To help everyone get to know Infosource a little better (me included!), I had a conversation with Johann Hoepfner, Managing Director, about the combination of Infosource, DIR, and Harvey Spencer Associates; the industry; and a few other items snuck in too. The following is lightly edited for readability.

Q: Who Is Infosource?

JH: We are Market intelligence provider. We consider ourselves a market data supplier the company was founded back in 1985 to provide highly accurate market data for the industries they decided to cover.

Q: Why did they decide to cover the printing industry?

JH: There was a demand. I believe that it was Canon and they were not happy with the data that was available at the time. A lot of the data available was based on estimation assumptions but not factual data. Infosource specializes in collecting data from sources so we base our data on declared data not estimated data

Q: What areas have you traditionally covered?

JH: We’ve always been specialized in printing even going back to typewriters and matrix printers. As the industry changed, so did we, and now we’re specialized on digital printing. We analyze everything from the small printers to digital power press to textile printing. More recently, we shifted to include document capture technology from a hardware point of view. Now with the Harvey Spencer Associates (HSA) and DIR mergers we have a strong team in the US to promote and extend this expertise.

Q: What was the original impetus to merge Infosource, HSA, and DIR? 

JH: We covered the document capture hardware market via Mark Nicholson and our scanner program. We also obviously had some document capture hardware covered through the copier MFP reports we were doing. And of course there is a strong relationship nowaday between capture software and the hardware. We wanted to bring these together and so we had the idea that the software to capture hardware would be a strong combination. Talking to Ralph for years was a really a welcome opportunity to incorporate a publication that covers these topics and we can reach a different and wider audience

Q: How do you see these things combining together?

JH: I think bringing together capture hardware and software is bringing together what belongs together. I think it’s a natural combination of the best possible expertise because infosource has data in both areas we can provide expertise on the transition from paper-based information into purely digital information management.

Q:  What do you want to have what do you want to add to the industry

We want to help the industry as it seeks to enable digital transformation for customers. There is a demand from both hardware and software companies to know what the other side is doing. Frequently in the past we have had hardware manufacturers ask us about software, not just capture and imaging but also document management software and solutions. At the same time, I understand Harvey [Spencer] that software vendors wanted to have a better idea of hardware vendors and how they could work with them. By combining this expertise, we can now cover the entire industry — hardware and software. We also think there’s a tremendous networking opportunity to bring both sides together with Harvey’s conference. I think that’s something missing in the industry today.

Q: It’s bringing two halves of a whole together.

JH: Yes. Absolutely.

Q: This is similar to the question above, but what opportunity do you see bringing these three entities together, both for the industry and for the company?

JH: With the knowledge and expertise we have, Infoscoure is in the best possible position to help hardware manufacturers work out their transition to non paper based information flow. Again there is a need for them to transform. We can bring  them the knowledge and expertise, together with partners to help them with this transition.

Q: What’s one of the more interesting printing trends you see right now?

JH: Print on demand is interesting, and there are many interesting trends. Print on demand is in the reach of everyone. You can get low volume, high quality prints on a broad range of surfaces. For example, you can print your own wallpaper. If you want to have your favorite holiday picture, you can have that printed as wallpaper. Or you can have the pictures of your girls [Ed note: I have two daughters] on your phone case. You can get these things with low volumes. It is an interesting trend because we move away from a4 paper prints in the office, but the areas where print is becoming present today is very broad.

Q: The first thing I thought of when you said POD is I thought of AIIM and Xplor combining into a single show and the giant IBM printers printing books and documents and collatoral on demand. When you say POD, you are talking about everything from 1 book to 3 pieces of paper at Fedex to printing smartphone photos via Mpix online to print onto a mug for my Mom, pics of the grandkids or a book. 

JH: The traditional definition of print on demand of course came from that printing physical paper environment. I went to a fair several years ago and there was a giant Konica MInolta Bizhub with a binding machine and that’s print on demand. But the book printing never really took off. There aren’t any shops where you can get something printed. There are ebooks and Amazon for that now. But printing your photos in a book, Apple has that — send your pictures, upload them to their shop and you get your book a few days later. You don’t even make your own album anymore. I think the customer appreciates having this personal print on high quality surfaces and materials. You can print your carpet. Or you can print your tiles. You can print on nearly anything. And we’re not even talking about 3-D printing yet. 

Q: On a personal level, how did you get involved and what do you enjoy most about it?

