A Printer's Predictions

Our industry’s crystal ball says to focus on value-added services that put a premium on knowledge, skill, and experience.

Here we are in the second quarter of 2016, and I still need to know what this year will mean for our industry. Will it be a boom or a bust? What markets will be hot? What products and print technologies should we focus on? Who will be our next president? Will his or her influence stimulate our economy? If Trump is president, do you think he’ll want graphics on that wall?

My mind is numb from looking at charts and graphs from financial analysts. I can’t bank on my stock portfolio to retire. No one predicted what has happened to share prices. I’m done with the experts. I need someone who’s connected to the pulse of the universe and the spirit world.

I needed answers. So, I searched online and found a local fortune teller. She was in a rundown shack just off the Strip here in Las Vegas. The tiny, dark room had a small table with a large crystal ball backlit by the glow of a candle, and the décor was black and purple velvet. It seemed to have the right vibe.

I sat down at the table in the chair nearest the door. The fortune teller glided in and took her seat opposite me with her back to the corner. She didn’t speak. We simply sat there, looking at each other for what seemed like an eternity. I couldn’t see her eyes because she wore a headscarf and a veil, but I could tell she was studying me. She finally spoke. “The future is not the past.” She had a soothing and reassuring voice, but I thought, I hope she isn’t going to take my money and spend the night stating the obvious.

“No,” I responded. “It isn’t.”

“What answers are you looking for?”

I told her about our industry and all its peril and uncertainty. “What can we expect this year?”

“Well, let’s have a look.” She gazed down into her crystal ball and began to rhythmically make circular rubbing motions with both hands. She stopped and stared intently. Finally, she said, “Curious.”

“Curious?”

“You are looking for truth?” she asked.

I nodded.

“A truth is not always true.”

“What do you mean?”

“There is something that you and your colleagues believe, a conventional wisdom, if you will. I am getting a sense this truism may be crumbling under the weight of an evolving reality in your world.”

There was a pregnant pause while I tried to figure out what the hell she was talking about.

“Wait, I am getting what looks like words floating in the globe. I can’t read them because they’re moving so fast. I need to concentrate on following them. OK, one is ‘tempo,’ yes, and ‘face,’ no that’s ‘pace,’ and ‘race.’ Do any of these words mean anything to you?”

“Tempo, pace, and race? Speed,” I blurted out. “That must have something to do with speed.”

“Well, whatever they meant, they have disappeared as fast as they appeared,” she said as she directed her gaze back to the orb. She rubbed the crystal ball and let out a low moan.

“More words are appearing, but they are blurry and I can’t make them out. Wait, they are becoming clearer. Ah, yes, now they have come into sharp focus: ‘excellence,’ ‘clarity,’ and ‘brilliance.’ Do these words mean anything to you?”

“The quality of appearance? I don’t know. Image quality? These are all descriptors of image quality. That’s it.”

“This isn’t good. My crystal ball is growing dim so I may not have any more for you. Wait, I can faintly see new words. Yes, here is one: ‘rock.’ Yes, that’s it, ‘rock,’ but another word is chasing it and that word is ‘bottom.’ Well, ‘rock bottom.’ There’s a single word, ‘low.’ Here’s ‘cut’ and then another word pairing with it and that word is ‘rate.’ ‘Cut-rate.’ Anything?”

“That one is easy. Low pricing. The bane of our existence.”

“I know you can’t see this, but all these words are moving in a pattern. It’s like a three-dimensional design that’s condensing into three big words. What does ‘good, fast, and cheap’ mean to you?”

I laughed. “Great! It’s an old adage in our business. It goes something like this: ‘There are three variables you can offer your customers and they are good, fast, and cheap. You tell them they can pick any two, but they can’t have all three.’”

“Is that a conventional wisdom in your industry?”

“Yes.”

“Then it’s clear what the crystal ball is telling us,” she said. “The conventional wisdom is crumbling in the future.”

“I was afraid of this, and I too have seen the future,” I reluctantly added.

“What was your prognostication based on? Do you have a crystal ball, Mr. Miller?”

“No, I read the writing on the wall. Printer manufacturers have been improving their technology every year. The latest printers, and certainly the printers of the future, continue to get faster. When we started, we printed at 10 square feet per hour. We are now seeing printers that are 100 times that speed.

“And image quality has improved to levels unimaginable. Prints are so good that silver halide photographic printing has become obsolete. I think it’s as good as it can be in two dimensions. And the printers are getting so simple to operate and color manage that almost anyone can produce a gorgeous print.

“Finally, the cost to print has been dramatically reduced by lower consumable prices, but the speed improvements have become a cost game changer. As speed increases, there’s an inverse correlation to labor and overhead cost.

“I guess, Madam Fortuneteller, you are predicting that in the near future the customer will get everything: fast turnaround of stunning prints for less money. I was hoping for some good news,” I lamented.

“Hold on. I am getting another message,” she said.

“Well, I hope this one is better than the last,” I said dejectedly.

“These words are stringing together. They’re forming a sentence. ‘It’s ... not ... just ... about ... the print anymore.’ Is this important?”

I thought for a moment. “Hmmm. Anyone can produce a gorgeous print with one of the newest printers. They can do it in record time for budget prices. So it’s going to be hard for us to differentiate ourselves by just providing prints. The crystal ball is telling us we have to be more than simple print providers if we want to thrive in the future. Because fast, good, and cheap will become expected and ultimately be taken for granted.”

She seemed genuinely concerned. “What will you do then?”

“In a world where fast, good, and cheap is standard practice, we’ll have to concentrate on value-added services, ones that put a premium on knowledge, skill, and experience. We must study the market for the best and most innovative media. We better start inviting those vendors to keep us up to date. If printers become ‘plug and play,’ our knowledge of substrates becomes valuable.

“Finishing solutions and excellence can make our prints stand out. The ability to edge flame polish acrylic is an excellent example. At SGIA, I heard someone won a prize for mixing dye-sublimated metal with UV-cured printed texture. That’s the kind of innovation that will work.

“Other services like CNC cutting and etching and lamination options are valued. There are opportunities in fabrication and installation. We have a job in-house that requires water jetting, powder coating, dye sublimating, and bending on aluminum sheets for a storefront. This is an example of accepting responsibility to create added value and enhancing the image of our customers. Because remember, your crystal ball predicted, ‘It’s not just about the print anymore.’

“I guess we’ll have to practice empathy marketing by getting to know our customers’ wants and needs better than they know themselves. And pay attention to the old adages that will always be true, such as, ‘Under promise and over deliver.’ We have to provide products and services that our competitors don’t. Do the things that are hard. And if it falls outside the realm of a commodity product, if we have some level of exclusivity and are providing a unique product, we can charge more. We can change our fate!”

The old woman said, “Old truths have changed and put your future at risk. I can see that fortunes won’t be bleak when you take control of your future and create new truths.”

“You are wise,” I said. “Finding new ways to distinguish ourselves after customers come to expect ‘fast, good, and cheap’ will make us better managers of better companies. Perhaps the new truism should be ‘fast, good, cheap, and unique, pick any three.’”

Read more from our April 2016 "Inspired Interiors" issue.

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