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What does the (not so distant) future hold for printing?

You don’t have to think too far back to remember a time when offices featured single printers, single fax machines, and single photocopiers.

Several workplaces still rely on dedicated machines for specific jobs, but due to the rapid rate at which technology advances, it is much more likely to see multi-function printers carrying out an office’s entire copy and fax requirements.

But in many respects, the transition from single to multi-function printers has been essential on account of how offices now operate. For example, remote workers require the ultimate in connectivity, while the proliferation of mobile devices in today’s society requires other forms of technology to react accordingly.

3D printing is also no different, with capabilities evolving from simple plastics to health and education applications. You sometimes need to take a step back and wonder what 3D printers could create next.

So, by embracing 21st century technology to stay on point with today’s ever-changing world, the printing industry has already offered up some strong indications as to what the not so distant future could hold.

  1. Mobile printing

Despite undergoing a continued migration toward digital and mobile technologies, most office workflows are so dependent on paper that printing will remain an essential aspect of the daily routine. You could even argue that with so much information now available online, office print volumes may increase exponentially over the coming years.

Office workers are no longer accessing the Internet exclusively from their desktop PCs. Instead, they are using wireless devices such as smartphones and tablets, which opens up the possibility of wireless printing. In the past, this was not always ubiquitous or easy, but today the vast majority of hardware vendors have developed a mobile print solution.

One of the world’s most renowned mobile manufacturers Samsung is at the forefront of mobile print technology. For example, multifunction copiers featuring Near Field Communication (NFC) technology were installed at Doha International Airport last year, enabling travellers to print tickets and other travel documents with the greatest of ease. In the more work-orientated environment of Korean International School, students and teachers can print documents virtually anywhere with any device thanks to Samsung’s cloud printing solution.

  1. Cloud printing

As cloud computing can make any business more efficient, it makes sense to incorporate this technology with printing. But many businesses struggle to make such a connection, as printing remains a part of IT infrastructure that cannot be virtualised.

It doesn’t have to be this black and white though. Cloud computing “simplifies intra-organisational printing structures and flattens the complexities of coordinating hardware across a widely distributed system of computers,” cites Arron Fu, CTO of UniPrint. The ease of implementation as well as the differences between public and private cloud printing are obstacles that need to be overcome, but solutions from the likes of Google and Apple aim to make realisation as straightforward as possible.

Submit a print job to Google Cloud Print and it takes on the responsibility for sending to the appropriate printer. It does away with the need to install drivers but also supports mobile and web-based applications. Apple AirPrint on the other hand, prints via a Wi-Fi access point; either directly to compatible printers or to non-compatible shared printers by way of a device running Windows, Linux, or OS X.

  1. 3D Printing and the Internet of Things

3D printing is still very much in its infancy. Some people believe it is and will always be a bit of a novelty, only good for printing small-scale models and plastic toys. In recent years however, 3D printing has been making a bigger and bigger impact, proving itself to be potentially revolutionary for manufacturing and the Internet of Things (IoT).

As you would no doubt expect, challenges like how to scale production for millions of unique products and how to connect these items digitally remain, but one entrepreneur is seeking out answers. Karl D.D. Willis worked with Microsoft Research on a project known as Infrastructs, which developed material-based tags featuring machine-readable information for IoT identification and security purposes. He also explored the idea of designing and fabricating 3D-printed electronic circuits with software developer Autodesk, which could also have a big impact on IoT.

“For IoT, this is the foundation of a new way to make and prototype objects,” he says. “For anyone working in hardware or wearables, prototyping is where it all starts. There’s a good chance for a lot of disruption in that area.”

  1. 3D metal printing

At first, 3D printers could only work with plastic, but at CES 2015 a collaboration between Hershey and 3D Systems resulted in the creation of printed chocolate. Now, Israel-based XJet has received a $25 million investment from Autodesk and private equity fund Catalyst CEL for its metal 3D printer, which could make this technology available for industrial applications too.

As opposed to traditional laser-based systems, XJet uses nanoparticles in liquid suspension to build metal parts. This is also different to competing metal 3D printing technologies, which use existing material to fuse or cut and require manual finishing, particularly for complex components.

“We allow manufacturers to skip the mold stage, saving them huge amounts of time and money,” says Dror Denai, CEO of XJet. “All the specifications are made in the software, and when it’s time to print, our nano-based metals are created according to those specifications.”

The future of printing

Not only will printing still be around for many years to come, it could also take on greater significance with things like the production of prototypes and improving office workflows.

Previously well-established technologies such as movable type and the printing press may well have disappeared as the result of an ever-changing society, but our fundamental requirement to receive a physical artefact from something virtual remains.

Christopher Milligan, Marketing Manager, OfficeXpress Europe Ltd

Image source: Dollar Photo Club