Visual Connections Australia

Drupa 2024 - Trends & Directions from the World's Biggest Print Show


The industry came together in Sydney and Melbourne in June to review the recent drupa exhibition, where Visual Connections General Manager, Sarah Moore, and Marketing & Communications Manager, Robyn Frampton, brought guests up to date on the trends and directions set at the world’s largest print show. These included the ‘coming of age’ of digitisation, greater emphasis on automation and robotics, the influence of AI, a trend towards vendor partnerships and collaborations, and the ongoing drive for greater sustainability. Overall, the summation was that print, in all its forms, is very much alive and well – and that there are plenty of exciting opportunities for the future.

Here is a summary of their presentation.

Drupa’s back!

Drupa made a strong comeback in 2024 after an eight-year hiatus due to COVID. Figures from this year’s exhibition have just been released:

  • 1643 exhibitors from 52 nations
  • more than 170,000 trade visitors from 170 countries. 
  • 80% of them were internationals
  • 22% coming from Asia
  • 50%, came from the printing industry, followed by packaging which has increased its share of numbers significantly since 2016.

Numbers were down and the mix was very different – and that was only one of many changes evident at the show. Drupa is changing, because print is changing, but the overwhelming view from Düsseldorf is that print, in all its many forms, is alive and well – and there are plenty of exciting opportunities from the show.

So, what were the major trends?


Firstly, digitisation. Drupa 2024 demonstrated that digital print production has really ‘come of age. In 2016, the digital focus was still very much on individual solutions, like digital print engines. This year, the overwhelming trend was towards demonstrating total, digital production ‘factories’ where the entire process was an integrated, seamless process.

These comprehensive, end-to-end production environments – or ‘digital ecosystems’ as some were calling them – were driven by sophisticated workflow solutions to optimise production efficiencies. Some of these were from stand-alone software vendors, but also from major equipment manufacturers.

As a side note to this, print products and particularly packaging, are also being integrated into the digital environment with functional printed elements to provide more intelligent and sustainable solutions.

These include things like printed antennae to facilitate more sophisticated and granular track and trace functionality and aid with anti-counterfeiting and product verification, and printed sensors that can pick up things like temperature, humidity, product expiry and more, allowing for connection to intelligent systems and appliances via the Internet of Things. Something to watch. 

Overall, however, leveraging the benefits of digital technology will, for most businesses, provide the pathway to extend opportunities and optimise profitability.

Automation & Robotics

As part of the integrated digital ecosystem, drupa 2024 saw a huge increase in the prevalence of Automation and Robotics demonstrated on stands.

Most print technologies – including digital technologies – are now largely mature. While improvements are still being made to productivity and efficiency on-press, as it were, those improvements are more incremental.

Where significant time – and costs – can be saved is by streamlining processes in the pre- and post- print areas, by removing production touchpoints, implementing inline quality control and automating repetitive, manual tasks.

On press, this was evidenced by things like fully-automated, software-driven plate logistics solutions to completely automate the removal and replacement of offset plates; with inline inspection and verification systems, combined with automated ‘on the fly’ sorting for interruption-free production.

It was the prevalence of peripheral systems, however, that was most noticeable. This includes automated loading and unloading systems, robotic arms and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).

Demonstrated as part of the production process were everything from familiar automated jogging and materials transport around folding and finishing systems, and more novel solutions – perhaps more familiar in a traditional ‘manufacturing’ environment – such as robotic arms. 

A range of solutions was on show, including smaller, mobile robotic arms which can be moved from machine to machine. Affordable and safe – they automatically detect humans in their field and slow accordingly – they feature interchangeable heads which allow them to be used to do everything from move individual, large-format prints, to pack boxes of brochures.

These are complemented by larger, high-speed fixed systems for industrial-scale and pick and pack applications.

The benefits of these systems are pretty clear. Improved productivity, the opportunity to extend the life of existing equipment by better utilising its capacity, the ability to re-deploy robotics on new equipment when the time does come for an upgrade, for instance.

More importantly, however the increased use of automation and robotics addresses one of the key challenges for our global industry – the shortage of skilled staff and, particularly here in the ANZ region, the high cost of labour.

The promise of these systems is obvious. They offer continuous, interruption-free operation, 24/7, in manned or unmanned environments. They don’t take breaks, they don’t slow down when they’re tired and they don’t need sick leave. They don’t even need the lights on.

It’s a debate which is often avoided by businesses, because it raises the spectre of job replacement. Vendors at drupa, however, said that’s not the point – the real promise is in enabling existing staff to ‘do more with less’. 

In this context, automation and robotics can allow businesses to grow even as their staff numbers remain static. They can earn higher profits from staff hours, be more flexible in allocating staff resources due to simpler and more intuitive machine operation, and free their existing team members for roles which add more value to the business than the kind of manual, repetitive tasks which can easily be handled by machines.

