Up until very recently, the opportunity for production printing devices has been relatively static.  The commercial print marketplace has consolidated, overall image quality has improved, turnaround times have lessened. At the same time, specialty substrates, spot colors (including metallics, white, etc.) and variable print have provided some market opportunity for those selling and using production devices. However, have we really added value to print? Or have we just been getting better and faster at producing the same old product?

When was the last time you opened a greeting card that didn’t have some form of embellishment or decoration on it? Was there a tactile feature? Maybe some interesting foil effects? Cutouts perhaps? Even tipped-on embedded electronics that play a short recorded message or song? These techniques caught your attention, didn’t they?

Beyond the Greeting Card

Why is it that the features that we have been so used to seeing in something as ubiquitous as a greeting card do not come to mind as a possible design feature of a brochure, direct mail piece or even a label? Certainly we might be concerned about budget. These sorts of effects have been reserved for high-volume, high-value products.

In reality, up until very recently, decorative print or embellishment has rarely been used, as the setup costs are high. Spot UV coatings or foils require extensive make-ready, constant redesign, waste, inventory management issues, need for specialty papers, a special order of foils and so on, including the need to prepare individual dies in the case of foils. For this reason, short runs have not existed because the cost of entry has been prohibitive. Furthermore, variable foiling hasn’t even existed in the marketplace because no one has ever thought of digital foiling or embellishment in this way.

Now, new products coming to market are providing foil and spot/embossed coatings in a pure digital environment. Gone are the extensive set-up processes. No make-ready, no dies, no screens and no silks are required. 

Premium Value

It is estimated that about 1.8 trillion color pages are produced in the U.S. and Europe. Of these pages, 30 percent are embellished in some way, such as with coatings or fifth colors. However, only 0.5 percent receives any digital embellishment or decoration (InfoTrends: The Value of Digital Print Enhancement, 2017). That leaves us with a very large area of opportunity for new hardware coming into the market that enables short run digital decoration and embellishment

In the InfoTrends study, we find that the willingness to pay for embellishment or decorative effects exists, and the perceived value of the printed page is high. As a matter of fact, the study shows that the participants were willing to pay 82 percent more for a printed piece that is embellished with foil and 89 percent more for a piece that was textured based on the image content.

Digital Proofing

The ability to produce an embellished or decorated product is not enough. The challenge has always been: How do you proof something that requires a die to be produced, before it can be printed? I may have a client willing to pay more for a digitally foiled or texture coated piece, but how do I present a proof of concept to my client? Mockups don’t truly show the impact, and running a volume of one for a proof is impractical.

Software providers have caught on to this need, and have provided us with digital proofing solutions that make the embellishment or decoration come to life. In real-time, imagine uploading a print file for a business card, selecting a texture pattern, and voila, you can now see a 360-degree view of the piece, including the reflection of light in those areas that have been textured with the spot, dimensional UV coatings — all without a single sheet printed, plate burned or die created. But a texture pattern may not be what you want. Upload an image that you would like to lay on the business card in foil, or let the system auto-detect the content of a picture and choose for itself how it adds the dimensional UV texture. The flexibility is endless and the impact is incredible.

Digital proofing has extended beyond just coatings and foils. Now you can see the animation of a box (including foil or spot coatings) folding closed and opening, being converted from flat sheet to completed package, without printing a thing or setting up a cutter or folder. Some solutions in this space even allow you to take printed textile patterns and overlay them onto digital “mannequins” in order to see how fabrics will drape on the body, without ever cutting a piece of fabric.

Printable Electronics

As the child of an electrical engineer, I was fascinated with the process of creating printed circuit boards. They’re actually etched, not printed in the sense that we normally think of, until now. Years ago when I saw my first digitally produced foiled product, I wondered if the foil was conductive (that is, capable of transmitting electricity). Just a few short years later, we now see this becoming a reality. Fully printable circuits, and even power sources, using new technology that will be released to the public in short order, will revolutionize everything from anti-counterfeit packaging to greeting cards.

Conductive electronics like printed RFID makes the imagination soar. How about walking through a reader with your shopping cart, waving your smartphone over the sensor, and off you go? No need to remove items from the cart; the RFIDs printed on the packages of the products you’ve bought have identified everything in your cart. This is the obvious application that is already here today. Look at Amazon Go stores. Now technically, we aren’t sure of the exact technology they are using (they’ve denied using RFID), but in their patent filings you can see that it’s either some form of printed electronics and/or an imaging technology. In any case, the effect is the same.

But how about electronics that can be folded up like a sheet of paper? What can our minds imagine as an application for this? Flexible TVs that can be stuck to the wall like a wall decal. Medical testing devices that can be folded up and disposed of after use. Interactive wallpaper that enables a true smart home. Hardware coming in the short- to- midterm will be able to make all of this possible.

The Future of Print

Print is not dead. The example I frequently cite is direct mail. As the sole source of advertising that you cannot block (unlike do-not-call or email lists), direct mail continues to grow. However, separation from the pack, or differentiation, is the key. What makes that printed piece stand out from the rest? It’s not the DPI, it’s not the print speed of whatever printed it, and it’s not necessarily even the content. In many cases it comes down to what makes it jump out from the pack. Think of an average wine buyer going to the store and searching for a great red wine. Are they really knowledgeable about all of the choices, or is the label attracting them? Could the foil, texture and color attract their attention? Absolutely, and so it is with direct mail.

The future of profitability in the printing industry rests with the differentiation that is achieved. Look to the future of digital decoration and embellishment, along with software solutions that support it, to change the face of profitability for those in the print industry. Look to those same future products to provide the consumer with new creative outlets and innovative ways to differentiate their work and stand out from the crowd. 

Erik Holdo,
Konica Minolta Business Solutions USA

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel.