Looking Back and Forging Ahead
It wasn’t too long ago that the outlook for the printing industry was bleak. The worst recession in decades, combined with the continuing societal shift from print to online, made for uneasy times for those who made their living by adhering ink to paper (or plastic or foil).
But when I reminisce about the whirlwind year that was 2016, there are three key words that come to mind: resiliency, positivity and opportunity. This year saw a great bounce back for the printing industry, marked by incredible technological leaps and the industry’s ability to quickly adapt to new technology and leverage it to its full potential.
Judging from the interviews I’ve conducted over the last year and the several industry events I’ve attended in 2016, the overall outlook on printing’s future was decidedly far more positive than in preceding years. Certainly the economic uptick helps, but it was clear throughout the year that the industry is excited about the new directions print is heading in.
This year marked a changing of the guard at many industry events where packaging was once an afterthought. At several printing tradeshows, packaging was at the forefront and was consistently highlighted as among the strongest growth areas in printing.
That was certainly evident at drupa and Graph Expo, where it seemed like packaging was the hot topic in every booth. And, a record-setting Labelexpo Americas made it clear that converters in the label space are excited about how they can implement the latest technology to make their products even better.
Here are a few personal observations from the past year and what they could mean in 2017 and beyond:
A Strong Future for Flexible
The first association event I attended in 2016 was the Flexible Packaging Association’s Annual Meeting, which was held in March. Based on my own observations and the ample research that has come out regarding the shift of rigid packaging to flexible, I knew heading into the event that this segment is full of opportunity. But getting an up close look at the Flexible Packaging Achievement Award winners really drove the point home.
Pouches and bags that featured stunning graphics, strengthened barrier films and creative digital printing were all on display. As you peruse the aisles in your local grocery store in the coming months, take a look around and I’m sure you’ll notice the impact of flexible packaging’s growth. Rigid packaging is certainly not a thing of the past, but the transition has been fascinating to observe.
A drupa for the Ages
In what has become a tradition, each drupa trade show inevitably adopts an unofficial theme. Recent drupas have been dubbed the “digital drupa,” or more specifically, the “inkjet drupa.” But the 2016 edition? This was the “packaging drupa.” It seemed that throughout the fairgrounds, packaging was on everyone’s mind and a frequently discussed topic in press conferences and booths. Drupa is undoubtedly where the tone is set for the industry’s future. In the short term, drupa 2016 showed that commercial printers are seeking to join in on the packaging gravy train. But it also showed that converters already have a leg up in the industry and will remain the trailblazers as the packaging segment remains a growth area.
A New Digital Perception
When digital printing started to become a mainstream technology in the commercial sector, it was largely due to its ability to produce personalized and customized output. In packaging, part of digital’s slower adoption rate was due to the fact that since there’s no way of knowing exactly who will pull a product from a shelf, personalization has limited applicability in packaging. This year, however, saw a shifting mindset in terms of how to best use digital printing in packaging. As the quality gap has closed between digital and analog, more converters are taking on digital to target short-run work, while maintaining their conventional presses for long run, mass-production jobs.
While this doesn’t always result in variable packaging, it makes converters far more cutting edge as they can more efficiently produce packaging and nimbly adapt to short-run demand.
Hybrids and All-in-Ones
On the digital topic, what was particularly striking this year was how suppliers are making digital printing a more comprehensive solution by creating hybrid presses and adding in-line converting capabilities to digital assets.
The issue that converters were facing was that despite digital printing’s many benefits, without a finishing process that can keep up, there will likely be bottlenecks as digital output heads to its final production stages.
But, with hybrid solutions, presses are becoming far more robust and can do more than just print. That goes equally for digital presses that are starting to feature modular in-line converting capabilities. While there’s no question that traditional flexo and offset printing is here to stay for the long run, it will be interesting to see how hybrid presses and end-to-end digital can compete.
Corrugated’s Time to Shine
Corrugated has historically been seen as the packaging segment that has lagged behind in terms of printing innovation. But right around drupa, that perception started to change drastically. Several suppliers brought digital, single-pass, direct-to-board corrugated presses to the show, eager to bring this packaging segment on par with the others that have already realized the benefits of digital. It seems that suppliers and converters are recognizing that e-commerce, in-store displays and the rise of seasonality in the food and beverage markets provides a perfect fit for digital to make its way into the corrugated segment. It appears it’s just a matter of time until personalized boxes are being delivered to our doorsteps.
It has been a very encouraging year in printing and packaging, considering how recently we were in the midst of the recession and its negative impacts on manufacturing. While there is always room to improve, 2016 should be considered the year that package printing didn’t just bounce back — it firmly supplanted itself as a growing industry on the brink of a technological boom that will continue to shape the brand and consumer experience.