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EVP, Marketing at Specialty Print Communications

Against the Grain

By Dustin LeFebvre

About Dustin

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC


Researching What Comes Next

Printing has been disrupted. Technology is rocking the pillars of the print medium. It’s generating new communication channels, new methods of engagement and new ways to deliver value. Inarguably, it’s changing the landscape that we navigate every day. But like the frog in the pot that doesn’t feel the water heating around him, we sometimes don’t see the enormity of the shifts.

I’ll have an opportunity to take stock of this dynamic this week, when I head back to Western Michigan University to speak at WMU’s annual Litho Day, an annual event that brings together students, faculty and industry members to cross-pollinate ideas and discuss trends in lithography.

This year’s theme—“The Marriage Between Offset and Digital Printing”—is supremely demonstrative of these shifts. While offset alone may not be setting the world on fire, hybrid applications are turning heads.

Returning to the place one went to college conjures up nostalgic thoughts, but it also encourages comparisons and assessments. Since WMU’s research-driven program has always been a leading indicator of the direction of the industry, I took a moment to compare the leading topics of the day: then and now.

In 2003, remote proofing, color management and de-inking seemed to attract the most amount of research attention. Today, as I return, I’m hearing about printed electronics, 3D printing, spot color proofing and soy-based resins.

The discussion has moved from ink on substrate to the mashing up of print and other technologies—new applications with high value and terrific growth potential. The printing of electronics—such as transistors and resisters—onto various flexible substrates could deliver low-cost electronics for flexible displays, labels, posters and even apparel.
  • RFID is an example that enables low-cost inventory and transportation tracking.
  • Printing solar cells onto car roofs represents another application that may come down the line.
  • The printing of biosensors onto flexible devices could generate an entirely new security industry.

3D printing is a topic that is so hot it’s made its way to the cover of The Economist in the past year (“Technology: Print me a Stradivarius”). It’s a technology that threatens to turn the industrial revolution on its head by enabling the remote production of any single item that can be digitized. Need a part? Print it.

The economies of scale of mass production could give way to the benefits of on-demand, mass-customized products, in addition to the benefits delivered via rapid prototyping of new test products. Google “3D printing” and you’ll discover a wide array of innovative applications of “printing” technology that would blow Gutenberg’s mind.

Against these revolutionary technological advances, some of the other issues we’re dealing with now may seem pedestrian and mundane, but they’re nonetheless important.
  • Spot-color proofing affords an opportunity to cost-effectively enhance the fidelity and impact of conventional ink-on-paper production runs.
  • Soy-based resins as a replacement for petroleum-based resins have real meaning given the rising cost of petrochemicals. Soy-based resins find support in both the sustainability camp and among advocates of greater petro-independence. (THAT sounds more and more appealing each time I fill up my gas tank.)

WMU’s Department of Paper Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Imaging is a testament to this integrative kind of change. It continues to evolve and adapt to the new era of print, giving students the tools to work across departments—including industrial manufacturing, engineering, physics and biosciences.

As academia changes, and the workplace as well, we’re not always able to see the evolution. Day-by-day, it may not seem like what we do is dramatically changing, or that new print technology is shifting how we operate. But make no mistake; our industry is changing, and there are worlds of opportunities out there—some, more easily seen than others. And you don’t need to go back to school to see them.

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