What print’s Industry 4.0 —

update means for publications


Despite the focus on digital media, and especially publications, print is here to stay. But what’s certain is that in the future, it will occupy an increasingly specific place. We look at how the fourth industrial revolution has played out in updating the print industry and helped it stay relevant.

How print is changing for the better

Industry 4.0 refers to the further digitalization and automation of manufacturing that accompanies the fourth industrial revolution. The first revolution started with water and steam, the second with mass production and electricity, the third with the widespread adoption of computers.

In this fourth revolution, the use of “smart” technology means improved monitoring, simplification, and optimization of the process. This technology, in turn, builds on innovations in print’s component technologies, such as greener inks, papers and printing practices. Both halves combined and a tweaked (but still essential) human role work together to increase profitability, and reduce waste while handling increasingly complex demands.

These changes are also triggered or reinforced by big policy changes, as demonstrated by global children’s publisher Scholastic, whose diverse output means relatively more resources from colored images and paper, and special fonts for words.

And just like the notorious wastefulness of fast fashion companies and their almost monthly collections, other groups of big players like textbook makers (what could be called Big Textbook as you might Big Pharma) have long been criticized for their model of updating print editions every semester to protect their bottom line. That said, Pearson, one of the five biggest American companies, has since gone digital-first in response to changing demands and habits.

Ideally, this one-two combo of a technological revolution and improvement of industry practices means things that should be printed can be, and things that would be better off digitalized are not printed.

Why it’s still going to be needed

With or without pressure to innovate in sustainable ways, our continued need for physical experiences is not going anywhere and neither are the printed materials that enhance that. Even if we exclude the “main attractions” of beautiful labels and packaging, printed instruction manuals and marketing materials will still make up a large part of the physical product experience.

However, outside the product context, print will still be vitally important for publishing due to its still largely permanent nature (unless of course, Toshiba’s innovative erasable printing technology becomes more widespread).

We’ve written before about the importance of slow journalism — where the emphasis is on accurate and detailed versus immediate reporting. The resources involved in print publications, not to mention the irreversibility, mean that far greater care is involved: you can make near-immediate updates to web articles and ebooks, but there’s no making up for shoddy fact-checking after printing thousands of copies of a book. Delayed Gratification, for one, is a quarterly print publication by Slow Journalism that reports on events after the dust has settled and the true impact becomes apparent.

And even beyond preserving and relaying information, so long as print continues to hold cultural capital and authority for this very permanence (which it does), it serves as a means of expression and gives a voice for the most independent of publishers, something we saw first-hand when we moderated a zine fest near our old office.

The Takeaway

Every time we physically throw out any piece of paper bigger than a receipt for lack of a recycling bins, that tangible experience might give us a lot more pause than repeatedly downloading, uploading, copying and moving hundreds of gigabytes of data. It could be that the visceral reaction of “think of all those trees” made print an especially big target for sustainable innovation, even as we ignored the impact of ‘invisible’ digital technologies like AI or even e-readers.

That said, the progress up until now is welcome because it’s meant more options. As MAEKAN continues to experiment with product, the availability of new innovative production methods allows us to do something good while consciously weighing our environmental impact. This means we can stay excited when we consider what our first MAEKAN print publication might look and feel like when we get to it (we’re always open to suggestions, by the way).