It's all good3 December 2020
For too long, the print industry debate has focused on conventional versus digital, yet there is plenty of room for both as they offer different positives and strengths. So, let’s be lovers, not fighters. Thayer Long, president of the Association for Print Technologies (APTech), talks to Emma-Jane Batey about how being ‘technology agnostic’ means finding the right solution for the job regardless of labels.
You know that old adage, ‘when you’ve only got a hammer, every problem looks like a nail’? Well the conventional versus digital printing debate has been rather like that, with those that invest in one particular solution determined to shout the loudest about why their technology is best, and why the alternative simply won’t do. And perhaps that had been true to some extent, with short runs leaning towards digital and high-volume jobs on certain substrates being better on flexo.
However, the printing toolkit goes way beyond just hammers and nails. It’s easier than ever to understand how different options can be best used on a job-by-job basis as we better understand the various positive aspects of print solutions. Thayer Long is the president of the Association for Print Technologies (APTech) and he is the ideal voice of reason for this debate that isn’t really a debate. Proudly representing “truth and optimism for the print industry”, according to Long, APTech represents the whole of the print value chain and “is dedicated to broadening [its] members’ exposure to new people, new opportunities and new ways of thinking”.
As a US-based, but increasingly globally active, non-profit association, APTech helps printing equipment manufacturers and suppliers to open their distribution channels in established and emerging markets. Its largest stakeholder group is currently manufacturers of printing equipment, with all technologies represented and supported. Long explains how this broad group comes together at APTech, saying, “We develop content, research, and business opportunities for all members of the print supply chain. For equipment manufacturers, that includes print finishing, binding, pre- and post-press, software, workflow, consumables and more.”
APTech also has a growing stakeholder group of print service providers themselves, adding to its representation across the supply chain. “By serving different markets and approaching our support from a multi-technology standpoint, we’re able to create a bridge that aligns the industry,” Long continues. “So many relationships between printers and their vendors are critical to the success of the customers; by offering a strong connection between the two, we can support that vendor base in a positive way.”
By focusing on positive outcomes that address the needs of the customers, APTech is able to advise and support on the best technology solution for the task at hand, rather than being driven to push a particular option. “That’s why I say I’m technology agnostic; I want the focal point to be the outcome, the synergy, the relationship, the collaboration,” Long says. “Only by understanding what is the desired outcome can a particular technology be suggested. And let’s face it, often there is not just one answer. What perhaps used to be true in terms of performance advantages and disadvantages of conventional over digital is no longer the case.”
Understanding what drives the end consumer in making their purchase is the final analysis, yet by appreciating this core decision as early as possible in the product creation, the right print technology can be discussed in a ‘real time’ way, as opposed to the ‘this type of job uses this type of technology’ assumption. “Manufacturers always want to engage customers and prospects, so there is a natural channel into their customer base,” Long adds. “For printers, it’s about creating business opportunities. That’s why we have user groups of print verticals, including brands, so we can help generate different possibilities. There’s a common interest among the printers, converters and manufacturers – the consumer. By talking about concepts and moving away from obvious sales-based arguments, we can see what customers’ outcomes are and what customised solutions are most suited to that particular customers’ needs.”
We’re all consumers
So how can customers (or brands) chose what solution is best for them if conventional and digital print offer the same performance? Well, Long explains that it’s not quite that simple. “Most brands are technology agnostic too; I think of myself as a consumer, ultimately, and I realise that it makes absolutely no difference if a product has been digitally printed, or flexographically printed. Of course, it makes a difference to the brand in terms of consistency, confidence, I get all of that, but the quality differences, the colour standpoint, essentially these differences have gone away.”
There are certainly peculiarities that will lean towards a certain technology being more intuitive, such as rigid substrates being more suited to offset printing, or shorter runs on a limited budget ideal for digital, Long ascertains that this doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. “We know that many offset printers are now working as effectively as digital printers on lowvolume runs now,” he says. “And while there may be good business reasons to support any one decision like toner versus inkjet, it’s more about preference, what equipment your local printer has, or whether you want or need a certain lead time or stocking solution. It’s a circular argument in discussions.”
