Top Three Workflow Trends in Production Printing for 2021

A virtual, e-commerce, and platform-driven year is ahead



Ryan McAbee


The new year always brings new optimism, and the world is hoping for a big lift in 2021. Vaccines to curb the medical challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic are rolling out, getting everyone excited for a return to “normal” where in-person interactions are back in style. Although 2021 will bring change, not all will return to the same pre-pandemic practices or levels, including previous business practices.


The pandemic put digital transformation on a fast track for the business community. We learned that sales and consulting engagements can be done over video conferencing. Signatures can be collected digitally. Orders can be placed online. Many of these practices will continue after the pandemic is resolved, forcing new processes and technology to support and enhance the systemic changes. Along these lines, we expect three primary trends to impact the production printing industry in 2021.


The Year of Virtual Enablement

Print service providers (PSPs) were forced to react quickly to the changing business conditions and social distancing protocols enacted across much of the world early last year. Now that there has been time to reflect, PSPs will review the processes and technologies that have worked and (more importantly) where improvements must be made to enable business virtually.


On the customer engagement front, this will lead to continued use of virtual conferencing solutions for sales engagements and digital signatures to lock in contracts. Tougher structural changes like electronic proofing and approval, online ordering, as well as automatic notifications are areas PSPs will look to improve further this year.


Vendors are also ramping up virtual tools to support PSPs. The use of augmented reality, mobile solutions, and machine data to improve remote equipment diagnostics will help PSPs remain productive. Where devices are connected to the cloud, vendors are stepping up the practice of identifying and mitigating break/fix issues and resupplying consumables through predictive analytics.


Print eCommerce Reboot

The pandemic heightened concerns about conducting business in-person, but many will likely continue the practice due to the convenience and time savings. Our research found that 43% of small businesses (print buyers) were somewhat comfortable and 16% were not comfortable walking into a printing company to place an order. The study also found that 49% said they would definitely increase the use of online ordering to purchase printed materials.



Even during the pandemic, we continued to hear that online print orders represented 20% to 30% of total order volume for many PSPs. It’s time for print shops to reboot their web-to-print strategy to increase the number of orders being placed and number of customers using the solution. Making this a priority in 2021 will give customers an improved experience, but also have production benefits from the structure job onboarding for PSPs.


Platforms Extend to Ecosystems

The printing industry has many moving parts in its ecosystem. There are print buyers, suppliers (paper, ink, etc.), equipment OEMs, software vendors, printers, and so on. In such a large and interdependent ecosystem, a lot of friction must be overcome just to conduct business. No two entities or transactions use the same set of data, technology, standards, or processes. The way one print buyer orders from one printer to the next is unique, but many parts of the interaction and transaction are similar (if not identical). Creating a structured system with defined rules is how platforms can be the catalyst to improving the printing ecosystem.


So far, there have only been a few examples of print-specific platforms and those have functioned more as cloud-based software marketplaces (think app stores). Improvements to the supporting technology, particularly cloud computing, make it easier to “map” and link the print world—resulting in new opportunities and business models.


We are keeping a close eye on the developments and synergies between ecosystems, platforms, networks, and the underlying technologies like cloud computing and AI that make these possible. The rise of platforms and ecosystems, as we have seen in other industries, changes the nature and relationship with the end customer. Expect the same in the printing industry.


The future favors those that continue to invest in technologies that lead to outsized advantages of productivity and scale. PSPs must invest and plan to turn their operations from small-batch manufacturers into smart print factories. Those that do not will struggle to exist through the changes of the printing industry over the next decade.


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