Commentary & Analysis
FREE - Random Thoughts from Graph Expo 2003
By Steve Aranoff &
By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: October 9, 2003
By Steve Aranoff & Robert FitzPatrick, The EAGLE October 9, 2003 -- Wandering the single “hall” at Graph Expo reminded us clearly how much change is in the air. The crowds seemed to be realistically sized and in a buying mood. Optimism, after the last two years of declines in traditional sales seemed to be ever present. New workflow solutions and digital printing initiatives peppered the floor, responsible, so it seems, for much of the optimism. But, that's not THE EAGLE's story. Presses, finishing, pre-press and a new wide format pavilion filled a single hall. The ever-present Heidelberg effectively blocked the entryway through its gigantic presence. But this Heidelberg, recently struggling to develop a sustainable identity beyond the heavy metal of offset and web presses, now showed a three-pronged strategy for the future. Equal emphasis was being placed upon offset, digital printing and post press in the new era, indicated Neils Winther, President and CEO of Heidelberg USA, Inc. For a company that was solely in the heavy iron business for so many years, this triple-strategy really shows us how far the industry has changed. Who would have thought that this manufacturer would be leaning so heavily upon the expertise of a partner, Kodak, to bring a new press, especially a digital press, Nexpress, to market? In THE EAGLE, for the past few years, we've been suggesting that no one company, however large, could afford to do everything. Besides the above broadened product strategy, Heidelberg has seen a great deal of other new light. Quietly, they've abandoned the strategy of providing a full range of pre-press and press supplies to their customer base. No longer looking to be a one-stop shopping home for their press customers, consumables are now only being sold where they add value for the Heidelberg stable of products. For example, in selling their private label of CtP plates specific for their Platesetters. The other major change has been not looking to be a pre-press supplier at all, except for CtP, having virtually abandoned the Imagesetting and scanning products that came from the Merganthaler-Linotype-Hell heritage. A new primary player, virtually unheard of before at Graph Expo is EFI. President, Guy Gecht presented a strategy where EFI becomes the glue that held together a number of companion products from design through order entry to shop floor management to pre-press, to proof and press and bindery. Interestingly, most of the interconnecting structure was supplied through EFI products, through its stable of companies including Best Proofing, TR Systems, and Printcafe. Gecht strongly pushed EFI's belief in serving the customer and strictly adhering to the open standards of CIP4, JDF and others. Clearly, EFI's approach leads to an impressive array (over 200) of printing devices that can work with EFI RIPs. Strange bedfellows also emerged. A major surprise was the inclusion of partnership arrangements between EFI and Heidelberg and Screen. Because Printcafe's shop floor products are so well adopted by American printers, it was natural for Heidelberg to want to integrate with Printcafe's systems, allowing them to jump aggressively on part of the integration bandwagon here. In prior years, we expect that they'd have stuck with European vendors and tried to coerce the printer into using what Heidelberg supported. No longer possible in today's market, Heidelberg gets a ready clientele that already have Printcafe systems and EFI gets credibility in the offset press marketplace where they're just moving through the Printcafe acquisition. Likewise, the relationship with Screen's reselling of the new EFI Velocity OneFlow product and Screen's decision to work with Printcafe, gives EFI additional legs in the traditional commercial print marketplace. Also, Enovation has added EFI workflow solutions, so that it can manage both traditional offset printing and its new foray into selling Xerox Docucolor 6060 Digital Color Presses from the same EFI desktop. Even KPG has gotten into the act, offering the EFI Velocity OneFlow prepress software with its KPG DirectPress 5034 DI Offset press. This offering is intended to bring the simplicity of the short run digital workflow to smaller printers who still want the quality advantages that some attribute to offset press technology. Not to be outdone, a Creo initiated/sponsored initiative called Networked Graphic Production (NGP) newly emerged as a consortium of 27 companies agreeing to implement a subset of JDF necessary to make a comprehensive demonstration about how all their systems could work together by DRUPA. Although started by Creo, Amos Michelson, President, assured the attendees at Graph Expo that this was indeed an open system, and all members of the industry would be warmly welcomed to the group. We are not experts in JDF and are somewhat daunted by its description in a 600-page specification. As we only use a small subset of the capabilities of “Word” for most of our writing, there was something compelling about the NPG groups concept of using the minimum customer required information between dissimilar processes and/or devices as a methodology that will speed integration. As it currently stands, JDF compliance does not necessarily mean that two JDF compliant products will be able to talk with each other. After all, they may each have chosen to implement a different subset of JDF operations. But what concerns us is that there are too few members of the group and that certain heavyweights are missing. For example, Heidelberg supports its own Prinect workflow integration initiative. While based upon JDF, there is no guaranty that any competing product can work with a Heidelberg product. Competitors, Man Roland, KBA, Komori, Mitsubishi and Xerox support NGP. What does a printer do when more than one press is involved and they don't adapt to the same interface standards? Printcafe is currently in the NGP camp and its new parent, EFI, is stressing “open” standards with a wait-and-see attitude about NGP. Heidelberg is apparently satisfied with Prinect and its own connectivity goals opened somewhat through the relationship with Printcafe software in the U.S. market. So, it appears that the industry's efforts to achieve real integration that simplifies the life of the printer could still be pretty far away. That's not to say that current progress is bad. That one of the “camps” has 27 companies willing to commit to JDF based integration is a good start. It is certainly better than 200 manufacturers all with their own interface standards. But, we believe that everybody concerned needs to look at other mature industries to see what really has to take place. Can you image city intersections if each traffic control company determined the size, format and location of a traffic signal? That every intersection with traffic lights interfaces the same way and all signals have the red light on top, followed by the yellow and green didn't happen by accident. We all seem to believe that the industry is now competing with mature products, so that price, delivery reliability and ease of operation and integration are now the important points, not features. If that's the case, then we challenge the industry to do a better job with integration so that integration will no longer be the biggest challenge that affects the printer.