This interesting perspective throws shade on the perennial conventional versus digital debate, yet, in a rather lovely way, also brings light to the personal preference factor. If, thanks to increased quality, enhanced expertise, and technical advancements, both conventional and digital printing can provide reliable print quality on various substrates and can be quickly deployed for both long and short runs, surely we can just chose whatever we like best? Or, to put it more bluntly, who we like best?
If we don’t have to be led by a certain technology for a particular job anymore, as they’re all more than capable of delivering the solution we need at the budget we have, we can see whose approach we like best, whose work ethic best blends with ours. Perhaps we pick printing partners on the basis of personality matches at the initial meeting, or who we find most responsive to our questions. “Yes,” agrees Long. “So many decisions these days are about preference. We do plenty of research about packaging markets, trends, different industry publications – the fact is, everyone has an angle. Everyone has their own interests to push, which is absolutely fair enough. I believe that the bigger conversation we need to have is about the wider industry perspective; the macro trends of e-commerce, sustainability. It’s about creating compelling packaging that is effective and responsible.”
Making your mindset
‘Creating compelling packaging’ is a horizontal trend that goes beyond what specific technology is used – after all, they all have the ability to perform as needed – so while Long appreciates that technology decisions can still be substratedriven, it is primarily about delivering products that meet your customers’ needs and addresses the wider trends of e-commerce and sustainability. “What matters is how the technology choice fits into your product portfolio,” he claims. “While I know that packaging manufacturers can certainly be creative and innovative, ultimately we are all consumer driven. It’s a mindset, not a technology.”
Understanding that mindset is relevant to the historically manufacturing-led printing and packaging sectors is an interesting plot twist. Packaging has clearly been tight with product marketing and retail psychology for many years, yet by seeing the exciting opportunities for fresh ideas that address the macro trends of e-commerce and sustainability is a thoroughly modern focus. “Applying creative thinking to come up with great ideas is one thing – but for me, the big difference is sharing those ideas,” he says. “We can’t keep good ideas to ourselves anymore, there isn’t just one big trade show once a year where everyone shows their latest launch. Showing that we are consultants, that we can apply creative thinking to help our customers to develop customised packaging that meet their specific requirements. That is the main trend, and it goes beyond technology choices.”
Thinking of printing technology as part of a Venn diagram with mindset, consumer demand, and profitability, makes for a clearer description. With printers having a traditionally volume-based measurement of success, it can be hard to shift that and measure by value instead. Yet many can print less and charge more if they get their offer clear and their service impeccable. “As an association, we focus on the mindset; the better the manufacturer, the leaner it is, the most efficient it is, the more profitable it is, the happier its customers are – it’s about benchmarking yourself,” Long explains. “Like I said, lots of companies can do the technical part, so it’s about what else you have to offer.”
That unique offering has taken a real body blow in 2020. The global pandemic has forced practically all industries in all countries to take a long hard look at themselves and think about what they can do differently. Those that don’t, can of course blame coronavirus, but those that do can thank their own efforts and agility. When it comes to the print for packaging industry specifically, there are certainly opportunities out there. “It comes back to coming up with ideas and sharing them; at APTech, we consider ourselves marketeers,” Long says. “We’ve got lots of members from right across the supply chain, but what everyone has in common in needing to appeal to the market, to understand consumers. Lots of printers have successfully negotiated coronavirus not through their print business but through smart digital marketing – consumers are still buying stuff, just in a different way.” By driving innovation and sharing ideas, printing experts don’t need to focus on what specific technologies they offer but rather how they’re offering it. Are they stuck in the same mould of doing what they’ve always done, or are they prepared to use their equipment differently, or to see how else their expertise can be deployed in a post-coronavirus world? With consumers receiving more purchases direct to their homes, the delicate balance between too much packaging and not enough on-box marketing is just an Instagram post away from shame. “There are so many opportunities,” Long concludes. “From the label to the perforation, every detail has a chance to connect with the consumer and help build your brand. What printing technology you chose is of course important but only because it is part of your brand story – choose who you like working with and who keeps their promises.”