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Q: What role does increased automation have in the future of printing?
A:Printing has always been a very capital intensive business and for a long time, the market has been fiercely competitive too, but the medium of print is currently under some pressure, so I feel increased automation will play a really important role in the next few years.
Now more than ever printers are having to work very hard to champion the value and ROI that print offers a customer. The inflationary pressures we have seen since the Covid pandemic – wages, energy, materials, postage and logistics – have made print more expensive. Sadly, as a consequence, some publishers and brands have been forced to consider cutting their quantities and paginations and in some really challenging situations they have had to choose a different medium altogether.
It’s not consistent across all segments of the print industry but certainly in magazine, catalogue and brochure printing, there is a need to operate in a less labour intensive way. This isn’t necessarily the case with the core services of pre-press, printing and finishing because provided a printer has maintained a good investment strategy, they will have likely kept pace with technology advancements.
In many pre-press departments these days, the upload and approval of pages are now driven by the customer through a portal that they largely control themselves and following their approval of the pages, the printing plates are automatically imaged, pre-punched and bent ready for loading on to the printing press cylinders. Previously this would have been a very manual task for multiple people.
New web printing presses are certainly more productive now with improvements in drive systems, drying efficiencies and the use of free cooling within the chilling system. This coupled with the multi camera colour systems and dynamic cut-off control reduces to a minimum the amount of paper that is needed to print a magazine. In the area of finishing, for some time now, with saddle stitching or perfect binding, we have automatically fed the logged sections that are produced on a printing press directly on to the binding line. Again, previously these would have been manually fed by people.
Looking to the future, where I feel many companies need to focus is with product handling, packaging and labelling of the finished magazines. The upward pressure on wages generally, together with government legislation on pay, has highlighted a tricky imbalance where the non-skilled but very essential flexible labour used for many of those supportive functions, this is now significantly more expensive. This means that printers, in order to keep the medium affordable, are looking at robotics to automate basic tasks like bundling, boxing, labelling and placement of goods on to pallets. These solutions exist in many industries but are less commonplace in printing. It is therefore great to see an increasing number of companies implementing these kind of investments. In terms of the potential benefits, some estimates cite that a single robot in this area of the production process could replace 600 twelve hour shifts per year, which, if you consider in the wider context, that is 1,200 car journeys to the place of work, so there is a significant carbon reduction opportunity too. Above all, this will help further streamline the printer’s workflow and contribute to sustaining print as a viable medium for the longer term.
Q: What practical steps can printers do to make their operations more sustainable?
A:Printing is an energy intensive process and the steep rise in energy pricing has brought a number of opportunities and ideas into focus for many printers. I’m aware that some planned printing or finishing asset renewals have been paused in favour of investments that will reduce energy consumption within the factory. A somewhat obvious example of this is solar panelling. Most print factories have large roof spaces to locate such technology, but traditionally the high capital cost in relation to a fairly slow payback of perhaps 8-10 years when energy prices were low meant other competing priorities were often selected first. As we are all now living in this new energy price reality, the payback can be much sooner. Other areas I am seeing printers explore is voltage optimisation which regulates the incoming power supply from the grid to be at the optimum level required to run machines and without unwanted surges. This is also quite expensive to implement but the suggested savings do potentially merit the investment. One more attainable switch, but not an insignificant investment either, is the conversion of factory lighting to intelligent LED’s with PIR sensors. These not only activate from motion, but respond and adapt to external lighting conditions too. I’m aware of one LED investment which has cost in the region of £40k but will positively impact the printing company by reducing the amount of energy used by 260,000 KWh per year. Additionally, the saving on carbon is approximately 60 tonnes per year.
The reduction of energy isn’t always about investments but by working with what you have and engaging your people over a common goal. I’m aware of one situation where a business targeted to improve their factory shut down procedures and as a consequence directly reduced the amount of energy used in that idle period of downtime. The printer had determined that even when producing no print at all, with certain elements of the equipment needing to be left on like compressed air, press dryer and some lighting, it cost the business in the region of £400 for that 12 hour period. In tightening up on communications and redefining responsibilities, it was able to almost half that cost on each shutdown.
