Protecting print in a pandemic

Johannesburg, 22 Nov 2021
Read time 5min 30sec
Keith Knott, senior manager: sales, Altron Document Solutions.
Keith Knott, senior manager: sales, Altron Document Solutions.

Talking about the effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the printing sector, Keith Knott, senior manager of sales at Altron Document Solutions, says: “It’s been absolute carnage out there, we’ve seen a lot of the bigger commercial printers closing down, businesses of all sizes merging, and others have been put up for sale. We’ve noticed a fair number of retrenchments in the printing industry. People in our sector have definitely felt the impact of the pandemic and associated lockdown.”

Only those customers who saw what was coming and acted quickly, survived and are still in business. The good news is that if you look at the bigger picture, the print industry will probably emerge from the pandemic stronger, having survived financial hardships, and learnt from that."

Knott says: “A lot of the smaller ad hoc print operators were unable to survive the pandemic and either closed their doors or were absorbed into a bigger operation, which has had the effect of creating a more consolidated and professional printing industry.

“There’s no denying that the overall impact on the industry has been heavy. Not only from a reduced print volume perspective, but we’re also seeing people sweating their assets, not wanting to invest in new technology because they don’t know whether this country will go back into a harder lockdown if a fourth wave of COVID-19 strikes. We’ll probably only see the full impact in 18 months from now.”

Businesses that came through the pandemic and are still flourishing or breaking even, were relevant prior to COVID because they simply did things differently. The businesses that survived during the initial lockdown had two things in common: they’d undergone some internal restructuring and they’d set themselves and their customers up to operate digitally.

Prior to lockdown, forward-thinking businesses had consolidated their staff complement and reskilled people so that they could be moved away from redundant tasks and into other functions. They reduced their monthly expenses by going to their landlords and/or banks and making alternative arrangements, they extended contracts, asked for payment holidays and communicated with suppliers and service providers. All of this made it slightly easier for them to survive during the period that they were classified as non-essential services.

Other businesses set themselves ahead of the curve pre-pandemic by adopting new ways of doing business, using web-to-print portals or even having a full online presence. Those providers whose customers were already accustomed to doing things digitally, survived. Knott believes these businesses will get stronger over the next 18 months.

Pandemic = printless?

You might think that a remote workforce and an enforced shutdown of print businesses would create the perfect storm for the long-predicted paperless office to finally come to fruition, but this has not been the case, according to Knott.

“While the COVID situation has encouraged the use of virtual platforms, when it comes to print, people just printed on small desktop printers instead. This makes it impossible to track print volumes during lockdown, although paper suppliers might report some interesting new trends around the sales of A4 paper over this period.”

He explains: “There will always be documents such as training manuals, application forms for the UIF grant and even COVID-19 vaccination certificates that will require printing because the majority of our country’s population simply don’t have access to expensive digital technology. There is still a huge need for paper in South Africa.

“While all of the big corporate firms have been talking about the move towards a digital business, they’re still heavily paper-based. For instance, law firms, financial institutions, etc."

Using tech differently

One trend that has emerged during lockdown is an increased focus on using technology more productively. “Print providers are automating their plants more and more. They want to be able to receive jobs, quote, get customer approvals, and then move the job into the print facility, either mono or colour, finish and pack as per customer requirement, in a simple, non-complicated job flow.

Implementing this kind of workflow, sometimes combining more than one process, enables print providers to make optimal use of their staff, their skills and the space they have available.

“An automated workflow reduces the number of people required at each stage in the production process, freeing assets up to work elsewhere in the business. It saves on space because a dedicated workflow confines the work to a single area. The work itself has not changed, but the processes that drive the technology to fulfil a job request by a customer has changed.

“Print operators are looking for new ways to make their business as effective as possible and implementing customised workflows offers them that.”

The pandemic and innovation

No overview of the impact of the pandemic on the print sector would be complete without looking at the innovation that’s emerged out of the past two years. Knott says: “The launch of specialised vivid colours, enabling shimmering metallics, white and clear as well as fluorescent colours, were driven by people’s desire to do more, thus enticing more customers. Competition in the print industry is tougher than ever and providers need to differentiate themselves.”

He goes on to say that print providers are constantly seeking the next big thing, something the competition can’t do. “There’s also a huge shift of traditional print towards packaging print, particularly bespoke packaging for expensive brands, for example. Limited editions of high-end boxes or customised labels are being offered by many print providers.”

Looking to the future post-pandemic, Knott says he’s confident the print industry is going to flourish, with the ongoing introduction of new equipment and capabilities. “Print providers that do things differently, that differentiate themselves and adapt to new business models, will survive and even thrive going forward.”

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