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Commentary & Analysis

The Four-Month Year

By Noel Ward,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: December 19, 2005

By Noel Ward, Executive Editor December 19, 2005 -- There's probably some fancy name for it, the apparent tendency of time to accelerate when you're busy, and slow down when there's not a lot going on. Maybe time really is an illusion, as some cosmologists claim. Anyway, it seems like maybe four months since I wrote the year-end column for 2004, yet here we are at the end of 2005. Or, by my count, 51 weekly ODJ deadlines, three trade shows, several conferences, assorted speaking gigs, numerous projects, meetings live and virtual, 48 hotel nights, 40,000 air miles, 9 U-Wreck-Ems, and way too much road food. Your year probably wasn't much different. At Graphics of the Americas, On Demand and PRINT 05 the tire kickers finally stopped thinking and started buying. Our industry certainly had its share of excitement and intrigue in 2005. Vendors and print providers alike were merging and consolidating, contracting and expanding. Disaster on the Gulf Coast put some printers out of the game, while others around the U.S. just decided to close up shop. Although business was hardly booming, many printers I talked with were more optimistic than they'd been in some time. Trade shows were busier than in recent years as more equipment and software was sold. The pent-up demand seen toward the end of 2004 became evident at shows like Graphics of the Americas, On Demand and finally PRINT 05 as the tire kickers stopped thinking and planning and started buying. The upsurge in investment is evidence of a key shift in printers' perception of digital printing. No longer is it viewed as a technology in search of an application--or as a threat to the offset status quo. At virtually every level, printers are seeing digital printing as part of their strategy moving forward. Some are only doing short-run color, while others are handling sophisticated variable data jobs. Some are blending targeted print with personalized URLs, while still others are hip-deep in book manufacturing. There are shops that recently acquired their first digital press, and those that have several. I've been in shops that still make most of their money with offset and others whose cash cow is being all-digital-all-the-time. The point is digital printing is working just fine, there are plenty of printers out there making money with it and there is still plenty of room for growth and improvement. Some printers offering both offset and digital say their biggest profits today--and greatest future potential--are in digital. Others tell me they've moved to digital because they realize print jobs of the future are going to be both toner and ink and they want to grab their share. Some printers offering both offset and digital say their biggest profits today--and greatest future potential--are in digital. So is it the Tipping Point? Is this the long-awaited "tipping point," when we see a significant change in technology adoption? It very well may be, but not in the way of a sudden landslide to digital prosperity. It is more like the way Egyptians raised 400-ton obelisks into position. They built a platform that ended at a deep "sandbox." Lying almost horizontal, the bottom of the obelisk rested on the sand at the top of the box. As the sand was removed the base of the obelisk tipped, coming to rest on a "hinge point" at the bottom of the sandbox, but still some degrees from being vertical. It was then pulled into its final vertical position by lots of people hauling hard on ropes. Digital printing, I think, is getting closer to the bottom of the box and nearing the point where that final pull is needed. In 2006 we'll reach the hinge point and a couple of years hence wonder why a print provider without a digital press didn't see the signs that digital printing was the way to go. The tipping point for digital print is more like the way Egyptians raised obelisks from horizontal to vertical than a landslide to digital prosperity. Another thing I'm seeing is that even moderate-sized firms are increasingly mixing digital color presses from different vendors. Big operations like Royal Impressions or Global Document Solutions have done this for some time, but the practice is trickling down. In a roundtable I ran at the PIA/GATF Variable Data conference last month I found many shops had two or three presses in various combinations of HP-Indigo, Kodak Versamark, NexPress, Xeikon, iGen3, and other Xerox devices. Only a couple of years ago you'd find shops changing from vendor A to vendor B at lease-end, but now they are keeping the older box and adding another brand that's better suited to certain applications. This happened with monochrome presses, so it's to be expected as digital color becomes more stable. As this continues--which it surely will as color applications expand--it will help grow demand for digital color and print providers with multiple presses will have an advantage in the market. The Best of ODJ in '05 We went to a daily schedule at ODJ in 2005, and those of you who receive our daily edition saw an article, column, case study or white paper every work day. With over 260 pieces to choose from it's impossible to pick out the best, but I'll point to some I liked, and if our Letters column is anything to go by, many readers enjoyed these as well. One of the most memorable columns of the year really had nothing to do with digital printing. Mike Chiricuzio submitted a column that was really a eulogy for his dad, who was a printer long before RIPs, digital presses, QuarkXPress and PDF were a vision in even the brightest of minds. His column, entitled "Shift Over," brought in a lot of mail, and Mike found he had support throughout our virtual community. Read it again, or read it for the first time, but please read it. Leading the pack of our new contributors in terms of mail generation were Pete Rivard and Michael Josefowicz., both college professors who spend a lot of time among students. Pete's are the kids who will soon be running digital presses, and some, no doubt, printing businesses. Michael's students are the ones who will continue to stretch the limits of digital design and printing. Put their brightest kids together and one can only imagine what will come out! Pete wrote at length about his ongoing quest to interest more high school kids in printing, but one of his best was his most recent. The Omnidigitalist describes the person every printer wants to find, hire and keep. Michael has talked at various points this year about the tipping point for digital, and delved into it yet again when he and I had lunch last week in New York City. Read any of his columns on the topic, but one you don't want to miss is "Google, Wal-Mart and Commercial Printing." Kodak's Barb Pellow brought us some great columns this year, with plenty of real world examples of how digital printing is changing businesses. One of her best was A New Breed of Printing which pointed out how printers must change what they if they are to succeed. And if you missed her 2-part column last week, be sure to check out how to make direct mail really work. Writing from the other side of Rochester is Tom Wetjen at Xerox. Tom shared the eight steps printers must take to reach out to creative agencies. We also heard from Xerox workflow maven Mike Harvey whose focus on Workflow in Hybrid Shops speaks to the changing needs of many print operations. Workflow was also on other writers' agendas. Stu Gallup of Presstek told us about the value of a RIP-Centric Workflow and Bob Raus of Océ encouraged us to develop a print infrastructure. Another favorite of mine was Pat Taylor's Strategy is Overrated. Coming from a man who knows first-hand how technology has a way of surprising us all, his advice is worth considering as we rush into 2006. And then there's Frank Romano who always says something worthwhile in his Straight Talk columns. Take your pick, they're all good reading. Then I think of... Well, there are 250-odd other pieces worth revisiting. Do a search by author or just hit the links to Special Features, Case Studies, or White Papers and you'll see all there is on ODJ. We've had a great year and I thank all of you for your support and readership. I hope we've been informed, provoked, educated and even entertained. Stay tuned for '06 as we have lots more planned. We'll be adding more direct mail coverage, taking a more frequent look at wide format, digging into transactional documents, and more. And then there is our upcoming webinar series you'll be hearing about in just a few weeks. Have a great holiday season and may 2006 bring you closer to goals. See you back here January 4, 2006.

 

 

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