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Print beyond paper

The future of print is brighter than ever, as long as you print on anything but paper. James Goulding reports from the EFI Connect 2018 user conference held at Wynn Las Vegas

At the EFI Connect 2018
At the EFI Connect 2018

No one would deny that the third industrial revolution – the computer era – has been tricky for the commercial print industry. It took longer than expected, but the rise of digital media, electronic communications and network connectivity eventually had the predicted outcomes of lower print volumes, falling prices, bankruptcies and mergers in the print industry and a systemic decline in office printing.

If the third industrial revolution was bad, just wait ‘til you see what happens in the fourth, when cloud connectivity, IoT, AI, VR and robotics transform the world we live in. It’s going to be carnage out there.

Or maybe not.

At Connect 2018, the biennial Electronics for Imaging (EFI) user conference, CEO Guy Gecht was positively upbeat about the prospects of the industry. After describing Die Hard, the box office smash released 30 years ago in the same year that EFI was founded, as an appropriate title for the print industry – a piece of gallows humour that when down well with the print service providers in the auditorium – he suggested that instead of dying the print industry is actually on the cusp of a renaissance.

“Print is far from over,” he said. “In fact, our message today is that in the fourth revolution print is going to get stronger.”

It will become so, he argues, by exploiting developments in print technology and computing power to ‘move beyond paper’ and address the much bigger opportunities in packaging, fabrics/apparel, display graphics and decoration.

Print is no longer just a document
Print is no longer just a document

Print is a technology business
EFI itself is already taking advantage of some emerging technologies to improve performance. For example, at EFI Connect 2018 it was using virtual reality and Oculus headsets to demonstrate the Nuzomi C18000 high speed LED digital inkjet press. Even in absentia, due to its size, this ‘game-changer’ for printing corrugated packaging and displays was the undisputed star of the show, described by Mal McGowans, CEO of McGowans, an early adopter, as “the biggest change in digital print technology in the last 10 years”.

In the future, EFI plans to use VR headsets to enable engineers to maintain and trouble-shoot these devices remotely.

More generally, Gecht expects key elements of the fourth industrial revolution, such as big data, greater computing power in the cloud and faster processing at devices, to facilitate greater personalisation – “Because we can do it and the market wants it,” he said.

A new definition for print
At the same time, digital inkjet technology, because it is contactless and can print onto diverse material, including paper, film, tiles, fabric and corrugated carboard, will start making inroads into any industry that uses images.

Examples might include:

Packaging – Instead of plain brown boxes sent though the post, postal packaging will be personalised and printed with colourful designs, a transition that Gecht likens to the move from black and white to colour TV;

Fashion – faster industrial fabric printers will enable fashion brands to slash lead times and change colours and designs more quickly; and

Interior design – where ceramic tile printing already offers more scope for personalising interiors.

These possibilities, Gecht argues, have created a new definition of print. “Print is no longer just a document, it is no longer just paper. It is every material in the world that needs a printed image. And that’s a bigger opportunity than we’ve ever had before.”

Adding value
Gecht’s rallying cry provided the context for a multitude of new product announcements made over the three days of the conference, and neatly tied together the three elements of EFI’s business – digital printers/presses which make up about 50% of revenues; Fiery Digital Front Ends (DFEs), originally developed for office and production MFPs and now driving industrial devices like the Nozomi press and Reggiani fabric printers (25%); and software that automates time consuming processes to maximise productivity, print quality and cost efficiency (25%).

A bigger opportunity than ever before
A bigger opportunity than ever before

To address new applications like those outlined above, EFI is using its eco-system to create complete end-to-end solutions for specific market segments, such as digital textile printing and corrugated packaging and display material. These combine EFI print devices and Fiery servers with industry-specific software features to automate the entire process, from concept design to delivery of the finished product.

Gecht points out that the level of automation and control Fierys provide is an eye-opener to people who have not used them before. “A lot of what we take for granted in the document market is more advanced than what is available in other markets. We are applying Fiery to new markets and adding value,” he said.

A common approach
The next release of EFI’s job management application Fiery Command Station 6, due to be launched in April, deepens this integration by providing easy management of all Fiery-driven devices, whether they are used for printing documents, display graphics, textiles, ceramics or corrugated material.

EFI’s John Henze said that with its new Fierys and new job management application, EFI was realising its vision of a unified Fiery driven print room, where a single Fiery can drive many different types of device through a common user interface and a common platform.

Fiery Command Workstation 6 will include a number of new capabilities that reflect this broader reach. They include Fast RIP technology; a simple way to create layouts for B1 sheets; enhanced Versioning & Personalisation features that enable a designer to create a single file and manage multiple versions of the same job; and support for speciality colours, fluorescents, metallic inks and technical effects, for which PSPs can charge a price premium of 50-400%, including the ability to track how much of each ink is used and how much to charge customers using the new Fiery Smart Estimator.

Through a programme of acquisitions and product development, EFI has been putting in place the building blocks that will enable it to compete in new areas. The question is how many of its customers have the vision, inclination and deep pockets to follow and how long it will take them to do so?

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