I have been fascinated with printing ever since I first tried to write a book. At that time, getting proportional spacing, diagrams inserts, and making the material print-ready were time-consuming and difficult. Today, these problems are non-issues. These major changes led me to think about where the printing industry was going.
What business is printing?
To predict the future of the printing industry, we first have to know what that business is, not how it is implemented today. Thus, it is not about printing presses, preprinting, or colour. Because in the near future, printed books will be replaced by e-books, printed cheques are being eliminated altogether, and direct mail is being superseded by targeted emails and electronic ads, such as Google Ads. This begs the question: “Is the printing industry the buggy whip manufacturers of the 21st century?”
Strengths and Weaknesses
What are the current strengths of the printing industry:
- Unlikely to be replaced soon:
- Large print volumes for inexpensive tangible objects — there will always be a need for things like consumer product labels.
- Permanence – once printed, books and pamphlets can last a long time.
- Tangible – people can touch, feel, smell, and see printed products with no special equipment
- Expertise – allows printers to faithfully reproduce colours and images for all kinds of environments like indoors, outdoors, large, small, etc.
- No cost to end user — once received, printed material costs nothing to maintain or use.
- Printed material everywhere — no electricity is needed to display printed material and it can be placed on almost any surface.
- Likely to be replaced soon:
- Colours and textures – it will not take long for electronics can replace the look or feel of a lot of printed material.
- Low cost – the cost advantage of volume printing will decrease as faster, better, and smaller printers are developed. Even now, low volume items like letterhead and business cards are produced using laser printers.
Some of the biggest weaknesses of printing are:
- Static medium – once something is printed, its content can not change.
- No user interaction – users can not modify content, or see movement on a pages.
- Mixing media – it is difficult to mix print with augmented reality
- Adapting to new medium – for example, printing on foil uses different technology than printing on paper
- Cost — changing technology requires heavy investment in printing equipment
Technology is changing everything. The most obvious enabler is the Web. Speeds on the Web are only going to increase. We are already seeing movies being delivered via the Web. Electronic books are being delivered in seconds.
Tailored content is now easily done. Think of the personalized e-mail ads you sometimes receive. The growth of electronic reading material is also driving the growth of e-readers. Noticeable are devices like the iPad®. But more is coming. Soon, we will have printable readers on thin flexible material. Many of these devices will be printed instead of being manufactured as is done now. These devices will require less and less power and be available for longer periods of time without the need to recharge. Recharging will not involve plugging things into a socket, but will be done by being in proximity to power sources.
The printing industry is in the business of delivering knowledge in an attractive form. Knowledge can take the form of a product label, ad, electronic magazine, map, painting, etc. Others, such as publishers and movie makers, will produce the content and still others will deal with the distribution of the content. The printing industry will be in the business of delivering this content in volume at a reasonable price. If this looks like a convergence of printing and communications, it is no accident. The difference is that communication enterprises will provide the pipe through which the printing industry will deliver the content in an attractive form. What is an attractive form is for others to decide, such as ad agencies.
For example, delivering a creative ad in an augmented reality for devices with limited capacity would be the job of a printer, just like a printer can help a client deliver a good looking ad today for a magazine that has a limited budget for paper.
Another way of thinking of things is that printers are packagers. They combine creativity, suitable delivery systems, and content into a package which can then be presented to target audiences each having different requirements.
Lastly, printers might become the “manufacturers” of many of the end-user devices. For instance, printers will print paper-thin TVs, road markers, and e-book/e-magazine devices. I can even see printers producing biologically-based devices that can deliver scents and tactile feedback. Remember “scratch-n-sniff”? Well, what about printed wallpaper the can convert sunlight into scents like roses or hyacinths depending on the time of day or season. This implies limited-intelligence devices that can be printed.
Preparing for The Future
Putting these visions into practice is not easy nor is it quick. In many cases, we will need to wait for technology to catch up to the vision. What we can do is take an incremental approach. For example, take a look at what your current customer base is asking for, but which you can not currently deliver; learn how to produce electronic books – not just the books themselves, but techniques for composing them in a better way so that they have extra functionality that is not possible today. Develop expertise in layouts and delivery systems. Use R&D to discover better ways of presenting electronic content that works across many media. (A similar problem faced Adobe before they developed the PDF format and Flash for Web-based animation.) Join consortia that are exploring these future technologies. Look outside the immediate printing industry to see what augmented reality is all about; what video gamers are doing, since they are the leading edge of many technologies; find out how knowledge is being delivered in schools, colleges, and universities.
We started this exploration talking about manufacturers of buggy whips. They could not see past the devices they made. Think where they would be today if they realized that they were in the business of controlling motive power, regardless of vehicle type. Today, they would be the transmission developers of the world. The printers of tomorrow can be the manufacturers of packaged information and their end-user delivery devices.