What has happened? What is going to happen? Print providers of the world unite! (At last!)

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If you are wont to styling yourself as the “Oracle of Print”, it only seems logical to be asked a question about the “future of printing” occasionally. Obviously if you’re talking to folding box manufacturers, their world revolves around boxes and if you’re talking to online print providers, then their focus is on online print and if you speak with large-format print providers, the conversation usually revolves around LFP products. And the theme is always – how will my industry fare in the future…

“My industry” is always defined as the relevant segment of the printing industry to which my opposite number feels they belong. Hardly anybody speaks of the “industry” as a whole. Curiously enough, the major online print providers take a different view. Although a distinction is made here between the segments, i.e. LFP, offset or digital print, for instance, usually a more general question asked is – how will print be sold in future?

And this is exactly the issue that concerns me most – what status will print have in the future? How will print be sold? Which channel is the most consumer-frequented method of selling print? Answers to these questions can only really be provided by an oracle, because nobody can accurately gage where we are headed right now. And yes, not even I can 😉 But there are a couple of hot topics that will occupy the minds of industry decision-makers in 2018, topics that are set to have even more of an impact on the way print is sold in future than in the recent past.

First and foremost – mobility. (Yes, I know, Zipper always writes that, but I would urge you to pay close attention here).  Next year the “smart home” issue (Alexa, Google Home in particular) and therefore the “smart office” issue will take on even greater importance than it has done in the recent past. The reason for that is a range of new, affordable products. Although the era of experimentation by Amazon, Google et al has not yet ended, the number of voice-controlled and cellphone-controlled products is increasing. The logical consequence of this trend is that the cellphone will shift even more into the center of our lives than previously, because consumers and business customers can do even more with it. The cellphone, that eternal “appointments and deadlines reminder” as it tends to be known in B2B circles, will increasingly morph into an interface with real life, because it is being used more and more for non-business reasons. Sounds offbeat, but this is only the consequence of the mass of opportunities available. And this raises a couple of issues that hardly any online print providers have anticipated. How can you order print using voice control via Amazon Alexa, for example? First attempts by my team and me caused dismay on the one hand and plenty of amusement on the other. The bottom line in 2017 is that it doesn’t work. It’s still nowhere near advanced enough – or to put it another way, merely the verbal purchase of a standard business-card print sheet from Amazon. But what happens if – and Google is currently providing proof of this – voice control technology improves? But what happens if voice control acquires a new status in the world of business as well? In the next few months BMW will even include Amazon Alexa as an option in its cars – especially for business customers that can afford it.

If some online printers recognise the signs of “Mobility time”, it doesn’t look bleak – need to catch up definetely exists! Source: zipcon consulting

Oh, I can see it already. The first “doubting Thomases” stopped reading two lines ago… It’s great to see you stick with it, because it was exactly the same story ten years ago with the first smartphones. Wasn’t the same sentiment – they are of no relevance to print – expressed back then? And nowadays plenty of print buyers obtain information about print availability and prices any time, any place, in order to make decisions at a later stage. What if the same then applies to voice control? That’s a good reason to think about devising a strategy, don’t you think!

Next topic – marketplaces. Yes, there are visionaries that turned the idea of a marketplace for print into reality long ago. This only functions more or less successfully with the requisite market power. Smaller marketplaces have to go flat out just to keep up. But, and you might scarcely believe this, the major online print providers are set to play a key role here. What on earth is Cimpress’ strategy relating to “coopetition” all about? Ultimately it is nothing other than a Cimpress-dominated “marketplace”, which brings together several print providers under the umbrella of a “neutral brand”. Compared to Amazon, Cimpress is still relatively humane as far as the issue of margins is concerned, but does not allow the names of Cimpress suppliers to be revealed to customers. You can understand where Cimpress is coming from, otherwise consumers could approach suppliers directly. Nevertheless concepts like Gelato et  al will in future find even more takers, because they provide local, prompt and virtually comprehensive print solutions. In this respect time-to-market is not just a key distinguishing feature for providers of consumer products, but also increasingly for print providers.

Also increasing in importance is prototyping. New technologies make it possible – a prototype for almost any product can be produced rapidly and comparatively cheaply. Some providers like Nike derive business from that – the customized running shoe is almost a “must-have” for professional runners. But other products that can be produced using additive manufacturing (aka 3D-print) are playing an increasingly more important role in new product development and testing processes. Analogous to this, what matters too with any product is of course its packaging. And this is exactly where new packaging print opportunities are presenting themselves – finishing and laser cutting technologies are generating new opportunities. And the particular thing about this is that the customer is even willing to pay for it and grateful that they do not have to produce huge print runs, but are able to latch on to the industry’s “fail fast” trend.

