For the first time since 2019 the industry came together at a trade show, converging at ISA 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia last week. And it was a full success — vendor after vendor noted that traffic was not only much higher than they had dared to hope it would be, but that the attendees were incredibly engaged. People were here to talk serious business, armed with questions about equipment, ideas for new verticals they wanted to explore, and determination to find new substrate sources. More than one vendor was signing contracts, with many more noting that they expected the next few weeks to be productive as they follow up on qualified leads.
It was amazing to be back together again, although a few trends dominated the conversations. While we are on the backside of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still many challenges the print industry is facing, and ISA 2022 was a place to finally be able to sit and discuss them with others experiencing the same things.
The Supply Chain Squeeze
One of the trends that dominated conversations was around the supply chain — vendors of all sizes and shapes, that sell everything from heavy presses to rolls of media, based everywhere around the world are all experiencing the exact same pain points.
Many are struggling to get the raw materials and parts needed to produce their offerings, which has led to backlogs in sales. Because of that, lead times are steadily creeping up, with many OEMs noting that 12 to 18 weeks is the expectation at this point for any new orders. And when they are ready to ship, the costs have skyrocketed. More than one vendor on the show floor noted that the cost of a single shipping container has jumped from around $6,000 pre-pandemic to as much as $40,000 today. It has reached a point where they can no longer absorb the added costs, so many either noted that they have already been forced to raise prices, or increases are expected over the coming months.
In addition to the price increases, there were a variety of methods for trying to manage the supply chain squeeze. Some vendors noted that they have cut back on the products they are selling — instead of offering hundreds of skews, they are focusing on just the top 25 or 50, allowing them to focus limited resources on the items the bulk of their customers need. Others have worked hard to source alternate vendors for things like parts for equipment. Still others mentioned they are exploring bringing some manufacturing or parts in-house, allowing them to gain more control over supply. But no matter what solutions they are trying, they all noted that it would be optimistic to say the supply chain will begin to ease this year — most are just hoping to see some relief by Q2 of 2023.
Sustainability was also at the forefront of trends that were abuzz at this year's expo. Big names like HP promoted that it had a carbon-neutral booth and excess PVC, acrylic, and PE products were collected on-site to later be recycled on-site thanks to Vycom. During the show, collection bins were stationed around the show floor to gather materials that would have normally been destined for a landfill.
Vycom utilized the expo as an educational space to help print service providers answer the perpetual question: ‘what do I do with my used signage and scrap?’, which is of particular concern in the exhibit and retail graphics industries where signage is often used for shorter periods and usually needs to be changed out on a regular basis.
As for smaller companies that might not have the resources like HP or Vycom to be carbon-neutral and sustainable, they are still taking steps to be more eco-friendly.
With the focus on the issues brought about by climate change and global warming, HP's Oriel Gasch emphasized the interest in sustainability by many print providers (and even print OEMs) is because nearly 50% of big brands have to have sustainability as part of their print procurement process. Consumers, in many cases, are driving these brands to be greener because many are supporting those whose corporate policies reflect their own personal preferences.
e-Commerce and Automation
One of the driving trends impacting the market since the start of the pandemic, has been the reliance on e-commerce to secure products and goods that were needed. While we may think of the multitudes of Amazon purchases we made during that time, businesses and consumers were also taking advantage of web-storefronts PSPs had in place to continue to provide appropriate — and timely — signage as well as customizable interior décor, like wallpaper or other digitally-printed soft goods.
For printers with existing web-to-print storefronts, the transition to an online-only presence was certainly easier to manage — and most of their customers were already comfortable ordering directly from their favorite printer. This versatile business model certainly enabled many businesses to continue without missing a beat, but as we all know, the sign and graphics industry is resilient.
We saw an explosion of print buyers. Many PSPs were able to pivot quickly to offer products to just about anyone and everyone. Nearly every business — even those who had never purchased graphics before — needed Covid signage. Crafters and makers (think about the increase of Esty stores as people tried to turn a hobby into a much more extensive paycheck during the pandemic) were a completely new audience for many PSPs. And homeowners, tired of looking at the boring contractor-white walls, were finding time and money to redecorate their homes and home offices. Web-to-print storefronts provided a seamless way to receive and process orders — and there’s no reason that business won’t continue to grow if nurtured.
The pandemic, however, also compounded several issues PSPs were facing: the already difficult task of hiring and keeping good workers and maintaining margins. Many business owners started to seriously examine how software and automation could help them optimize their workforce and streamline their business. Now, more so than ever before, it was essential to know exactly where and how money was being spent. With the shortage of media supplies, it was also imperative to track and manage waste and ensure every inch of media was being used.
According to the research report “Future-Proofing Your Printing Business: How Workflow Automation Optimizes Operational Productivity and Results” by NAPCO Research and HP, companies that have invested in workflow automation report higher throughput, faster turnaround, enhanced productivity, and more profitable jobs. Respondents from highly automated firms report reaping solid benefits, including faster job completion, better press utilization, fewer errors and waste, improved delivery time, and better margins or cost savings.
Additionally, those companies with highly automated workflows report higher annual reviews on average. While many factors influence revenue and sales growth, automation is one that allows companies to produce higher volumes of work more efficiently. In addition, these companies reported that sales growth in the last 12 months mostly increased or held steady compared to those respondents with lower levels of automation. A key reason: automation enables higher productivity so organizations can produce and sell more print jobs.
Nearly all companies in the study (90%) agreed that automating production workflow increases profitability per job — the ultimate justification for any investment in technology — and those firms with higher automation reported producing more jobs, faster, with better press utilization and less waste.
Also, those with high levels of automation felt that automating production workflows enabled their companies to break into new markets faster and better manage the diversification of their businesses.
Workflow automation offers printer providers many benefits to improve and grow operations. Companies that have invested in automation are experiencing tangible benefits compared to those firms that are less automated.
Tradeshows are coming back in a big way, and we are looking forward to continuing this momentum. PRINTING United Expo takes place October 19-21 at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and will bring together the entire printing industry under one roof. The Expo occupies more than a million square feet, and includes the latest technology, equipment, and trends on the market – with several product launches set to take place. Registration is now open – we are looking forward to seeing you there!
Denise Gustavson is the Editorial Director and Special Projects Editor for the Printing & Packaging Group, which includes Printing Impressions, packagePRINTING, In-plant Graphics and Wide-Format Impressions magazines, among other brands. She is also the Editor-in-Chief of Wide-Format Impressions.