By Melissa Donovan
It’s been an interesting year to say the least. As we head into the end of Summer, we asked leading industry players to share their thoughts on the last 12 months. It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on all of us in more ways than one.
Not surprisingly, the lessons learned during some of the hardest points of the health crisis are being carried through into a new era of digital printing. This is one where out-of-home (OOH) messaging—instructional or promotional—is leveraging recent revelations related to the influence of digital.
Going forward, automation seems to be a focus—a result of the necessity in staying home during COVID-19. Efficient, automated workflows that allow print service providers (PSPs) to operate safely from home were part of many a success story. For those print providers looking to thrive, adapting automation solutions is one way to do so.
Above: Oshkosh, WI-based Art City Wraps worked on the Oshkosh Mini Mural Project, which included murals displaying original works from 20 local artists in different locations around downtown Oshkosh. The visual event won first place in this year’s Application of the Year awards. The Oshkosh Mini Mural Project was printed by Art City Wraps using Avery Dennison MPI 1405 Easy Apply RS and a Mimaki USA, Inc. UCJV300-130 UV LED printer.
Living in the New Normal
The recent global crisis affected business at all levels, but the introduction of mask mandates in populated, indoor areas, as well as vaccines, is helping everyone return to some level of “normal.” The graphic arts is influenced by this in many ways.
“The industry is not fully back to normal just yet; it’s similar to a patient who’s been in a coma for a year just starting to awaken. Things are different, confusing. Where did some of my competitors go? Who are these new companies that have appeared? End user behavior may be changing, and in some cases, drastically. Automation and ecommerce are buzz words if you want to stay in business. There is a lot to figure out,” explains Tom Wittenberg, large format industry relations and events manager, NA, HP Inc.
Workplaces continue to embrace a hybrid approach. “Some people, on the design and creation side, may have hybrid schedules where they work from home several days and only in the office on an abbreviated schedule. Customer presentations and final approvals have shifted from in person to virtual, and generally, people in the graphic arts have learned and mastered new tools for communication,” shares Jim Lambert, VP – digital division, INX International Ink Co.
For those working in the office and erring on the side of caution, many still practice safe distance protocols, which influences print shop efficiency. “While vaccines and masks are helping a return to normal, many companies still restrict distance as well as numbers when employees must be in a given area. This means access to printers can be limited or regulated to a time frame. That in turn means production is still less than in the past,” says Mark A. Rugen, director of education, Mutoh America, Inc.
It is classic supply and demand. “As people return to work, there are still many rules for distancing or fewer people, and in many areas there are employee shortages or training to replace jobs that were cut last year. So production has slowed down, yet the need has come back strong. This has caused a lot of bottlenecks along the way,” shares Rebecca Fuhrman, market development manager – coated and digital films, Tekra, LLC.
According to Hunter Ellis, president, Jacquard Inkjet Fabric Systems, the biggest issue is the disruption of the global supply chain. “The one upside is that it’s affecting all sectors, so customers and companies are at least accustomed to more delays than usual.”
“As demand for goods and services has ramped up, we see increased costs across the board—from raw goods to transportation. Some manufacturers are grappling with various shortages of raw material, affecting their ability to deliver products. These issues will all take some time to work out. Flexibility continues to be key,” adds Michelle Kempf, VP, sales and marketing, Continental Grafix USA, Inc.
The cost of these goods is reflected in what PSPs charge. “Labor markets are getting tighter, and graphic arts businesses are competing for the best employees. The rapid recovery and other factors also created material shortages across all industries. Between labor and material costs, a lot of PSPs will be forced to raise prices,” notes Andrew Oransky, president/CEO, Roland DGA Corporation.
Expenses and labor shortages are influential in regards to acquisitions and company closures. “Another trend is consolidation of the market into larger entities, either franchises or conglomerates. The smaller shops are having a harder time competing with on demand and quick printing that can be ordered online. Add to that, the increasing costs and size of printing technology, and it’s becoming expensive for independent print shops to compete with the time and speed of internet-based printing companies,” admits Jeff Hartman, sign sensei, Yard Sign Ninjas.
“Like the virus, it seems everyone is affected differently. In some markets the downward effect was dramatic, in others they actually saw significant increases. I believe as an industry we came out okay and that as we return to normal, we will experience a period of strong growth,” predicts Larry D’Amico, sales director, North America, Durst Image Technology US.
