It’s pretty brazen for a small player like me to take a stab at predicting the future of printing—especially since I have always said that predicting the future of this industry is nearly impossible. That said, my 26 years in the printing business is a unique set of experiences. I was a long-time board member and past president of the Association of Professional Color Imagers (APCI). It was an international trade organization of photo labs, and I was president during the last convention prior to it downsizing and being absorbed into another trade group. I bore witness to the demise of Eastman Kodak, a trade association, and many, many businesses both in, and tied to, the photo lab business. Perhaps the most important take-away from the experience is that the 1999 annual convention was a heavily attended, lavish event held on the island of Maui. It was a grand time! Everyone was buoyant and prosperous. By way of contrast, the APCI convention in 2003 was poorly attended, in a Chicago hotel to spare expenses, and no one held out much hope for the future of the industry. In only FOUR YEARS a very large and prosperous industry died.Yes, Firehouse made the change from photo lab to successful digital printer during those difficult years, but that transformation was not easy or obvious.
The root cause of the demise of the photo lab industry was the loss of film and film processing. Certainly, that was the major factor for most labs that closed their doors. But, the paramount reason they went out of business was their inability to see industry changes and change with them. Film processing went away, but photo output did not. It changed from a custom, artistic, hand-made product into a commodity. As such, the pricing for commercial photo output plummeted nearly 2,000 percent from the top in 1995. If you could survive the price drop, you could survive. If you could optimize your workflow and automate the process, you could still make a profit. But many never thought about how to change their business to survive—and they didn’t.
Now I sit on the board of directors of another industry trade association, and I see history starting to repeat itself. No, the remaining printing industry is not going to lose an enormous revenue stream as we saw with digital cameras at the turn of the century. But, I can see the gathering storm. What we did to survive those tough times, we will have to do again. We have more time during this industry shift, but not forever.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.