fox, product manager – graphics digital and signage materials group, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions.
“2023 met or exceeded expectations in many ways. Print businesses ramped up production capacity and sought new ways to scale, integrate, and automate processes to improve efficiency and profitability,” shares Dr. Jonathan Rogers, global marketing and communications, Onyx Graphics, Inc.
Jodi Sawyer, strategic business unit manager – retail, FLEXcon Company, Inc., says many industries project positive single digit overall growth in 2023. She cites the National Retail Federation forecasting retail spending to increase by four to six percent; out-of-home advertising is estimated to increase by 3.4 percent according to Magna; and pharmaceutical, automotive, and electronics industries are also projecting positive growth for 2023. “With seasonal promotions, travel, and entertainment/events increasing, we expect to see a positive impact on growth in the second half,” adds Sawyer.
“2023 definitely met and exceeded expectations especially due to the return of trade shows. It’s only been a year since trade events have returned and when you think of these shows and the increased attendance, there is a need for more and different types of signage. Trade events are a great forum for idea sharing, which translates into increased product sales,” suggest Edwin Ramos, director of sales and Aarona Tesch, product marketing manager, ACCO Brands.
X-Edge Products, Inc. experienced greater growth than it originally forecasted in the first half of the year. “With that 2023 has had its own unique challenges. From marketing a rapidly growing product line and also bringing on new distribution. We feel the second half will be stronger than the first because we have worked through these challenges,” notes Josh Martinez, account manager, X-Edge Products.
“It’s been a strong year in regards to finishing. Customers report difficulties hiring qualified labor and are investing in equipment and automation software to meet their production needs,” explains Keith Verkem, senior product manager – sales, product development, marketing, Colex Finishing, Inc.
Another player in the finishing segment, Martin Thornton, business segment manager, Zund America, Inc., attests that “our company experienced a tremendous first half of 2023, and the second half is looking just as strong. The growth, particularly in digitally printed packaging, continues unabated.”
ALLPRINTHEADS’ sales increased by 20 percent compared to last year, despite concerns about a potential recession causing economic problems in 2023, shares Jaime Ghisays, CEO, ALLPRINTHEADS. “This leaves us optimistic about the year’s second half and the potential for continued success. The printing industry is expected to generate nearly $193.5 billion in sales in 2023.”
“The demand has been higher than expected and that continues to grow as we enter the second half. Companies are in search of solutions that will improve their business and costs related to that,” says Brian Coombs, director, product planning, Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Vendors set the bar high for themselves. “There are a lot of new entries sprouting up in the printing and graphic arts worlds, adding a lot of competition in the market,” according Danny Jimenez, senior print media sales consultant, TVF.
“Printers are expressing that while business results are generally good, there is an uncertainty tied to concerns over the capital markets and broader economy. This combination of factors has caused greater caution toward capital expenditures,” notes Erik Norman, president, swissQprint America.
Shaun Holdom, marketing manager, high end, Fujifilm, agrees with customers/printers being more cautious with purchases, particularly “given the state of the world there are certainly some dynamics and challenges that are out of our control. The global issues on energy and potential recessions around the world, the increased cost of borrowing has meant all buyers are far more diligent on any purchases—especially equipment.”
“Someone jokingly told me back when I started in this industry 28 years ago that you need a sign whether you are going in or out of business. This is the closest to a recession-proof industry as I have seen. So looking forward I predict that the markets will be tentative for growth but the industry will find ways to keep growing via the many exciting new applications that are available to end users these days,” suggests Brian Phipps, president/GM, Mutoh America, Inc.
Despite uncertainty based on higher interest rates and a potential recession, Kevin Duffy, VP, sales and marketing, Vycom, says “display graphics will always be in demand and as a tool of commerce, will regularly need to be changed, ensuring a steady revenue stream for print service providers (PSPs).”
Static graphics are what Darius Augustine, GM and lead designer Alpina Manufacturing, LLC, refers to as a “soft sell”—easy on the eyes, noticed and absorbed, durable, and can be hung anywhere. Adversely, “electronic boards and displays are making big inroads, but the human brain is tired, overtaxed, and overwhelmed with electronic images.” Hence, why display graphics remain relevant.
Technologies that defined the last six to 12 months range from textile printing innovation to smaller format UV flatbeds. Many are set to continue making buzz into 2024.
