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Interrogating Dr. Joe: The Sequel

Last week I posted answers to pre-

By Dr. Joe Webb
Published: April 6, 2009

Last week I posted answers to pre-event questions for the Tuesday, March 31, Xerox-hosted “Digital Goes Mainstream” held at the OnDemand exhibition. The panel discussion also included Howie Fenton of NAPL and Barry Yarkon of The Hammer Company (Parsippany, NJ), and was led by Gina Testa of Xerox.

The pre-event questions are created to get panelists in the frame of mind for the discussion. As usual, once things got going, the formal questions are gone, and the discussion leads to a variety of comments and questions of our own, still on topic, but lively and spontaneous.

The event was recorded, and it will be made available soon. I highly recommend it when it is.

I like to prepare formal answers to the questions because the process helps me get my thoughts together over a few days, and am pleased to present them here.

At the end of the questions, I have added an additional question I received by e-mail.

* * *

Let me draw your attention to print manufacturing practices… Print customers today are more demanding than ever, especially as it relates to turnaround times.

This is more of a two part question…

Q. First, can you help us by defining what would be considered to be the benefits of an integrated digital and offset environment?

A. First, there is a new discipline of workflow. Many printing businesses have great workflow on the press floor, but it ends there. Much of workflow has been doing whatever it takes to get the job done. There is a greater need to get workflow right, and also a greater sense of flexibility in services. You also have the ability to create more interesting documents, such as hybrid products, or production using offset shells, that can have real cost advantages from a total job cost perspective.

It's not just offset and digital that need to be integrated into workflow, it's accounting, inventory management, billing, purchasing, sales management, and all other parts of the company. What good is a great digital workflow on the production floor when all of the other parts of the business are inefficient?

Q. And Second how important has integrating a digital operation into a current operation and what if anything will or has delivered lowered costs through greater efficiencies?

A. It's often a better course to keep the digital operation separate from a strategic perspective, especially when it is new. When you have a business development strategy with a technology that is new to the shop, there is a different strategy to build a business around it. This is especially true of sales compensation. When you are creating jobs by focusing on business development, sales cycles can be longer, and test the patience of traditionally trained print sales people who are managed by counting sales calls per day or always pressed for orders per week.

The efficiencies come in time, but it's really important to focus on the efficiencies of the customers. As you build services around that, the efficiencies you need to develop will begin to become more evident. They don't come overnight, and it's important to nurture them and keep building on them.

1. Let’s focus on Quality of output. Xerox Corporation has announced tremendous strides in image quality in addition to productivity improvements whether with the new iGen4 press or our other leading color digital presses like the Xerox 700 Digital Color Press…

Q. Some of our audience today may want to know your thoughts on why digital is becoming rapidly a high quality alternative to traditional offset?

A. Digital printing benefits from a lot of trends and characteristics some of which are demonstrable, others of which are perceived. It's already a digital workflow, and virtually all content creation is in digital formats. Then there is the perceived difference that digital is automatically better than offset because of its run length flexibility and printing only what you need, which obviously means it's “greener” to most people since you print what you need. It may not be, of course, but that's the perception, and it can vary from job to job and circumstance to circumstance. Finally, it's important to have the right cost for the job. That means that there are times when offset makes the most sense, especially when it can do certain things that digital can't do for certain jobs, or when it's better to make offset shells and work from there.

Ultimately, it's been the improvement in digital print quality that has gotten it in this position. The past 15 years have been steady improvement, to the point that I can show digital samples to experienced offset veterans, real old-timers, and they have great difficulty figuring out what process was used to create it.

2. This is more of a three section question however; I believe it is an important one to address. Let’s start by referencing a recent study provided by the NAPL/NAQP and in this report it surveyed printers ranging up to 1 million to 100 million dollars in revenue…

Overall, how would you rate the net effect of the service below on your business?”

Digital Print, Web-to-Print and 1:1 Services…. The aggregated result illustrated that over 66 percent of those survey cited a positive effect… So the question is to those printers on the panel? Would you agree and could you provide us with examples without giving away your clients names…

And for our consultants today…

Q. Is this something you are seeing as mainstream in the print industry?

A. What does mainstream really mean? I'm not so certain. You could say that gravure is mainstream because of the dollar volume it has but that it is not mainstream because so few printers do it. Then there's the issue of having the capability of doing something is a lot different than doing it well. 1:1 represents still a very small percentage of digital print volume, but there are some businesses that have it as their dominant application.

There are numerous ways of structuring printing businesses, and these are some characteristics that will become very common. Here's the problem: when everybody has it, it no longer becomes a way of differentiating your business. I only mention this because right now the companies that do these well have an upper hand.

3. Choosing the right technology is more than a discussion around speeds and feeds today. Perhaps it is a combination of attributes that must come together.

Q. How valid is it to choosing the right partner? And can you provide examples that you have come across over the past months that can re-enforce your answers?

A. Focus on what communications will look like in 2012 and 2015, in all media. Good partners? How about many partners in the content creation professions, with the new print business as a hub for distribution.

4. Let’s change gears a little here… Sustainable printing practices has been around for a number of years now and the awareness is becoming a pivotal choice of action among many business practices. Not only is this a now a sales and marketing approach but it has to be a workflow approach as well, not to mention the attributes that digital can play in the space where a green practice can help benefit a workflow.

Q. Can you give me your insight into how you see this shaping up and any experiences you have had in your print shop and others?

A. Sustainable practices are no guarantee of market success and are becoming a minimum baseline to be considered in the process of selling among mid- and large-size companies, and smaller companies if they choose to do so. For many companies, if the information cannot be distributed in a satisfactory sustainable manner, it will not be printed.

For some reason, it is assumed that digital printing is exempt from the other factors affecting the print market. Digital media affects all print, no matter how it is produced; market-immune postal rates affect all print, including digital; environmental regulations affect all print, not just digital. “Do not mail” initiatives attack all print, and can limit 1:1 initiatives, right at the heart of digital printing's most interesting strength.

The real aspect of workflow is media flexibility: supplying content in any format at any time at any place on any device. That's hard to do. Printers should get into the thick of that. There's an old saying in the consulting business: when you see confusion, run toward it, not away from it. That's because where there's confusion, there's opportunities.

* * *

This is the question that came in by e-mail. It's a follow-up to a question I answered at the event.

[You] made the point that in previous recessions new technologies arose from each recession but in this recession there was nothing new on the horizon. It seems to me that ink jet printers are the technology that are going to be coming very soon. Is this really going to happen? When? What impact will this have on our industry?

I have no doubt that ink jet in its upcoming formats will be successful. But it's an extension of a trend that continues the ongoing handoff from offset to digital, much like letterpress slowly gave way to offset.

The reason those recessions were different were that they drastically reduced the cost of print job creation, notably color scanners and color page makeup systems, which created an explosion of process color printing. The 1991 recession was another drop in cost because of color desktop publishing, which gave power to designers (it created the graphic design industry, shifting them from being illustrators to media creators).

There is nothing out there technologically that reduces the total cost of print, or the cost of using print during this recession, in the revolutionary ways that were seen two and three decades ago, unfortunately. [In those recessions, we did not have the kind of digital alternatives competing with us the way they do now]. It's up to individual printers to craft some kind of answer through their entrepreneurial actions instead.

Dr. Joe Webb is one of the graphic arts industry's best-known consultants, forecasters, and commentators. He is the director of WhatTheyThink's Economics and Research Center.



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