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Are Graphic Arts dying? A global crisis in a world that needs printing

We’ve been hearing that printing is coming to an end practically since the internet exists. In recent years, the graphic arts sector has experienced an unprecedented crisis. The catastrophe facing this industry is reflected in the bankruptcy of historic printing houses, massive layoffs, and an alarming increase in debts and insolvency proceedings.

This decline ironically contrasts with the omnipresence of graphic products in our daily lives. Despite being surrounded by printed elements like signs, posters, work clothing, packaging, vehicle lettering, manuals, agendas or planners, books, three-dimensional letters, corporate stationery, and an endless list, the sector is struggling to survive.

Recent data and examples of unstoppable decline

The situation is grave. According to data from the European Federation for Print and Digital Communication (Intergraf), the number of printing houses in Europe has decreased by 30% in the last decade. In the United States, the Printing Industries of America (PIA) reported that the number of printing houses has fallen by 25% in the last five years. Worldwide, major names like R.R. Donnelley have faced financial difficulties and restructurings, with multimillion-dollar losses and hundreds of employees laid off (see the case in Argentina).

Examples like Quebecor World in Canada, one of the largest printing houses in the world, which declared bankruptcy in 2008, are just the beginning of an alarming trend. More recently, in 2023, the iconic French printing house CPI closed several of its plants, laying off more than 500 employees.

Evolution and market predictions for graphic arts

Despite this catastrophic outlook for the sector, visible in every corner of the globe destroying thousands of family businesses, the need for graphic arts products has not diminished.

In fact, according to the report “The Future of Print to 2030” by Smithers Pira, the global commercial printing market is projected to grow. There will also be a notable increase in packaging printing, which is expected to represent almost two-thirds of the global market in the next decade.

Printed publications will continue to represent a significant part of the total printing volume, occupying 40% of the market.

The global commercial printing market was valued at approximately $411 billion in 2021, and it is expected to grow at a compound annual rate of 2.24% until 2026, which contrasts with previous predictions.

This apparent contradiction raises the question: why are printing houses dying if demand remains high?

Printed products everywhere

One only needs to go out for a coffee. The sign or three-dimensional letters of the café, the vinyl-covered delivery trucks, the staff’s shirts, the promotional posters, the sugar packets, the cigarette box, the labels on all the bottles in the café, the product posters, and even the awnings and printed chairs are graphic arts products. In our homes and offices, decorative paintings, product packages, food labels, and bags are all imbued with the need for graphic printing. There is no doubt that graphic arts are as necessary as ever.

Who survives in a fragmented market?

The question is understanding who survives in such a hostile environment. As Warren Buffet suggests, those businesses with strong brand value that can outsource operations and production will survive. The graphic sector is extremely fragmented, without major players dominating the market. The lack of consolidation turns many printing houses into commodities, leading them to imminent failure.

Printing houses that have understood this reality have focused their efforts on strengthening their brand and controlling quality while delegating production and operations. This strategy allows them to minimize fixed costs and gain flexibility, enabling them to quickly adapt when the market demands.

A notable example is Cimpress, with its Vistaprint brand, which has built an empire based on the strength of its brand and efficient outsourcing. Its stock market valuation has fluctuated over the years, but it maintains stable historical growth that graphic arts companies without a brand cannot achieve.

Medium-sized companies like Moo also operate similarly, specializing in a specific product type, such as business cards, and absorbing part of the market left by printing houses that provided for them.

There are also success stories in smaller businesses. Colorprinter is an example of building intangible assets, which, without a single workshop, has a presence in more than twenty countries and has maintained an annual growth rate of over 40% for the past six years.

These are just a few success stories demonstrating the need for adaptation and reinvention. Only those who understand the value of the brand and the outsourcing of everything that can create losses will survive in a fragmented market that fewer and fewer hands are competing for each day.

The “death” of traditional printing houses does not mean the end of graphic arts, as the title of this investigation questions, but rather a transformation toward a more sustainable business model adapted to the needs of the current market.

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