thINK Ahead 2021 In-Person Conference Reunites Canon Production Inkjet Printing User Community
In adherence with COVID-19 best practices, this year's thINK Ahead conference was held in two waves — with the thINK community of Canon Solutions America production inkjet user attendees split into smaller groups, Oct. 11-13 and Oct. 13-15 — to allow ample social distancing while indoors and more outdoor gatherings at the luxurious Boca Raton (Florida) Resort Beach Club.
"The thINK Board was challenged to find a way to come together in smaller groups to protect the health of our community, and ended up devising a way that also empowers our community to learn, network, and connect in a much more personal level than ever before," thINK President Todd Roth, who serves as VP of Manufacturing & Distribution at Core Publishing Solutions, noted in a welcome letter to conference attendees.
As such, the seventh annual thINK Ahead inkjet users conference didn't miss a beat in terms of its winning formula of timely, deep-dive educational sessions; ample printer peer-to-peer and printer-to-sponsor networking opportunities; and Canon digital press and thINK Ahead partner pavilion demos onsite within the new Canon Americas Customer innovation Center (CIC).
Scheduled press demonstrations in the CIC included Canon ProStream 1800 and ColorStream 8000 continuous-feed inkjet presses, the Canon varioPRINT iX-series cutsheet inkjet press, the Canon Colorado wide-format inkjet printer, Canon imagePRESS C10010VP and varioPRINT Titan toner-based cutsheet models, and Canon's PRISMA workflow software.
thINK Ahead attendees were also privy to the unveiling of the Canon Americas Customer Innovation Center Print Innovation Wall — a celebration of boundary-pushing print projects from the inkjet community. (A video was produced (click here to view) to see some of the innovative inkjet applications.)
Encouraging beach casual attire throughout the event, this year's conference kicked off with a Cabana Nights Welcome Party pool-side, complete with a DJ; Latin food; and a row of individual cabanas, courtesy of Platinum-level sponsors Domtar Paper, Muller Martini, Pixelle Specialty Solutions, Solimar Systems, Standard Finishing Systems, and Tecnau, which featured cigar rolling demonstrations, bourbon tasting, a local poet and an artist demonstrating their creative talents, a station handing out paper fedora hats, and more.
In Tight Labor Market, Convey Your Brand and Culture
Francis A. McMahon, Executive VP, Canon Solutions America, Production Print Solutions (PPS) division, led off the following morning with a spot-on, thought-provoking presentation, "The Time Is Now: Your Brand & Culture Matter More Today Than Ever Before," that perfectly addressed the current business environment of labor and paper shortages, supply chain disruptions, vaccine mandates, and the feelings of burnout, fatigue, and isolation facing essential, hybrid, and remote workers due to the pandemic.
McMahon candidly addressed the challenges facing employers and employees alike brought on by seemingly endless virtual Zoom and Teams meetings that have replaced face-to-face interaction. "You can't replace shaking hands with people, looking them straight in the eye, and seeing their body language," he pointed out. "Our senses drive our ability to make good decisions."
He urged the business owners and senior managers to look inward at the culture they foster in terms of retaining their best print production workers and attracting millennials who often hold different values — such as wanting to know what your organization stands for — in a tight labor market. "We must radically rethink the way we do business, and how we recruit and pay people," McMahon said. "Making a profit is very important, but the way we get there is even more important."
Today, employees and other stakeholders want to know what your brand stands for, McMahon added, and it's imperative that printing companies communicate that to their workforces and clientele. "It's not just a logo, a font, or a color," he stressed. McMahon advised business owners to go on Amazon and order value cards, which can be handed out to employees by their managers, to fill out and pick the values they deem most important to them.
Paper Shortages and Other Supply Chain Disruptions
Another timely session, "Risk Management: Positioning Yourself for the Future," featured Marco Boer, VP of IT Strategies; Mike Ratcliff, President of Midland's Specialty Paper & Film division, and Eric Hollingsworth, VP of Operations at RevSpring.
