Commentary & Analysis
How to Meet the Challenge of Adding Digital to Offset Operations
By Chuck Gehman Customers are looking for one-
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 3, 2005
By Chuck Gehman Customers are looking for one-stop "solution providers" for print and fulfillment. August 3, 2005 -- At next month's PRINT 05 trade show in Chicago, you'll see virtually "acres" of digitally-focused products, starting with heavy duty production-class digital printing engines. You'll see Canon, Konica-Minolta, Ricoh, Toshiba and Xerox, among many others, offering high-speed, high-quality color digital engines (driven by high-speed, production-class controllers like EFI's Fiery), along with applications for Variable Data Printing (VDP), list management, and more, as well as a host of input options, finishing options, "special effects" products, and fulfillment solutions specifically targeted to today's commercial print enterprise. Digital solutions providers will be there in force because adding digital to traditional offset print operations is no longer optional--it's essential. Competition for print dollars from corporations has never been more intense. Corporate print centers are competing against desktop inkjets and hallway copier/printers (multi-function devices). The quick printer down the street is competing with the corporate print center. Commercial printers are competing against all of these options, as well as other media choices like the web and interactive, radio and TV advertising, etc. Digital is not just about VDP VDP has been heavily promoted as a way for commercial printers to build stronger relationship with their customers, and get more dollars (and more profitable dollars) versus trying to compete on a price-per-impression basis. These are real benefits that VDP can deliver. However, for a lot of printers, this will take additional technical skills and the development of new sales strategies, as you can't build these services doing business as usual. The result is that many printers are finding that a good way to get started with production digital is by using it to add an "ultra short-run" capability, before tackling VDP. This can be a profitable business in and of itself. Similar to VDP, it can help lock in customers, and brings the additional benefit of helping printers who adopt this strategy the ability to up-sell customers to the "traditional" offset capabilities. Customers are looking for one-stop "solution providers" for print and fulfillment. They may come in with a need to produce a wire-bound presentation, and leave with an annual report or a fulfillment contract. These deals are happening now, for the early adopters. There are some big challenges to success in this new business model. They are: "Ease-of-Use" challenges Costs associated with order negotiation Costs associated with job prep (prepress) Delivering "Ease-of-Use" It has to be just as easy, or easier, for a customer to bring the job that would normally go to the hallway device, or to the quick printer, to a commercial printer. It has to be just as easy, or easier, for a customer to bring the job that would normally go to the hallway device, or to the quick printer, to a commercial printer. The primary reason for choosing a commercial printing operation would be, in many cases, to obtain higher-end capabilities, like finishing or binding options that don't exist in-house or at the smaller print shop. Another big reason would be because of volume needs (longer than a small device could efficiently manage or produce in a timely fashion, but still too short a run for offset), or a need for fulfillment services (for example, they want the product distributed to multiple locations, or they want "kits" built). But customers want to be able to access those capabilities without having to learn how to "speak print" or fill out a daunting paper job ticket to express how they want their job to be produced. Order Negotiation Kills Profits A $100 job can't afford to spend even 15 minutes in the estimating department. With today's tight margins, spending even that small amount of time on estimating a job that sells for $100 can reduce the profit to zero. So the price has to either be established upfront, or there has to be a way to automatically estimate the digital job, in real-time, when the customer is submitting it. Establishing the price upfront (i.e., a published price list) is limiting, because it requires what amounts to a contract with the customer--creating an often insurmountable barrier to getting started doing business. Job Prep (Prepress) for Digital Jobs is "Impossible" Digital jobs can only be profitable if they flow seamlessly into the workflow without human intervention. An even bigger hit to profitability on digital jobs comes from any activity that might be required to make the job ready to print. Let's say the job is delivered as a Microsoft PowerPoint file. Prep work to get the job ready to print might take another 10-15 minutes. Now the job is losing the printer money! The combination of the "business as usual" order input time and the "traditional" job prep time makes for an unprofitable digital operation. Digital jobs can only be profitable if they enter the shop, are quoted automatically, are approved by the customer, purchased using an agreed-upon payment method, and then flow seamlessly into the workflow, all without human intervention. Using a Virtual Storefront Internet-based solutions that facilitate digital file submission and job ordering are one way to make this possible. Several choices are available from vendors of print engines, RIPs, and workflow software. These applications provide a complete, streamlined workflow from the document creator, through to the print production environment. Let's take a step-by-step look at how a job flows through a digital file submission and ordering process. In most cases, the customer starts in their own favorite desktop application, be it Adobe InDesign, QuarkXPress, Microsoft Powerpoint, or any other PC or Macintosh program. In the case of EFI's Digital StoreFront and PrinterSite Exchange (other programs work in a similar way), they go to the application's file menu, and choose "Print," but instead of selecting a local printer in their office, they choose the name of the print shop they want to use for the job. When they click "OK", the job is converted to one or more PDF files. There is no need to have a full version of Adobe Acrobat to generate the settings-correct PDF. The files are then uploaded to the print shop site, and the customer can view and approve a proof of the converted document. Once the file lands on the print shop's web site, the customer selects the type of job they want to have produced from a web page of graphical icons that shows the available types of products. The choices are defined in terms the customer can understand like "brochure" or "pitch book". The customer then selects the product that meets their needs, and they "walk" through a user-friendly job ticket wizard that lets them select paper stocks and sizes, color or black & white, duplexing and finishing options like folding, cutting, stapling, or binding. These choices match the capability of the shop's equipment or they can be "defaulted", so a user doesn't have to make any choices at all--but simply attach their files to the pre-filled job ticket and proceed. After the customer makes their choices, the web site calculates and shows a price (no manual estimating) based on the production intent they have specified. All that's left is for the customer to purchase the job using a credit card, a PO number, or other payment method the print shop accepts. The pricing engine built into the e-commerce application allows each customer to have their own calculated price schedules and approval workflows (for example, Customer A might pay one price, Customer B another. Customer A might need to have a purchasing staffer approve a purchase over $100, while Customer B might need to have their manager approve any order). After checking out, the job enters the production workflow, going directly to an operator screen in the shop. The operator (who doesn't have to be technical--it could be a CSR or other staffer) simply looks at the job and ticket to confirm everything's OK, then clicks "Print" to send the job to an output device. The PDF content files and the job ticket flow together into the production workflow, so there are no manual prepress, prep or device configuration settings required on the printing engine. The customer gets email notifications as the job moves from production to shipping, and the web site is updated with status information as the job progresses. They can also place re-orders from jobs that have been previously submitted. Such digital storefronts can also be used to handle offset jobs so customers can submit all their work through the same web site. To facilitate processing of offset jobs, automation with CTP (Computer-to-Plate) workflows is often possible, as most job submission software uses a JDF-based job ticketing architecture. Summary Adding short run digital printing to a commercial offset operation presents challenges, but can result in better customer relationships and increased revenue. By engaging customers in an automated workflow using the Internet along with digital storefront applications, printers can simplify the process on the front end and in production. They are essential tools for profits in the today's competitive print business environment.