Print is one of the world’s largest industries, rivaling even the global automobile industry. But popular opinion wouldn’t give one an optimistic impression of what it actually means to the world. Where will print actually be in 5 years? The answer to this question will be wide in breadth, but unquestionably important for national economies and the industry itself. The coming decade’s printing innovations, economic superpowers, and global dynamic will all be investigated in this short analysis.
First and foremost, it is necessary to explain the methodology of such a general analysis. Print, after all, has diverse branches which all have their own outlooks, outlooks which individually depend on the location in which they are observed. In order to provide the most initial clarity, the geography of the matter will be stand in the background while the specific fields of print are isolated and examined, using primary and secondary sources, for their most meaningful innovations and financial situation. For eyes unfamiliar to the topic of print, the functionality of each method will also be quickly explained. These printing methods are offset, intaglio, screen, flexography, digital, and lastly 3D print.
Simply said, offset printing an old, trusted, and universal standard of print. Offset machines use flat, etched plates to arrange dampening fluid and ink in the very precise order of a raster, or etched printing image. After the ink hits the plate, it is carried indirectly by a rubber blanket onto the printing substrate, hence the name offset.
Products that are, and will continued to be produced in offset, include mid- to high-volume magazines, newspapers, and packaging where customization, an increasing global trend, isn’t in demand. In the wake of individualized digital print, prices for printed offset sheets have fallen 11 percent from 2008 to 2018.  That figure is not enough to displace offset as the industry standard, however. It has been predicted that lithography (offset) printing will still maintain 70% of the global market share into the year 2022. 
Offset hasn’t seen many exciting technological developments. On December 27, 2017, Comexi exhibited their latest innovations on their CI8 packaging press, on which the cylinder service station has been integrated into the press and the sleeve changing mechanism, resulting in higher efficiencies during certain steps of print production. They also introduced new optimizations in color matching technology.  The steps taken by Comexi seem to resemble a pattern in today’s offset innovation- faster, more reliable prints. The only radical change in offset isn’t change within the machines themselves, but rather the adaptation of digital presses to expand the capabilities of existing offset presses.
Intaglio, or rotogravure printing, is the second industry standard after offset. When working with intaglio printing, one is moving several tons of metal to produce huge volumes of prints. Intaglio printing uses engraved cylinders, in which the printing cells, of which the printing image is comprised, are lowered into the cylinder surface in comparison to flat plates used in offset. These cells run though a trough and squeegee after which they are filled with ink, and their respective cylinders rotate synchronously across multiple printing units to press individual colors onto a paper web.
Intaglio is another traditional standby, with modest, promising numbers in the coming half-decade. The $1.6 billion global market from 2016 is expected to grow into a $2.2 billion market by 2025.  There are, however, certain sectors of this growth which are going to be particularly relevant in a world where the world’s largest populations are developing considerable disposable income. The food and packaging sector is the clear frontrunner in the intaglio world, with an estimated one percent faster growth than all sectors averaged together. This should come as no surprise when one considers the huge job sizes needed to serve south-east Asia.
One quick look into the last year of innovation delivers two noteworthy achievements. Firstly, an Indian company called Uflex has been developing a particular laser engraving system for intaglio cylinders that promises to reduce ink-waste of the electromechanical counterparts by 25 percent.  This innovation, while it doesn’t revolutionize the process itself, accords to a similar pattern of optimization like with the offset industry. In the same thread, Intaglio and offset are also seeing an identical adaptation of digital technology, especially in the labeling sector, where products need to be finished with variable data.
In China, where primitive printing was developed thousands of years ago, wood block letterset printing was simultaneously accompanied by a simple form of screen printing.  This early concept of screen printing involved using wood panels with punched out symbols and a blanket of ink, which after application would leave behind a printing image onto a surface. Today the idea is similar- a fine mesh is coated with a particular gel into which a much higher resolution printing image can be developed Ink is then draped across the mesh, and through the pressure of a squeegee, ink is forced onto the substrate.
One of the world’s oldest printing methods appears to have met its match with digital technology. There are clear signs that screen printing is losing its market share to innovative inkjet solutions. Printed electronics  and customized t-shirts, are two of the remaining markets still dominated by screen technology.  The printed electronics industry, while also being disrupted by digital, flexographic, and intaglio printers, is forecasted to grow by eleven percent over the next five years.  Inside of this time, it’s hard to say how the proportions of the respective methods will shift.