JH: I originally come from the finance sector but in all of my previous jobs I learned IT as well. At the time I worked for an HP dealer. Back then there was no plug and play, so my job was to adapt software to printers. you had to configure it, you had to set up the printers so they would work with the software. No drivers or USB cables, you had to go into each software and it was a messy job to do back then. 

I started to understand bigger printers and bigger computers. I worked for an automobile association and they had SAP. My job was to adapt SAP to the logistics to the purchases and buying goods and stocking them. I was managing the commercial print processes for that. That was my job before I came to Infosource. At Infosource I really came to know what is all involved in printing, which I had never thought about.

Q: What surprised you the most as you got into the industry?

JH: First of all was the volumes of devices being sold. Even back then people were talking about paper-free offices and when I came to Infosource I realized how far away from that we were. Infosource back then had just switched from printed reports to electronic and Web-based data delivery. We made the move that was expected to be done everywhere, moving away from paper to purely providing data in electronic format.

Q: So, irony, you cover the printing industry, but don’t print your reports. 

JH: [Laughs] Exactly. 

Q: About what year was that?

JH: Infosource has had Internet-based services available since 1999. So quite a long time. Our customers could access the data online. We stopped printing in 2004. 

Q: That kind of reminds me of when I first walked into AIIM as an intern. The editor at the time, John Harney, had a poster on his wall about the “paperless office.” The whole forms and workflow are going to remove paper — the same things we’re writing about now (and many of the same companies too). I often think of that and am amazed at how far we’ve come but how far is left to go. 

JH: In our office we had all of the old books from 1985 to 2003, the last ones. They were printed in leather bound books. Really heavy things. The IT show in Hanover, Germany that doesn’t exist any longer. All of the printer, copier manufacturers were there. That was the deadline for us to publish the books. They were packing up boxes of them into cars and driving them over to hand them directly to the customers at the event.

Q: That’s some good customer service. We talked a little about this, but how has printing changed and will COVID have a huge impact or will it just be a blip and then a return to normal? [Ed note: As I was finishing these edits, I saw an article from early July that Fujitsu intends to move some/all of it’s employees to work from home permanently, closing office buildings. Twitter made a similar announcement in May. So maybe not a blip.]

JH: I think we have to separate office printing industry and the commercial and industrial printing industries. We cover both areas. Office printing has seen a strong decline in volumes, even before COVID, over several years now. The commercial printing — which is often still paper-based, insurance, bank statements, etc. — that has been still quite strong as people continue to rely on paper. 

I notice in the US a reliance on continuing to send out checks. That’s something that has nearly gone completely away in Europe for years. With COVID-19 these processes have changed. First of all, office and home office work and people are already printing less in the office and will print less now. With commercial printing, there’s been some switch to sending by email. So the Postal Service will be impacted. I suppose that payments will be by more wire transfer as people are less inclined to go to a bank  and so on. We think there will  be a strong decline. Whereas the industrial printing industry is quite strong these days. They have been increasing over the past few years. There have been new forms and new demands coming up all the time. 

Printing on vinyl for car coverings, direct to garment – t-shirts, direct to object printing like phone shells or bottles, so industrial printing has not been impacted by COVID. So it’s had different impacts on each area. The loss of print volumes due to COVID in the office printing and portions of commercial printing are unlikely to fully recover. They were already on a decline and that decline has simply accelerated with COVID-19. Whatever is lost there is unlikely to recover. 

It would be a step back to receive your bank statement by PDF and then to receive them again by paper. 

Q: I know every time I get an 8 page EOB for a short doctor’s visit, it drives me crazy. 

JH: Anecdotally, we were in France at the Swiss Embassy and they asked us to come over and show them the paper. They just copied them and then we could go back home. So we did a 100 mile ride each way for a 5 minute meeting  where they copied the papers.Couldn’t I have just scanned them? but no, you had to have them in paper — it was absolutely necessary [there was a hint of sarcasm in Johann’s voice on that one].

I think in the US, today you have a fee on wire transfer and afee on checks. In Europe it’s the reverse. Just switch the fees from wire to checks and you will destroy check printing. 

Q: Yeah, I had never thought of it and was surprised that Infosource was going to send me a check rather than direct deposit. I had no idea there was a fee. 

JH: Right, when we first had a bank account in the US, we were so used to doing wire transfer that’s what we did. Then we got the invoice for the monthly bank changes and thought, “Wow, we haven’t had bank charges for years.” For us, that was a step back from an electronic to a paper-based “workflow”. 

Q: I had another question about paper, but I think we already covered that.

