Instead of asking about the growth in print, should we be asking, what will the alternative vision to print be?

Ramu Ramanathan speculates about 2013.

02 Jan 2013 | By Ramu Ramanathan

Most of the pink newspapers and biz dailies are focussing on 5.6 GDP which may become 7 GDP in the long term. And all chime in unison about the Indian recovery, irrespective of the fact if the Euro will survive or no, whether the central government - and indeed economy - will combat the inflation.

Most print head honchos I meet stare at the TV in their cabin which has stock prices scrolling at the bottom. The slowdown can ruin their daily numbers. Sometimes, it does. It is depressing, one of them says. The manddi is here. 

Is this market sentiment or do we know anything about long-run print growth?

The answer is: less than we think.

What is our basis to calculate print growth? 

The long-term powerpoint projections one comes across in seminars and surveys, make one assumption. They calculate print growth over the next few years. What's worrying is, their projections resemble print trajectory over the past few decades. And so, print consumption — the key driver of growth — is projected to rise at a rate not too different from its average growth in the past two decades. 

As Paul Krugman the economy-watcher says, "It’s not hard to understand why research agencies make these assumptions. Given how little we know about long-run growth, simply assuming that the future will resemble the past is a natural guess."

But could we be wrong about the future?

There is big theory floating around. One: print growth is likely to slow sharply — indeed, that the age of print growth that began in the 18th century may well be drawing to an end.

Print growth hasn’t seen a steady process; it has been driven by small steps and boosted by “industrial revolutions,” each based on a set of technologies. The first print revolution, based largely on the litho-offset process, drove growth in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The second, made possible, in large part, by xerography and then inkjet devices drove growth into the late 20th century. The third, centered around information technology, defines the 21st century.

Experts claim the print payoffs so far to the third industrial revolution, while valid, have been far smaller than those to the second. Digital for example, was a much bigger deal than the IT.

It’s an interesting thesis, and a useful counter-argument to all the glorification of the new-age tech. Why not? After all, new-age stories are being narrated. 

The internet is an infant technology, and it's had more impact than most of us are aware. A pre-media firm in Chennai or Noida, for instance, has a London or Singapore office, and it's a very simple matter now to send them PDFs, Artios Cad files, packaging graphics, whatever is needed, instantaneously. Before the internet, one would have had to send them hard copies of everything, which is time-consuming, expensive, or both, and by the time they finally did get the information, the design would have been modified. That's just one example ... And there are many other examples in other industries.

Today, the way a book or a packaging product is ‘produced, delivered and consumed’ is getting transformed. The e-packaging or e-publishing segment has the potential to integrate pre-print, printing and fulfilment under one roof. With investments at varied functionalities, the creators can ensure the content is attainable in both, the print and the digitised. The good news is: Indian players seem to have decrypted this space and leveraged their competitiveness over their overseas counterparts adhering to their proficient pre-print services.

If you follow these things, you know that the field of screen print has for decades been a frustrating underachiever. But in recent times, there is resurgence. Like screen print for textiles and also automobile parts. For instance, Mumbai-based Classic Stripes is the largest supplier of automotive decals with a production capacity of 20 million automotive graphic sets. Lately, the barriers seem to have fallen — and screen print seems to be yielding seemingly profitable gains through a host of vital applications.

Other than the above instances, print growth is being sustained by packaging around the world and indeed in India.

Today, flexible packaging in India including flexible plastic, flexible aluminium/paper, flexible paper, and flexible aluminium/plastic accounts for 65% of all packaging forms. The trends suggest that consumers opt for large sized packages; also, the small sized packages are seeing a lot of action. The easy-to-open packages like pumps or sprays are becoming popular especially in beauty and personal care products. It’s interesting to note that Indian mLLDPE demand is estimated at 70ktpa (kilo-tonnes per annum) in 2010 and will exceed 200 ktpa by 2020. Target markets are dairy products, edible oil, food, detergents, cosmetics.

This means productivity growth and, therefore, high overall economic growth.

I think it's easy to underestimate the impact the print's having on our eco-system, but it's already a lot more important to our lifestyles than we're often aware of. 

Who knows what print is going to provide to us in the future? Nano print at very low cost? Multi-purpose paper that talks and engages? Exotic “inks” based on silver and carbon nanotubes that can create electrical circuits? 

Meanwhile the three dimensional print march continues. What started as a way of making prototypes by depositing layers of material (akin to inkjet printing) is becoming a real industrial technique. This is ideal for the small-scale amateur inventors.

The fag end of 2012 saw GE Aviation, one of the world’s largest manufacturing group, buy a firm called Morris Technologies. This is a small precision-engineering firm which has invested heavily in 3D printing equipment. Their special skill: they can print bits for a new range of jet engines. At the moment, Morris Technologies uses 3D printing machines, all of which work by using a digital description of an object to build it in physical form, layer by layer. One of the 3D printing technologies used by Morris Technologies is laser sintering. This entails a thin layer of metallic powder which is spread onto a build platform and then the material is fused with a laser beam. The process is repeated until an object emerges. Laser sintering is capable of producing metal parts, including components based on aerospace-grade titanium.

The highpoint of this technology is: it saves material. Instead of machine components from metal, only vital material is used. Also, these printed parts are lighter than forged parts, which promises fuel savings. 

Many manufacturers deploy 3D printing to make parts prototypes because it is economical and flexible than tooling to produce just one or two items. But the technology is now good enough for it to be used to make production items as well.

May be at such a time when we are on cross roads this is the crucial question to ask — are we asking the wrong question. 

And so, instead of asking about the growth in print, should we be asking, what will the alternative print vision be?