The Growing Impact of AI

While it falls short of an overall ‘trend’, the influence of artificial intelligence was certainly starting to be felt across drupa, and that is only set to increase in the years to come.

At a practical level today, the main benefits are in sophisticated data capture, collation and analysis which can help businesses optimise production and workflows and improve sustainability by identifying and addressing energy and materials waste.

AI has the power to deliver comples data analysis of your entire business ecosystem, helping business owners understand their businesses better and plan for the future more effectively.

Where the influence is perhaps less evident, at least at the moment, is in generative AI. We are already seeing its impact in the design space, with faster design of more complex printed products. This is expected to particularly impact areas like variable data printing, where a more sophisticated mix of variable elements will be able to be seamlessly combined to personalise a printed product, and the predictive ability of AI will be able to target those products to increasingly small market segments…down to one person.

In terms of technological development, generative AI is expected to have a huge impact by accelerating the design process for new technologies, driving an exponential increase in the rate of change. Drupa 2028 will be interesting


Back to trends, and one of the biggest was sustainability. Reducing our environmental impact is still a huge global challenge, and it’s certainly a major factor driving the development of new technologies, print processes, media and consumables.

The location in Germany meant that much of what was presented at drupa was very EU-focused, but the reality is that what happens at that level will inevitably set the direction for global trends, including those in Australia.

There are a raft of emerging regulations in the EU affecting everything from the design of products, disposal of waste, reporting requirements and more. And while there are still robust discussions about the actual achievability of things like ‘net zero’, there is no dissent in the ranks of experts around the fact that change needs to happen.

For manufacturers, and for print businesses, the way forward is clearly to measure impacts where that is possible, and to make small, continuous improvements. New systems, equipment, media and consumable are making this easier.

At drupa, there was a show-wide focus on initiatives to reduce the impact of systems, equipment and materials. Partly, this is achieved through optimising workflows – delivering both better sustainability and profitability. Low-energy drying systems and other advances are cutting energy usage, while sophisticated job planning and automation can optimise material usage and reduce waste.

The formulation and packaging of consumables is changing. We are seeing more water-based ink formulations, less solvents, more eco-friendly adhesives, and a trend towards more sustainable packaging like bag-in-box or bulk delivery systems for inks. One flexo plate maker is working to replace 20% of the mineral oils used – so it’s impacting all areas.

Complementing that is the drive to facilitate easier recycling of materials in the quest towards a circular economy. We are seeing more mono-material products, like packaging pouches, and direct to shape printing for cans, bottles and jars, for example.

Separation of materials is also a huge issue, and something self-adhesive media manufacturers have been devoting huge amounts of R&D to over recent years. This involves developing media and substrates that meet performance criteria, but can be easily recycled – think moisture-resistant wood-fibre boards – as well as adhesives that allow easier materials separation.

Challenges will still remain around collection and accessible post-use processing, something we have already seen in Australia, but manufacturers and vendors are continually making it easier through their product development.

It is worth noting that the print and graphic communciations sector as a whole, and the ANZ industry in particular, has an impressive track record in this area and will doubtless continue to provide leadership. 

Collaboration & Partnerships

Collaboration was another key trend at drupa, with a multitude of announcements about collaborations, partnerships and MOUs.

Major announcements like those between Canon and Heidelberg for B1 and B2 digital presses to complement offset solutions, and between HP and Canva around design-to-print via the Canva platform got plenty of press, but they were only two of many.

Collaboration is, of course, not new in this industry, but it does seem to be increasing. 

On-stand, this was evident through multi-vendor collaborations, which saw embellishment added to print and finishing solutions, partnerships between software vendors and equipment providers, and the announcement of agreements between equipment manufacturers and suppliers of automation and robotics systems.

There seems to be a trend away from vendors wanting to keep everything in house – to be ‘all things to all people’ – and towards partnerships which enable manufacturers to stick to what they do best, while also supporting customers with total solutions and business drivers.

Print is Alive & Well! 

“Anyone who thinks print is dead should come to drupa” was a phrase heard often around the halls of the Dusseldorf Messe. Print may be changing in many ways, but the overwhelming opinion of vendors, visitors and media at the event was that it remains as relevant and exciting as ever.

As well as its physical and tactile nature – demonstrated impressively by new, dimensional print technologies – it’s ability to make powerful impressions and connect with people continue to justify its value as part of the communications mix.

Add in the sign, display, textile printing, interiors and other markets which now so heavily rely on print technologies to deliver impactful and cost-effective solutions, and areas like intelligent packaging and printed electronics, and there are certainly plenty of exciting opportunities in future for businesses who are prepared to stay open and interested in the directions our industry is headed.

Perhaps the last word about the show should go to a 40-year veteran of the industry from Australia, who said, “walking around drupa reminds me why I love working in this industry”. 

If there is one, overwhelming take-away from drupa, it’s this: that print is very much alive – and so is the passion for print.