Peter, your role means you deal with a wide spread of people/organisations, not all of which are within the wide-format print sector, but many of which will impact it somehow.
Peter, your role means you deal with a wide spread of people/organisations, not all of which are within the wide-format print sector, but many of which will impact it somehow. Can you expand upon that for those that don’t know you, or LightWords?
Yes, of course. LightWords is a marketing agency focused on researching, analysing, and advising about printing markets (www.lightwords.co.uk). We’re a team of independent market analysts, consultants and publishers working together to consult with a broad range of clients. Between us, we work with many major industry brands, financial institutions, trade associations, distributers, dealers, service providers, and many end users who are also an important part of our network. Speaking regularly with such a wide range of clients gives us a broad view of trends across document, commercial and wide-format industries. Having partner offices in the UK, Germany, Japan and, on the East and West coasts of the USA is useful, as well.
As a consultant/analyst you will be privy to information that has perhaps yet to reach the public consciousness. What are the key issues/topics you think need flagging-up to the wide-format print sector?
There are many issues that we see in other parts of the printing industry that indicate the wide-format print sector is either ahead or behind these other markets. For example, wide-format has always been ahead in maximising the flexibility of its hardware to produce multiple different applications. The range of substrates in the market, the choice of ink technologies, and the skills of service providers to interpret designers’ ideas, is exceptional.
In becoming a successful market segment though, the wide-format sector may not have been as astute in watching how new environmental legislation may impact the industry, who and what is affecting their supplies costs, or how their MIS and ERP data is secured, shared, and upgraded, especially production insights.
Industry 4.0 trends, including Web-to-print, automated production workflows, smart machines, and machine-to-machine communications are also on our client’s agenda. Not all of these may be considered relevant to wide-format print - yet - but there are advantages to be gained by closer examination, especially in production environments.
Can you take us through some of the wider issues in a bit more detail Peter?
Sure. The EU Green Deal and Circular Action Plans are a good example. These are designed to convert the linear ‘take, make, use, throw’ mindset, into a circular economic system. This involves considering environmental impact at every stage of the product life cycle including design, manufacture, distribution, use, repair, reuse, recycling, and returning resources back to the economy.
At a printing markets level, negotiations in Europe have started between the office printing ink and toner aftermarket and the industry’s OEM’s, to voluntarily agree how the sectors can improve the energy consumption of imaging equipment - see www.europrint.eu.
This is a major change for the industry. Consequently, the ability to reuse, repair, refurbish, and remanufacture hardware and supplies is becoming very important, especially under new Right to Repair legislation. Simply offering collection services may not be enough if your waste ultimately ends up in landfill or, if your WEEE is simply crushed or shredded, especially if it can be reused. If both parties fail to voluntarily agree, legislation to regulate the industry may follow from the EU.
I’m sure we all understand the ‘razors and blades’ business model. Consumables supplies subsidise printers, and OEM’s want customers repeatedly buying original inks. But printing is becoming a service through subscription business models and printer monitoring is common for printers, copiers and MFPs. Data is used by the manufacturer so they can provide timely supplies and service. The manufacturer (and sometimes the dealer) sees how much and when you print. To improve performance, they may download new firmware to optimise your printer. The firmware upgrade may lock in, or out, certain types of supplies. Now, fear, uncertainty, and doubt prevail if you consider using alternative, high quality but lower priced, ink. Choosing where and which ink or toner you buy though, is your right and creates a healthy marketplace. Over time, cartridge chips, uniquely shaped ink packaging and closed ink systems have become commonplace.
Lawsuits in this area are numerous - which raises the question whether these practices are preventing user choice, or even further, affecting the market? The European Toner and Inkjet Remanufacturers Association has a voice on this topic (www.etira.org).
Post Brexit what happens in Europe no longer matters here - or does it? The UK has a 25-year Environment Plan encapsulated in an ambitious Environment Bill. Government will likely want to equal or exceed what the EU is planning, including the choices you can make regarding which ink or toner you choose to use in your printer. It is as yet unclear what many of these issues will mean for commercial print and specifically for wide-format markets in the future.
So is there an argument that this sector needs to take a wider view to be on the front foot?
Wide-format does need to look further and look beyond government policies, regulation, and incentives for trends and benchmarks. Looking to what is happening in other regions, states or countries gives indicators to best practices, especially where needs are identical, but production and productivity methods are very different.
Automation is advantageous when you need multiple copies or versions of a printed piece and commercial print is adopting competitive technology quickly. Whether you look at variable data in direct mail, personalisation in greeting card production or posters up to A1 format, digital press technology can compete effectively with wide-format at many run lengths. In these markets, Web-to-print, big data management and shop floor automation are becoming ubiquitous.
Textile markets are also leveraging wide-format technology to their advantage. And print service providers need only to look carefully at additive manufacturing trends to find new opportunities and learning points.
What do you think of the industry’s research and share practices?
The printing industry is very well served for research services. We have a healthy analyst and journalist community and some of the largest consulting firms are active in the market. They are invariably sector dependent and often specialise in a particular area. Research takes time, and although between Google and Wikipedia you can gain insight, to interpret and learn what will really impact your business, you need to engage with proven industry analysts or consultants. They will be in regular contact with manufacturers and, will know how to access the industry’s influencers.
Research and gaining insights take time, and costs, but it will support your decision-making and pay dividends in the long run. Just like a non-executive director may help to mentor your business commercially, industry analysts practically enhance your industry knowledge. If you’ve never worked with an industry analyst before, there are some great books by the security analyst Richard Stiennion which explain how the analyst community works (www.linkedin.com/in/stiennon/).
Do you think our industry associations/bodies focus enough the right sort of research/activity?
Ideally, trade associations would be lobbying government, providing training and qualifications and, investing in research into a wide range of current and future trends and communicating them to market. The reality though is that only OEM’s have sufficient capital to commission research, and that is spent to gain competitive advantage.
OEM budgets in our industry are under more pressure than ever and their spend is often polarised on a single consulting firm or project. Which means that unless the consultancies analysts are fully engaged with the grassroots of the industry, you can expect the industry agendas to be set by the manufacturers.
Some OEM’s do support our trade associations with memberships and sponsorships, but more could join and much more could be done.
Given all your research, what do you think the future looks like for the print industry in general - and the wide-format sector in particular?
If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have been optimistic and positive about the future. One pandemic later, wide-format has proved resilient, responsive, and pivoted well to take advantage of new markets as traditional ones have closed.
My view now is that the wide-format market will bounce-back strongly as events restart, stores and venues reopen and marketing budgets are refreshed to ensure customers return. That’s good news for the service provider. It is even better news for the OEM as demand will return for those ‘locked-in’ supplies.