Key to growth is new and mature applications. New applications include, “strong segments like printing masks to creating pandemic, business, and medical signage to help direct patients, customers, or employees on changing procedures,” says Reed Hecht, group product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc.
“As the pandemic subsides and we return more to normal, we hope to see these applications remain strong, while those segments that were more heavily impacted reemerge and start to pick up volume again with a strong recovery back to their pre-pandemic levels,” continues Hecht.
Signage is so much more than branding now and Dennis Leblanc, territory sales manager, Drytac, believes this sentiment is here to stay. “Signage usage evolved from just brand messaging to the public taking instructions from and looking to these mediums for their own protection and instruction. These were always around, however this was usually reserved for industrial applications and transit versus retail and general public areas.”
Cassandra Yu, product manager, Avery Dennison Graphics Solutions, Label and Graphics Materials, NA, agrees, believing that applications that evolved from the pandemic will remain, but create new opportunities. “Moving forward, social distancing barriers and visual queues will become more permanent fixtures. This presents an opportunity for brands to connect, communicate, and drive engagement with consumers. One thing to consider is how graphics can create zones, trigger more efficient work and engagement behaviors if space is a limiting factor, and provide interactive opportunities.”
“The evolving new normal represents a renaissance for the graphic arts. There are opportunities to support brand clients in new ways as their needs for visual communication change,” explains Jodi Sawyer, strategic business unit manager – retail, FLEXcon Company, Inc.
These opportunities include taking advantage of buying online and picking up in store. “Retailers need redesigned spaces to accommodate this new shopping preference and they need track and trace labeling solutions in store,” notes Sawyer.
Print providers excelled—and continue to do so—during this uncertain time. Many adapted as necessity dictated, but, now they need to leverage the new applications, strengths, and/or capabilities gained to keep their businesses running and potentially grow.
“Print providers had to be creative and resilient during the lockdown to keep their businesses up and running. They found new applications that would generate revenue and new ways of doing business. These businesses had to invest to become digitalized in order to reach potential customers and drive some business since they were not able to meet in person,” explains Sebastien Hanssens, VP marketing and operations, Caldera.
Deborah Hutcheson, director of strategic business development and distribution, Agfa, believes that the PSPs who excelled or at least remained stable during the pandemic “had already diversified their technology business, they were not tied to a single segment. They were also hyper-aware of the market changes and as a result proactively and nimbly shifted their business to take advantage of the changing demands.”
Those who invested in bettering their company during the downtime seem to have found solid footing as everything has changed yet again, for the better. “A characteristic of many who excelled was a focus and investment in workflow automation. In other words, the ability to produce work with minimum human intervention. This allowed many companies to capitalize on the new level of ecommerce business created during the pandemic,” suggests D’Amico.
“Speaking to internal efficiencies, PSPs capitalized on the opportunity to review, update, and improve upon current systems and processes. For many, as they look to a post-COVID-19 2021, this included upgrading their chosen RIP solution to the latest version, providing new tools and capabilities to meet the needs of their print buyer customers,” explains Jonathan Rogers, international marketing manager, Onyx Graphics, Inc.
Automation keeps up the momentum. “The bottom line is companies must continue to move toward fully digital and automated processes, with integration between older printing methods and advanced solutions. Additionally, signage companies need to adopt ecommerce solutions in order to stay relevant and competitive,” agrees Jay Dorman, global director, sign and graphics, Gerber Technology.
A common trait of any PSP who maintained momentum during the pandemic—and a trait that should be kept as we rise out of it—is flexibility. “As is often the case—especially in times of crisis—flexibility is key. So many of our graphics customers added tools to their Zünd equipment for processing materials outside their traditional range of substrates, including some that required no printing at all. What gave these customers a leg up is having made equipment purchases with an eye towards the future, an eye towards adaptability. That kind of vision, and the business decisions it fosters, makes capturing opportunities outside the comfort zone so much easier and more cost effective,” explains Chris Nicholson, customer experience director, Zund America, Inc.
“Print providers showed their ability to adapt to market needs quickly and even invested in new equipment and capabilities during the downturn. It was a risky bet that paid off for some who can expect to grow as their customers resume normal operations. One of the challenges will be retaining talented employees as more employment opportunities become available,” admits Adrian Cook, marketing manager, 3M Commercial Solutions.
According to Hartman, the real business take away from the pandemic is it is good to have a backup plan. “People who had backup plans and knew how to diversify their sourcing came back stronger. With the many disruptions, they had to learn how to find new vendors. People who were flexible, and pivoted from business as normal to challenging circumstances, were often rewarded.”
