Is the printing industry entering a new age of innovation?

Max Goldbart
Monday, July 3, 2017

The Stationers’ Innovation Excellence Awards, held last month at Stationers’ Hall in London, suggested that we may be entering a new era of innovation for print, with post-press manufacturer Muller Martini scooping the inaugural Novel Manufacturing gong, ahead of the likes of Heidelberg and IST Technologies.

The winning piece of equipment, the InfiniTrim three-knife trimmer, described by Muller Martini as “revolutionary”, is a textbook example of Finishing 4.0 in action, a concept initiated by the Swiss manufacturer just before Drupa and an extension of the ‘Industry 4.0’ smart manufacturing concept first mooted by the German government. 

“In 2004 we took a PDF and a book came out at the end,” says Muller Martini UK sales manager David McGinlay. 

“We optimise everything for the finishing end and we’ve been doing that for a number of years but now with cloud-based integration suddenly everyone is connected.”

Muller Martini is one of a host of manufacturers that is investing both time and effort in making innovation an integral part of its business, with 100 R&D specialists in Switzerland working on its products. 

“Development used to be much more engineer-based but at the end of the day if the customer says ‘I need a machine with no makeready and no-one involved’ then we go and ask ‘okay, how do we do it’,” adds McGinlay. 

Domino Printing Sciences is another business that values R&D and its A-Series i-Tech range of industrial continuous inkjet printers was recognised with a Queen’s Award for innovation earlier this year. 

Global product marketing manager David Croft agrees with McGinlay that it’s all about listening to what the customer wants as part of a “continuous communication process” that can take many years. 

“Because we were independent up until two years ago [Domino was acquired by Brother in 2015], and trade as an autonomous organisation, that fundamental research and innovation is what keeps us alive. We live and die on the products we present.”

Indeed research is critical for Cambridge-based Domino, and its 175-strong R&D team works in partnership with numerous UK universities and global development labs. Croft, a former Kodak employee, is upbeat about the state of innovation in the industry.

“The industry is good at taking technology and making it into something useful for our customers. We present it as a grey box but there is a lot of science that goes on behind the scenes to get coding. I would say the print industry is at the forefront of application technology.”

Tax breaks for the innovative

So what of the companies taking advantage of this R&D manufacturing drive? Some, including South Wales-based folding carton manufacturer Beatus Cartons, have even launched their own innovation departments, and help fund said departments with tax credits.

Ian Davie, senior consultant at tax credit consultancy TBAT, says that a company spending £100,000 on R&D could receive around £26,000 in corporation tax benefits. Even a company making a loss would be entitled to a credit, either at the time of application or once they are in profit.

The process is a bit of a slow-burner and applications have to be made yearly but the relief has increased since its introduction in 2004 and can prove useful. 

Along with the basic relief, companies can also apply for R&D Capital Allowances (RDAs) on facilities and machinery, or a Patent Box, which Domino currently benefits from, lowering corporation tax on profits from patented products to 10%. 

Bettine Pellant, who heads up long-time Stationers’ Innovation sponsor Picon, says that many of her members are doing innovative things and taking advantage of the government’s helpful stance on innovation relief, but there are fears over Brexit. 

“There are various European grants for R&D and of course with us exiting the EU that is something of particular concern to some companies that have used these before. It’s cropped up in a couple of meetings in the last six months,” she says.

Beatus Cartons launched the Jacob Beatus Innovation Centre, named after its founder, two years ago in a £400,000 investment, and the customer centre is now kitted out with a Roland large-format machine and Zünd plotter. Managing director Clive Stinchcombe says the centre has become a big selling point for the company and is by no means just a gimmick. 

“It’s the flagship area in the company now,” he says. 

“A few other larger companies have innovation centres but this one was literally designed for the very real reason for us to be innovative, creative and try and set us apart from lots of other people in the industry.” 

Sheffield-based marketing services printer ProCo opened its Spark digital innovation centre in Stansted last year, with the team keen to educate customers and build knowledge. Clients can visit the centre for inspiration, take advantage of the two HP Indigos in the pressroom or attend fortnightly innovation sessions.

These developments prove that more and more printers are realising that to sustain innovation is to sustain profit, and as we’ve seen with tax relief and a recent increase in Innovation UK’s grant budget, the government seems keen to help. 

McGinlay believes that the future is bright and points to the growing innovative prowess of trade printers as evidence. 

“I can see the innovation in companies like Solopress, Bluetree, Tradeprint. When you walk into these companies it’s like a breath of fresh air, they make money out of stuff no one can make money on and the reason they do it is because they do it a bit differently.”


I don’t know one print firm that isn’t keen to innovate

john-charnockJohn Charnock, managing director, Print Research International 

In the work I do with people at the Inspired Thinking Group, which has robots, drones, AR and VR and all sorts of things for the retail sector, and then the stuff I do with ProCo and its training courses, we’re talking all about innovation and teaching people that this technology is not dead, but is going places. 

The problem is that most of our customers aren’t aware of what is happening. I speak to brands and agencies, planners and strategists, and they know the most about digital innovation, they know about stuff that is online in the digital world. But half of them, when I tell them what’s possible in the print world, don’t know they can do this: all the applications, all the special effects and then all the innovation on substrates. 

Different businesses have different routes to market and strategies. Being an innovative preferred partner is one really useful position as a business but I work for other businesses with different strategies, and maybe you will innovate to drive your business but not to help your customers, so that depends on the strategy and the brand goal you have as an organisation. 

Take credit

I tell every company that I advise to look into tax credits for R&D, making sure it is done as part of the business, the recording of time and effort. It does make a difference if you’re profitable, if you’re not it’s not quite as effective. 

I don’t know one printer that isn’t looking at some sort of innovation, somewhere, whether that be foiling or adding effects or laminations. 

There is a huge amount of innovation going on at the moment and the more we can educate our customers to what’s possible the better. The Stationers’ Awards showed it quite clearly: you see innovation coming through all the time, really brilliant stuff. 


How important is in novation to your company? 

roseMichael Rose, managing director, Rose Calendars 

“What we’ve innovated on recently is very on trend at the moment, our 360 Virtual Calendar. We are doing it because we want to be at the forefront of our industry and want people to see us as innovators and that’s where we have positioned ourselves to be: up there so people follow us rather than us having to follow others. The key to any business is innovation so you can stay ahead of your competitors and be at the forefront because you are able to command a better price and publicise that you are the first.” 

tongeChris Tonge, managing director, Ultimate Packaging 

“A lot of our innovation is in the digital print area, that’s where we are investing a lot of our time. The personalisation work we did with KitKat, that personalisation piece like I’ve been saying for a while is just the beginning. I think brands are really realising that on pack, one-to-one with the customer, is really where they should be spending a lot of their time and energies. That suits digital perfectly. So I think there is a real sweet spot over the next few years with digital print and variability and that’s where we’re heading.”

hindmarchSymon Hindmarch-Bye, co-founder, Commercial Group  

“We’ve just employed a new head of foundations and we’ve brought him in to step up the aspects of innovation that are being discussed. Through what we’ve done with 3D printing and the way that it has only affected us in a positive light, the young people we work with and also the pioneering innovation of the prototypes that we are developing, this is really about trying to push the boundaries. Innovation for us is about young people and trying to engage them, if you’re just pressing buttons it has its limitations.”


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