PrintEx: A fair to remember

T here was a lot riding on this year’s PrintEx. Trade fairs have struggled during the GFC. You only need to look across the ditch to New Zealand’s Printech, which was pushed back from 2010 to 2012 due the tight economic climate. Print09 in Chicago in 2009 was seen as a real low point.

Even at the best of times, event management is not for the fainthearted – when the Icelandic volcano gave a final cough on the eve of Ipex 2010, it was panic attack time for the organisers. So it was crucial the PrintEx11 organisers got it right for the Sydney show.

One overriding feature of the Australian print landscape over the past decade has been consolidation, whether printers, vendors or, just last month, paper merchants. Trade show organisers are not ones to be left out. This year saw PrintEx join hand-in-hand with display graphics and signage show Visual Impact Image Expo (VIIE). With fewer firms in the industry, it makes sense to have fewer exhibitions. More companies are looking to become one-stop shops, perhaps running an offset press beside a digital printer with a plotter churning out
posters for good measure. So bringing a multitude of different technologies under one roof makes sense.

PrintEx chairman Mitch Mulligan knows this. “We had a mandate from our members in GAMAA to reduce the number of shows, so pulling together the co-location with Visual Impact was about maximising the exposure and meaning you only have to go to one show not two.”

Those people who made the trip to Darling Harbour on 6-8 May this year will have seen that it wasn’t a matter of two trade shows taking place in close proximity. For the casual visitor, PrintEx11/VIIE was one single show, dominating four halls of the Sydney Exhibition & Convention Centre.

One business owner who made the trek was Colin Darling, managing director of Ashley Printers, based just north of Brisbane. A veteran of PrintEx and PacPrint, Darling has always made the effort to leave the Sunshine State to see what’s on offer at the shows. This year was just a fact-finding mission but he has been known to spend big (at PacPrint 09, he racked up a $220,000 bill, including an order for a Heidelberg press).

Ashley Printers is the kind of small but diversified business that makes an ideal target for PrintEx exhibitors. With just 11 employees, it spans offset, thanks to a four-colour Ryobi and a two-colour Speedmaster, and digital, led by a Canon ImagePress C6000. Darling says it is no longer enough to be just a commercial printer. That’s why he brought in digital, both for short runs and variable work.
The company also offers celloglazing and has a design service. So after the combined printing and signage show, could a wide-format press be next thing on the list?

“It was a winner putting it together with Visual Impact,” says Darling. “I found myself drifting into VIIE without realising it was a separate exhibition. Suddenly I was on that side, seeing all the textile stuff. Initially I didn’t realise it – the two are becoming more seamless.”

Darling agrees that this confluence of technologies, applications and companies has been ramping up in recent times. “Four years ago, you would not have had PrintEx and VIIE together.”

Much has been made of the wide-format opportunity in recent years. Printers are being told that signage, point-of-sale, banners and the like are an avenue to better margins.

Darling says: “At PacPrint, we noticed the proliferation of wide-format. The price is coming down. If printers have room, why not put in a wide-format machine?”

It’s not merely about opening up new markets; it is a compete overhaul of an investment cycle that most commercial printers have stuck with throughout the life of their business. Darling says that a wide-format device might be a smarter investment than simply calling up your offset vendor of choice, whether to ask for an oil change or a whole new engine.

“If printers are OK with their machine and have a good life left in their presses – say, five to 10 years – you’d think they’d be looking to spend money on diversifying. We update our press by default, but that’s not so attractive any more.”

Roland DG is the kind of supplier with a lot to gain from the cross-pollination at the combined trade exhibitions. Sales director John Wall agrees that the combination was a winner. He was a fan of the lack of an obvious border between shows.

“The flow over of people was good from our standpoint, although we also had a number of strategic partners on the PrintEx side. But what was done well was the way it was set up. There was no clear delineation between the two. Customers did flow directly across.”

At the show, the Roland DG stand was a showpiece for the manufacturer’s technology while resellers were dotted around the convention centre. If customers wanted more advice on a specific machine, the dealer could walk them over to the wide-format manufacturer’s booth. Conversely, Roland DG team could point prospects toward any one of several dealers.