In looking at specific areas like pre-press I am aware of printers now upgrading their plate processors and plate substrates to the next generation of more eco-friendly technology. In a productive sense, making the switch, one company is hopeful of increasing the number of print impressions it achieves from its plates by almost 200k. However, it is the environmental benefits that are perhaps more encouraging because chemistry consumption can be reduced by 2,722 litres per year and the water consumption could be reduced by a massive 601 m3 per year.
The targeting of make ready and running waste has always been a focus in print manufacturing, but targeting better waste management is an opportunity too. I am aware of one company who is looking at the next generation of compactors for their paper waste. This more intuitive technology will allow the printer to understand where their waste levels measure in order to limit the number of daily skip collections and avoid removal of only partially filled skips. The financial benefit could be significant when you consider a daily skip collection is likely to cost £200-£300 per collection but there is a wider environmental benefit from eliminating the transport altogether on certain days.
Q: What would you like the publishing sector as a whole to do to improve its eco credentials?
A:I think when it comes to the environment and sustainability, more education is needed and there is a lot of contradictory information out there, whether that be relating to paper, plastics, carbon offsetting, carbon emissions and not forgetting that it’s not just about printed products as there is a significant impact from digital production too.
So, it can be really confusing for printers and publishers and often publishers don’t necessarily make mistakes, but they can choose the wrong path for their publication or their business’s overall aims if they don’t get the right advice. When seeking to be eco-friendly, you have to consider the whole supply chain right down to a consumer level and question the consequence and impact of everything.
It can be the simple, somewhat obvious things like differences in infrastructure across the various places you distribute. For example, the colour of household waste bins differ from region to region in the UK and we associate certain waste streams with colours, so what is accepted at one local authority can differ or be rejected by another. Many a time, I’ve been told, “we must have a compostable magazine wrapper” only to be subsequently asked “where do I put that”, swiftly followed up by, “oh I don’t have a compost bin or food waste caddy”, so inevitably it either ends up in landfill or it contaminates the wrong stream of waste which is the opposite of what the publisher wanted to achieve.
I have also been witness to some passionate debates about whether responsibly sourced PEFC or FSC paper is better or worse than selecting wholly recycled paper, only to later discover that the cover of the magazine is then encased with a plastic based roller coat matt laminate that cannot be recycled easily. In recent times, we’ve also experienced fairly staunch views about packaging magazines in nylon strapped bundles or plastic shrink-wrapped bundles for which we can all appreciate the reasons why as we strive to use less single use plastics. However, in many instances, that is what is practical for the product size, fit for its purpose, fit for transit and fit for the onward distribution method. In such instances, there can be a misguided intention to avoid plastic by instructing the printer to place the magazines into cardboard boxes instead. Whilst we can all recognise that cardboard can be recycled more easily, if you pause to consider the whole environmental impact of that instruction you discover there is a greater carbon impact. More people are needed to pack the job offline rather than the machine automatically doing it, that difference can sometimes mean 3-4 additional staff all travelling to the workplace in separate cars. It will also mean an additional number of pallets are generated leading to an increase weight for transportation and when the product arrives at its destination further handling is needed to open the boxes so it can be placed into wholesale or fed on to a mailing line.
At an industrial level, printers can easily recycle the nylon or plastic used; it just isn’t so easy to do that at an individual consumer level. This means we should continue to drive for better waste segregation and better recycling outlets. This certainly isn’t me making a case for plastic but more that we slow down and fully evaluate our decisions when it comes to our impact on the environment. These days there are an array of options and tools that are available to publishers to help demonstrate positive eco credentials. Most printers are ISO14001 environmentally accredited and most can provide PEFC/FSC or recycled papers, most can carbon offset jobs through various initiatives and more and more are starting to possess the ability to calculate their scope 1-3 carbon emissions as we work towards net zero.
