New Beginnings: Future Opportunities in Digital Print

Production and industrial print take center stage

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07/01/2021

Carl Doty

 

When I decided to pen my inaugural blog post after joining Keypoint Intelligence in April, I felt an anticipatory optimism that I can only characterize as a fondness for “new beginnings.”  Maybe it was the thought of my oldest son graduating high school, or the slight anxiety of starting a new job, or the welcomed warm spring air after a typical New England winter. Maybe it was all the above—the light at the end of the tunnel after a year-long pandemic-induced lock-down.

 

Settling into my new role, it is impossible not to reflect on the past. I have been researching and implementing disruptive technology for more than two decades across multiple industries. I began my technology career in health insurance. Heavily regulated and set in its ways (to put it politely), the healthcare industry was ripe for a digital revolution and I’m grateful to have played a small role of that. Later in my career, and throughout my 13 years at Forrester, I saw firsthand how digital disruption wreaked havoc across markets. Transformative change had overtaken retail by the early 2000s. Financial services was next. Then came the “media meltdown” just a few years later, catalyzed by innovation in telecom and consumer electronics. Digital advertising became ubiquitous, the entire IT industry moved to the cloud, “big data” spawned IBM’s Watson (aka “cognitive computing”), and suddenly every analytics software provider touted themselves as an artificial intelligence solution. Cut through all that clutter and there is one absolute truth: Every industry will face the inevitable. You either fall victim to it or plot your course toward a reshaped future.

 

Where am I going with this? Well, I chose this new mission a couple of months ago to lead the research team at Keypoint Intelligence because I see opportunity. There are a lot of people out there who proclaim that “print is dead,” and there’s nothing I like better than to prove conventional wisdom wrong. In my opinion, print is just getting started on the same journey that I described earlier in other industries. The key question is: In what areas will print thrive in the digital world? My colleague Deborah Hawkins has already declared that office print will never return to pre-pandemic levels—I wholeheartedly agree. However, I see three immediate growth areas in digital print outside of the office space, with a fourth under an “honorable mention” banner:

  • Wide format: As the economy recovers, so goes the demand for large format applications like banners, murals, billboards, and even floors. We are already seeing the return of events and trade shows. Looking ahead, extended reality will eventually become commonplace in the graphical communications industry, bridging the digital and analog divide for marketers who want to create more immersive experiences for prospective customers.
  • Direct-to-garment (DTG): The explosion of direct-to-consumer (DTC) apparel brands fueled by a myriad of consumer values-based causes and enabled by e-commerce will drive continued growth in DTG. High variability and customization at scale will be the keys to meeting consumer demand.
  • Direct-to-shape (DTS): High-end product and packaging graphics are the norm with the rise of subscription-based business models that we see in DTC brands. Expect to see more of this trend, along with increasingly complex applications that incorporate printed electronics on textiles and other industrial products over the long term.
  • Additive: This is the “honorable mention” and the most transformative in the list. Funding in this market in 2021 has already surpassed that of any other prior year. Rapid innovation in 3D print technology, new generative design software, and advances in materials science change the way that engineers conceive of product design. It is not about polymer prototyping anymore, folks. Look no further than Boeing and GE for evidence. Additive is the digital disruption that the manufacturing industry has been waiting for.

 

The Boeing 777x with a 3D-printed folding wing hinge is pending FAA approval
(Source: assemblymag.com)

 

In closing, let me simply assert that we are at another transformative inflection point in history. The pace of technological change will make this just as powerful as, say, the dot-com boom a little over two decades ago. The print industry is not immune from this disruption. I can assure you that business as usual is not a winning strategy.

 

I look forward to the changes to come as well as the opportunity to provide our clients with sound strategic advice with the help of my new colleagues at Keypoint Intelligence. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the words of the fictional character Mark Watney: “…you just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem, and you solve the next.”