This is exactly the next topic – fail fast! It’s more than just a trend – I regard it now as more of a standard procedure in the development of products, software solutions and production applications as well. It was maybe defined previously as “I will just give it a go”, but this lean philosophy approach can now be applied to almost any project. A simple explanation of this approach is trialing new methods that aren’t comprehensively defined, but instead are implemented iteratively, i.e. by gradually approaching the required solution. This can also be applied to product development – before print runs, e.g. of a print product for proprietary distribution (e.g. special brand books), are produced in large batches, the product is tested as part of a mini prototype print run. Incidentally, if you work in a production workflow environment, you will be familiar with this method as it has been employed for years. Software products like Enfocus Switch facilitate the convenient testing of production steps. You can thus try out new methods, and lo and behold, it works superbly. However inexpensive testing is not the only thing associated with the “fail fast” principle, it also requires entrepreneurs to show a new kind of “patience”. Before implementing this philosophy many entrepreneurs are likely to need a course of autogenic training, because it has very little to do with old methods (definition, implementation, control … repeat the process).

Online ERP. I regard this as the top topic in the next few years. Why? Because I am fed up of having to explain to my clients why this or that MIS can’t or can only partially be docked on to their stores. Why don’t the many providers of MIS (oddly enough, this is what ERP systems are called in the print industry) understand that they are shooting themselves in the foot if they are not receptive to or even switch to a cloud environment and browser-based applications? Companies that work with “online ERP” systems have an advantage over all the others – they are maybe not 100% perfect, but this is likely to be just a matter of time. Switching from classic client server-based systems to browser-based ones is certainly no walk in the park, but it is a key feature of digital transformation and a “must have” for all companies that wish to transform their businesses. Here newcomers, like the Keyline product, are showing the way forward. But online ERP is also a foundation for …

Important: You should know the right tool for every (software) challenge – and choose it! Source: zipcon consulting

Intercompany Network Production”– what a grand term, don’t you think? Ultimately this means nothing more than several companies collaborating along a print product’s value chain. Right, it already exists. But what’s new is an entirely digital implementation approach, in other words an online interlinkage of companies and seamless collaboration between firms. This is certainly a pipedream for the print industry, at least to some extent. Even major online print providers are not immune to failure in this respect – but the technologies are available and are giving smaller companies new opportunities to compete with the major online print providers. That’s because, and the major providers are inclined to forget this, “small-scale” works too – it doesn’t always have to be the mega-platform. If the partners-to-be, e.g. a digital print provider, an offset print provider and a converter or finisher, agree terms, an “intercompany network” can be set up using existing platforms. Linking processes beyond corporate boundaries enables such networks to price faster, to quote faster and to produce faster. Wouldn’t do any harm to think about that, n’est-ce pas?

Speed up! And what’s still to be mentioned? Just a minor issue… I keep on noticing that the print industry in particular is extremely slow at actioning new ideas or business approaches. Odd, after all the print industry still regards itself as very innovative – but compared to some start-ups, most print providers are in “tortoise mode”. OK, a new printing press can be installed in an instant, but the relevant software can take a while. Why? Because still too many print providers believe they don’t need any form of digital business intelligence (i.e. a proper IT team with its own development resources – and everything that they want to implement quickly turns into a dramatic series of time overruns. Incidentally the major online print providers are no exception – although they (usually) have more financial resources available, their decision-making channels often resemble those of a government agency or local authority as soon as their sales exceed 100 million Euros. Pity.

So all those that want to earn their money from printing have a whole host of trends to internalize and a major workload to get through – and I have a “message” for you: if you can’t manage it alone, then join forces with others, because you then achieve more, each as specialists in your own discipline, and are able to pit yourselves against the market. So, print providers of the world unite! 2018 is a super year for doing it…

On that note – good luck!

Yours sincerely
Bernd Zipper

Founder and CEO of zipcon consulting GmbH, one of the leading consulting companies for the print and media industry in Central Europe. The technology and strategy consultant and his team actively support practical implementation in a wide variety of customer projects. His work involves developing visions, concepts and strategies for the players active in the print production process across a wide range of industries. His areas of expertise include online print, mass customization, strategy and technological assessment for print, and the development of new strategies in the print and media environment. Bernd Zipper is the creator and chairman of Initiative Online Print e.V. and, in addition to his consulting activities, is an author, lecturer and sought-after speaker, orator and moderator. His visionary lectures are regarded worldwide as trend-setting management recommendations for the print and media industry. (Profiles also in Xing, LinkedIn).

Discussion1 Comment

  1. Bernd, we should thank you (and I am) for making the prospect of adopting and developing upon these trends an exciting one.

    By illustrating the relevance of what many believe to be consumer-oriented tech, like the smart home device category, you’ve made it clear that preparing for these developments now is a necessity for those who want to be here in the (not too distant) future.

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