Here we are at the end of another year and many of us may have a strong sense of deja-vu as we still face many of the same issues as at the end of last year.
And yet, the situation is quite different. Yes, it is true that the Covid pandemic is still raging and that the Omicron variant has seen a huge surge in the numbers being infected and hospitalized, prompting travel restrictions and canceling several events including the Heimtextil trade show, originally scheduled for next week.
However, 2021 saw the roll-out of mass vaccination programs in most countries that are helping us to gain control over SARS-Cov-2. The pandemic is not over, we have not even reached the stage where we can start to count the cost. But we can see how the pandemic will end, and once the winter is done we can start planning for travel and events with a reasonable degree of confidence, albeit still with a high degree of caution.
So, vaccine passports, covid testing, and mask wearing are all going to be with us for a while. There’s likely to be a lot less long distance travel, and fewer social events for the next year or two. Almost certainly, further variants will appear but there will also be new vaccines and treatments to counter these. Chris Witty, the UK’s chief medical officer, has estimated that it will take around 18 months to master this cycle, of new variants and new treatments. I would add that due to the nature of globalization, international travel won’t return to normal until these treatments are also offered to developing countries
Along the way we will learn to live with Covid, but eventually, everything will go back to the way it was before. Because human beings are very sociable animals and our societies have evolved to maximize our ability to interact with each other and this is not going to change.
In practical terms, this means that we should see more trade shows take place this year, though probably not as large-scale international events. Nonetheless, such events are absolutely essential in developing new technologies as they allow people to mingle and share ideas, and to demonstrate new machines and new ways of doing things.
That said, the last two years have seen a significant drop in new press installations for most vendors. That in turn has led many press vendors to restructure and to rethink their business models, with many placing greater emphasis on selling data services and remote diagnostic solutions with recurring licensing costs. This trend will continue as printers look to squeeze greater value out of their hardware.
Digitally-printed textiles still remains the biggest opportunity for growth and we will undoubtedly see more companies try to take advantage of this. Kornit, for example, has made its name out of direct-to-garment t-shirt printing but the company has already signaled that it wants to move up the value chain and sell in higher volumes to brands rather than individual consumers. Ricoh and Epson have both invested heavily into the textile market and it’s inconceivable that they will not want to take a bigger slice of the action. Everyone should keep an eye on HP, which doesn’t yet have the same range of printers as the more established players. But HP clearly has the manufacturing capability to develop and build more industrial textile printers relatively quickly. More importantly, HP already has the backend software and business processes to really talk to the brands in a meaningful way and in that regard is way ahead of everyone else, with the possible exception of EFI Reggiani.
Digital labels and packaging
The other big growth opportunity is digital labels and packaging. Here, digital printing clearly demonstrated its advantages in the early days of the pandemic, allowing converters to quickly switch markets to take advantage of the focus on food and healthcare products. The pandemic has also seen an increase in eCommerce and this also will help digital printers and converters.
On the labels front, there seems to be a growing interest in hybrid devices and it will be interesting to see if this is borne out at the European Label Expo in April 2022.
There’s a growing number of presses aimed at the corrugated market, most of which are only just coming to market and with several yet to launch. It’s difficult to get an accurate feel for this market because the pandemic has made it more difficult for converters to justify expanding into a new area, and has also caused logistical issues in installing presses. Nonetheless, I expect to see more of these presses come to market, and more installations announced throughout the year.
The flip side of this is flexible films, and this market is developing much more slowly. This is partly because it’s considerably more difficult to print inkjet inks to filmic materials. But this is also because there is still a great deal of work to be done on the materials themselves. The growing consumer demand for recyclable packaging, not to mention the fear of regulatory pressure, means that brands are having to rethink the materials used for packaging, including more use of mono materials. Some press vendors, notably Screen and Miyakoshi, have announced flexible film inkjet presses but I doubt that we are going to see a sudden uptake in installations this year while there is still so much uncertainty around the course of the pandemic and its effect on global supply chains.
Supply chains and the rise in prices
In this regard, the pandemic has clearly demonstrated the fragility of most supply chains though it’s not yet clear what the long-term impact of this will be. The short-term effect is obvious, with shortages of parts, particularly computer chips, which is affecting the manufacturing of everything from cars to printing presses. We’re likely to see prices rising across the board. Indeed, Xsys closed the year by sneaking out a press release announcing price increases for its Nyloprint range of letterpress plates and processing equipment. I would also expect to see a further round of price rises announced for inks in the near future.
It’s possible that the current difficulties might lead many brands to reconsider whether or not a long supply chain with a single point of manufacture is really still the most optimal way of manufacturing. This certainly seems to me like an extremely old-fashioned approach based purely on cutting costs. Instead, we should be thinking of how to shorten those supply lines to make them more resilient to any future pandemics or similar emergencies and to cut the environmental impact of manufacturing.
In Britain, the supply chain problem has been further exacerbated by the foolish Brexit, with those who advocated for this lunacy still unable to comprehend that abandoning the large accessible EU market on our doorstep in favor of smaller, further away markets would inevitably lead to supply chain shortages, higher prices and economic mayhem. Then again, in the 1970s, when Britain first joined the European market, the average daily circulation for most national newspapers was around 8m copies, which has now shrunk to just 200,000 suggesting that despite 24hr TV and multiple social media platforms, most British people are just not as well informed as they once were.
That said, last year’s COP26 climate summit in Glasgow does seem to have prompted more discussion around the issue of climate change, which is strange because the summit achieved little else, other than providing world leaders with yet more paid travel and photo ops. So far, the climate change issue has had little practical impact on the printing industry other than a push towards water-based inks but this is just tinkering at the edges.
What we have not seen is the kind of paradigm shift that’s required to really address the issue. That might include multinationals investing more heavily in localized production to cut down on transport, and by implication, some of the packaging. Or it might mean a much greater emphasis on circular recycling. I would also expect to see more refurbishment and retrofitting to presses rather than replacement, to cut down on their manufacturing footprint. Ultimately, the only way to meaningfully address the climate issue is to consume and manufacture less, which is not good news for anyone producing fast fashion.
It’s worth noting that several print industry suppliers, notably Fujifilm and Agfa, have significant holdings in healthcare. The one lesson that we can draw from the pandemic is that food and healthcare are the industries best placed to survive a global economic meltdown so I would expect to see more print industry vendors investing in these areas.
Finally, I want to end this story by saying a big thank you to all of those who have supported my work on this site through your kind donations. It’s helped me continue with my work, and hopefully, that work has helped others. And your support has vindicated my belief that the print industry is mature enough to recognize the need for journalism that can be seen to be independent and not diluted by marketing or other considerations. I will try to build on this approach this year and welcome more questions from readers and suggestions of areas that you would like to see covered.
In the meantime, it remains only for me to wish everyone a happy New Year and to hope that this year will prove to be better than the last.