By Cassandra Balentine
The COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, since then, individuals and businesses alike have adjusted. The print industry is no exception, however many of the biggest challenges and changes weren’t new, but rather accelerated by the change in pace of business and demand.
Above: A Stingers label, printed on the Epson SurePress L-6534VW.
In Facing Modern Challenges we detail the issues facing supply chains, particularly paper. Here, industry leaders discuss their thoughts on COVID-19 to date and changes they’ve made to adapt.
After a tumultuous 2020, 2021 was a light at the end of the tunnel as we learned more about the COVID-19 virus and instituted mitigation efforts to get the economy moving. However, the rise of the Delta variant flattened hope that 2021 would be “back to normal,” and so here we are, continuing to adapt.
The onset of COVID-19 and the months that followed impacted the amount of printing that was happening. “People were staying home and schools and businesses were temporarily closed, which caused a significant decline in paper consumption. As we emerged from quarantine and business started needing printed collateral, we saw consumption slowly increase,” shares Meredith L. Collins, customer marketing manager, Domtar.
Today, we are still doing more with less. “Fewer resources, reduced budgets—but there was, and is, still a place for paper and print,” stresses Collins.
In 2021, Canon sponsored a custom research project called, Enhancing the Print Customer Connection. Over 200 communication buyers, 193 commercial printers, and 80 in-plants participated in the survey, which included questions around the impact of COVID-19 on their print utilization.
“The survey confirmed what we all know, that overall print volumes were negatively impacted by COVID-19 shut downs. However, there was less of an impact with mission-critical applications such as financial, legal, direct mail, and bills/statements print communications. What was particularly interesting was 66 percent of commercial printers felt that the pandemic actually helped strengthen their customers’ relationships as they pivoted to better support emerging needs,” comments Robert Barbera, director marketing, production solutions, Canon U.S.A., Inc.
Danny Mertens, corporate communications manager, Xeikon, agrees, adding that the pandemic has uncovered many weaknesses in all aspects of society. “On reflection, we don’t feel that the pandemic caused any slow down in innovation in our overall industry, but printers and converters faced difficult times and challenges with increases in online ordering and demands for more flexibility.”
Digital printing has definitely shined during the last two years. “Not only can you print smaller quantities, which helps those reduced marketing and print budgets, you can also create more targeted, personalized messaging. While we are all experiencing some type of digital fatigue at this point, digital marketing has helped consumers realize that they want brands and companies to engage with them in a way that is authentic and reflective of their preferences,” says Collins.
Mark Nixon, VP global sales and marketing, Scodix, feels the pandemic expedited its focus into the packaging and web to print markets. “With lockdowns and declariations of essential businesses, we felt prepared to offer solutions to these businesses and support their growth. Having digital enhacement printing in house allowed print providers and converters to continue delivering value-added prints to their customers, even with shutdowns in these markets,” he notes.
In a way, the pandemic served to accelerate digital transformation trends that were already underway.
“COVID-19 was a catalyst for the trends that were already rising in the printing industry over the last few years and a source of new challenges for commercial printers. Online orders, digital printing, custom packaging, and automation were trending before the pandemic,” offers Dmitry Sevostyanov, CEO, Customer’s Canvas by Aurigma.
Lance Martin, VP marketing, Komori America & MBO America, agrees, noting that while he doesn’t feel that COVID-19 changed industry trends, it rather accelerated the changes that were already in motion. “In most markets, print service providers (PSPs) are seeing shorter runs, but more of them; more just-in-time inventory models; and shorter lead time expectations.”
Segments such as direct mail, books, and their related touch points are in growth positions and undergoing a rapid transformation. “Other print segments showing flat or negative growth are still undergoing a transformation as they implement ways to add more value, reduce costs, and eliminate the need for manual processes and labor,” states Martin.
Victor Gomez, director, Industrial Labels, Epson America, Inc., suggests that consumers still confined or working from home in the emerging hybrid model turn to ecommerce for purchases they would have made in person in the “before” times, which has accelerated the move towards ecommerce-dedicated packaging and creative uses of digital printing.
For example, brand owners look at parcel logistics as a new vehicle for messaging. “The shipping label itself, up to now a utilitarian, monochrome space, becomes prime territory for color, custom printed labels with an on demand color inkjet device to include marketing or promotional content,” adds Gomez.
