What Kind of Day Has it Been? A Look Back at 2019

One of the comments that was often heard at last October’s PRINTING United show in Dallas was that there had not been such excitement in the industry since at least the late 1990s.

201912Year In Review Leggings

One of the comments that was often heard at last October’s PRINTING United show in Dallas was that there had not been such excitement in the industry since at least the late 1990s.

The past couple of years have not necessarily seen any quantum leaps in technology, but rather the “kicking in” of the advantages of inkjet in virtually every corner of the industry. If we can call the past two or three years a “print recovery” from a recession that arguably began in 1999, then it was largely an application-driven recovery.

It’s not the case that everyone is suddenly printing direct mail, transactional documents or magazines and catalogs again (although some are). The printed directories business remains firmly in the realm of Jacob Marley. Rather, it was new kinds of printing that have largely driven the recovery. Wide format in all its varieties, especially signage. Textiles, in all of its varieties. And packaging. Let’s not forget packaging. If the only metric we had was the number of press releases we receive, then packaging would be hands-down the most explosively growing part of the print market. But it’s not the only metric we have, and packaging is the most explosively growing part of the print market. And for all—or most, anyway—of this, we can thank inkjet technology (and, in the case of packaging, a bit of a Flexo Renaissance).

At the same time, elaborate digital finishing technologies collectively called “embellishments” have added a little je ne sais quoi to print, which has worked to improve response rates and make print more appealing for marketers. 

The print recovery is not just due to inkjet printing and embellishments. There are macroeconomic forces at work, as well. The general economy has been on a steady upward trend since the early 2010s, as we recovered from the Great Recession, and while the past couple of years have seen that upward trend wobble a bit (GDP growth has been fairly lackluster—estimates for Q4 suggest that real GDP growth will be between 0.7% and 2.1% annualized), there remains a great deal of optimism, and unemployment has remained low. We’ve even seen the workforce participation rate of prime-age workers rise, something that had long eluded the recovery. The National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) Optimism Index for October ticked up to 102.4 from 101.8 in September (it peaked at 108.8 in August 2018), which is usually a good sign for small businesses. Companies have money to spend, and they are spending it on print. (Should we experience another recession, you can bet that trend will reverse itself ASAP.) 

So a combination of technology, demographic and economic trends have helped drive the print recovery. 

Let’s look at how the year shook out in some of the individual print segments. 


In the textiles and apparel industry, sustainability and reshoring of manufacturing to the Americas continue to be critical—and related—trends. Critical, because the textiles industry is the world’s number-two polluter. Related, because producing textiles and apparel more locally and with digital technologies means less environmental impact from transportation, energy consumption, noxious chemicals and waste. Plus, the costs associated with federal tariffs are another incentive to bring manufacturing back home.

From Bombsheller, manufacturing leggings on-demand, to OnPoint Manufacturing’s highly automated microfactory, which will add digital printing to the mix in January 2020, a growing number of digitally-oriented manufacturing projects are underway. 

201912Year In Review Leggings

Reshoring textiles even extends to knitted garments with initiatives such as Brooklyn’s Tailored Industries, working to bring knitting mills back to the area. Progress is even being made in the “last mile” of apparel and home goods manufacturing with sewbots and cobots making sewists more efficient, or in some cases, completely automating the sewing process.

201912Year In Review Tailored Industry

Along with the increased digitization of the process, however, comes workforce issues. With the export of North America’s apparel manufacturing industry, availability of industry talent has diminished as well, leaving emerging digital businesses (and conventional ones) short staffed. Programs like those at the Manufacturing Solutions Center in North Carolina, where more than 12,000 eighth graders have been brought through the facility and taken on factory tours to encourage interest in industry careers, will help in attracting new talent to the industry. And training solutions such as those from Shimmy, mostly being used in Asia but looking for implementation opportunities in North America, will also help train both new and existing employees in more sophisticated job functions. Shimmy uses gamification for a fun and engaging learning experience.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go before the North American textiles industry regains its former strength. But at least the trend is moving that way. In fact, the U.S. Small Business Administration has been so impressed with the progress being made that it’s looking to use the textiles industry as a case study to help other industries achieve similar successes.

Labels and Packaging

This was a great year for labels and packaging. Labels and packaging design and production is in the midst of a transformation, similar to the one we saw in the 1990s with commercial print, but without the concerns of internet replacement.

On the demand side, consumer product companies are beginning to fully understand the benefits of short-run, on-demand packaging production, and what it can mean to the continued diversification of their markets. While it has been a relative staple in label production, this year we saw it start to grow in flexible packaging, folding carton and corrugated packaging as well.

Digital Innovation

Digital label production continues to increase its market share in support of those demands with both liquid and dry toner production. There has been a significant amount of hybrid digital (both toner and inkjet) introductions. These are usually combined with flexo solutions both as standalone systems or as retrofits. In many of these solutions, the flexo stations can be positioned pre- or post-digital to enable digital over printing as well as printing on the adhesive, laminating, foiling or varnishing combined with print in a single process.

Flexible packaging is starting to move further into digital as well. HP Indigo introduced a complete inline solution from printing through filling the resultant pouch. Uteco/Kodak introduced their high-speed, water-based inkjet solution as well, running at 175 meters per minute.

Folding carton is going digital with the shipping of the Heidelberg Primefire and the Landa P series presses. Print service providers are finding that their A3+ and extended digital presses are also finding a sweet spot with smaller folding carton work. The Xerox Iridesse takes it up a notch with the addition of interchangeable metallic toners, perfect for embellishing a carton.