When it comes to sources of innovation, screen also shows its age. Aside from machines that have been developed around the technique, there are only a few remaining technical advantages that give screen printing exclusive applications. These characteristics are very thick ink layers, opaque whites, and metallic colors. Digital printers, with fine ink delivery heads, haven’t yet proven reliable results in such processes.  Thanks to these certain advantages, screen printing will still maintain a confident rank in the world’s global print production.
Flexography came on the scene relatively recently. It strongly resembles letterpress in its functionality, except that the relief plate is developed in a process similar to the modern computer-to-plate method, which in this case generates a flexible substrate on which the raised printing surface is unified. Flexography is capable of printing diverse materials and is well suited for large surfaces of continuous color.
As a printing method, it is showing most promise in the global labeling and packaging sectors. A market growth of 4.51% is expected during the period of 2017-2026.  In flexography, the market growth comes with certain challenges, for which profitable solutions are being developed. For example, stricter governmental regulations concerning packaging are requiring that environmentally friendly inks be used. This is causing notable fluctuations in the global flexographic ink markets. Companies like iFLEX have taken notice of this, and exemplified the pursuits of flexographic printers worldwide.
During the 2018 South China Printing trade fair, iFLEX, as well as other participants, will present interesting innovations for flexographic machines. iFLEX specifically has developed a flexographic printer with an impressively short web length (to reduce waste), a “pre-register” system that optimizes plate changes, quick die cutting preparation, particular compatibility with safe, water-based inks, and integrated screen printing.  Other advancements in films for labels and varnishes for consumables are being made to address an industry obviously growing in importance. Europe, North America, and Asia will accordingly be witnessing healthy growth in the flexography market as packaging becomes an increasingly prevalent, flexographic product.
Digital printing is a general term for a relatively new type of print production. From either approach, inkjet or laser, the concept is consistent. The two methods respectively use droplets of ink or particles of toner by positioning them on a substrate exactly where they are needed, and they are fused to the substrate.  The placement of these microscopic ingredients requires particular precision and some understanding of electrical charges. Despite their technical complexity and relatively high operating costs, however, digital printers are facilitating a veritable revolution in the worldwide printing scene.
Firstly, the digital printing market has boomed from a value of $131 billion in 2013 to $187 billion in 2018.  From 2012, where digital print was producing 2.1% of global volume, to 2.9% in 2017, it is being predicted that 2022 will see digital print with a 3.9% share of worldwide production volume. For these reasons, many companies are beginning to sell their shares in offset production.  This is especially important in Asia, where the demand for individualized packaging has allocated a 45% global market share in the region. A similar demand is growing in Europe, followed by North America. In fact, during the time of writing this report, two massive corporations have been negotiating for a to adapt to the coming digital future. For a whopping $2.5 billion, Fujifilm has purchased a majority of the shares in Xerox, effectively combining the two companies into one joint venture headquartered in both North America and Asia.  When looking at the forecasts for the next 5 years, the reason for this acquisition is obvious- Fujifilm is looking for a competitive advantage in the digital printing sector.
A competitive advantage they will need as competition in digital print grows. Since digital printing is becoming comparatively affordable for industrial purposes, the inherent innovations in the method will inevitably spell a shrinking market for other printing methods, including even offset. The flexibility of digital print is enabling brilliant reproductions of on-demand, low volume (and increasingly high volume) products- not to mention variable data print, which allows for individual customization of each copy.  Customers, who ultimately want personalized prints with the fastest possible turnaround times, have finally found a technology with which these demands are realizable. Despite having most of those customers in advertising print, digital production is also particularly attractive in packaging and labeling, [8, 9] where logistical or artistic differentiation are nearly mandatory. Even in high-volume situations where roll-fed digital printing doesn’t make financial sense, it’s still finding its way as a finishing process of hybrid intaglio and offset workflows. 