PSPs using flatbed printers are changing, embracing new markets and applications. “Opportunities are expanding within interior décor markets and the use of functional substrates, where the ability to replicate textures and deliver precise color matching are enabling printers to recreate wood, tile, and even shingles. Printing on wood, glass, and metals for various functional applications is also gaining ground,” shares Norman.
Similarly, textile printing is morphing as more efficient processes are discovered. “One influential trend is the increased use of direct disperse printing with inline fixation technology. It’s been used in Europe for years, but more U.S. companies are tapping into it and they need textiles that are compatible. These shops want to load the fabric, print it, and get to work on finishing,” explains Jimenez.
“Dye-sublimation has been an area of immense growth recently, and we attribute that to the comeback after following an absence of trade shows,” notes Larry D’Amico, director of sales, Durst US.
A significant trend witnessed by Eyal Friedman, VP of product management, SA International, is direct to film technology. As it “is affordable, provides the ability to use a range of fabrics, the colors are vibrant, and there is an option to use white ink. Furthermore, direct to film printers are ideal for both long and short runs with minimum setup time.”
Michael Aldrich, product manager, FDC Graphic Films, Inc., supports direct to film becoming even more important. “This technology is very cost effective and is affecting a lot of the color heat transfer vinyl business, especially for short-run jobs in screenprint houses. This process also eliminates weeding out vinyl and layering multiple films to get a dimensional effect.”
Desktop flatbed printers present new opportunities. “Print shops have outsourced ADA/ braille signage in the past but UV printers make it simple for any print company to get in the game. ADA/braille is a requirement for many municipalities so having the capability to supply hundreds or even thousands of ADA-compliant braille signs to hotels, schools, government agencies, and businesses is a game changer if it can be done in house,” recommends Phipps.
Hybrid—flatbed and roll—devices also offer endless options. “Customers are looking for devices that can be flexible and offer multiple applications in a single device, so the popularity of hybrid machines is becoming more evident. Having the ability to print both rigid and roll materials and offer a variety of applications—which are true revenue generators and can offer vertical market opportunities—is key,” explains Holdom.
“Flexible solutions at affordable prices and a bit slower speeds are preferred as well as special functions that add value are welcomed,” seconds Juan Kim, CEO, Valloy Incorporated.
Integration between software systems is a hot topic. “More companies—not just printers but vendors—are realizing their software is more powerful if it can be directly tied to the other systems that their customers use,” shares Andrew Oswood, wizard of workflow, Significans Automation.
“While workflow automation still means different things to different people, the idea of connectivity and integration across business tools and the advent of print business management solutions are technological trends that have gained and will continue to gain momentum in the print industry into 2024,” adds Rogers.
Finishing trends focus on automation and software that minimizes operator intervention. “This includes complete print/cut solutions for rigid media with the use of conveyor belts for offloading and loading material inline between printers and cutters. On the roll media side its devices that load jumbo rolls into printers and then directly feed the cutter and stack the final product,” notes Verkem.
“Automation is what it’s all about, with every manufacturer looking to get the best possible productivity from their investment in technology while, at the same time, minimizing the need for human intervention. Robots play a significant role in this, as ‘co-bots’ working alongside operators and as industrial, autonomous robotic systems capable of working unattended, non-stop, around the clock,” agrees Thornton.
The laser side of the finishing industry also feels the effects of automation. “There is an increase in the use of overhead positioning cameras. Another trend is the replacement of old-fashioned print drivers with network-operated laser operation software, which is user friendly and allows for more operational control regardless of the operating system,” explains David Stevens, technical development manager, Trotec Laser Inc.
Next Big Thing
Overwhelmingly vendors agree that we are headed toward an automated future, which makes for intelligent printing.
Reducing the level and/or need for manual operators drive this. “Many companies struggle with labor shortages and need automation. Part of this automation process includes allowing their customers to receive pricing instantly and to submit jobs online. Users are looking to automate many redundant proofing and prepress tasks,” notes David Graves, sales and marketing manager, Aleyant.
“Whether it’s to help with efficiencies as the workforce talent pool remains tight or in the form of software that’s become more user friendly, automated processes are getting more prolific and refined,” agrees Jimenez.