Merging two shows makes sense in a consolidating industry. Another driver, as Mitch Mulligan pointed out, is that exhibitors are asking for fewer shows. Trade fairs are expensive, and they only provide return on investment if the foot traffic is of a high enough volume and, crucially, a high enough quality in terms of senior decision makers.

Wall says: “From a cost standpoint, [the co-location] worked work well. Everyone is looking to reduce costs on marketing and trade shows and that is one way to do it, rather than have two trade shows.

“There was a reduction in numbers but we were very steady on our stand and had good quality of visitors.”

Wall guesstimates that 30-40% of either exhibition’s visitors would typically go to both shows. With only one trade fair, it’s more likely that more people would come across an exhibitor’s radar. It’s a pleasing combination for an exhibitor. But don’t just take Wall’s word for it; take the opinions of the entire global team of senior management from Roland DG.
The wide-format company opted hold the latest meeting of its global executive committee at the show.

“Our executives were impressed by the size and quality of the show. Obviously it wasn’t the size of Drupa or a US show but they were impressed,” he says.

A local printer with plenty of experience of trade shows, both large and small, local and global, is Dudley Scott, director of one of Perth’s finest, Scott Print. “I’ve done most of the overseas ones: Igas in Japan, Drupa, Ipex,” he says.

This year, Scott made the trek across the continent primarily for the National Print Awards (NPAs), where his company once again staked its claim for Western Australia, with two golds.
For Scott, the new partnering of PrintEx and VIIE worked well, while he remain a fan of the tried-and-tested tie-up with the awards.

“I think PrintEx in association with the NPAs was exceptionally good. I thought it was the best PrintEx I have been to – I have been to three of them. Previously the signage was separate. Combining them was very good. The crossing over of technology was certainly coming from both sides of the show. For 100 copies, plotter-proofers are cheaper than offset.”

Technology is coming together, and shows are finding new territory, and this is a reflection of the ever-growing demand on printers to provide an all-in-one service.

“The overall range of products we must present these days is all-encompassing. You must offer a whole range, from mailing to plotting to printing and binding. Printing is becoming more of a one-stop shop. We have quite a lot of clients that want us to just ‘do the job’, whether outdoor signage, or things we don’t manufacture ourselves,” says Scott.

“In times to come, you will need to have a huge plotting machine and a mailing machine and print business cards and print catalogues, all in-house or handle it on the customer’s behalf.”

This year’s co-location gave PrintEx11 a boost, but it remains PacPrint’s little brother, and is more focused on the smaller end of the market. Offset printers like Scott may have been disappointed to find just two sheetfed presses at the show: a four-colour Speedmaster on the Heidelberg booth and a Ryobi press on the Cyber stand, a five-colour A1 model that was sold to CMYKhub (see box, left)

Digital technology, whether production machines or wide-format, was the biggest drawcard in Darling Harbour. The leaders in offset either opted for a minimalist approach, as seen at the KBA and Manroland displays, or focused on other parts of the market; Ferrostaal stuck to finishing and HP Indigo dominated the Currie Group stand.

“The big people – Manroland, Heidelberg and KBA – they could have done a lot better,” says Scott. “I think they treat the show as a bit of a nuisance.

Scott accepts that the restrictions placed on exhibitors preclude too much focus on heavy metal. The Sydney trade fair is a ‘shell scheme’, with limitations to the size and scope of exhibitors’ stands. “PrintEx is pretty hard because they only have 48 hours to get the machine in.”

He thinks “the Konica Minolta thing [the alliance with Heidelberg and Kodak] was good but there was no excitement at Heidelberg.”

The partnership between Heidelberg, Konica and Kodak was a real talking point of the show, with plenty of visitors heading to the combined booth to get a glimpse of ‘the three amigos’.

But Scott – one of WA’s biggest Heidelberg customers – wasn’t convinced that a digital-offset alliance is a marriage made in heaven. When showing production colour next to offset, it’s a stark reminder how far toner quality has come. “Showing them side-by-side – why would I buy an SM 52 when I can buy a digital press?”

He says that while a sheetfed machine would take 15 minutes to set up, “I walked across to Konica Minolta and they did it in 20 seconds and it looked them same.”

Andy Vels Jensen, managing director of Heidelberg ANZ, is not short on a response to this. “It all depends on the run length – set-up time versus number of sheets and the cost of consumables.