JH: Yes. Well, the decline of paper is a reality. We’ve talked about it for such a long time, it happened slower than expected. The hardware industry had more time to adapt, though some didn’t adapt well. 

Q: One reason I’ve been leery about the downshift in paper is that I read a report a few years ago (2017ish) that said office paper consumption was on the rise.

JH: There was a shift from in-house printing to letting print houses do the printing, so there was a wave of acquisitions where print houses moved to acquire resources for printing bank statements and so on. But that was really, I think, just a temporary event and bump.

One of the COVID impacts is the postal service being slow. You easily get agreement to send electronically signed documents. No one wants to see an original with a wet signature, everyone accepts PDFs with an electronic signature. 

Q: I will say that in selling my house I had to drive an hour away to sign the final documents at the title company, even though every other single document was done electronically.

JH:I bought a house 5 years ago. The notary handed over a tablet with the paper and we signed it, but then two weeks later he sent us the official deed of the house that was printed, but the process was entirely electronic. 

Q: I find 3-D printing fascinating, can you talk about it at all?

JH: I had a very interesting experience about 2 years ago when I went to see Konica Minolta and they asked me about 3-D printing. Their idea on 3-D printing was different. There is 3-D printing of objects and 3-D printing on objects, instead of a flat surface like paper or textiles or vinyl. There’s a wide range of applications with very different natures. You have bio printing in the medical field – you print teeth, you print bones. You can print a vascular system. You could print a heart, but you’d have to find a way to contract it. In automotive and aeronautical you have a variety of components being printed. there is metal ink. 

You can print 3-D selfies. [A quick Google search showed a number of places where you can turn yourself into an action figure. Here’s one.] That’s the fun part and it might be the “fun” things that are the most quickly adopted moving forward.

Every area has a limited number of manufacturers, and it’s a wide range of niche markets. You don’t have a lot of competition. Most of the companies cover a market and when you look for 3-D printing a specific application, you have a choice between one or two, maybe three, options. There’s not really a high demand for the type of market data we usually supply to companies. We are strong where you have a lot of competition and where everyone wants to know how good their machines are compared to others. When they bring out a new machine, how well is it perceived in the market, how well it’s been selling compared to the competition.

We follow the 3-D market and the trends and our analysts are well-informed, but even though we follow the market, there’s not a need for our services. At least yet.

Q: As more money flows into 3-D printing, because there’s cool stuff you can do. I could see applications for car parts being 3-D printed in remote garages, for instance, even though who knows if 3-D printing will ever penetrate the home market. 

JH: As the prices of the hardware become more affordable, probably. There needs to be a need and affordability. When they come together, the market will develop. For prototype printing, that’s something that works because it’s cheaper to print the prototype than to carve it. Especially with 3-D design tools that exist. In the past, you’d need a block and you’d cut out the prototype. Now you can print the prototype and it’s less material and cheaper material involved. 

In the past we talked about home brew computers, now you have home brew 3-D printers. 

Of course, you can print a gun, and that’s the downside. You can find the plans on the Dark Web. 

Q: I’m still fascinated that if you’re a lazy cybercriminal you can get software-as-a-service for ransomware on the Dark Web. I’ve always thought 3-D printing would be great for home repairs, like I needed to repair my gas fireplace to sell my house and they had to order the part and it took two weeks

JH: I think that’s clearly where we are heading. if you come with your car and you have that model, year, and maybe have the frame number, etc.; likely in the near future you can have your spare part printed. In some ways it’s great, but in another way it’s going to kill the warehousing industry who stock and store these parts. I’ve seen people creating new parts for a range of things and there’s a lot of imagination. It’s always going to be small volumes. There’s going to be lots of printings, but of small volumes of one or two objects. That will reduce waste because things won’t be produced and then thrown away once they are out of date. 

It’s an industry that’s looking to find applications. Spare part printing, medical, and prototyping are areas that are showing promise. I think there was an airplane produced with a majority of 3-D printed parts. You know here in Geneva, we have CERN. Every year they have an open door and you can go down. They said what they build down there, 99% of it is hand-made. You can’t go to a shop for what they need. They’re creating the materials, metal parts, screws, etc.

Q: You’re not going to go to aisle 12 in Home Depot and find a solution that’s going to keep atoms from colliding and then creating a black hole that consumes the Earth. 

JH: Kidding aside, I think at some point we may get to downloading a design and you take it to a 3-D printer and a short time later you have what you want. There will need to be some creative minds stimulating us about what could be done. The average user, like myself, we just haven’t figured out how far we can go.