The re-emergence of the small printer

Many large printing firms today trace their lineage back to a patriarch (or matriarch) with a used AB Dick or AM Multilith in the basement or garage.
The same thing is happening today. We are seeing the rise of digital-only print services by a new generation of entrepreneurs.

A snapshot of the New Zealand printing industry is illustrative. There was an increase in the number of print establishments – – 254 in 2006 to 335 in 2007. In actuality, mergers have been taking place regularly and the number of larger printing firms is down. But the New Zealand trade association redefined the industry and included all firms involved with reproduction – – thus sign shops and copy shops were counted. Industry revenue rose from $NZ1.1 billion to $NZ1.25 billion – – a nine per cent increase – – confirming that the increase included small firms. What was most interesting is that digital printing rose 44 per cent among all users.

This phenomenon is being replicated across the globe. Call them copy shops or quick printers or commercial printers or sign shops or even online print services. They have two aspects in common: they are small (fewer than 20 employees), and they are totally digital.

Small-to-medium businesses dominate the industry, as is the case for US and Australian industries, with 85 per cent of printing enterprises employing fewer than 20 people. This predominance of small businesses is a worldwide feature of the industry. For example, three-quarters of print shops in Germany employ fewer than ten staff. In Asia, about 95 per cent of companies are classified as small businesses.

We are seeing both decline and growth simultaneously. Medium and large printers are consolidating, thus reducing the overall number of firms. But, at the same time, redefinition is including more existing firms and new firms are starting up. Thus, the number of “printers” in the world is actually growing.

Because digital printing is scalable – – from low-end systems at ten pages per minute to 80 pages per minute or more – – one can start small and increase in capability as required. More importantly, most of the skillsets of the traditional printing industry are now automated to a high degree. It takes less labour and less skill to produce a printed page than at any time in history.

Why hasn’t this phenomenon been articulated before? Because small shops are difficult to find and track and trade associations may restrict membership.

In the 1930s printing associations were comprised of letterpress printers and they would not allow membership of offset printers. Thus, offset printers formed their own associations. Copy shops are not usually considered printing services; yet, they apply the same digital printing systems as quick and commercial printers. Sign shops were not covered by traditional industry associations; yet, they now apply wide-format digital printing routinely.

Several forces are at work simultaneously:
1. Print volumes have stabilised and are growing at a minimum rate for the short term (1.6 per cent);
2. Electronic substitution has absorbed the majority of what it will absorb;
3. Inplant printing will grow slightly in volume, virtually all of it digital;
4. Run lengths are diminishing, thus expanding the market for digital printing and smaller services;
5. There will be a small net gain of printers each year for the next five years and then the number will stabilise;
6. Global economic factors will continue to be a factor in business levels.

Over 98 per cent of all printers are independent small businesses – – only a small fraction are franchised (the most common perception of the small printer) or part of a larger company.

The small printer rises again.

Frank Romano is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology in the USA. He has founded numerous magazines on print, and is a regular contributor to a wide range of print forums and publications around the world.

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