According to Coombs, “the adoption of new technologies will reduce reliance on resource-intensive processes, leading to improved productivity, significant cost savings, decreased material waste, and enhanced sustainability.”
And it isn’t just printing. “Automated handling, automation from printer to cutter and beyond, people are interested in how they can improve their operations with automation,” admits D’Amico.
Working in conjunction with automation is artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). “Integrating AI and ML into graphic design software is one of the most significant trends. This technology can automate repetitive tasks, such as formatting and resizing images, freeing designers to focus on more creative aspects of their work. Also, AI is incorporated into hardware, so printers become more intelligent in how they diagnose themselves and detect problems,” states Ghisays.
“Needless to say, AI will have more of an impact on the way we go about producing things as well, not only in terms of design/content generation but also in machine and process control,” adds Thornton.
With it being such a hot-button topic, Stevens notes that six to 12 months from now the uses and regulations surrounding AI-generated content could look different.
Sean Davis, director of technology, Significans Automation, also believes ML will play a bigger role in the industry. “Both hardware and software solutions will be pushed to their extremes in process automation and quality control. Many manufacturing and software companies have been dabbling with AI for years, and this will continue.”
“We anticipate individuals and companies alike will monitor and explore how to adopt AI technology to enhance the graphic arts. Augmented reality (AR) is a growing trend that companies will need to consider as the blend of digital and real-world graphics become more prevalent. For example, retailers are looking at ways to adopt AR to help customers navigate in-store more easily compared with wayfinding graphics,” shares Cassandra Yu, market segment development manager – architecture and retail, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions.
Sawyer agrees that “AR and other technologies that support the needs of consumers to personalize how they interact with brands to shop, work, and play will change the role of the graphic arts.”
Beyond automation, AI, and AR, Amanda Smith, marketing and communication manager, Mactac, stresses sustainability as a continuing topic of conversation. “The demand will lead to more investment in sustainable technologies. Next time you see graphics on walls and windows, you could be looking at a more environmentally friendly product, which a year or two ago was not the case.”
“There will be advancements in PET films that perform more like a true PVC product. Sustainability is in big demand,” seconds Aldrich.
It isn’t only the material itself that will be addressed. “The total footprint of the product, not just the end-of-life disposal, needs to be considered. As we continue to explore options, our focus has been on improving the raw material sources, components, processing, and handling throughout the entire supply chain so the product is produced as responsibly as possible,” suggests Michael Maxwell, VP of sales, General Formulations.
Despite the renewed interest in sustainable materials, Carl Sommerstad, commercial director, Tekra, LLC, believes the trend will only gain full traction when the media becomes “cost effective and we have not arrived at this point yet in the U.S.”
“Options for sustainable graphic products have been available for several years but it is also associated with higher costs for those wanting to do good, so many prospective users have continued to choose less-expensive PVC. Increasing pressure, more incentives, plus wider adaption of sustainable products in Europe is nurturing greater awareness and interest to businesses in North America,” explains Micah Causey, VP business development, FloorSignage, LLC.
Phipps says the future involves two “Ps”—packaging and personalization. “Packaging is a huge market. There is no better way than having luxurious-looking packaging to get the attention of the buyer. Whether it is your vehicle with a personalized wrap or a pen or award with your name on it, there is no end in sight for the unique personalized product people want to buy.”
Ramos and Tesch agree packaging and customization are standouts to watch for. “There is continued interest in short-run, on demand printing for limited and customizable applications from traditional commercial print to increased folding carton and corrugated.”
The capabilities of printers—and the software that drives them—are further solidifying the introduction of new trends like printing multilayers for texture. “This is done using varnish ink, printing sandwich mode—CMYK-> White-> CMYK—for dual visibility, or for achieving an effect day and night,” explains Friedman.
To attract the attention of the passerby—but complement static print—Augustine also believes the ability to print textures is a future trend. “This is an innovation in the printing industry where a printer is capable of printing raised lines or microscopic 3D-type printed bumps such that as you pass the printed image, it changes in appearance in some manner to attract the person to look at the ad.”
At the Center of It
Conversations on sustainability, automation, and everything in between, but it’s important to remember at the heart of it is the PSP. This article includes images from 2023 Application of the Year winners. Congrats to Art City Wraps for winning first place. For information on the rest of the honorees visit digitaloutput.net.
Aug2023, Digital Output