Companies that excelled found new opportunities outside of their traditional business lines and should continue addressing those endeavors as well as catering to previous customers. For example, “one company did lots of event work and when that dried up, they figured out how to get into providing graphics for the film industry—backdrops and printed rugs. When the event industry does come back, they’re in an excellent position to see a step increase in their business,” notes Wittenberg.
Warren Knipple, president, Trotec Laser USA, says that during the pandemic, members of the company’s laser user community appeared even more diverse, business savvy, and resilient than he could have imagined. “These enterprising businesses continue to grow by using their existing graphics skills to broaden into new product lines to meet market demands whenever possible, and always searching for ways to improve production efficiency and product quality.”
“The print providers that excelled during the pandemic included those that served essential services markets by providing necessary signage, floor graphics, and divisional graphics. Coming out of this extended hibernation, some establishments—particularly in the fast- and fast-casual food service markets—are taking the opportunity to rebrand or refresh their operations and need graphics,” recommends Kevin Duffy, VP sales and marketing, Vycom.
Print companies need to stay two or three steps ahead by checking in with their customer base just as they did during the pandemic. “It is important to remain relevant and differentiated, remind customers how you helped them out when times were tough, and how you can be counted on now as conditions change. Find ways to position your solution so that it helps your customer differentiate themselves and enhance their value proposition to their print buyers,” advises Dave Browske, VP, sales and marketing, Mactac.
“Continuing to connect with existing customers to provide existing work and new products will keep businesses running and growing,” suggests Maureen Damato, partner sales account manager, Colex Finishing Inc.
Many PSPs who jumped head first into new applications did so with little knowledge. Now that they have some time to stop and think, it’s imperative to assess the correct products for the job. “The biggest steps moving forward are in education and understanding the materials and equipment to ensure that the right materials are utilized for the right applications. Asking questions and partnering with industry professionals is the first step in ensuring that you’re prepared for all the changes that are coming,” advises Leblanc.
“My best advice is to not be afraid to branch out into different methods of production. The adhesive you’ve always used may not be the best or only choice available for the back of that print. There are a lot of options and methods out there for all different applications, don’t hesitate to try something new or different, or ask for some suggestions,” agrees Fuhrman.
Kempf believes that any PSP using downtime in the last year as an opportunity to educate themselves about new products should be ready to use that research to their advantage. “Choosing the correct material for each job is vital to success. Evaluating material performance based on how it installs and removes is as important as how it prints. Saving time and extra steps during install/removal goes directly to the bottom line for your customers.”
As more businesses open back up, initial demand in regards to the graphic arts and application requests seems to center on retail signage and restaurant signage to promote safe shopping/eating and to communicate that establishments are opened up again. To get the most out of this resurgence, print providers should be contacting existing customers and reaching out to potential ones about how they can help them bring people through their doors.
“There is the desire to travel, dine out, and to get back to the pre-COVID-19 days. This means retail signage and applications are growing again. The plastic barriers are coming down and retail shops are looking for ways to assure the public that it is safe to come into their stores. Print providers should contact the owners of these shops with ideas about safety signs, as well as applications that can get the attention of the public to encourage them to return to face-to-face interactions,” recommends Rugen.
Retail establishments are ready to work with PSPs, partnering with them to craft the ideal message to get customers in the door. “Consumer buying, in many cases, was forced online in the last year. At that time, retailers turned their attention to their online presence and virtual customer experience. As restrictions have relaxed, retailers have to work to get consumers back in to their physical spaces by creating an experience and communicating their call to action,” shares Kempf.
Creativity is paramount to welcoming back patrons. “Regarding retail graphics, many of our customers started to invest in creative signage to welcome their customers back. We have some restaurant customers that designed great advertising to decorate their windows and interiors in order to create a cool customer experience. People going back to restaurants and bars want to be immersed in some colorful, fun, and creative decorations,” says Hanssens.
Beyond retail and restaurant, events—both indoors and outdoors—are ramping up. “It has yet to be fully realized, but costumes, signage, decoration, and anything printed for events is about to explode. I would suggest that PSPs use some of that PPP money to invest in raw inventory, since we’re still facing many supply chain challenges and delays,” advises Ellis.
There is a lot of initial demand in this space for traditional banners like hanging signs, pole banners, and banner stands, according to Kylie Schleicher, product manager, Ultraflex Systems, Inc.