However, the requests printers receive can often be more about what ticks a box or achieves the use of a logo rather than considering what the ultimate goal is. As printers, I feel we need to enter the conversation much earlier in the process to help try and understand why that outcome is important for the organisation. It is a difficult one and until we get some consistency in approach and legislation, I think all a printer can do is present what facts are currently available, signpost to good resources like Two Sides who promote the sustainability of the graphic communications supply chain and to dispel common environmental misconceptions. We should try to always propose a balanced viewpoint and not be scared to challenge and sense check the outcomes the publisher is seeking to achieve. If a publisher values the relationship with their printer, they will welcome such a conversation.
Q: How do you see the cost pressures facing the industry playing out over the next few years?
A:In my 27 years of working in the printing industry I’ve certainly not experienced the sort of cost pressures we’ve seen in the last two years before. It has been very damaging to both printers and publishers. Sadly, a fair number of print factories and magazine titles have closed and whilst there are a variety of reasons for why that has happened, being unable to sustain the significant inflationary pressures is often a root cause that is cited in the final report from administrators.
For the publication printers left, I think we have all become a bit better at dealing with the volatility and it is the printers that have demonstrated good soft skills, showing calm leadership, communicating clearly and effectively, appreciating publishers’ challenges in the round, that have weathered the storm. Those that have shared some of the pain and have supported publishers in absorbing or delaying some of the costs are the businesses that seem to have fared better and, if anything, have cemented their relationships with their customers.
Now as we look forward, we are seeing costs start to stabilise which has given some welcome reprieve to both printers and publishers and we hope for no further unprecedented events and that this stability can continue. The current high position of direct costs has left many printers grappling with a cut to their gross margin and their overall profitability. That is a difficult situation for a lot of printers, particularly with some of the decline we are seeing with print runs and paginations and magazines ceasing to publish altogether. In order for a printer to futureproof its business, there is an ever present need to stay ahead and continually invest in new and advancing technology. This is key to curtailing rising costs because a printer cannot be as responsive when running older equipment without the best possible quality and waste controls. My worry is, there is a slowdown in investment and some printers are running very old equipment. As an industry, we have to keep ahead of the changing needs and trends in order to keep the medium of print affordable. This is because we are not just competing with other printers but when costs are so high, we are competing with alternative mediums too.
Despite the tough trading environment, there are positives and many print company owners have commented on a favourable reset. We are encouraged to be experiencing a greater will from publishers to collaborate over proper partnerships. It does seem like the purchasing priorities have shifted away from just pricing alone. The key questions now tend to be focused around financial stability, sustainability, understanding of the printer’s supplier reach and when key contracts like energy will lapse. They also want to know what the printer’s investment plans are going forward and even how regular the maintenance of key assets is performed. This is refreshing because print and publishing does need to lean on each other in order to prosper in the next few years. Profit and being profitable shouldn’t be a dirty word because the publishing industry needs printers to be sustainable in order to bring greater stability to the number of supply options.
The consumption of graphic paper is definitely falling year on year and we have seen many paper mill groups close or convert their capacity to other products like packaging. Whilst there are less large run publications being printed these days, it is important to keep a sense of perspective. The magazine market is still a very large and exciting market with over 400 publishers in it and it generates in excess of £3.5bn revenue in the UK. It is full of innovative people creating lots of specialist publications that are cherished by their readers. The thirst for good quality content in print remains high and that is because the engagement benefits and ROI are proven and trusted. So I am confident about the market opportunities going forward, but it is an evolving market and printers have to equip themselves in order to be able to evolve with it.
Q: What innovations are you seeing from publishers looking to either reduce cost or increase impact?
A:There hasn’t been one clear trend or specific product innovation but there has been a consistent receptiveness to listen and consider all options to make publications more viable. In facing some of the unprecedented rises in costs and in dealing with some of the market shocks as a consequence of the pandemic, energy crisis, mill strikes and port authority strikes, we have found that the strategy we have been trying to drive for some time in terms of selecting efficient A4 and A5 formats and utilising standard 870mm reel paper has really resonated with publishers.
