Uniting Print. An interview with Ford Bowers of SGIA.

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Ford Bowers became President of the SGIA back in 2016 and has since spent time reshaping, modernizing and growing the show business and the association in tandem. Specialty Graphic Imaging Association (SGIA) is the trade association of choice for professionals in the industrial, graphic, garment, textile, electronics, packaging and commercial printing communities predominantly in the US and North American market. The future is clearly looking very positive for the SGIA and in this interview we talk to Ford about change, its challenges and the future of printing.

Ford, please explain your background, how did you come to be running SGIA?

I started in print in 2004 working at a flexo-color separations business – doing everything from making plates and color keys to managing accounts. Then I moved to a company called Miller Zell, a PSP in the retail space, as a project manager and, after about 2 years, they tapped me to run their printing division. I didn’t know SGIA at that point, but when I started to attend meetings and went to the trade shows, I learned more about SGIA, so I joined their committees, went to their conferences and then in 2013 I joined as a board member. When Mike Robertson, the former President, announced his retirement in 2015, my hat was put into the ring. By this time, a lot of people knew me and were comfortable with me as I had served and worked with them and was trusted.

What skills did you bring to the organisation?

Essentially my background is operations based. My previous roles straddled the technical and business sides of the ledger. I have a strong technical production history but also business leadership functions with P&L responsibility. I guess you could say that I was the fulcrum between technical and commercial operations and somewhat a jack-of-all-trades!

What changes to the SGIA business could you see?

Well, in the US, the tradeshow industry is generally healthy and we can still see these metrics growing, with increasing exhibitor space and revenue. Of course, this may vary from industry to industry. However for print trade shows, the US print market is different and there is a very fragmented marketplace for shows and conferences. This is challenging manufacturers whose marketing budgets are consumed by trade show expenses – the more shows, the more expense, with diminishing ROIs. . PRINTING United is a recognition of the need for suppliers to get an improved ROI across the range of trade shows. OEMs say they want fewer shows, and, conversely, PSP’s are asking for it as well, so it is a ‘bottom up’ trend.

So would you say your style of leadership is quite different to the previous leadership at SGIA?

In many ways, yes. Previously leaders of SGIA came from within the association world, which is not a bad thing, of course. Coming from the printing industry, having been a printer myself, was a great advantage and having some established relationships and understanding the dynamics of the industry was a huge leg up in terms of being able to understand the key challenges quickly and then having the commercial speed to develop a new idea and introduce it into the market rapidly.

Yes indeed, PRINTING United represents significant change to SGIA and the US Market in general, please explain more.

Yes, well of course change is always difficult as there is risk involved, but it seems the market has accepted PRINTING United. With the SGIA Expo we already had the largest attendance and net sq footage of any print show in North America. But we did understand that our show grew as technology moved towards our segment in wide format. We benefited from a shift in the market, and took advantage of it well, and so we were fortunate.

More recently, however, the OEMs are taking what they were learning in speed and quality and single pass with the development of their product lines and now are applying those learnings to create applications for other segments, such as packaging and commercial. Wide format is still a great market, but the years of digital double-digit growth have given way to incremental market growth. So OEMs are also looking at developing new markets and they are going to turn their focus R&D-wise towards developing inkjet into new segments, such as folding carton, corrugate, web and sheet-fed. So we had the issue that over the next few years as their R&D money goes towards a different sector, so too will their marketing spend. I had to figure a way of getting these audiences to attend our Expo and participate in order to continue to grow our show.

Other sectors will also be huge and we think we can expand even further - apparel is a growing and vibrant segment, for example. First off though, we wanted to get the new commercial applications in the show with a little bit of packaging this first year in 2019, then we will expand packaging and apparel in 2020. The concept of having a ‘one roof’ approach seems to be what people wanted and this is validated by the fact we have a sold out show and positive feedback from our attendees in the form of higher registration numbers.

Since joining SGIA what have you looked to build upon for the association and industry?

My predecessor focused on building a firm financial footing through a healthy SGIA Expo. SGIA, as a result, is financially stable and growing. Now we want to use this financial position to invest wisely in beefing up environmental policy, health and safety training, government affairs, research, events other than the trade show, online communities, and so forth. All in an effort to do what an association is built for – help an industry to move forward. We have added staff in a number of areas to help us build this capacity. So, in the end, we are trying to balance trade show expansion with services for the industry and members and there is a lot effort being put forth and key developments in the works.

What do you believe are the key issues for print shops in the US?

I think the key issues in some ways are age-old problems. I think that everyone wants to increase their margins and market share and I think the way they do it now is more dynamic now compared with 20 years ago, depending on your segment, and this is due to the technological advances with digital printing. This has simply rewritten the rules. If you are looking at improving efficiencies or just being faster and reducing waste then digital enables this with new workflow software that helps to estimate through to invoicing and file management. Also, digital printing opens up new markets for printers.

