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Graphics Grab Bag – XMPie in Palm Cove

Friday, 09 November 2018
By Patrick Howard

This week Patrick Howard is at the XMPie Innovation Event in Palm Cove, Queensland. Here is an edited version of his scheduled presentation to the 70 industry professionals who attended.

Hello, good to be here. Always a pleasure and an honour to meet with such a bunch of engaged professionals. I sat in on some of the coding sessions yesterday and understood not a word. But there was commitment and concentration in the audience. Very impressive.

When Enda [Kavanagh] asked me a few days ago to talk to you today, he suggested a review of the local printing industry might be an appropriate topic. It’s a tall ask in the three minutes he gave me, but let’s see how we go.

There is, of course, no single printing industry: there’s packaging print, signage print, labels, newspapers, books, catalogues and of course, general commercial printing. They’re all very different, and we in the industry are the only group that talks about printing. Everyone else talks about packaging, signage, labels, and newspapers, i.e. the products themselves.

And despite predictions of the death of print, it’s not doom and gloom by any means. Most of these sectors are thriving and growing.

  • Packaging and labels are powering on with the growth in population and the arrival of digital printing.
  • Signage is still riding the wave of wide format inkjet, which for the past five years has resembled a boom in the number of machines purchased and installed.
  • Catalogues are at least stable if not growing, and still produced in huge numbers..

However other sectors… newspapers, books and general commercial printing while still accounting for the largest market in terms of money and volume, are in decline. When I’m talking with paper merchants, they put the fall in the volume of printing papers at between 5 -10 per cent per year, and that’s been going on now for at least a decade.

As most commercial printing is in the form of marketing collateral, the drop can be squarely attributed to the decisions made by the marketing community. This market is changing fast. John Wanless of Melbourne printing company, Bambra Press, tells me it’s changing by the month, sometimes by the week.

Young marketers see print as yesterday’s technology. While we can still argue that print is a valuable element in marketing, we’re pushing uphill to convince them it’s anything more than an a campaign add on.

Will it change? Can a push back succeed in the face of the overwhelming influence of online in every aspect of our lives? I doubt it.

So what does this decline mean?

In terms of printing businesses it means fewer and fewer, with more consolidation to come. It means less presses bought. Offset manufacturers are working hard but the market is drying up before their eyes. Digital is doing better, but the transition from offset is not growing the pie very much.

The printing companies that are still out there are becoming more polarised between the very large, such as Blue Star in Sydney and, say, the Nankervis group in Melbourne, and the smaller ones, those with less than $10 million with less than $5 million turnover.

Wayne Finkelde of ABB is on the acquisition trail. He tells me he’s looking to buy more print companies along the east coast but can’t find ones of the right size of around $20 million, to fit his purpose.

At this rate it’s not unthinkable there’ll only be three or four large printing companies in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Funnily enough, this was the rational behind the ill-fated Geon venture. Roy Mackenzie of private equity fund Gresham, told me so in the early days of his hectic ride. Roy, a tall Scottish bluey bloke was running two funds worth  $13 billion. I thought he knew what he was talking about, but I was wrong.

“M’boy,” he said to me in the spectacular setting of his penthouse office on Macquarie Street with expansive harbour views all the way to the Heads. “M’boy,” he said, disregarding that I was his senior by at least 20 years, “I’m going to do to the printing industry what happened to video rentals. A few years ago there were Mum and Dad video stores on every corner. Then along came Video Ezy and Blockbuster and mopped them up.

“That’s what we’re going to do to printing. In three to four years time there’ll be two or three big printers and that’ll be it.”

Did I mention he was running $13 billion in funds? When I get there, I thought, I’ll tell him he’s insane. But then I held my tongue.

As we all know, Geon went terribly wrong, but perhaps Roy wasn’t as crazy as I imagined; perhaps he was just ahead of his time.

Will it happen? Will printing be shared between three or four large companies in Melbourne and Sydney?

You’d have to say it’s on trend.

But the production of print is only part of the story. Trade printers such as Whirlwind, CMYKhub, LEP, and Hero are enabling a very different kind of SME printing enterprise that can outsource its actual production. While battling rising prices in ink and paper, the trade printers appear to be in good health. Paper went up 20 per cent this year, with another 20 per cent due in January and yet another hike forecast for May next year. Ink is following suit, especially as more printers move to more expensive UV curing.

This kind of printing enterprise is becoming more and more sophisticated. And that’s where XMPie comes in.

Surviving print businesses, large and small, whether massive factories, production hubs or outsource portals, all rely on a ‘no touch’ model of production. Their goal is a hugely automated process to output as much as possible with as little labour input as possible.

The much touted ‘dark’ printing shop is to all extents and purpose already here and the software and production management guys are the ones enabling it. XMPie is enabling it. And it’s a good thing.

Yes, they’re putting lots of people out of work, which is inevitable, but they’ve an even greater challenge ahead; to put themselves out of work.

The skills of the printing industry have long moved beyond craft. They’re now moving past assembly line manufacturing, no matter how productive, towards automation and robotics.

The code writers are the power behind all of this. You are the geeks, if they’ll pardon me the expression, who have assembled at the XMPie Innovation Event in Palm Cove. You’re enabling a hugely productive, automated and largely robotic printing industry. This is the future and you are the masters of the universe.

But some educators have a different take. They tell me there’s no point in teaching kids how to write computer code because in a few years time computers will be able to do it faster and much better. It means that these esoteric code jockey skills are set to become as redundant as those of the lithographers of old, the film setters, and the craft printers.

What these futurists reckon kids need to learn now is how to live with accelerating change, how to navigate a future world where nothing is certain and the jobs that will be available are currently largely unimagined.

And the best way to do that?

Well, it seems the old philosophers had the answer all along.

Kids today have to learn life skills, mostly around the ageless imperative to … Know Thyself.

In an increasingly fluid and uncertain world, a firm sense of self is likely to be the main, possibly the only, constant in your life. And that’s the software code that really matters.

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