“However, if it is short-run colour work that the printer is looking to do, then [printers] should spend some time with the Heidelberg and KM guys to better understand where the best fit is for the various jobs and how fast makereadies are on the SM 52 Anicolor as compared with digital engines,” he says.

“Granted, there are grey areas and overlaps between Heidelberg and Konica Minolta. As stated on past occasions, digital sits alongside offset and the crossover of work from one technology to another depends on the job.”

Slightly off the topic of PrintEx (but typically valuable nonetheless) is a further aside from Vels Jensen: “People tend to forget that the biggest impact on A3 offset press sales worldwide remains the ascent of web-to-print gang-up printers. Put it in perspective: one eight-colour Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 162 perfector running at a web-to-print gang-up printer in Germany is doing the output of more than 240 HP Indigo engines. This impacts the A3 market more than digital does.”

A3 digital kit was in abundance at the Sydney show, which means the copy shop end of the market was well catered for. There were plenty of representatives from Snap, Kwik Kopy and Worldwide to be found wandering the halls. Many of these franchises operate a small-format toner machines alongside wide-format inkjet. They are also likely to be shopping around for the kind of entry-level finishing equipment on show across PrintEx.

Paul Diener, owner of Minuteman Press Northshore in Sydney, headed across to PrintEx11 for some general recon, rather than with firm investment plans in mind.

The small company’s model exemplifies the kind of diversified strategy seen at copy shops across the country, with the typical colour digital and finishing augmented by some large-format machinery. Diener keeps an eye out for new opportunities, and most recently saw a chance to offer CD and DVD duplication services, helped along by a strategic alliance with a specialist provider.

So with an eye for tie-ups, Diener says he was very interested to get along and investigate the partnership between Heidelberg, Konica and Kodak.

“If we continue to consider strategic alliances as a potentially important adjunct to our business growth, we need to make sure we align ourselves with people who are at the leading edge instead of more of the same. That’s why I was keen to see Heidelberg and Konica and Kodak. We have digital, offset and finishing, but wanted to see the potential to integrate that stuff, to dramatically reduce costs and offer something new to a client.”

Another local copy shop owner at the show was Paul Kasper from Kwik Kopy Bondi Junction. Kasper has done plenty of rounds of the trade show circuit, from PrintEx to PacPrint to Ipex. He admits he wasn’t blown away by this year’s show.

“I was a little disappointed with PrintEx this year as there appeared to be few changes since the last one. This comment was also mentioned from a few other owners who had visited the show. Unless you were looking at something specific, it didn’t really spark the imagination,” he says.

Kasper did have a shopping list in his back pocket, but adds that the traditional investment cycle is changing quickly. He echoes Ashley Printer’s Colin Darling in saying the modern printer needs to broaden his outlook toward investments.

“I feel that as the technological improvements decreases – as far as quality and speed are concerned – printing companies will be looking for a longer lifecycle of their digital equipment, from the current four to five years to six to 10 years,” says Kasper.

“Currently most vendors want to discontinue service at the five-year period, causing a print company to have to purchase a new box while the previous box still has considerable commercial life left. This is the period where the printer is going to reap greater financial rewards for themselves, and not the digital vendors.”

PrintEx gave Kasper food for thought in terms of investment, but this wasn’t all he was thinking about. Beyond digital boxes, he was fond of the co-location with VIIE but said there was work to be done to turn the exhibition experience into more than just a selling fest.

“The Visual Impact part is probably the most thought-provoking part of the exhibition. I feel that the two need to stay combined. Also, I feel that a missing piece of the puzzle is the training of users and sales staff with print providers to be able to get the most out of the equipment. Most vendors want to sell the box, and leave it to you to effectively ‘learn on the job’. This is the area that will reap considerable rewards, and help advance our industry’s profile,” says Kasper.

Fellow Sydney franchise figure Anthony Col, production manager at Snap Clarence St, treated the expo as a fact-finding mission. He went along to “soak it up” and “see what’s new and what’s coming up”.

Col points out that most of the exhibition’s ‘launch’ products had actually been premiered at Ipex 2010. It was a common theme from the printers ProPrint spoke to – PrintEx11 didn’t have many landmark technological innovations, not much out of the blue.

