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Digital Domination: A Glimpse of New Era? —Michelson

October 2010

GRAPH EXPO certainly took on a new look and feel this time around. With the show floor mainly comprising color digital presses, wide-format inkjet printers and finishing equipment geared toward shorter-run digital jobs, someone from outside our industry would have a hard time believing that the vast majority of commercially printed pages today are still produced on lithographic, not digital, printing presses.

Some might argue, that once Heidelberg, Komori, and presumably Mitsubishi, come back into next year's show, Graph Expo 2011 will regain its more familiar layout—with digital and offset printing press manufacturers vying for the attention of show-goers. But, I'm not convinced it will be (trade show) business as usual. Despite the Graphic Arts Show Co.'s (GASC) machinery handling incentives that encourage exhibitors to bring more equipment, as well as new work rules enacted at McCormick Place to help lower costs for exhibitors, offset press manufacturers still have a hard time justifying the ROI of setting up large presses in their booths. With a better payback from bringing potential buyers to their technology centers for individualized demos, gone are the days where you'll see numerous sheetfed offset presses running in a Graph Expo exhibitor's booth.

Their new trade show business models, as illustrated by the manroland, KBA and Goss booths at this year's event, seem to focus less on promoting new equipment, and more on service and maintenance options for existing presses, as well as a growing range of consulting services. Enhanced business services that take a more holistic, plant-wide approach, and sales efforts geared toward more recession-proof segments like packaging and in-plant operations, are helping these manufacturers maintain revenue streams in an environment where installations of new litho presses have remained anemic. Blame it on the erosion of some offset work to digital presses, and an overall reduction in print volumes due to electronic alternatives. Couple those conditions with excess used equipment that's still flooding the market due to plant closures and payment defaults, on top of the continued difficulties that printers encounter trying to secure capex financing. Consequently, heavy-iron offset press manufacturers are still facing an uphill, but not insurmountable, sales climb.

Overall, though, the mood and sentiment among exhibitor and attendee alike at Graph Expo 2010 was much more upbeat than last year's Print 09 installment. Many vendors were pleased with the sales leads and new contacts they made, and reported that more printers seem poised to start pulling the trigger on capital equipment investments again. The comparatively much smaller floor space and fewer days, in comparison to Print 09, also helped make the show appear more crowded. And, the strong push by GASC to encourage co-located events to be held in conjunction with Graph Expo—nearly 20 in all—including numerous user group meetings, the IDEAlliance G7 Summit, a print buyer forum and Xplor Document University, among others, helped draw visitors to the show who might not necessarily have come otherwise. Also, with the demise of the former Nexpo exhibition, the debut of the News Print newspaper pavilion at Graph Expo filled that void and brought another industry segment into the fold.

Will Graph Expo 2010 be remembered as the tipping point where inkjet digital printing developments captured the attention—and some day, in the not-too-distant future, the wallets—of many commercial printers? Historically, widespread technology shifts in our industry have occurred much slower than many of the pundits and analysts predict. But, like the volatile stock market and shrinking 401(k)s have shown us the last couple of years, historical patterns are no guarantee of future performance. The same might be said about evolution within the rapidly changing commercial printing marketplace. For many printing establishments and supplier companies, it's going to be a wild ride.
Mark T. Michelson



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