While the pandemic raged, home décor was popular. “During the pandemic, we saw home-based goods—fine art, textiles for furniture, wallpaper, collectibles, CAD drawings—to be quite strong as customers took their time at home to add art to their walls or remodel. We expect this to remain strong with additional growth in OOH goods and services—amusement parks, school photography, and back to business wide format printing,” notes Hecht.
Office décor is a derivative of this. “Companies reopening offices are finding that their spaces need a refresh, or reconfiguration, to accommodate changing expectations. That creates demand for interior graphics,” says Oransky.
There has been an abundance of outdoor-related décor as outdoor eating and gathering has become popular, and there is no reason this should change. “We are seeing an increased demand in outdoor and environmental exposure durability requirements as well as materials that are compatible with exterior surfaces like concrete, asphalt, brick, and building facades,” notes Yu.
“There is pent up demand for leisure travel. Consumers are looking to get out of their homes and experience culture and live sports and entertainment. As states open up and restrictions lift, we are seeing an uptick in outdoor and transit advertising applications,” comments Sawyer.
Another example of opportunity is packaging. “Specifically, packaging is growing beyond expectations and has been a key focus area in the graphic arts. If you look at the volume of online ordering and in-home deliveries that are taking place now as opposed to 16 months ago, you can understand why packaging is playing a much bigger role in consumer awareness and purchases. Print providers should be looking at ways to help brand owners provide unique experiences in the way their product is packaged,” shares Lambert.
Cook says a print provider that can be nimble and address demand quickly will excel in this new world. “The environment is changing fast and end customers can’t always plan their project far in advance, so the print providers who are most flexible and responsive will be able to take advantage.”
Flexibility means having equipment in place to handle anything. “The ability to pivot and offer new products and material is critical. Existing customers want to know that their PSPs can handle all their workflow from vinyl to coroplast to rigid material including acrylic, dibond, and aluminum,” explains Damato.
“Initially, we’re seeing more personalization, shorter runs, and faster turnarounds due to the uncertainty in the industry. In order to meet these demands PSPs need to move to automation and digital processes to expand product offerings and be agile,” notes Dorman.
Many projects were placed on the back burner at the onset of COVID-19 and Browske says these will be revisited. “Go back to your pre-COVID-19 quotes and engage those customers on current status, provide an update on how you are helping others, your new print capabilities, new applications, new vendors, and new products.”
Sal Sheikh, VP marketing large format solutions, Canon Solutions America, believes the demand for general large format signage that was put on hold during the pandemic will reappear as business life slowly gets back to normal and there will be an inherent backlog. “Retailers will want to promote their businesses again. Be proactive and proactively re-approach your customer base reminding them of the services you offer, as well as any new applications such as wallcoverings or indoor soft signage applications.”
“The restart or continuation of pre-COVID-19 projects has begun. The demand for signage related to businesses opening back up to the public is increasing daily. To serve companies moving forward, print providers should partner with reliable suppliers,” advises Jason Harmon, East/Southwest, sales manager, FDC Graphic Films, Inc.
Duffy adds that working with a manufacturer with material readily available is key to staying both on schedule and budget. This includes manufacturers that can quickly produce custom specifications. “In our experience, we’ve seen a greater interest in custom sizes and colors for our plastic sheet products. Some of the interest comes from the refresh or rebranding that retail establishments are undertaking as they prepare to welcome back their customers.” These are scenarios where working with a trusted supplier is essential.
“As PSPs expand into or enter these new markets, they should look to their suppliers for guidance and direction. Sometimes these transitions can be overwhelming, not knowing where to go, what to do, where to invest while at the same time understanding the shifting end user requirements. Suppliers help them map their current capabilities to their long strategic direction and to better understand the technological innovations that can help them achieve their goals,” advises Hutcheson.
Combating this uptick of new and old applications might seem daunting—however there is an ideal alternative. “Many PSPs were forced to get leaner since the start of the pandemic. As PSPs find new opportunities with new and existing customers, they might find it challenging to keep up with production demand. This is a great time to look for new suppliers and build stronger relationships with a few trade printers,” suggests Gene Hamzhie, CEO, Firesprint.
After over a year of unprecedented interruptions in business, any other surprises popping up are unwelcome. However, there are positive disruptions.
D’Amico believes an important industry disruption that everyone should focus on is automation—both through software and hardware investment. “Solutions that can reduce labor costs will have the most substantial impact to the bottom line. Software solutions that limit human touches through workflow automation are key. Hardware options that can automate labor, like automatic feed systems that eliminate personnel to load and unload boards are important enhancements.”
