Printers Play a Game of Digital Survival ; New Technologies Enable Plants to Adapt, but at the Expense of Workers

By Kantchev, Georgi | International New York Times, April 12, 2014 | Go to article overview

Printers Play a Game of Digital Survival ; New Technologies Enable Plants to Adapt, but at the Expense of Workers


Kantchev, Georgi, International New York Times


Industrial-strength laser printers can enable big printing plants to make quick and cost-effective small-batch runs on demand.

At a media conference a few years ago, the editor of the Guardian newspaper, contemplating the future of print, recalled his paper's having installed its newest presses in 2005.

"I had a feeling in my bones that they might be the last," said the editor, Alan Rusbridger.

The efforts of traditional print media executives to grope their way into the digital future have been well chronicled. But what about the executives even more tightly bound to the presses -- the people who run big printing companies?

Ask Roy Kingston, the 55-year-old chief operating officer of Wyndeham, a privately held company that is one of Britain's biggest printers and whose portfolio includes the British circulation of The Economist and Men's Health magazine. At the printing game for three decades, he has felt the digital onslaught. And so far, he has survived to tell the tale -- even if not everyone in his industry has been so fortunate.

"This boardroom is about the only thing that hasn't changed around here," he told a visitor, sitting at an antique mahogany conference table in the inner sanctum of Wyndeham's printing plant here. "Everything else in this plant is different. All the equipment has been changed, and so have the people."

In many ways, printing itself has gone digital. During the 1980s, desktop publishing turned page design into a process on computer screens, instead of the craftsmanship of manual typography. Nowadays the entire operation is driven by computers.

Industrial-strength laser printers can enable big printing plants to make quick and cost-effective small-batch runs on demand. Even Wyndeham's big offset machines -- which print from lithographic plates created from digital files -- are so highly automated that a crew of only a dozen or so can put them through their paces.

"This is almost a people-less business now," Mr. Kingston said later, walking through the huge but mostly deserted printing hall. "At one point we had 350 people in this plant. Now we have 114. But the amount of work has more than doubled."

Back in the 1990s, Mr. Kingston said, the plant had three presses that could turn out about 20,000 copies of a 32-page publication in an hour. Now there are two machines, capable of producing triple that amount.

As if to clinch the point, Wyndeham's plant was about to print the latest issue of The Economist, the cover of which read "Rise of the robots."

"People are losing their jobs and there is no way to spin that," Mr. Kingston said. "Now you have to be lean, mean and clean to succeed in this business."

In 2001 the British industry counted around 200,000 employees. There are now fewer than 125,000, according to data from the British Printing Industries Federation.

Britain's printing industry, though large, is not the biggest. It ranks fifth worldwide by revenue, behind the United States, China, Japan and Germany. And yet, its challenges and opportunities are emblematic.

Sales by British printers have registered steady declines in the past 20 years, data from the government's Office for National Statistics show, and there is no respite in sight. British industry revenue is projected to shrink to about 10 billion pounds, or $17 billion, by 2017, down from more than Pounds 15 billion in the 1990s, according to Key Note, a market research firm.

The global industry, with estimated revenue of $880 billion last year, will continue to grow by about 2 percent a year until 2018, in the view of Smithers Pira, another research house, driven mainly by emerging market countries. Smithers Pira says China will probably overtake the United States as the world's biggest print market this year, while India will slip ahead of Britain into the No. 5 spot by 2018.

European printers have had an especially rough ride, given the region's sluggish economy. …

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