Belated Reflections on DRUPA

The plain fact of the analog-to-digital transformation is that we’re still waiting for it to happen.

I was fortunate to attend DRUPA in May along with 300,000 or so others from the graphic-arts industry all around the world. As always, the show provided a tantalizing glimpse of the printing industry that might await us 5-10 years from now. Yet I had an incredible sense of déjà vu as I walked the mammoth exhibition center in Dusseldorf (with a near-sellout in all 19 halls), taking me back to my first trip to DRUPA 17 years earlier.

The 1995 show had been hyped as the “Digital DRUPA” primarily for the widespread computer-to-plate technology on display for offset printers, but I remember the show for two vastly different Israeli companies with big plans and game-changing ideas. The talk of the expo was Indigo, with a toner-based digital offset printer debuted in a jaw-dropping theatrical display with company founder Benny Landa acting as the ultimate emcee/showman. A few aisles away, in a booth that could not have been humbler by comparison, Idanit showed a non-working prototype of a large-format drum-based printer that could image vinyl and other roll-fed media using an array of piezo inkjet heads that spanned the entire width of a poster-sized sheet. Both concepts were radical then, and the message from these pioneering companies was crystal clear: Like it or not, digital printing technology is taking over and will displace anything in its path.

Fast forward to DRUPA 2012. Master showman Benny Landa was once again the talk of Dusseldorf, this time debuting a new inkjet technology for commercial printers that he calls nanographic printing in an even more elaborate, futuristic theater that looked like nothing so much as the set of a Star Trek film. And the Indigo and Idanit technologies I first saw 17 years ago were very much alive and well on the stand of HP, which by 2005 had acquired both companies. It seems a fair question, then to ask to what degree the promised transformation of analog to digital printing has taken place in the 17 years that separated these two landmark shows.

The answer is that so far, it hasn’t.

In his presentation, Landa cited industry statistics showing that digital printing has captured only 2% of the total annual volume of commercial printing applications on paper. This despite rapidly falling run sizes, increasing demand for custom messaging, and all of the other trends Landa correctly predicted in his Indigo presentation 17 years ago. Commercial printing has gone through drastic upheaval since 1995 and digital technology has carved an indisputable niche, but the heavy offset iron has not gone away.

Wide-format graphics aren’t quite as easy to gauge, but frequently quoted statistics from InfoTrends suggest that inkjet printing now commands about 35% of the market for out-of-home and retail graphics—a considerable number, but also a misleading one. Data from numerous sources, including US government records on printing shipments as well as studies done by NASMA, show that the peak year for non-textile screen printing in this country wasn’t 1990 or 1995, but 2007—the year before the Great Recession began. Inkjet hasn’t displaced screen and offset technology in these markets, but rather created entirely new ones through applications and capabilities that were impossible through analog printing.

If the plain fact of the analog-to-digital transformation is that we’re still waiting for it to happen, the signs at DRUPA 2012 suggest that it’s tantalizingly close. The nanographic technology shown by Landa may have commanded the most attention at this DRUPA (though realistically it’s also at least 18 months from launching), but other breakthroughs in inkjet and toner-based printing systems for commercial applications were on display throughout the exhibition. In wide-format printing, the most prevalent trend was the number of fully automated production lines shown (including substrate loading and unloading). Not new technology, but together with the advancements made in print speed and quality over the past four years, it presents a realistic alternative to screen printing even for longer runs—a choice high-volume printers in these markets arguably haven’t had before.

It will be fascinating four DRUPAs from now to see if the analog-to-digital transformation finally does pan out as predicted for so many years. That will be 2028, if the show stays on its current schedule. I’m hoping to be there.

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