“Hardware and software are areas that could offer major possibilities in terms of improving workflow and streamlining the production process from idea to end product. These are the kinds of improvements that will make equipment easier to use, improve production efficiency, and reduce costs,” agrees Knipple.
Automation harnesses efficiency. Cook sees products that enable efficiency as the biggest industry disrupters. “We expect to see more products and services that allow print providers to gain more efficiency in production and installation. The industry continues to see the effects of material and labor shortages so it’s critical to increase efficiency to keep projects on schedule.”
“With the renewed interest in back shoring manufacturing and shortening supply chains, the demand for more productive, cost effective, and fully integrated automation is stronger than ever. Many PSPs are starting to look more seriously at meta data-based production workflows as part of their journey towards Industry 4.0,” agrees Nicholson.
According to Hanssens, COVID-19 accelerated the need for accurate dashboards that help PSPs manage their businesses. “Business owners need access to metrics that will help them make the best decisions to keep product up and running, preserve margins by reducing waste, and developing their revenue stream.”
“Another industry disrupter is software that, much like the video platforms we have spent the past months on, connect us together and enable us to work from wherever we are,” adds Hecht.
One area of surprising interest, shares Wittenberg, is RFID. “Using this technology for inventory management, shipment verification, reducing retailer penalties is a great way to jump start margin improvement. Another added bonus is that a PSP that is using it can actually help their retail accounts insure that displays and graphics are fully utilized to realize improved revenue.”
Despite print being tactile, Oransky agrees that over time, more opportunities to manage steps remotely will emerge. “Web to print and other technologies that enable remote ordering continues to grow. Along with these technologies, remote monitoring for equipment will also increase. The trends toward ecommerce and remote work are creating a desire for both print buyers and print shop staff to spend less time in the shop.”
“Overall, we’ve seen the concept and practice of print production automation and the need for color management tools gain rapid traction and acceptance over the past several years; and coupled with making them simple and easy to use, we expect PSPs will use these to help strengthen their business,” says Rogers.
In regards to media, Browske believes there is more sincere interest in sustainable alternatives, simpler one-step/print-and-go media products, and applications that help venues ease the transition back into crowded environments like antimicrobial surface protection and overlaminates.
“We will continue to see growth in the short-term print-and-go solutions for easy application as well as easy change out and rolling graphic exchanges much more frequently. We will also see a large explosion of clear media solutions hit the market now that more platforms are providing white ink. And don’t forget those antimicrobial surface protection films, ultra-clean surfaces for high human contact points are here to stay,” adds Leblanc.
Sustainability shouldn’t be overlooked. “Customers are actively seeking options for how their printed sheet products, once they reach end of life, can be recycled. It is more of an evolutionary environmental change, as the world has recognized that plastic waste is a global crisis. As manufacturers of plastic products, we share responsibility for ensuring that plastic scrap is reclaimed and reprocessed into durable and sustainable products,” admits Duffy.
“Climate change will drive new media products that are more sustainable, lightweight, and contain more recycled content,” agrees Sawyer.
Lambert predicts more hardware introductions that streamline printing. “Printers that print direct to object are coming out fast and furious. The printers usually require unique inks to perform properly on unique surfaces, as well as specialized software that operates with these printers because no two packages are the same dimensions or profiles.”
Looking at the industry as a whole, Hamzhie sees many PSPs getting back to basics. “Over the next year or two, with volatile raw material costs, and the pandemic resetting much of the experimental tech, we’ll see stakeholders look for comfort and profit in what they know. Small, consistent improvements will continue to take the lead.”
Going the Distance
We still have a long way to go. The recovery period from the pandemic is far from over. On a global level, countries are still struggling. Despite this uncertainty, there is hope. While industries including the graphic arts are still regaining their footing in this new normal, it’s comforting to know that while many things have changed, there are equally as many things that will remain the same.
This includes standout PSPs creating unique, innovative work for their customers. We share many of these companies throughout the year in our magazine and online, but August’s issue always gives us a chance to shine a spotlight on peer-voted work from our Application of the Year awards. Throughout this article you’ll notice imagery from 2021’s three winners as well as honorable mention. You can learn more about each of the winning applications online starting the beginning of August.
Also, be sure to visit here to hear more from several of the vendors quoted in this article. Many participated in lively discussions regarding the state of the industry in recent webinars, which are archived on our Webinar page.
Aug2021, Digital Output