‘Everything that can become digital will become digital – and print is no exception’; discuss. Well, actually, no need. An instinctive handle on digital technology comes hard-wired into the DNA these days; just check out the natural affinity between any three-year old and a remote or a smart phone.
That doesn’t mean that all those offset, flexo and gravure presses are destined for the scrap yard just yet, of course. Apart from anything else there’s far too much invested for that to happen. Nonetheless, by the time the next generation is running the show, engineering will be more synonymous with scrolling a tablet than getting down to the nuts and bolts.
For anyone unfamiliar with that ‘can/will become’ prediction, it was coined by Benny Landa when launching the first digital press; the bumptious over-egging of the attributes of a process that was at that time far more concept than commercial reality, and accordingly was roundly patronised – maybe deservedly so – for its growing pains by the more mature technologies it sought to displace.
Twenty years on and digital still only accounts for a fraction of the global €186bn printed packaging market; its most significant impact to date arguably having been to nudge those in situ processes into extending their capabilities to realise the new marketing opportunities afforded by shorter runs and versioning. Even so, it’s the technology that is dictating the shape of things to come.
While the ‘whither digital’ debate during the recent Print Innovations show at the NEC set some fascinating hares running, it was often sidetracked by either trying to determine where digital stops and starts or marginalising it in relation to other processes, rather than leapfrogging a decade or two to when such comparisons will be too odious to bother with. No surprise there though; change is invariably uncomfortable to contemplate.
Important though they might be, comparative outputting speeds, quality of colour reproduction and all the rest of it are steadily ceasing to be critical points of difference. What’s starting to count at least every bit as much is what the delivery system looks like; a basic bit of dress sense that the packaging industry’s habitual role as the singer not the song should readily appreciate. So: not necessarily better; just more in tune with where we’re headed to.
Digital print has insinuated rather than bulldozed its way into contention as a complementary adjunct to conventional processes. Cutting-edge technology on its way from the godfather of digital himself could accelerate the cessation of that protracted phoney war and give his original prediction a more definite timetable. And if not nanography, then something else not dreamt of yet in our philosophy.
Des King is a freelance journalist specialising in packaging. Send your comments for Des to firstname.lastname@example.org