How does the technology open up new markets?

Once you put in digital workflows, the barriers to working into new markets are greatly reduced. Back in the analogue only days, each segment was defined by its technology whether this is Flexo, Gravure, Offset/Litho or Screen. Moving from one print methodology to another was a big deal. Digital changes enable your workforce to work with new applications and address new sectors quite easily. Once you have digital production and workflows in place, adding another piece of equipment is not nearly as daunting as learning a new print discipline. Of course, they have to learn new things but digital has diminished the barriers and the risks associated with migrating to new products and markets. The investment is no longer prohibitive.

Is attracting talent still a large issue for the US and global print sector?

Yes. Digital technology enables new possibilities, but the core problem the print sector faces is the workforce. Recruitment and retention of qualified people and talent management is still an issue for the industry. This, in my view, is one of the things that must be dealt with in the next 10 years, but no one organization can solve it alone. This is a systemic problem. Printing has a kind of ‘staid, dying industry’ perception, which is wrong, but we have not been good at communicating that things are going well and that it is a vibrant and exciting industry, as well as a rewarding career path. This sector features some quality talent, some are software engineers, mechanical engineers; chemists, production experts, there are lots of different paths that people can take, not to mention a sector with a rich opportunity for entrepreneurs. People think print is only magazines, mail, and business forms and as they are struggling, so too is the print sector. And this is wrong.

However, the same people who think print is disappearing will walk through a grocery store and won’t think of print despite it being all around them – literally everything involves print. Also, think of augmented reality on packaging, what about apparel printing, and no one thinks about industrial printing! You cannot work anything without industrial printing. I loved the house diagram you used for InPrint, this explained the potential very well. This kind of knowledge gap is a problem for sure.

How do you think the US market for wide format and commercial print is developing, and how did you come to the idea of PRINTING United?

We came to the concept of PRINTING United at first through anecdotal evidence, conversations with many PSPs and exhibitors, and then through research, quantifying the number of printers who are venturing beyond their traditional applications and adding new applications and technology. Since the great recession, there have been modest gains in the amount of print but the number of printing companies has not bounced back, at least in the commercial space. There is a lot of M&A going on and commercial printers are adding wide format and label and a lot of different applications etc to their production offering in order to develop their business.

For the graphics inkjet sector digital inkjet is fairly mature - now the faster machines are just immense but the number of units being placed is plateauing. But the wide-format printers also want to go into new segments. For example, they are moving into label or small sheet cut applications. Wide-format printers are now doing this internally as opposed to farming this out as they get customers asking for it. It is about crossing and connecting these previously siloed businesses and PRINTING United offers access to the the broadest array of technology under one roof to access new markets with the right tech.

How important is industrial inkjet and developing tech for SGIA and the US market?

Europe seems further ahead on the adoption curve for industrial inkjet. I think it has been minimal in the US, but I do think it is growing and I think that you are dealing with people who are engineers who run complex production lines and this therefore takes longer than converting some of the other processes to new technology.

I also think that it is harder to understand this segment as industrial printers often times don’t think of themselves as printers, but rather as manufacturers. When I do go into these shops they usually have multiple printing methods running side by side: digital toner, alongside screen presses, next to wide format inkjet. Inkjet and digital printing is being adopted but they don’t talk about it as much, preferring to keep their competitive advantage closer to the vest, so it is hard to know what is possible and also how well it is growing!

There only seems to be 80-100 purely printed electronics printers in the country left so there has been a lot of consolidation. On the industrial side there might be 1000 or 3000 or more, but no one seems to know for sure, largely as they do not define themselves as ”printers”, or are embedded in larger manufacturing companies. We do want to build our presence in this community, however, and will be launching a new project to do this next year.

Would you agree that the continued gap between the print and creative industries is a problem?

Yes, I would agree it remains a problem. There is a persistent gap, and seems to be growing in understanding what can be done now compared with 5-10 years ago. Whether you are a designer or a brand, understanding what is possible with new technologies is difficult to keep up with (even for printers!), and to build those bridges to get everyone in the same place requires multiple approaches.

Associations have been trying to do this, show organisers as well. It is certainly met with a lot of head scratching and a lot of people are trying bridge this gap –Project Peacock, for example, led by Deb Corn in the US, is a great example of an initiative designed to inform and inspire.

At PRINTING United, we are launching a digital printing certificate program, which is a half-day of learning before the show and it is an education on what digital printing can do for brands and to help them understand a little bit more deeply what this new tech will mean for them.

NAPCO Media has also launched Brands Accelerated. Essentially, they are doing case studies on different digital printing projects, but even that has been challenging as the brands and printers don’t want their secret sauce out there despite the OEMs wanting to grow.

So Finally!

Printing is in a good place – but the more we can come together in order to connect people to the right tech and the right markets with ease and clarity then the better the industry will be.

For further information on SGIA

For further information on PRINTING United

Marcus Timson