Offshore Printing: New Reality of Globalization
The abundance of U.S. manufacturing jobs that have been outsourced to foreign countries in recent years has become a primary concern to most Americans. Many jobs were factory floor positions once filled by skilled U.S. workers, often in rural areas where decent-wage jobs for individuals lacking college degrees are hard to come by in the first place. This new reality has also become a major political issue on both local and national levels, unfortunately often met with shallow promises to create retraining programs to teach these now-unemployed workers new and more marketable skills.
Fortunately, the U.S. commercial printing industry has been more immune than most smokestack industries in the business shift to seek low-cost producers in countries such as China, where labor rates and the cost of doing business are minuscule in comparison. These countries also lack the business expenses associated with environmental compliance, liability insurance, worker safety and health benefits. According to Ronnie Davis, Printing Industries of America's (PIA) chief economist, in 2003 China ranked second only to Canada as a source of printing imported into the United States—$1.39 billion from Canada and $745 million from China.
As the landscape continues to evolve, many graphic arts industry pundits now predict that globalization will adversely impact American printers much more significantly going forward. These are just some of the sobering findings in a new report, "A Critical Look at Offshore Printing," published by veteran industry researcher Dr. Joe Webb of Strategies for Management. (A synopsis of the 138-page report can be found in the "Sea Change in Print Buying" article appearing on page 32 in this issue.)
The digitization of our processes has greatly enhanced workflow efficiencies for our domestic printing plants, but they have also become enabling tools for print buyers in America to do business with foreign printers. As the report notes, high-speed telecommunications, the PDF file format, computer-to-plate workflows and digital proofing technologies have removed the geographical barriers that formerly existed. The only remaining obstacle, it seems, is the added time needed for shipping and clearing customs involved in importing the printed output from an overseas supplier. And print quality levels are said to be equal to that attainable from U.S. producers.
In fact, foreign printing operations geared to export work have leap-frogged many of the growing pains that U.S. printers encountered during their painful migration from an analog to digital workflow. No longer do they seek outdated and unproductive machinery on the used equipment market. PIA's Davis reports that Chinese printers imported 2,400 sheetfed presses and 540 web presses valued at more than $1.7 billion from 2001-2003. Asian markets, especially China, became the saving grace for many global equipment manufacturers during our recent recession as U.S. printers hunkered down and suspended their capital expenditure plans. An October 2004 PIA/GATF Print Market Survey revealed that nearly four-in-10 printers think their customers are seeking global sourcing for their printing needs. Almost one-in-three said they lost a job to a foreign competitor in the first nine months of 2004—with nearly half of those respondents indicating that the foreign competitor was a Chinese printing firm.
The Strategies for Management report does offer some advice for U.S. printers to combat foreign competition. Paramount is to get your own house in order in terms of cost efficiency, equipment utilization and value-added services. The deeper you can drill into clients' organizations and fulfill their individualized needs through more personalized, one-to-one services, the harder it becomes for them to "reinvest" in a new supplier relationship.
But, as Dr. Webb's offshore printing report emphasizes, electronic communications is still by far the biggest threat to the printing industry. "It's the economics of using print that are unfavorable, not the economics of producing print," the researcher contends. Above all, that is the issue needing our collective attention.
Mark T. Michelson