Reed Hecht, group product manager, Professional Imaging, Epson America, Inc., acknowledges that buyers are spending more time in their homes and purchasing more personalized décor and unique apparel. “The acceleration of online shipping and ecommerce has provided many new designers and startups a platform to compete with well-established retail brands. Digital textile printing has lowered the cost of entry to become a décor or apparel producer and enabled them to expand product offerings to meet growing customer demand.”
Sal Sheikh, VP marketing, large format solutions, Canon Solutions America, points out that when COVID-19 first went widespread, the need for personal protection equipment (PPE) face shields outstripped availability. “Many print providers either used existing digital flatbed cutters they had or invested in new ones pivoted to making PPE face shields out of PETg, especially for hospital workers. Print applications such as floor graphics and one way signage were also in high demand. Non-COVID-19 applications on the rise include custom wallcoverings and murals for both commercial and residential use.”
For many print businesses, the effects of COVID-19 aren’t all bad, but complicated.
“Most converters in North America are booking great business. But they’re doing so in a sea of challenges—from higher prices to supply chain issues to hiring and retaining staff. The shifts in demand we saw early in the pandemic are still with us a year and a half later, supporting short runs—especially in consumer product, logistics, and ecommerce labels. The sustained post-pandemic shifts in consumer behavior are well served by digital printing, with its ability to deliver short runs quickly and profitably. Converters with a diversified portfolio of customers across verticals and with digital printing capabilities alongside their flexographic presses have been able to do very well redistributing capacity to meet the changes in demand,” says Gomez.
Regarding advertising products, marketers are expecting higher conversion rates and more touches, requiring PSPs to be more creative and add value to the printed product. “This is a perfect storm scenario for the printing industry as a whole. Offset and digital print will be coexisting solutions for the foreseeable future, leading to production models that fit diverse needs. New offset press demand is high because of the need for automation, low labor, low waste, ‘green’ footprints, unique coatings, and embellishments and high quality. Digital press demand is high for the same reasons, along with the additional ability to use variable data and zero makeready, all increasing value,” predicts Martin.
“As we look across our customers’ and partners’ experiences, the common thread has been an acceleration of decision-making and change,” comments Mary Ann Rowan, chief experience officer, Solimar Systems. “The reality for most printing operations is that you cannot take the print and finishing equipment home. For those print environments that relied on manual processes and physical labor, the challenges dealt from COVID-19 could be significant, she offers.
Further, many disaster recovery plans didn’t fully address what would be required in a pandemic. “Printers of all types saw the demands from their customers change, sometimes overnight and sometimes day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month,” offers Rowan. “The need for distance between people and more flexibility in print production led organizations to technology for answers.”
Haim Levit, VP & GM, HP Indigo, believes that the shock of COVID-19 has been significant and its effects are still evident. “Industries such as hospitality and travel took a huge hit, creating an immediate impact on commercial print. That being said, the pandemic has changed consumer buying patterns, supply chain logistics, and print production practices, all of which have been driving recovery and long-term shift for commercial printers,” he shares. However, he feels that every crisis also brings opportunity.
“The exponential rise of ecommerce has driven accelerated adoption of web to print, with on-demand applications requiring faster turnaround times than ever before. Consumers nesting at home are driving an increased growth rate of personalized gifting and business to consumer applications such as photo. These all require high-quality, localized digital printing with automated workflows,” says Levit.
Additionally, commercial printers, which were focused on business to business applications, used this time to address their business models by diversifying into other areas such as new, high-value applications. For example, Levit notes faster adoption of applications such as heat transfer, folding cartons, and labels.
With the focus on robust and agile supply chains, he sees more “glocalization”—a shift towards local production and near shoring, with more short-run jobs. “The focus on sustainability and sustainable production is also a driver.
We see more offset houses, which in the past choose not to take the digital path, now buying HP Indigo and developing new capabilities that will help them stay relevant and create new values for their customers,” shares Levit.
As PSPs have adapted, so have the businesses that support them. With fewer in-person networking opportunities, many organizations added or built on virtual strategies for communicating with clients.
“I think we have all discovered how difficult it is to substitute the benefit of face-to-face interactions with remote communications,” suggests Sevostyanov. “Our team built a sustainable sales process that includes web calls, which has worked pretty well. Nonetheless, seeing your customers in person is still a valuable and irreplaceable experience. Of course, we have been attending virtual events during the pandemic, but despite seeing promise in this format, it didn’t work out for us.”
