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How to Escape the Commodity Trap

(February/March 2017) posted on Tue Mar 21, 2017

Why do things become commodities? More importantly, how can you prevent your business from becoming a commodity? It all starts with understanding your customer.

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By Mark A. Coudray

The Innovation Cycle
Every idea, innovation, technology, language, and society that reaches implementation goes through four cycles that help drive commoditization:

1. Innovation
2. Invention extension
3. Functional substitution
4. Demise

Printing, specifically moveable type, was the innovation that allowed for the mass duplication and spread of ideas, increasing awareness of the printing processes. Until this point, there were examples of printing, including precursors to screen printing, but they were not commercialized extensively.

Screen printing was a functional substitution to the letterpress printing process. It increased the number and size of substrates that could be easily printed, and added new capabilities, like greatly improved exterior durability. Screen printing did not gain traction until the early 1900s and was used largely for signage, as well as some textile applications.

Later, screen printing underwent multiple invention extensions of its own that extended the capabilities of the process. Examples include knife-cut stencils, photographic stencils, direct emulsions, metal frames, retensionable frames, high-modulus meshes, flash curing, UV inks, water-based inks, and many more. These extensions are still happening to a degree, especially in the industrial/non-graphic sectors.

Functional substitution is when a new or competing process or technology is introduced that renders the original innovation obsolete or no longer economically viable. For screen printing, technology substitution is represented by digital printing, 3D printing, electro-toner, and other new technologies that deliver the same characteristics as the original process, but in a different way.

In the case of digital printing, the advantage is the elimination of prepress steps related to screen making and machine setup. The economic run length is one piece. Likewise, variable-data technology enabled digital printing to create mass-personalized goods.

The final phase of the innovation cycle is demise – the point at which the original innovation is no longer needed. If digital printing presses become so inexpensive that they challenge the low barrier to entry or per-unit run cost typical of screen printing, the game would end.


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