Litho printing is back. According to the 2017 Drupa Global Trends report “there was a major surprise in the apparent irreversible transition to digital printing; as for the first year there was a small but distinct reduction in the proportion of turnover that was digitally printed”.
The fourth annual report quizzed more than 1,200 participants in October last year, 839 printers (525 from Europe) and the remainder industry suppliers, to give a cross section of trans around the world.
As with the BPIF's Outlook survey, respondents are not always good at identifying the challenges they face, hence actual performance during the year was generally below that had been forecast. In Africa any optimism came up against the stark reality of a small decline in business.
And as the BPIF has consistently found, prince and margin pressure dominate the outlook. Nevertheless for most, 2016 was a positive year with increased revenues and capacity utilisation to set against declining prices and squeezed margins.
“Past trends in the production mix of conventional print continued this year with ever shorter run lengths, ever shorter lead times and an ever increasing number of jobs,” say the reports’ authors. That they also found that the proportion of turnover attributed to digital printing had fallen. Hence the surprise.
The first report in 2013 found that for the 19% of printers then using digital print, variable data had accounted for 25% of revenue. Four years later with more sophisticated software and more powerful presses, this had fallen to 18%. “This is an alarming trend,” they note.
Perhaps a not unrelated finding is the web to print storefronts are falling out of favour, dramatically so in the US where in 2015 62% of printers said they were operating a storefront to capture orders and in 2016, 37% made the same claim. Globally web to print use slipped from 23% of printers to 20%, with an increase in Asian markets.
The slowdown in the rise of digital print is marked too by a change in investment plans. For the first time more plan to invest in new sheetfed litho capacity than plan to spend on a cutsheet toner press. Perhaps this reflects the age of the presses in use, perhaps purchased by the 2008 crash and now needing replacement, or the increased productivity of the newest litho presses, the Executive Summary does not declare.
It also reflects the rise of inkjet printing as a rival to toner machines. While a very small portion of the market currently, sheetfed inkjet is in the investment plans for commercial and publishing printers, where continuous feed inkjet is also a priority investment. For what the report calls functional printers (think statements, legal, transactional print), inkjet is the only game in town.
The top investment priority is, however, finishing equipment at 52%, just shading plans to spend on presses at 51% and the 42% who plan to invest in workflow and prepress solutions.
And printers are showing increasing reluctance to diversify their businesses with additional revenue streams. Multichannel services remain steadfastly minority pursuit while under pressure publications printers are not increasing the range of services they offer beyond the established prepress and fulfilment activities.
The only diversification that has grown strongly is to add large format inkjet printing. In 2013 this was offered by 37% of North American printers. In 2016, 50% were able to offer these services.
In packaging, analogue processes continue to dominate, except in label printing, but the signs are there that digital is on the radar for flexible packaging, for cartons and for corrugated.
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