201912Year In Review Landa

Digital single-pass corrugated production is another growing area for digital packaging production. Both HP and EFI have been placing their machines at converters and beginning to see how and where these new solutions will fit into the new market realities.

Don’t Count Out Flexo!

Digital print technologies like electrophotographic and production inkjet do add on-demand and variable data features, and while the quality is there, cost and performance are still lagging and probably will be for quite a while. Although, there is some new technology starting to push the envelope. One example of a production inkjet press that is pushing those limits is the Uteco Sapphire EVO hybrid press designed for flexible packaging.

In the meantime, flexography has been going through a rebirth. There have been many digital enhancements brought to the flexo process. The result can be extremely high print quality, while still providing high productivity and low cost, creating a significant defense against production inkjet solutions.

This flexo rebirth and the emerging digital offerings now raise the question: what printing technology is “right” for packaging? This is a difficult question that may not produce a binary answer. First of all, packaging print has many different applications—labels, folding cartons, flexible packaging, corrugated, etc. Each of them has their own requirements. While we think of digital technologies for on-demand and variable data, presses like the Bobst REVO can print on demand flexo at a much lower cost with higher productivity than any digital solution.

Is Bespoke the Real End Game?

While there are lots of hybrid solutions out there, and an increasing number of components to support the variety of packaging requirements, perhaps the whole hybrid evolution today is really just a part of the industry digital transformation and transition to the real end game…purpose-built or bespoke solutions?

As we move to more digital print solutions to satisfy the requirements of shorter “on-demand” runs, a number of things happen. First of all, the digital toner and inkjet solutions are slower than the conventional flexo solutions, which means that the total available production capacity of the press is less. But that is not necessarily a bad thing, because it allows you to create focused and optimized production processes based on specific requirements instead of trying to fit work with different requirements into the same production processes. That could provide more cost effective and timely solutions with less setups and handling.

201912Year In Review Hp

Drupa 2020 will see the next wave of packaging production introductions—stay tuned!

Wide Format

Dr. Joe Webb once wrote that “the wide-format market is like Florida: everyone is from somewhere else.” That was five or six years ago, and while it was true then—the nascent wide-format market comprised photolabs, repro shops, some commercial printers and others who came from disparate, shrinking markets. That mass migration to wide-format is largely over; those who are likely to have added it have added it, and it sits comfortably with the other products and services they offer. 

Wide-format printing remains a substantial opportunity, but we need to acknowledge that “wide format” is losing its cachet as a specific term. Shops that are seeing success in selling wide-format services aren’t necessarily marketing themselves as “wide-format printers,” because aside from industry pundits, no one who actually buys print knows what that means. Talk to someone outside the printing industry (at least once in a while, please!) and use the phrase “wide format” and they’ll give you a blank stare. Use words like “posters,” “signage,” “window graphics,” “banners” and they get the picture. 

201912Year In Review Wf1

(Photo by Kris Iverson, Moon Shadow Glass)

At the same time, it has become difficult to separate “wide format” from other aspects of the printing industry, such as textiles, packaging and industrial printing. People have been using the word “convergence” to describe this phenomenon, but a better term may be “overlapping” (or maybe “overlappage” if we’re allowed to coin our own buzzwords). The raison d’être of the new PRINTING United show—despite the word that is in all caps—is “united,” that all of these different aspects of print are simply variations on a theme—ink on something—rather than completely different songs. (Even so, we still encountered some commercial printers at the show who grumbled, “What’s all this wide-format $#%&! doing here?”) 

201912Year In Review Wf2

Unlike other areas like textiles or packaging, there have not been very many earthshaking product announcements in the wide-format space, which is not a surprise, given where the industry and its attendant technologies are today. The best way of describing it is to borrow a term from evolutionary biology: “punctuated equilibrium,” a theory which posits that once a new species appears, its population will remain relatively stable and unchanged for some length of geological time until the next period of brief and rapid biological change. Likewise, in wide format, we are currently in a period of relative stasis. The past 15 to 20 years has seen the proliferation of digital inkjet in all its myriad forms and we are in the period now where we are finessing the technology, awaiting the next big transformational development. Next year is a drupa year, so we may get some hints of what is coming next, but for now, we’re all still wrapping our (print)heads around inkjet and all that it can do. Which is rather a lot.

2020 Vision

What will 2020 bring for the industry? There are some potentially dark macroeconomic clouds on the horizon—some economists have been using the “R” word—and the geopolitical situation remains fraught, which doesn’t lend itself to economic stability, let alone growth. In the U.S., 2020 is a major election year and while it will be an incredibly ugly one—and one that will largely take place over social media—print is always a beneficiary of election years. Lawn signs and posters have already started to appear, so any wide-format printer who is not in the lawn sign printing business would do well to get there. Sure, they’re not the highest margin items in the world, but there’s a lot of potential volume. 

We also fully expect textiles and of course packaging to remain healthy and growing. There are some potentially disruptive technologies coming: 5G, to name one, which will in some ways negatively impact some parts of the print business. But then 5G will also likely have benefits for certain aspects of the print business, such as signage (see “Five Alive: 5G Technology Will Transform Sign & Display” on page 48 of this issue). 

2020 will be a fun ride. We hope you continue to join us—here in print and/or online.