Crises and opportunities in Indian commercial printing

Efficiency by any name is the key to survival

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Representational Image. Photo Raimond Klavins

I have been writing and rewriting the same articles for the past 44 years. Call them rehashing the same arguments, the same exhortations to take advantage of the opportunities of an economy that has to grow, government or no government. Call it optimism because a large part of the population has to simply produce enough wealth to survive and a minority who has the time and inclination to read trade magazines also has the access to capital to make a profit by investing in printing presses, merely by adding the right prepress and postpress equipment. Of course, it requires stamina because there is always a flood around the corner, a demonetization, a global economic crisis, an oil price hike, or a pandemic.

Why do I still have two or three or maybe five loyal readers from the old days? Why haven’t they run away? Perhaps, it’s because they can’t, like me, they are stuck in this industry, for better or for worse. One would like to think it’s mostly because we share the same optimism about the country’s economy and our belief in technology as a great leveller. This means that if you go out and buy a new and fairly up-to-date machine and don’t do anything very stupid, it will make money. And if you don’t spend the money on something very foolish, you will soon grow your capacity and business in a meaningful way.

My few loyal readers and I know that life is not meant to be a bed of roses and there will be challenges every day, and we are thankful that we are still around and that our minds are still mostly working and trying to grapple with the latest surprise of what could be next. There has been progress also in these 44 years of writing, researching, and occasionally consulting.

The ups and downs have been leavened by the successes of some of the industry businesses and colleagues and the several things that have slowly gone right in the economy. The outcomes include a mostly vibrant publishing and printing culture within our spheres. And outside our direct spheres but as a part of our economy – the modern cars, computers, internet, and cell phones at reasonable rates, metro rail systems, multiple private airlines, new airports, and inexpensive vaccines that we have been able to make accessible.

Technology in other words has worked, or we have collectively been able to make it work competitively in a world of high prices and inflation. Those of us who have hitched our stars to the chip and software future that drives mechatronic devices have been rewarded by modern prepress and multicolor presses and automated finishing and binding. And a few of our colleagues have grown well enough to attract the educated next generation into the family business and their insistent self-belief in what we do has rubbed off on the younger lot.

Family business, the so-called ‘middle business’, is an important contributor to economies everywhere. As it is poised to play a significant role in our publishing, printing, and packaging industries, it can continue to be one of the engines of Indian modernity. 

The coming year’s prospects for commercial print 

Believe it or not, good printers make more sense than publishers. They do not feel as compelled to promote the lies of politicians and they are the gatekeepers – who by keeping the presses rolling guarantee the freedom of expression, dissent, and civilized and scientific discussion. While some newspaper publishers feel they are compelled to praise the country’s GDP growth as the fastest and highest, the commercial printers will tell you that even now, and in the coming year, we hope to reach pre-Covid levels of volumes and un-inflationary revenues.

Near the beginning of the last financial year, we wrote that the number of offset press installations by commercial printers would be approximately 25 to 30 presses of 4 colors or more. By and large, the commercial press installations met their target while our packaging press predictions that we believed were conditional on chips and supply chain issues fell short. However, they fell short not only because of slow deliveries but in several cases because new plants and foundations, and infrastructure could not be built within somewhat unrealistic time-frames.

This year it seems there will be an uptick in commercial offset print capacity creation although the supply chain issues have not gone away. Apart from higher prices for raw materials, it seems that commercial print demand has recovered in Europe and America also. However, there is a similarity in what printers want to buy – 8-color perfectors. 

Driven by book printers and exporters, and the successful installation of a couple of 8-color perfectors in the past year, it seems that in the coming year apart from the two dozen or so new 4-color presses, anywhere from eight to ten 8-color good condition perfectors are likely to be installed. In other words, there could be as many as three or four new presses, and the balance of five to seven long perfectors could be a recent model, good condition, and automated long presses. Two second-hand perfectors are already under installation, a 10-color with good automation features and an 8-color. 

Now that commercial book printers have seen the efficiency and productivity of long perfectors, there is the renewed possibility of the VLF presses again being examined by the leading book printers and exporters. Several of these presses came to a couple of book printing exporters about a dozen years ago but their projects ran into trouble for various reasons. The difference from then to now is in two things – the first is the enormous improvement in technology and automation features of the current perfecting offset presses, and the second is the rise in global demand for Indian book printing.

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