Survival On Demand

In nature, a species has to either adapt to an ever-changing environment, and increasingly efficient competition, to survive. Sudden, drastic changes make survival less likely. One popular notion is that such a change an asteroid impact, an influx of volcanic activity, or what have you brought about the extinction of dinosaurs 60-plus million years ago. Actual scientists differ on how these creatures met their end, but the story is still a useful metaphor for industries like printing.

Over 1.5 billion seconds ago50 years the printing world was ruled by giants, by the likes of Lithosaurus Rex if you will. High demand for print, a complex manufactured product requiring expensive, specialized equipment, supported higher prices and a wide variety of prospering businesses.

Then came the asteroids. Digital technology not only made printing efficient, it also increased the potential supply allowing more companies to print with less investment and labor cost. It also changed the demand side, introducing competition from information on the Web, as well as the instant gratification of iPhones, iPads, and Kindles.

As any printing veteran today will tell you, businesses that cannot adapt will cease to exist. The old models of high volume printing are changing into short-run (or even single-copy run) ecosystems. The remaining giants are chasing ever-smaller orders, while nimble upstart companies are finding ways to aggregate small orders or add unique value to print.

The Print On Demand (POD) process itself typifies this struggle. Using Web-to-print ordering and digital presses, it is now possible to print something immediately after its been ordered, eliminating the inefficiencies of mass production and saving money that would normally be spent on storage. Even customers with limited budgets can have their print projects done without the high costs associated with traditional print. POD even allows a customer to customize his or her individual purchase.

The problem is that the printed product itself is seen as the least valuable part of the equation. Instant service, convenience, and facilitating a customers design ideas are the perceived value. Printing businesses must find ways of doing the latter profitably or risk becoming an undervalued commodity provider.

So, what will become of companies formerly known as printers? In nature, every animal has its own niche, but when two animals go after the same niche one of two things happens: one of the two dies out, because the competitor is simply better suited to that niche, OR one finds a new niche, even if its very similar to the old one, to avoid the competition. The printing process is changing radically, but will companies who used to just provide printed products be able to outperform their competitors? Will they simply succumb, move on to entirely different businesses,* or adapt to the POD world as a different species of business?

Its commonly held that birds evolved from dinosaur-like animals. Who knows? Maybe there’s an Archaeopteryx-like business potential in the printing companies of the future.

–John Parsons

* Don’t discount this possibility. There are quite a few gravure printers contemplating the move to manufacturing printed electronics.