Boer pointed to shortages of aluminum made to make offset plates as another driver for the current industry shift from offset to digital inkjet print production.
From the perspective of a large national paper distributor, Ratcliff described the perfect storm that currently exists in the market: Paper manufacturers closed mills in response to a decline in industry demand for coated free sheet grades. Mills shifted to produce linerboard and other grades for the growing packaging market. Mills reduced capacity due to COVID-19. Foreign manufacturers can't get their products into the U.S. due to shipping delays at backed up American shipping ports. There is also a shortage of chemicals used to make paper, as well as a major shortage of truck drivers available to transport truckloads of paper to the printers that need it.
Ratcliff encouraged printers to talk to their customers frequently about potential paper substitutes for their print jobs, which, in turn, gives a printer the ability to pivot should they be able to secure another replacement grade. He also advised printers to make sure their guillotine cutter is staffed and operational. "There's a lot of 14x20˝ [paper] made that's sitting around and could be an opportunity," Ratcliff said, adding that converters have also been deluged and are at a choke point.
As a transactional print provider with three U.S. plants, Hollingsworth noted the need to forecast much further out than before. "We're now placing orders three weeks out," he said. Paper buying is also being done at RevSpring through operations, rather than through the procurement department, to enable quicker decision-making ability. He also advised fellow printers to make sure they don't fall to the bottom of their paper supplier's customer list by paying their invoices on time and "not screaming at their paper contact on the phone" in frustration to no avail.
In terms of managing customer expectations, Hollingsworth said it's a delicate balancing act of keeping clients informed of what's happening in the market in terms of the paper shortage, but also not scaring them off to make rash decisions such as canceling print jobs or shifting to electronic alternatives. "It's really two conversations: the supply problem on one end, a pricing conversation on the other end."
Rave Reviews from Sponsors and Attendees Alike
This has been a fantastic conference. It was my first year coming, and has been everything I heard it was and hoped it would be — print industry executives, competitors, non-competitors, all coming together and talking candidly about the industry, the issues we face today and how they are handling them. It has sparked new ideas and inspiration and I'll head back to the office with fresh perspective and insight that will help us move forward. — Kirby Mathias, Plant Manager, Bookmasters
This conference is different, more intimate, than your typical industry conference, with better networking opportunities that enable you to talk to people 1:1 and build genuine, sincere customer relationships on a more personal level. thINK Ahead is definitely different than any conference I've ever been to and the value of being here is clear. — Mauro Valle, Regional Sales Manager & Solutions Manager with Platinum Partner Muller Martini
While BCC Software has sponsored thINK Ahead every year, this is my first time to attend, and it has been more than I expected. When you hear 'user conference' you don't think leadership conference, and that is exactly what this is, a conference where industry leaders come together to talk about where we are going and how we can adapt and change to gain momentum. thINK is one of the most important communities for BCC Software and we are happy to be here. — Matthew Lauer, Senior Presales Engineer, with Gold Partner BCC Software
I've attended thINK every year, it is an extremely valuable conference for print industry leaders. Sessions are always relevant to what we are currently facing in the industry and attendees are open and honest and willing to share and discuss ideas. thINK Ahead is one event I don't want to miss and I'm so glad that the thINK Board found a way for us to all come back together this year in smaller groups so we can continue these important discussions. — Angela Hipelius, CEO, Liberty Creative Solutions
The thINK board announced open registration for the thINK Ahead Virtual Event on Nov. 4, 2021, with numerous sessions designed for all roles and inkjet experience levels. Registration is now open for Canon Solutions America inkjet customers.
As the onsite conference attested, making the virtual event available to more teams members in your organization will be well worth the time away from their normal job duties. It's an opportunity to send a message reinforcing the inclusive culture and brand — built around continuing education and information sharing — your organization is trying to foster.