Barbera says like most organizations, Canon quickly pivoted its day-to-day activities, including transitioning quickly to virtual programs. “We leveraged Canon video and camera technology in our showrooms to support virtual product demonstrations and training events. The feedback continues to be very positive for these interactive demonstrations, which we produce through our ‘Production Live’ systems.”
Customers and vendors have also found virtual demonstrations to be productive as it eliminates the need to travel, and they can be easily scheduled. “Though it does not replace the impact of in-person product demonstrations and trade shows, it is another vehicle used in our go-to-market strategy,” suggests Barbera.
With a global customer base, Bill Papp, product manager, Document Data Solutions (DDS), says DDS has always leveraged webinars in addition to trade shows and direct sales to interface with prospects. “With limited in-person opportunities of late we have stepped up our game offering live video demonstrations from our company headquarters, which have been well received by our customers. They enjoy the time savings while still getting a good feel for how the equipment operates.”
Domtar focused on a transition to virtual in March of 2020. “This concept was foreign to a lot of us as we typically communicate with customers via in-person meetings or trade shows—and have done so for most of our careers. The transition was challenging at times because you must overcome things like equipment needs and technology malfunctions. However, we persevered and virtual meetings have become second nature for all of us,” comments Collins.
She sees a return to in-person events, but not 100 percent in-person only. “There are some instances where in-person makes the most sense, like trade shows for equipment or printers. However, other events—like educational-style conferences—can be virtual or hybrid. I think people appreciate the ability to attend events virtually when their budgets or schedules don’t allow for travel.”
Epson pivoted early and quickly to the new normal. “By May 2020 we were doing all of our SurePress customer demonstrations virtually from our Carson, CA demonstration room, with live, one-on-one discussions with prospective customers,” shares Gomez.
Hecht says its webinars and trainings are designed to provide tips and insight from Epson’s product teams on important applications, technical details, and how the latest technology can boost productivity, lower operating costs, and expand portfolios.
“The remote sessions give converters the information they need, when they need it, without the expense or lost time traveling,” offers Gomez.
Levit says that the past two years have shown us that launching a new product can be done virtually in the modern world. “Much like our customers, we’ve had to adjust our go-to-market strategies by conducting virtual events and virtual one-to-one product demonstrations.”
Moving forward, Martin shares that Komori’s goal is to touch the market in many ways using all types of media and delivery points. “Trying to deliver the marketing message over only one channel can be challenging, especially in a changing industry with diverse age groups with different communication styles,” he admits. “We try to touch the market with electronic media, online meetings, print advertising, email, social media, and industry events, such as trade shows and open houses. It is most likely that a multi-channel approach is permanent and it requires content change. For example, content made for an in-person meeting is different than that needed for online or remote meetings and is different for self-guided content.”
Mertens says the pandemic has accelerated the uptake of digitization in many forms. Throughout the pandemic, Xeikon has invested in reinventing ways to efficiently communicate and promote its products and services, including live broadcasts, podcasts, videos, webinars, and online panel sessions.
Rowan says Solimar Systems has a long history of partnering with other organizations to present its solutions as part of a larger conversation about change within print and digital delivery organizations. “Our go to market continues to leverage a cornerstone of partnerships and relationships. The benefit is that we are able to quickly shift our activities to the channels and communication options available. In the case of COVID-19, we were able to adapt our in-person meetings and travel to virtual video meetings. While in the past, video on a teleconference or internet meeting was not very common; COVID-19 changed the acceptance of this once people weren’t able to see people in person.”
In the long term, she predicts lasting impacts from the global experience with this pandemic. For example, she feels that it’s reasonable to assume that live events will return, but perhaps with fewer large, wide-sweeping events in each region and at a less frequent cadence. “It seems likely that targeted, smaller—150 to 200 person—events will become more popular and then those will be augmented by the availability of virtual events and on demand content with high-production values,” says Rowan.
State of the Industry
Many businesses struggle to survive and thrive in the midst of a global pandemic. Print is an evolving and adaptable industry that faces supply chain and labor shortages like any other. New technologies helped pave the way to success—or at least sustainability—during the past two years.
Nov2021, DPS Magazine