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From paper to vapour – futures of the printing industry


Morne Mostert, PhD


The fusion of symbols with a substrate. This broad definition of printing is proposed for the future of this increasingly divergent industry. Traditional definitions centered on ink and paper for materials, and on mechanical processes for large scale production, all supported by centrally located workers. Printing and publication were once close synonyms. But as the industry is being disrupted from all sides, a new narrative is required from all stakeholders, including from organized labour.


Such narrative should extend beyond a simple call for new thinking, and must now include a strategic review of the new printing landscape. Naturally, technology is a key disruptor. Steganography (the practice of hiding messages or information within readable text or visible images) and photonics (the science of light or photon generation, detection, and control) are only two specific printing examples within the overall tectonic technological progressions of the time.


The Fourth Industrial Revolution has confronted the industry with artificial intelligence, big data Internet-of-Everything, which has introduced a phygital (i.e. physically and digitally integrated) reality. But technological disruption is true for all industries. Printing must now define a newfangled, unique voice within a fresh and complex competitive scene. Disintermediation is a universal consequence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, supported by a rise in literacy levels and an overall increase in social agency for every citizen. Labour unions can therefore no longer claim uniqueness simply through employer mediation services and resistance tactics.


At an industry, production and supply level, one pivotal shift is that of fragmentation. The industry had already moved from large labour intensive sites, to large capital-intensive locations. One of the current shifts is a structural one, namely to a scattered constellation of smaller sites with increasingly diminutive runs. As with all shifts, curiosity must stay alive for the counter shift. And in printing that does include the actual and ripening potential for new consolidation. It is important to note that such structural fragmentation makes printing less centralized, but not necessarily less pervasive.


On the demand side, the reality of the consumer has also moved significantly, most notably with reference to:


1. An increase in power for the consumer, including a dramatic expansion in customer knowledge and choice


2. New ways of information consumption, including a new blend of digital and physical media


3. A broadening of expectations on service categories and the need for service platforms


4. An increased demand for speed, including on-demand and real-time requirements, that find application through predictive analytics, i.a.


5. A dramatically enhanced environmental and social consciousness, especially with regards to production processes and product lifetime carbon footprint as well as social justice in the full value chain.


For organized labour, this has significant implications. The printing industry ecosystem must now be studied in its totality, even by the smallest of players. Recruitment of membership, for example, once the work of shop stewards and organizers who grew up on the printing floor, now requires strategic channel selection and sophisticated persuasion techniques through the offering of comprehensive membership benefit portfolios, all within the ‘mecosystem’ of each potential member.


The new ecosystem is therefore likely to imply that unions will have to galvanize membership from an increasingly fragmented number of employers, which suggests that the value proposition needs to be dramatically more compelling. Consider, for example, the risk and opportunity of recruiting as members highly educated workers in the full gamut of printing, from need identification and business development to design, production, distribution and customer fulfillment elements of the strategic value chain. The phenomenon of the gig economy as an additional layer of complexity renders the ether of the once tangible industry even more elusive.


The erstwhile large factory floor, with staggeringly large rolls of paper stacked in the store room, has vapourised in favour of distributed nano-services, disconnected but ripe for selective reconsolidation by strategic employers and unions. Nor shall flowery reminiscences of ink-stained fingers, workplace camaraderie and the hum of giant machines retard or reverse the rapid unfolding of new futures.


Printing is nowhere and everywhere, depending on the lens. Competitive unions of the future will identify key nodes in the complex ecosystem and design creative and captivating value propositions, most probably in collaboration with a myriad strategic partners. Every opportunity lives in the future, and unions have the opportunity now to co-design that future.


Dr Morne Mostert is a Director at the Institute for Futures Research (IFR), Stellenbosch University. The IFR is a strategic advisory unit at Stellenbosch University.

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