Printing has come a long way since its humble beginnings in China back in the seventh century AD, and new advances using 3D printing technology demonstrate that printing will be an important fixture for most for a long time to come.

The first mass market printer was launched during the 1980s, reflecting the growth of personal computing. Alongside graphics software packages, this opened up a wealth of new opportunities not only for the corporate environment, but also for those in the creative industries. In particular, it helped SMEs and start-ups access affordable printing, streamlining business processes such as day-to-day correspondence to make them less time consuming.

As the market grew, technology improved and costs reduced, making printing more accessible. Towards the end of the 1980s, additive manufacturing – or 3D printing – was invented; the technology later become available to home users with the Rep Rap (an open-source, self-replicating 3D printer) launching in 2004.

The 2000s gave rise to a wide array of technological advances in consumer devices such as smart phones and cameras, many of which promised printing benefits. The wireless printer became more widespread in 2003, along with various printer-and-camera dock combinations, allowing images to be printed straight from digital cameras or gaming consoles. In 2010 we saw the launch of the world’s first application to allow email attachments to be printed directly from a mobile phone or tablet to a connected printer. This proliferation of gadgets enabled new found connectivity and flexibility, giving people the convenience of printing directly from a hand held device and thereby improving efficiency.

Now, smartphone and tablet use in conjunction with printing has gone into hyperdrive; Near Field Communication (NFC) technology makes printing straight from a mobile phone even easier and faster, allowing printing to be actioned by simply tapping the phone on a linked printer.

While rumours circulate about paperless offices, suggesting printing is dying – or dead – in fact printing has never had a brighter future with IDC predicting a 29% increase in compound annual revenue growth from 2012 - 2017. Although it is true that print is diminishing and digital technology will displace some uses of print, many still value the tactile experience of printed materials. From the telephone directory to the business card and marketing tools, there are applications for which print remains competitive with any digital alternative.

Printing in the office is still frequently used for finance, insurance and healthcare where important documents are always needed in hardcopy, such as contracts, deeds and formal notices. It is also a valuable resource for art and design communities; the printed artefact can in itself be the finished product, but printing is also important for the development of illustrations and graphics. In addition, for consumers, hard copies of some documents such as family photos will always hold sentimental value.

The technology of printing is evolving; the rise of cloud computing for example has created new opportunities for businesses. As well as being able to access files from anywhere, the ability to print directly from the cloud makes business processes more efficient and creates greater flexibility. In addition, the production of digital prints which can be stored in the cloud and accessed as needed via a mobile device such as a mobile phone or tablet, reduces the need for unnecessary printing thereby helping to limit waste and make business processes more sustainable.

Although files can be worked on and transmitted easily in digital format however, some documents require hardcopy and this seems unlikely to change any time soon. Cloud and mobile printing are helping to give the printing industry a new lease of life, allowing individuals to print on-the-go. Further changes are being made to make printing even more convenient and business processes ever more streamlined.

The rapid expansion of 3D printing for both personal and commercial applications has resulted in the technology becoming a fixture in a number of industries including architecture and design, with new uses for sectors such as healthcare and fashion showing great potential. Initial research and development demonstrates that it can also offer value for food production, and for a number of uses to support those in developing nations.

Credit Suisse has suggested the 3D printing market will be 357 percent larger in 2016 than initially thought. As this growth demonstrates, the technology is almost destined to become an ingrained aspect of day-to-day business life. Fast and affordable 3D prototyping and micro-manufacturing opens up a wealth of new opportunities for businesses of all sizes, giving the general public access to production capabilities and cutting out third parties. As the technology develops further, the possibilities are endless, confirming printing as an essential process for business far into the future.

3D printing proves that there is still space for the humble printer to evolve; we have only so far reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of what this technology is capable of. Far from being an ailing industry, the future for printing couldn’t be more exciting.

By Dave McNally, Product Marketing Director, Dell Imaging, EMEA