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2024 – What’s Ahead?

By John Burgess

January 23, 2024

Even the most optimistic of us have to go into 2024 with some concerns for the economy, in general, and specifically as it relates to the industry we serve and work in.

Let’s face facts, we have all had a good ride from 2020 well into 2023, and this bubble had to burst at some stage—so better to be prepared than not!

Our customers in the converting and original equipment manufacturer sectors have seen a rapid slowdown since the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic, when machine orders were at an all-time high, but deliveries in some cases stretched more than two years. The recapitalization of our industry over these three years has been a wonder to view from the sidelines—almost a feeding frenzy—and all of us, from boxmakers to equipment manufacturers and suppliers, have seen record levels of sales in this period.

What do we do now? Innovation and automation have to be the two biggest topics in play currently.

Innovation is the key to the future; the paradigm that says the way we have always done it is the way to continue to do it is the hardest to break in any industry but particularly one as traditional as ours. The advent of the digital press and now the hybrid digital-flexo printers shows that innovation is possible and achievable. Printing on both sides of the sheet went from being a unique skill to almost a must-have during the pandemic, and consumers have embraced the aesthetic look of the packaging. So, what is next?

Automation is very necessary in today’s world, with labor shortages that show no sign of slowing. My belief is that the labor problems we are currently facing in our industry were always there in an underlying sense; let’s face it, our shop floors are not as attractive as a plush office or a home-based assignment, but the events of the past few years served only to accelerate this issue into where we are today. How much we can automate processes is open to debate.

Regardless, we are still going to need good, skilled labor to build machines and peripherals, and ultimately, to print boxes. Is there a silver bullet we are all missing somehow? They say what goes around comes around, but how many of us have considered the traditional apprenticeship programs that, for the most part, have vanished in the past 20–30 years. These programs built loyalty from the high school and trade school levels and created employees for life (case in point, one of my employees just celebrated 50 years with our company). There is government aid available for many of these on-the-job training programs. Are we getting our human resources departments deep enough into the weeds to investigate these programs, or are we just calling the staffing agencies and asking them to send over labor at a high cost that doesn’t stay or create any loyalty?

We have many challenges going into 2024, but I firmly believe, with the investment that has taken place in new equipment, mill conversions, and the public sentiment regarding the shift to recyclable products, and with some fine-tuning, we are very well positioned for the future.

John Burgess is president of Pamarco’s flexo division and vice chairman of AICC’s Associate board.