InfoTrends is globally renowned for its research and consultancy services in the imaging, print and digital media industries. As its director of wide-format printing, Tim Greene is well placed to talk about the trends within the sector. As usual, he’ll be involved delivering the analysis from the data collected in the Image Reports’ annual Widthwise survey - currently being conducted among the UK’s wide-format participants. So in the run up to those findings we discussed how the UK wide-format sector fits into the bigger global picture and what’s impacting the market.
IR: Tim, 2013 sees the sixth Widthwise Survey and Report. In the past these UK wide-format market findings have pretty much represented what’s going on in the rest of Europe. Do you expect it to be any different this year, and are there key trends overseas that you think UK PSPs should pay particular attention to?
In a way I think of the UK as a kind of greenhouse for the whole worldwide wide-format printing market. In a lot of ways it leads the market – with technology suppliers, and you’ve got very intense competition in the country. It’s sort of a microcosm of the market as a whole.
There have been some things – there are some things – in North America particularly that are starting to materialise and I think in the UK those same trends may play out. Hopefully in the Widthwise research we’ll find that out, but I’m talking specifically about mergers and acquisitions among the print service providers. In the US we’re really starting to see the big getting bigger and taking advantage of things like their better buying power so they can make better margin. That hasn’t been the case historically but it’s something we’re seeing in the US and something I expect to see here as well.
In January InfoTrends published a study ‘Transforming Textile Printing’. This stated less than 1.5% of the $165bn printed textile market is digitally printed today but the time has come for that to change. Can you provide a bit more insight into in a market that has long shown potential but so far, in the UK anyway, failed to get off the ground?
We [at InfoTrends] think of textile print as an adjacent market. It uses the same technology; there’s ‘a little bit’ of crossover – and I don’t say ‘a little bit meaning it’s small, but I’m speaking specifically about soft signage. PSPs drive soft signage, which is textile, so that’s where there is crossover. This study was specifically not about the soft signage market. It’s really about garments and décor products and industrial fabrics. That means you’re really talking about a whole different set of customers and the types of company that produce that application – and it’s been a real eye opener. We talked to companies across the globe and really tried to gather worldwide insight as to what’s going on, what’s driving these changes, what’s enabling some of these changes. From a technology perspective there’s been a quantum leap in terms of speed and quality and in terms of running costs. Most of the newest super high-speed systems launched at Itma 2011 are configured as open inks system which allows you to use third party inks which have a lower running cost, which makes digital much more cost competitive with screen or gravure or however else the fabric’s printed, and that’s a critical issue.
You talk about soft signage being a crossover sector for our market, but what about sectors such as the décor market, which was also part of your study?
You’re right; décor is another crossover sector, which can be textile but also including wallpaper etc. It’s a market where there’s a ton of investment. I know for example that HP has identified that as one of their key target markets, and of course it’s been identified in our work with Image Reports, the Fespa organisation, and even back in North America we’ve seen décor as a market companies are investing in.
InfoTrends is now working on a study ‘Wide Format Printing: A Critical Element in the Communications Mix’. Can you give us any kind of early heads-up on that?
Sure. It’s what I call a build on a study we’ve done twice now: ‘Who Buys Wide-Format?’ That study is real interesting, and we’ve got great results from that whereby we look at the types of company that buy wide-format, and who specifically within those companies is responsible for purchasing – then how do they buy it, how frequently, what sizes, what volume, so we’re trying to help PSPs work out who’s the end customer and who’s really driving change through this market. What we’ve found is that it’s the buyer – but we need to understand what their limitations and wants are.
The build part of this project, and why we’ve not called it ‘Who Buys Wide-Format? – Part Three’, is that there are two other real strands to take into consideration. One, we’re looking at the verticals, whether it be retail, entertainment, whatever – we’re doing in depth interviews with the people making the buying decisions and really getting into how these decisions are made. Two, there’s a market for data driven signage that’s very important. Adding some form of measurability to sign and graphics – whether it be through QR codes or whatever - is a very crucial development. Buyers love the idea of integrated data and signage, something that gives them contact with their audience. That’s a very important part of the future for data driven communication and printed signage graphics. Marketers will invest if they can prove it is making them money.
What about wide-format print opportunities beyond the ‘communications’ mix - I’m talking non-data based graphics (e.g. decorative window graphics, printed flooring etc). Is InfoTrends planning any research into those ‘new’ vertical markets where PSPs keep hearing of greater profit potential?
We think of wide-format generally as a promotional avenue, but certainly, from the low to very high end of the production market, there’s a sort of manufactuoral process that allows the technology to produce everything from buttons to packaging, so I’d say that because the promotional/advertising space has it’s ups and downs - and in some cases we’re seeing budget being shifted away from print to online – you have to manufacture products in other niches.
What about the scope for research into the consumer market potential for wide-format, especially bespoke print offerings?
It’s very interesting. As I mentioned, we’ve done this ‘Who Buys Wide-Format?’ study a couple of times and I always think of wide-format as primarily B2B business, but something that is relevant and interesting in multiple avenues of the print business, is that in North America we’ve seen companies like Vistaprint, and in the US a wide-format company called BuildASign – where what they’ve done is spend a lot time becoming aggregators of consumer business. So they’re easy to find on the Web; Google them and they’re the first ones to come up. They promote and advertise like crazy and everybody knows who they are – that’s how you access a consumer business. Individual consumers aren’t going to drive a lot of volume, but reaching millions can get you very substantial volume and certainly that’s been the successful case for some of these companies.
Many wide-format printer manufacturers are turning their attention to the industrial sector where they see huge scope for inkjet, but industrial applications are on the periphery as far as the UK’s wide-format PSPs are concerned. Do you have any data or research findings that might impact upon PSPs?
Well there are a lot of organisations that are spending a lot of time and money trying to figure that out. In fact InfoTrends recently finished a private client study looking at some of these industrial markets – everything from medical and pharmaceutical applications all the way to things like 3D modeling. So we have looked at it on a custom basis and I have a 3D publication planned for 2013 for instance and InfoTrends is investing in other areas where we hope we can help our customers.
From your years at InfoTrends Tim, what’s your personal feeling on the current shape of the wide-format print sector globally, and what do you think it’s future is?
We have some data from the latest Fespa World Wide Survey and it’s very surprising how optimistic people are. They are looking forward to 2013 and beyond; they’re thinking the wide-format sector overall is healthy; thinking their own individual businesses will outperform.
Certainly, versus other printing markets, wide-format is healthy and still growing so all of that it very good. But, it’s very price competitive and it’s never going to be easy again – those days are past. But now we’re seeing companies investing in the technology that will help them meet customer need, or help them drive new lines of business or get into other segments that they’re not already in – for instance, soft signage.
So I think we’ve reached a sort of maturity point in the global business, and as I’ve said I think the UK is a microcosm of that dynamic.
An edited version of this interview can be seen as a video.