Digital Decor. Terry Raghunath, HP

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Terry Raghunath has spent the past 7 years leading HP’s Digital Decor Revolution! And now, his challenge has broadened, widened and deepened - we talk to him about the challenges ahead in building new business for digital printing in multiple markets.  

In your view, is the gap between digital print technology and the print buyer still a problem?

Yes. There is still a challenge to create a digital print bridge into a very diverse customer base in multiple sectors. This is both an exciting opportunity and a daunting challenge. The proliferation of marketplaces must ensue. By this, I mean the Spoonflower kind of model where you create an online market with a huge number of designs which are then printed by the one company. This is a great model, but for most PSP’s, to reach the end customer whether commercial or consumer is a difficult bridge to construct. This is one of the major challenges for sure, inspiring creatives and consumers alike.

The second gap is how to reach upstream to the industrial manufacturer. For example, how do you reach a synthetic leather manufacturer? This takes a long time to move because digital is so new in this field and the barriers to adoption are so great.

Does this explain why the demand for digital print is still quite slow when compared with a market say like Smart technology? 

I think so. We are simply, as an industry, not very good at addressing the end user whether designer or manufacturer. They just don’t know about digital print, and if they do know they don’t know how to get it. And for an industrial customer, they are printing analogue low cost per sq. metres and you can never replace a gravure machine with a digital print machine today. Some get close but we are still not there yet. It is our ink capability, and its cost. This is something the end user doesn’t comprehend. The other is awareness building, and to succeed at that you need to build an entire infrastructure which would be too costly and speculative.

So the marketplace has not really taken off?

It is taking off slowly. For example, I think there are actually 200 printers in the USA that are enabling new markets with digital printing. But regardless, it remains a journey about joining the dots but work is being done but it takes time.

So would you say we are still at an early stage?

Yes, I’d say that this whole delivery platform is still in its infancy. The ones joining the dots and making money are the entrepreneurs - the early adopters. For example, in Europe, Printing Unlimited in the Netherlands is doing a great job in producing a print for designers who want short run. They have the right tech and all the right bits and pieces. It matches consumer demand. Basically, you pay more - which makes the product specifically suited for you. But the only people succeeding with this model right now are the entrepreneurs.

How are you getting digital print innovation and its message across to new markets?

This is a challenging question. When you have a restaurant with a 15-page menu you will need to make sure you have all the stock and the people to service the demand. We (digital printing manufacturers) have created a monster with digital print now as we have such a diverse set of different markets! From HP's perspective you cannot take part in every single event, they are all different verticals with their own specific shows. It’s too diverse.  At each event, you cannot mix it up - fashion and decor maybe - but glass and t-shirts you cannot do it all. It is a wide spectrum and therefore the entire digital print ship moves quite slowly as a whole.

Essentially, you have to focus on the markets that you think are most likely to adopt digital soonest. You have to speak to the people who have a higher propensity to adopt. This is just logical.

 The key factors to consider are:

◦    Market Size

◦    Reachability (market access)

◦    Readiness to adopt

But sometimes you just won’t know until you try!

For example, I was surprised to find there is a big difference between wallpaper and window blinds. Wallpaper production is made up of family-run, traditional print production houses, it is really an artisan product. We soon figured out we would not replace the existing tech with digital entirely. Yes, digital has a place but it is focused in segments. Eventually, you come to the conclusion that only a relatively small number machines have been bought by the early adopters whilst the mainstream remains pathologically loyal to the incumbent tech. It’s just the way it is.

However, the window blinds decor market is actually approx the same size , there is the same reachability, but the propensity to adopt is very different. You can print onto polyester, at 2.2m wide, and they get the value of digital and want to talk to us. In fact, within only 2 years, we already had more customers than we had in the wallpaper. The culture of the market is different. In some ways it is more like the wide format graphics sector.

Now, you also have curtains but they are seen as decorative whereas window blinds are technical, as their core purpose is to stop light. In contrast, curtains are not so important as they are a decorative product. The wallpaper itself is more akin to art so it is more fashion than function. This was probably my biggest learning from all of this. I just didn’t expect window blinds to outstrip wallpaper!

What is the biggest challenge ahead?

Scale. How do you bring that tech - how do we get the wallpaper industry to go fully digital? At scale. So this poses the challenge of speed and the whole equation. Can we be faster? And can we produce quality product at the right price? In terms of industrial production of digitally printed wallpaper, right now, the closest is Xeikon as it is able to run in line. It even looks similar to analogue machinery! But whilst it is the closest it is far from being a replacement technology to analogue.

In your view what is the most compelling reason to adopt?

Recently, I went to India naively thinking that as a developing country it would be behind. But I found a country with immense scale, they all speak English, and with some environmental rules akin to Germany in some places. For example, they have banned PVC in some states. In India, everyone is looking at shorter runs, near-shoring, and cycling production more quickly. Zara, who have production here are saying they have 52 seasons now that Zara is saying and that every week you have it and next year you throw it out. Uniqlo, Primark, H&M, rapid fashion is driving everything this is starting to change how people manage stock and supply chain. This could be a kick in the rear end for us to cater for this need. This agility is exactly what mirrors the consumer world. So in answer to your final question. The consumer is king and queen. They have the power - and if this trend continues eventually the print supply chain will have to fall into line. Literally.

Marcus Timson