Two examples from only one month, January of 2018, can illustrate the rapid development and manhours being invested into the digital industry. At Germany’s HEIMTEXTIL conference on January 2, 2018, digital printing company and mural producer PPS and K&L Wall Art exhibited and immediately signed deals for their Xeikon 8500.  The Xeikon 8500 is one machine in a suite of digital production tools, named X-800, that enables efficient, individualized print of roll-to-roll wall decorations. With the Xeikon 8500, they have achieved a 56% faster printing process, up to 900 m^2/hour, on a wide array of substrates. On 24 January 2018, FLEXcon, a company specializing in coating and lamination products, announced the ‘breakthrough’ release of their new UV top-coated polyester, polypropylene, and vinyl products fit for narrow-format UV inkjet, the fastest growing field in digital print. These materials, which previously were unable to simultaneously provide adequate ink adhesion and dimensional stability, are now ready for application in highly regulated sectors like high-durability safety labels. The collaboration between FLEXcon and OEM printer manufacturers not only enabled this innovation, but also produced the first roll-to-sheet digital products of their kind on the market. 
The growth of digital print as a technology and disruptive force in all other areas of print is not to be ignored. This list of examples could continue with big names like Sun Chemical, Flint Group, and Nazdar just to name a few.  Summarized together in one sentence: Companies around the world are feeling the revolution of an affordable, unprecedented flexible digital printing industry.
One look at the numbers, and it immediately becomes clear which countries are most involved in print. After Japan and Germany, who as of 2018 are respectively in 3rd and 4th place according to market size, China and the United States are in a heated competition for both volume and profit. It seems unnecessary to address Germany and Japan, as they are both highly developed countries with stable print industries, but as of 2014 Germany was nearly $60 billion behind China in market size, and Japan $10 billion behind.  The printing heavy-weights, in 2014 when the last market data was available, were the United States and China with respective market sizes of $185 billion and $97 billion. This might seem like a large gap, but around 2014 is where the forecasts seem to taper-off and differ. According to the Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies (NPES), as of 2014, China was projected in 2017 to lead the US with a market size of $154 billion (US at $141 billion).  As the average prediction of growth for the print industry rarely surpasses double digit percentage points, this forecast can’t match a similar forecast from Smithers Pira, in which they claim a global market size of more than $980 billion by 2018. 
For this reason, it may perhaps be more useful to use paper and cardboard consumption statistics from the corresponding regions. From a financial perspective, currencies and market values are both subject to high to intense speculation. From a printing perspective, actual usage statistics are more representative of the populations’ developments, especially considering the rapidly increasing importance of corrugated cardboard and digital print in the packaging sector. The general rule from McKinsey & Company says the growth of an economy manifests itself, among other products, in the demand of paper and board. As it turns out, in 2015 China was consuming over 105 million metric tons of these products, while the United States were consuming 71 million. Broken down into the weight per capita, the United States recorded 525 pounds per capita in 2015, while China registered 163 pounds. 
These numbers, when considered on an international background of development in the printing and political world, carry an obvious conclusion with them. Outside of a booming packaging industry, the most developed countries of the world, for example the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, have saturated their inhabitants with print products, and in doing so, have opened the door for a Chinese takeover of the print industry. This isn’t surprising. A similar conclusion has been made across market research companies, news organizations, and print associations who all watch the Asia-Pacific region with anticipation of high development in digital, packaging, and even 3D printing technology. 
Finally, a simple speculative thought experiment may help illustrate what, not only the next five years, but coming decades how Asian print might look. A model of high development like Germany had a paper and board consumption of 548 pounds per capita in 2015,  and we can apply this sort of domestic demand to the future Chinese population. Assuming 50% of the Chinese population lives in similar opulence within the foreseeable future, if not already, half of the population would demand 171 million metric tons of paper and board. This is nearly two and half times the size of the world’s leading printing economy, the United States. Excluding the variety of other print products vital to a functioning society, this simple calculation paints a powerful picture of the future.
What does all of this mean?
For international print engineers, the signs are reasonably clear: the world is moving into a direction of strong personalization, facilitated by digital technology. Intaglio, flexography, and offset, while growing at moderate speeds, are being hybridized with digital (and in some cases, screen) systems. Stable and growing economies are both watching the rise of packaging as a printing medium, introducing totally new expectations for the materials of an industry slowly shifting toward Asia. And lastly, the growth of China is the greatest new opportunity for a type of business that has nearly saturated and connected the world’s most highly developed countries. Print is using digital technology to reach across borders and unite the world’s most populous country with a well-established, celebrated tradition of visual communication.
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