Commentary & Analysis
The End of the Shell Game: Whatever happened to pre-printed forms?
By Nachum "
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: August 25, 2003
By Nachum "Homi" Shamir, President and CEO, Scitex Digital Printing August 25, 2003 -- Digital printing pushed the forms printing business off a cliff five or six years ago and the growth of color digital printing is only speeding its descent. It’s a long way down, there are a lot forms in free-fall, and most preprinted forms will soon be but a memory. Back in the days when most statements were produced on cut-sheet printers and were just one or two pages, many documents were designed to use pre-printed color as an integral element. For multi-page documents produced on cut-sheet printers, the first page and the ensuing pages could be very different in design and were pulled from different drawers during production. For single page documents produced on either cut-sheet or continuous forms systems, the use of color could be very tightly integrated with the data produced. So what has happened? First, increasing transactional print volumes and wide variances in statement length are shifting more statements to continuous form printers. As a result, pre-printed forms have lost much, if not all, of their inherent design benefits. On continuous forms pre-printed designs cannot be tailored to the data (or vise-versa) because the data may be formatted differently depending on the page or customer characteristics. As a result, most pre-prints today are nothing more than a corporate identity in one corner and a shaded background, perhaps with a large logo made to appear as a watermark. To contain costs, many such forms are just shades of a single color. Is this progress? Are we communicating as effectively as we can? In an age when communications must be ever more tightly targeted to get a few precious moments of a customer’s attention, preprinted forms are yesterday’s tactic; as obsolete as the line printers that once turned them into statements. Companies requiring even moderate volumes of preprinted forms are finding the economics of preprinting increasingly unattractive and are discovering the beauty of empty warehouses and plain paper printing. I think of the costs involved in preprinting as ‘the shell game,’ because forms are really shells onto which the valuable information is printed. The costs add up fast. * Paper for shells must be purchased based on the type of electronic printer to be used. Many roll fed digital printers require tractor feed holes, which can increase paper cost up to 10 percent. * Design of the form becomes static and cannot be varied to accommodate changes without revising and reprinting. This increases lead times for design and production and limits flexibility. * Offset printing requires large quantities be printed and stockpiled--tying up cash--to achieve the economies of scale necessary to keep the cost per thousand as low as possible. * Forms must be trucked from the forms printer to the data center or service bureau for electronic printing. Warehousing at both the forms printer and at the electronic printing facility is the norm, with associated costs for storage and management, plus losses due to damage and obsolescence. * Multiple documents and types of forms must be physically produced and available, each with its own costs. The shift to plain paper printing eliminates or sharply reduces most of these costs, while adding other advantages. * Plain paper costs less than preprinted forms. Furthermore, the types of paper used can usually be reduced, further lowering costs. Many plain paper printers use just one type of paper for all jobs, simplifying ordering and gaining price advantages due to total annual volume of paper purchased. * Less inventory is required, and since it is only plain paper Just-in-Time delivery programs can nearly eliminate warehousing requirements. * Losses due to obsolescence become non-existent. * Losses due to damage decline because plain paper is easily replaced. * Warehousing is only required at the digital printing facility where plain and pre-printed paper would be stored anyway. * The actual forms can be designed and stored digitally, making changes and updates a much simpler and less costly process. As I noted last month, I believe transactional printing is going to become a vital marketing tool over the next few years. Since the banks, utilities, credit card companies and other firms with high volume transactional print requirements are casting a new eye on cost control and operational efficiency, plain paper printing is going to become a mantra at these firms. This shift will cause the warehouses of preprinted materials to empty faster and hasten the fall of preprinted forms. The shell game worked very well for a long time, because it was the only game in town. But those days are ending, and a new game of one-pass printing on plain paper is taking over. It takes companies beyond filling in the blanks on pre-printed forms and lets every page be just what they need it to be.