The market volatility has brought this into focus because at times, publishers have struggled to secure non-standard reels for their bespoke size magazines or the capacity with the few remaining short grain web printers has been really limited. Also, where publishers have for many years been fixated on certain paper brands and specific weights, there has been an opportunity to challenge this. There are now many strong options of lower weight bulky papers and they have improved. These do offer publishers a real hard lever to pull when trying to achieve savings. I recently worked on an opportunity supported by one of our paper suppliers and by dropping the paper from 60gsm to either a 57gsm or 54gsm paper, but selecting a bulky grade alternative, we were able to demonstrate that the spine measure of the magazine was consistently thicker across all paginations ranging from 68pp to 132pp. This meant that readers would likely notice the paper was slightly different in appearance and feel, but they would not necessarily associate it with being a drop in quality. The potential savings across a portfolio of 20 titles amounted to being 90-120 less tonnes of paper needed each year and a reduction in spend on paper of anywhere between £65k and £90k per year.
Aligned to this, there was obviously a very good story to tell regarding the hefty reduction in the amount of carbon emitted too. This type of value proposition we have been running for many years now and with catalogue producers, even some of the fairly high end ones, they have been willing to use these kind of papers. There is a good reason for this because printing at a lighter weight allows you to significantly reduce your postage costs when mailing. However up until now, generally, the publishing industry has struggled with the concept and have been less receptive to the idea. In one specific example, a publisher was contemplating their cover price because of the many cost pressures they faced. In reality, without changing something significant they needed to be charging more per copy. It was a real moment of concern and deliberation for them as they had assessed all other options and it meant they would be breaking the £5 per copy barrier. Being brave with the paper and switching to a bulky grade allowed them to avoid having to make that change.
Other developments we are seeing is the improvement in the quality of water based machine varnishes, which many printers can apply at the same time as printing magazine covers. The matt and soft touch finishes have always been popular particularly with brochures, however there are now a few instances where magazine publishers are looking to switch from traditional gloss UV to a water based alternative. From trials we have run, the depth and lustre of the glossiness is now much better and it is not only kinder to the environment but marginally cheaper too.
Q: What excites you most about the future of printed magazines?
A:It is sometimes easy to get pre-occupied with all the challenges we have faced and continue to face, but within that, I feel there is a lot of new opportunity about to emerge for printed magazines. When I talk to friends, colleagues and customers, so many are struggling with the built up pressure and uncertainty as a consequence of the pandemic, rising cost of living, energy crisis, politics, war and climate. At times, these news stories weigh us down and they are pushed towards us digitally via so many different channels from email, websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SMS and WhatsApp and at an unrelenting pace. Unless you are really disciplined, you can become overloaded. In its 2023 consumer trends report, Mintel describes this as ‘hyper fatigue’. There is a concern about how much we use technology and the effect this might have on our mental wellbeing so as consumers, we will seek to either disconnect or cut through that digital noise to only focus on what matters to us individually. This is a massive opportunity for print in general and printed magazines in particular, with their strong communities and followings. With magazines, the medium is trusted; it is tactile and it gives the opportunity to make a meaningful connection. Print is a keeper and it hangs around the home or office ready to be picked up as and when we want to engage with it and not when we are forced to engage with it. I therefore think we can see many more brands seeking to engage with magazines for advertising and sponsorship to help them establish those connections.
Q: What’s in the pipeline from Acorn?
A:Since the start of our financial year in October 2022, we’ve been pretty busy and there’s a good buzz about the place. We really do feel a corner has been turned and it’s nice to be able to focus on driving the business forward rather than firefighting and responding to what seems like two years of constant disruption. In a general business sense, we are pushing some key areas for 2023 to help engage and develop our people, deliver on sustainability with a clear focus on energy and carbon and we are striving to boost our productivity.
In November and December, we were delighted to install two new stitching lines with increased automation and these investments have addressed a potential bottleneck and are now making a real difference to our output.
We’ve also recently expanded our customer service team to help support some growth with the number of monthly magazines we have been trusted with.
Looking forward, there are some other investments we are considering and would like to try and make happen, not necessarily headline grabbing ones, but just some careful steps forward that will hopefully help us sustain our offering for customers.
Acorn Web Offset is a specialist printer of A4 and A5 multi-pagination magazines. Established over 40 years and operating from arguably one of the UK’s lowest cost production facilities, we currently produce over 300 titles. We support over 90 publishers, providing low-cost magazine print in a no fuss friendly way, with guaranteed on time delivery.