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Mood at Graph Expo Reflects Uncertainty --Michelson

November 2008
THE TIMING of the U.S. printing industry’s most important trade show could hardly have been worse. It took place amidst a barrage of media coverage on dried up commercial credit markets that threaten companies, across many industries, from securing financing to meet their short-term commitments—let alone receiving the financing to make capital equipment expenditures. Sharing the media spotlight was bad news about plummeting stock markets globally, bank failures and bailouts, and growing fears of a prolonged, worldwide recession. These are tough times that sap the resolve of even those most bullish.

Notwithstanding the malaise, some 600 exhibitors put on their best face to highlight their latest wares. And, despite noticeably smaller than expected crowds on the opening day (a Sunday, when the local Chicago Bears had a bye week), Graph Expo did pick up steam over the next two days before what is typically a less active final day. 

In fairness to the Graphic Arts Show Co. (GASC), which organizes the annual trade exhibition, comparisons of this year’s event to the attendance figures of past shows should be put in context with the state of the U.S. economy. Printing companies are now sending fewer people to trade shows and, in some cases, have even imposed travel bans. Thus, the case for quality over quantity becomes a viable argument in describing the printing executives—with buying authority—who did walk the aisles. 

Even the various press conferences this year seemed to take on a different tone, as several suppliers spent almost as much time discussing their financial stability and strong cash positions as they did talking up their latest offerings, many of which debuted at Drupa in Germany just months before. There was less big iron filling the show floor than one would have found even a couple of years ago. The expense for offset press manufacturers to ship, assemble and run large presses is formidable. Also a sign of the times, several of the bigger booths clustered around the largest exhibitor, Heidelberg, consisted of suppliers with digital printing pedigrees.

Exhibitors I talked to reported that customers seeking to buy new equipment, for the most part, were not encountering financing issues from their banks or chosen finance companies. Fortunately, printing and finishing equipment maintain a relatively strong residual value. And, despite the uncertainty in the economy going forward, there still was buying activity—especially by the forward-looking printing establishments that realize the necessity of automation, waste reduction and makeready efficiency to bolster throughput and reduce labor costs. Interest was especially brisk from those shops seeking more value-added capabilities, hence the busy booths geared toward digital and wide-format printing, as well as mailing and fulfillment services. Workflow was also an overriding theme, with an emphasis on MIS systems, Web-to-print and JDF capabilities that reduce as many human touch points as possible.

With 2009 being a PRINT show year, it’s too early to predict market conditions for that marquee event, held next September. In the meantime, look for further consolidation on both the printer and vendor sides of the industry. Companies that survive the storm, however, will be leaner, meaner and positioned for success when the economy improves. Resiliency and the ability to reinvent ourselves are true hallmarks of a venerable industry that has endured major technological upheaval, past recessions and an ongoing threat from alternative media. Keep the faith that we’ll once again rise to the challenge.

Mark T. Michelson


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