Printing is one of the industries that has been radically disrupted by the technological revolution in the past decades. Not only have many of the physical media turned – if not completely, at least partially – digital, reducing the business of printing on paper. But also many parts of the printing process, that used to be done manually by people using machines, are now done digitally by automated machines.
Also many processes, that earlier required a special physical tool, have been digitalized. “For example shape cutting with a custom made stencil – nowadays machines have been created, that do smaller patches very easily and cost effectively by laser or knife cutting. Also foiling used to require a special tool, but nowadays smaller patches can be done by using a digital printing machine.”, says Johanna Saarinen, CEO of an award winning modern printing house Painola. Digitalization has made it easier and more cost effective to have your brochures with a little twinkle of gold or a particular brand shape!
The effects of digitalization in the printing industry are multifaceted. On one side, digital printing has replaced partially both mechanical printing machines and tools, as well as diminished the need of human labor. On the other side, people as customers are getting more value out of more cost effective methods.
Product outlook and environmental issues
Many traditional printing products will disappear. One such estimate places, for example, the total mail delivered by the United States Postal Services, at 154.3 billion in 2016, a sharp decrease from an estimated 212 billion in 2005 . The demand for envelopes has dramatically dropped, and e-invoicing is gaining momentum, popular also because of the environment-friendly factor. E-gift cards, e-business cards, digital photos, are being quickly favored over their traditional counterparts. Most mail delivered globally now accounts for mostly parcel or shipments that have increased due to online retailing, with the exception of remote areas or poorly-connected areas that still rely on print media for communication.
Business cards have been sentenced to death many times during the last decade, but they have started to become popular again. Business people see the physical manifestation of themselves valuable in the hectic and fragmented information overflow, hoping it will leave a more durable mark into the receiver’s mind. “What is noteworthy is that people are really investing in quality – a hundred cards of good quality are better than a thousand normal ones,” Johanna from Painola states.
Especially at events, business cards are a valuable asset and most people will bring them, even though there are many business card apps and LinkedIn available. Some people will not accept your business card, though, but instead will take a picture of your name tag. They might think about the effects of printing – and would like to “save a tree” by not accepting your business card.
But let’s remember – taking the picture and storing it will need over the lifespan of the information – who knows how many bytes of electricity and silica hardware somewhere where the information is stored. After all, whether it’s a printed card or an electronic one, it’s all about mediating and preserving information, and both will use it’s own slice of natural resources. Printing will do it at once, digital over a longer period of time.
Is print always less environmentally friendly than digital? It’s not so black and white!
Merging the physical and digital
Augmented Reality (AR) has made its way to the printing industry. AR means a physical view that has digital elements added on top of it, which are viewed through for example a smartphone. A known example of a popular AR solution is the Pokemon GO! game, in which you can see computer-generated Pokemon in real life surroundings.
Augmented Reality is a way to make a physical print product more flexible in content, since the digital layer can be altered in real time even after printing. The print itself only has a marker, which will trigger the digital layer to be shown on the receiver’s smartphone. A good business case of this would be, e.g. in product packaging. Packaging produces huge amounts of wastage in rebranding situations where tons and tons of old packages have to be thrown away even before they were used. If all packaging were done 100% through an AR solution, the nutritional information could be changed without any alterations to the actual print.
AR solutions could drastically reduce the wastage of packages in rebranding situations.
Printing spanning new dimensions
Just a few years ago, printing processes and machines were constrained to two-dimensional possibilities. Since the turn of the century, 3D printing – the processes in which material is joined or solidified under computer control to create a three-dimensional object, with material being added together – has become increasingly popular. 3D printing is used in both rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing.
A market review by inprintshow.com in 2015 , revealed that 3D printing of manufactured objects, makes way for cost-effective manufacturing of customized and small volume objects, that were previously out of economic reach for the new users that 3D printing is drawing in. This means a new and potentially very large user group adopting what are in effect, new products or at least existing products manufactured in a revolutionary way.
In a similar way, display graphics available to the local retailer in minimal quantities are also new products and potential market towards people who did not buy graphics before – in this case a new market that has grown to exceed $45B in retail revenues for print after only 20 years from it conception. 
What awaits the print industry in the future?
It is interesting to note that while many speculated that digitalization will make print industry obsolete, the latter still seems to be strongly prevalent.
The National Library Board produced a report in 2015 on the state of the printing industry.  It explains that this drop in the amount of printing, also according to industry expert Andrew Tribute, is due to the changes in the way information is delivered, combined with massive overcapacity in the industry. These have driven down prices and profit margins. With digital printing continuing to move steadily away from the commercial sector to become an office function, according to its views, successful printers are concentrating on added value customer support, even while the majority of industry investments are still being ploughed into traditional technology in order to increase capacity.
Newer high-speed digital printing devices have been able to produce single and multi color images for over a decade, but very little, that is, just about 5% of printing companies have actually installed these devices. 
Conceivably, the long history of traditional printing can explain the reason digitalization hasn’t still overtaken it in full capacity. After all, this is a process which has been slowly evolving for centuries. Woodblock printing was already in use in China around 220 AD. The most significant breakthrough was achieved when Johann Gutenberg of Germany invented the printing press in the 1400s. Several innovations occurred at the end of the eighteenth century including a new method of using engraving tools, lithography, and relief etchings. By the early nineteenth century, new types of presses were being made which were far more durable than anything produced up until that time. Arguably one of the greatest advances, at least for the everyday consumer, was when Chester Carlson invented the process called Xerography, or photocopying, in 1937. His invention is considered the “technological foundation of printing today”.
Humanity tends to always think that changes in the present are much bigger than changes that happened in the past. The previous chapter, however, clearly shows that if there is anything constant in this world or in any industry, it’s change. We just must deal with it, go with the flow, and trust that the disruption will eventually be good – for all parts in the big (printing) machine.
Painola is an active seeker of development opportunities in the printing industry. With a vast experience of over 35 years and a young new CEO, they possess a unique combination of experience and sass. Painola hosts events regularly about the future of printing. Please check www.painola.fi for further information.
 United States Postal Service. (2016, September). A decade of facts and figures. Retrieved from United States Postal Service: https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-facts/decade-of-facts-and-figures.htm
,  I.T. Strategies, Inc. (2015, May). What is the Future of Industrial. Hanover, MA. Retrieved from http://www.inprintshow.com/germany/2017/assets/White_Paper-Future_of_Industrial_Digital_Printing.pdf
,  Yew, C. C., & Tan, E. (2005). The Print Industry: An Overview. Singapore: Information Services Division, National Library Board. Retrieved from https://www.nlb.gov.sg/Portals/0/Docs/Research/PrintIndustry.pdf
Image: 3D Printer.JPG, by Subhashish Panigrahi (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons