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This Point Forward: A Look Ahead at 2018

Personal voice assistants and the Internet of Things, wide-format graphics and specialty printing—what are some of the new (and old!) technologies to which we should pay attention and how will they affect us in 2018?

By Richard Romano

Happy New Year, and we warmly welcome 2018. (The word “warmly” is just a metaphor; it’s -12°F in upstate New York as I write this.) Before the Christmas break, we took a look in the rear-view mirror at 2017, and now we’ll take a “this point forward” look ahead to what 2018 is likely to have in store for the printing industry—especially on the wide-format and specialty printing fronts.

Before looking at print, however, it’s important to see what is happening elsewhere beyond print, because larger technological, social, and cultural trends inevitably affect the market for print.

Don’t Kick the Can

I was at my brother’s house for Christmas and he had recently bought a voice-activated kitchen garbage can. You can say “Open, can!” and it will. It lives in the same room as Alexa, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the two of them had a thing going on. (When I asked Alexa, she was conspicuously silent on the topic. The can’s vocabulary was severely limited.)

Anyway, the past couple of years have seen the dawning of The Age of Alexa—Personal Voice Assistants like Apple’s Siri, Google’s Assistant, and of course Amazon’s Echo/Alexa. Early last year, stories began appearing warning of a “voice assistant war,” as these applications become capable of doing more and more things and thus become more and more popular. They can be used to hail a Lyft, provide driving directions, make hotel or restaurant reservations, or even just retrieve information. “Alexa, what’s the capital of Bulgaria?” “Sofia.” “Thanks, Alexa.” They can now handle more than 7,000 “skills”—6,999 more than I can—with more being added all the time. It has been determined that one-fifth of all the Google searches handled via the mobile app and Android devices are voice searches.

Why is this important for us? We’re kicking the information can further down the road. The way we search for information has changed—and continues to change—and this affects how people interact with media and communications. Way back when, pre-Internet, if we wanted information, we were content to request it by phone or mail (remember reader service cards?) and wait for it to arrive—sometimes up to six or eight weeks!

Since the advent of the Internet and Google, we have been able to search for the information we want and get it almost immediately, and are frustrated when we can’t. (I’d be curious to know how much business is lost because one company’s website loads faster than another’s.) Mobile has made information retrieval even faster and more immediate, as well as portable.

Now, with Voice Assistants and their corresponding apps, typing itself has become a time-consuming and laborious task in a world where we can just ask a question out loud. Information retrieval becomes still even faster and more immediate. (You may remember that scene in 1986’s Star Trek IV, where the Enterprise went back in time to the 1980s and Scotty was annoyed by having to interact with a computer using a “quaint” keyboard rather than just talking to it. That was a cute joke back in 1986, but it’s fast becoming our reality.)

These things are important because this is where companies and marketers are focusing their attentions and marketing efforts. I’ll make the Toby Ziegler bet—I’ll wager all the money in my pockets against all the money in your pockets—that marketers are looking at these voice assistant technologies and wondering how they can take advantage of them for marketing purposes. Let’s face it, print is almost kind of quaint when looked at next to these kinds of things.

“Thank You, Thing”

Speaking of of “things,” perhaps the most important technological development of the 2010s is the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), which is either going to be a utopia or complete dystopia—but ignoring it would be severe myopia. I’ll be writing more about the IoT over the course of the year, but suffice it to say here, it refers to the ability for all our appliances, our cars, our homes—virtually everything we own—to all be interconnected and share data with each other, a mobile phone app, or a third party. I admit, not all of these applications are…worthwhile. Do I really need a toaster that will send me a text message when my toast is done? Do I want an Internet-enabled toothbrush for what Oral-B calls “the well-connected bathroom”? One shudders to think.

We may think the whole idea of the Internet of Things is just kind of silly (but, hey,  I remember back in the 90s a lot of people thought the Internet itself was kind of silly), and some applications are, but as they start insinuating themselves into our lives, we will start using them more and becoming more reliant on them. Look how fast the mobile phone came to dominate everyone’s life—and for everything but actually using it as a phone. These things have a way of creeping up on us.

The good news for our industry regarding the Internet of Things is that print can very well be one of those “things.” QR codes, Augmented Reality, “smart packaging”—all of these things can connect print to the Internet. The book Dr. Joe and I wrote last year—The Third Wave—uses HP’s Link technology to make the printed book capable of accessing information over the Internet. How soon before we don’t even need a app for that—we just talk to the book? You may laugh, but last September, Google teamed with Conde Nast to produce an issue of Vogue in which the printed magazine had voice-activated Internet links, so you could actually “talk to the magazine.” (Of course, people have been doing this on the New York City subway for decades. However, it never had any effect except for making people move to the other end of the car.)

The Internet of Things is also changing the face of industrial printing, which we will also be discussing in greater detail in the months ahead.

So as technology, as society, as culture changes, the role of print changes and thus print must also change as well.

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign…

As I write this, I am also finalizing our Industry Forecast 2018 special report, which includes all the results of our Fall 2017 survey of the printing industry. In this survey, we had asked the extent to which various print and print-related technologies were on any of our respondents’ radars. Specifically, we asked about print signage, digital/electronic signage, textile printing, digital label printing, specialty printing (like coffee mugs, golf balls, smartphone cases), packaging printing and converting, 3D printing, Augmented Reality (AR) development, and event management. In some cases, we had an idea of what the response (or lack thereof) would be, but we were actually surprised by some of the responses (a lot of interest in specialty printing, signage, and even AR, but little interest in label or packaging printing). So print looks like it will be going into some new areas in the next year, and these are all areas we will be paying special attention to.

Elsewhere in our recent survey data, we find that the wide-format investment fever has largely broken. This is not to say that wide-format is dead, not at all. There will always be new applications, new substrates, and new technology upgrades emerging, and wide-format applications are still extremely hot product areas (some of the applications in the list above are wide-format applications). But the commercial print transition and expansion to wide format looks to be largely complete, and we should not expect a lot of that in 2018.

Printed signage is seen as the most logical offshoot of display graphics, and we’re also seeing more and more dynamic digital signage deployments, and while they do replace some print display applications, they more often than not complement other kinds of large- and small-format print. Digital signage is one of those things that we ignore at our peril. Investing in the capability to develop digital signage—or fostering a relationship with an outsourcing partner—is a good way to complement and supplement one’s current product and service mix.

We have been harping on this for most of last year, but in 2018, we expect specialty printing to continue to become mainstream print (there is also a hint of that in our survey data). Think short-run, customized, personalized promotional products. Specialty printing blurs with the already blurry and nebulous term “industrial printing,” or printing on final objects and products. Think smartphone cases, golf balls, water bottles—even garments. (I was talking with SGIA’s industrial printing guru recently, and he defined the difference between industrial and commercial printing as, respectively, “printing to fabricate rather than printing to communicate,” which is the best explanation I have yet heard.)

Anyway, adding these kinds of applications and products favors small and mid-size print businesses who can be a bit more nimble and creative in adding and changing up their capabilities. And the real advantages are integrating these kinds of product offerings with e-commerce and web-to-print. A customer selects a standard product, uploads a custom graphic, specifies a quantity, eyeballs a proof, and they’re done. This isn’t new—CafePress and others have been doing this for ages—but it’s woefully underutilized in the rest of the industry. Sure, there is a role for direct sales, and these kinds of items can be part of an overall business development approach to sales, if you are working closely with major customers to develop comprehensive marketing plans that include these kinds of items, but they lend themselves especially well to a commodity printing approach.

Digital textile printing is not new, but will continue its expansion beyond dye-sublimation with increased compatibility with a wider and wider variety of natural and synthetic fabrics. Get used to the term “fast fashion,” or on-demand, short-run, customized garment printing. (WhatTheyThink is also in the process of launching a special topic section devoted to textile printing.)

2018 will also see further development on the software side of things: more automation, more migration to the cloud, better management interfaces, better real-time analytics, more voice recognition, and more video.

And In the End…

And of course, finishing will continue to be a top value-added service. So-called “digital enhancements” such as what the MGI, Scodix, and Highcon systems can produce, increase the value of short run printing. They’re getting less expensive to apply—and shops can still charge a premium for them. New options for display graphics continue to proliferate, as well. Silicone-edge graphics, to name fast-growing application, has been growing for some time, and more integrated systems for producing them are appearing on the market.

Printing shipments data, as Dr. Joe has discussed in the past several monthly economics webinars, have not been good in 2017, foretelling a continued contraction of the industry. But there is still great demand for new kinds of print—especially those enabled by digital printing technologies—and shops that can meet that demand will be among the ones to help us ring in 2019.


This article was originally published in WhatTheyThink.

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