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The Future of the Printing Industry – Part 2

terryblogFuturePart2During my years in the photographic industry, I bore witness to a business workflow that went from laborious hand work to near total automation. Prints used to be produced by skilled craftsmen in darkrooms with enlargers. They would frame and focus and expose and tweak—often manipulating the light with filters and dodging and burning to achieve the optimum result. That changed rapidly to an all-digital production with photos imaged to paper with lasers. Both methods produced photographs on photographic paper.

Once the automation hit full stride, we saw pricing drop from around $25.00 a square foot to $1.00. Automation of this printing process devastated all but a few tech-savvy survivors. The entire size and structure of this area of the printing industry was altered in a brief period of time. As photographic labs disappeared, so did the suppliers and the trade associations.

The ultimate question for each area of the current printing industry is “what will the effects of automation be in the future?”

We see two major innovations coming our way—software and robotics.

The software written, to date, to automate processes in printing companies has come primarily from the equipment manufacturers to make their machines work better. It gives them a competitive edge. But these are all stand-alone solutions. Very little has been done, to this point, to create a total, integrated workflow solution or to reduce total cost of ownership of equipment offerings. However, now, the printing industry is beginning to see software solutions that will eventually eliminate many front-end workflow processes. For clients willing to integrate more closely with their print vendors, a total solution is near. This goes beyond a front-end order entry portal. That’s where the process starts. The magic will be tying the output from the front end into fully customized software that will direct those source files through the workflow (order writing, preflight, proofing, prepress, tracking, etc.) and land it in the proper print queue. It’s coming!

The use of robotics in printing has been limited to a very few large flexographic and specialty printers. Robotic solutions for material handling at all stages of the printing process are either now, or soon will be, available at a reasonable return on investment. Firehouse will have a robotic arm solution for taking sheets from our flat bed printers to our large digital cutters eliminating the labor in that process. Further, robotic carts with preprogrammed destinations will be carrying ‘work in progress’ from cutting to our quality control and packaging department, eliminating that labor. Both of those automated labor-saving solutions are a worthy automation investment.

What can be automated, will be automated. As this happens, the structure of the printing industry, just like the photographic industry, will change quickly. Will large-format print companies react in time?

The final and third segment of this blog post will contain some predictions for the future, as promised.

Terry Corman
Firehouse CEO

Firehouse Graphics are Blooming at IMA!

jimblog2Firehouse has been working with the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) since 2008. We print indoor & outdoor marketing and wayfinding signage, plus, for most new exhibits, Firehouse produces adhesive vinyl murals as part of the exhibit experience. A highlight was the 2013 Ai Weiwei exhibit which saw Firehouse outfitting both gallery entry portals with immersive wall and floor coverings. We also produced main gallery wall panels which interlocked to span over 60 feet.

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IMA Senior Designer, Matt Kelm details the working relationship with Firehouse. “There are a lot of choices when it comes to selecting a vendor for large graphics, but Firehouse has proven they are a great partner, capable of producing a wide variety of materials at the level expected of a world-class museum. By working closely with our designers and installers, Firehouse has produced materials that look great and are easy to install.”

IMA03The latest IMA exhibition is titled Color me Orchid. The exhibition explores the beauty of orchids and highlights their history. Orchids are displayed in a Pop-Up shop in the main museum building and offered for sale at the museum Greenhouse. The IMA design team wanted graphics applied to the front windows and glass doors of the Pop-Up shop to create a stained-glass ambiance.

Matt continues, “Every detail is important when creating graphics at a IMA04museum, where visitors can often stand very close to a banner that is displayed next to important works of art. By meeting with the team at Firehouse to discuss a complex job beforehand, we can be sure we’re creating, setting up, and delivering files that assure us of a successful outcome.”

We recommended our optically-clear adhesive vinyl with subtle layers of white ink to maintain a translucent appearance while IMA05providing pop to the colors. In addition, we printed adhesive vinyl wall murals for walls and pillars in the shop. Firehouse also printed identifying signage on PVC throughout the Greenhouse as well as exhibit outdoor banners on 13oz. vinyl.

Matt concludes. “Because the team at Firehouse lives and breathes the world of signage and graphics, they bring new technologies and ideas into the conversation that we had never considered. By maintaining a dialog with the experts at Firehouse, we can set our imaginations loose at the beginning of a project knowing that they will work with us closely to figure out the best way to bring those ideas to life.”

Jim Corman
Global Accounts Executive

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The Future of the Printing Industry – Part 1

terryblogFuturePart01It’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.

DigitalCrushingFilmThe 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.

Terry Corman
Firehouse CEO