But one technology sector with quite a bit of depth was digital finishing. Machines have come on leaps and bounds, including the kinds of low-cost desktop devices a printer could charge up on his credit card without losing sleep. Graph-Pak subsidiary Bermuda Printing Supplies garnered interest from the floor with two sub-$10,000 machines for embellishing.

The two devices had only just arrived off the boat from Asia in time for the trade fair. Tom Ralph, managing director of Graph-Pak, says there was strong interest, with more than 30 machines sold off the Bermuda stand “and climbing”, while there was “almost a clean sweep” of gear sold at the Graph-Pak side of the booth.

Another desktop device could be found on the GBC stand. The FastBack FB20 desktop binding machine was brought into the GBC fold following the company’s recent buyout of reseller Fastbind.

GBC highlighted heavier-duty offset product lines on one side of its stand and digital finishing on the other. Visitors were given the first viewing outside Europe of the Eurofold Touchline CF375. The touchscreen-operated machine, first seen at the Digi:Media show in Düsseldorf in April, is aimed at short-run jobs and can get through 6,000 A4 sheets per hour.

With all these innovation to bring finishing in-house, don’t forget about the trade specialists. One such company was AllKotes, which had stand at the show. Managing director Alan Goulburn says he thought the trade fair was well attended, and was surprised to hear that numbers were down on four years ago.

“From AllKotes’ point of view, we were very happy with the show,” says Goulburn, who singled out the VIIE co-location as a good initiative. “We have got to grow the market somehow so any cross-pollination has to be positive. But as far as new things, it fell short of the mark,” he adds.

Goulburn points out that the New Zealanders he talked to were impressed, but was personally disappointed by the lack of visitors from interstate. As the biggest local show for two years, PrintEx was very Sydney-centric.

“People from Perth and Kiwis were there but there seemed to be a lack of attendance from Victoria and Queensland,” says Goulburn.

Perth man Dudley Scott agreed that interstate visitors didn’t get as much of a look in. For instance, his suppliers’ local reps were absent, and he says a bit more in terms of hospitality for far-flung visitors wouldn’t have gone astray. Also, Scott asks, where were the paper merchants?

The last – but many would say most important – of all the stakeholders in the printing value chain are the people who actually pay for print, the print buyers, production managers, marketing people and procurement specialists. This year, the PrintEx organisers made a special effort to cater to this crowd.

Mitch Mulligan was out there before the expo, spruiking the importance of bringing clients along. Specifically, there was the ‘Power of Print’ showcase, a display that was intended to hammer home just how impactful and effective print can be.

Did it work? A few buyers who dropped by the ProPrint stand had mixed feelings about whether this show was any more customer-focussed than in the past. Matthew Roberts, senior print manager at Sydney agency PHD Creative, was more interested in looking at substrates than kicking tyres of printing machines.

“We knew that 80% [of the show] wouldn’t interest us. It’s nice to know about new innovations with presses but we leave that to our suppliers. For us, it was about looking at materials and media to let our clients know what is out there.”

He singles out Network Marketing as one standout, including its polypropylene as well as its Stone Paper product (“a great concept”). In fact, Roberts was at PrintEx four years ago, but working in pre-press at a printer. So he can see both perspectives. The fact is, PrintEx is “primarily a trade show for the print industry” but Roberts was “fairly happy with what we saw”.

“I like to see how many different machines are out there. I am lucky enough that the suppliers we use have the industry-leading machines. But in the end, I would rather see samples of what [printers] have done. I know all the equipment but I don’t want to drag our creative director to the show – he doesn’t care about the equipment.”

The last word goes to Heidelberg’s Vels Jensen. Never short on an opinion, what did the veteran of local and international trade shows take away from this year’s PrintEx?

“Given the number of visitors and the importance of local trade shows to ANZ printers, maybe we don’t need a PrintEx and a PacPrint. Rather all suppliers could make use of their existing showrooms and instead put the money towards an annual ANZ Print Conference, interchanging between Sydney and Melbourne – not too unlike what is done in New Zealand.

“It could celebrate print, combined with the National Print Awards, where we discuss industry issues and challenges, invite buyers of print buyers as speakers to hear their stories and points of view,” adds Vels Jensen.

“What could the organisers do better? The show’s organisers did well and there were plenty of improvements compared with the previous PrintEx. However, even with VIIE, visitor numbers were down substantially compared the previous PrintEx. A sign of the times.”

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