A Gap in the Clouds

Is that a ray of sunshine I can see? I thought perhaps it was just the (slow) start of summer in London, but no, it’s something else—optimism. If you have worked in the economically afflicted mature economies of Western Europe and North America over the past five years, you could have been forgiven for thinking you were living through an endless, miserable winter where the economic spring never seemed to come. But finally we can look up and feel the sun on our faces.

While no one would argue that things are rosy—we’re still living through challenging times—the findings of some recent research among the FESPA community suggest that printers have learned to be the masters of their own destiny. Certainly, there’s a sense that we’re over the worst. More importantly though, printers who have made it through the global economic crisis have learned some valuable business lessons and have come out harder, more determined, and with a better grasp on the real profit drivers in their business.

At FESPA, we’ve been consistent about championing the need to consider new applications as a way of driving revenue and increasing margin. Our community has taken note. While ‘bread-and-butter’ banner, poster, and sign work still dominates, we’re seeing more printers shifting their work mix towards textile, POP, and interior applications, where margins are healthier, with consistent growth also in specialist applications like building wraps and industrial print.

It looks as though the extended economic chill has taught printers to focus on margin over volume, and to avoid the trap of filling empty machine capacity with work that doesn’t add anything to the bottom line, just for the sake of being busy.

When I came into the wide-format printing market in 2011, I often heard people dismiss talk of innovation, saying that it was a mature market with limited scope for real change. That seems to be a long way from the truth. The run-up to FESPA 2013 was exhilarating; we saw a constant stream of announcements from vendors who planned to launch new technologies and consumables at the event. We introduced our FESPA Wings badge to denote products being shown for the first time at the show, and there were hundreds of these around the show. From my novice perspective, this market is alive and kicking when it comes to innovation.

Sure, we may not be seeing quantum technology leaps. But our research tells me that the market is being shaped by the growing capabilities of UV inkjet, eco-solvent and latex—they offer printers practical solutions to real business problems, and those possibilities are whetting the collective appetite to invest.

Fifty-one percent of the printers we surveyed ahead of our FESPA 2013 event said they were planning to invest in output technology, up from 37 percent ahead of our Munich event in 2010. By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a significant increase. Of course, there’s a story behind each individual investment plan, but one thing’s for sure—printers know that they operate in a competitive market where they need to optimize their operations to succeed. They’re seeing exciting, real-world technologies that can change their processes for the better, deliver better quality faster, and give them tangible benefits to pass on to clients.

Likewise, technology is helping them access those profitable new applications. Machines that can print metallics and white inks; machines that can print onto rigid media for POP, sign, and interiors applications; machines that can handle versatile ranges of substrates; machines that can print more sustainably. Plus, of course, new high performance substrates and inks to support printers as they explore the possibilities. These all help clients to answer client needs, so printers recognise that a hardware investment which lets them do something different, or better, is a sound one.

The figures printers are preparing to invest are also increasing, with the mean investment level standing at 141,500 Euros among printers planning to invest in the next 12 months. That suggests that print service providers acknowledge the value that more sophisticated technology can deliver to their clients and—with that—to the bottom line. Choosing a new wide-format printer is about much more than price.

Printers are still focused on speed and productivity, and it stands to reason, when the major client demand is still for just-in-time service. But PSPs are also seeing client needs evolve in other areas. More comprehensive service with delivery to the point of need. Integration of print with other media. Inclusion of cross media devices to link print and online, making print’s contribution measurable.

The basics of good business haven’t changed—create a great product, deliver exceptional service, and do it all as productively and efficiently as possible. But if you can add something special, be that with unconventional products, or a service proposition that helps you stand out, that’s the clue to client retention and growth.

As we reflect on FESPA 2013 in London, it feels like we’re finally breaking through the cloud and heading for some warmer climes. Printers may still be pushing against some headwinds, but their route map is clear and their destinations are bright and full of promise.