So, this digital print-on-demand that we keep hearing about: exactly what are we supposed to be doing with it?

Call it “client-centric communications” and market it to financial service companies as the dawn of a new day in customer relationship management, answers Bowne Enterprise Solutions (BES), the digital document-producing arm of a 228-year-old printing house.

BES’s client-centric communications program wasn’t the only such strategy promoted at On Demand, but it was one of the more illustrative examples of what now can be done with sophisticated databases at the back end, interactive workflows in the middle, and nimble plateless presses up front.

As described at the show by Ron Ens, BES’s senior vice president for product marketing, client-centric communications melds the one-to-one power of variable-data printing with the broad reach of client databases to mass-produce customized investor materials for high-volume customers like Merrill Lynch. Ens said that a “rule-based engine” built around the interpretation of stored customer preferences lets BES generate tailored account kits, personalized letters, and individualized, perfect-bound books while keeping track of every job from file receipt through output.

Client-centric communications also supports the outreach activities of fundraising organizations and other users of BES’s kitting and fulfillment services. For these customers, BES’s documents-on-demand system maintains and updates content in an electronic inventory and prints recipient-specific materials when and as needed. The system “moves the fulfillment process closer to the customer,” said Ens, by enabling the client to spec and order kits and documents through a Web interface using templates that can be customized “like the chassis of a car.”

“We’ve moved the entire workflow to the Internet,” said Ens, where the customer can preview and edit documents in PDF prior to output on BES’s Xerox and IBM digital presses. Because the workflow is XML-based, changes made to PDFs will be carried over to printing. Customers can do all of their editing within the Web interface, and, if they wish, alter templates without fear of disrupting documents built upon them. Any change to a parent template, explains Ens, automatically will adjust the pagination of its offspring.

Other Matters To Discuss
Brimming with comparable demonstrations of the versatility of database-driven digital printing, this year’s On Demand confirmed that the technology is now as “established” in print producers’ and print buyers’ minds as any other method of putting information on paper. One especially telling indication of its progress was that at this On Demand, relatively little was heard about the cost-per-page of digital print—a topic nearly inescapable in vendor presentations at previous editions of the show. In its place, there was a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that digitally printed pages simply cost more in their typically small quantities than other kinds of pages, and that there is nothing to be gained by being coy about digital print’s premium value.

Just as it’s said that if you have to ask the price of something, you probably can’t afford to buy it, the commonly implied message about cost-per-piece at On Demand was that if you can talk only about what your output costs, you may not be smart enough to sell it. The real challenge today, agreed many vendor representatives at the show, is to demonstrate to end-users why paying more for digital documents is not an expense but an investment in controlling the cost of print by leveraging its effectiveness.

Some chose to emphasize that when cost-per-piece calculations lump unused or obsolete copies with copies actually distributed, they are misleading anyway. Others questioned the relevance of cost-per-piece in the first place. BES, promoting the benefits of its client-centric strategy, made its position clear by declaring that it intends to help customers “focus on reducing their cost per sale, rather than the conventional marketplace approach of focusing on the cost per document.”

Of much stronger interest than production cost at On Demand was production capability—and in this area, to be sure, there was no lack of sophistication on anyone’s part. Cathy L. Lewis, senior vice president of marketing for IKON Office Solutions Inc., complimented the On Demand attendees on being “knowledgeable and interested” when it came to digital print technologies. Gershon Alon, likewise, reported that he was fielding many inquiries about “advanced capabilities” for producing finished documents, not just printed sheets, at Creo’s booth.

“Tons of Questions about Workflow”
According to Alon, the director of marketing for Creo’s print-on-demand systems group, visitors were asking “tons of questions about workflow. ” They were also eager to learn more about connecting system components, previewing jobs on their desktops, and equipping for remote proofing. Less frequently heard at this year’s show were questions about trapping, image quality, and other “basic capabilities” of digital print that the on-demand market now takes for granted, Alon said.

In Lewis’s view, a key trend in that market is a “convergence” between publishing and data management in applications like technical publications and manuals. Thanks to data- driven production techniques that make it possible to revise and reissue them almost at will, these materials can be seen as “static” documents no longer, she said. Citing Dataquest, The Gartner Group, XPlor, and other sources that assign 5 to 10 percent of an enterprise’s operating cost to the production of documents, Lewis noted that enterprise publishers increasingly prefer to do business with print providers who can deliver complete document management services—not just the “marks on paper.” Enterprises want digital printers to relieve them of these chores, she said, because “a company’s core competency should not be around their documents.”

Mark Hunt’s designated “megatrend” was shorter runs. Run lengths are “plummeting,” said Hunt, director of marketing for Standard Finishing Systems, out of customers’ desire to hold down inventories and to “keep collateral fresh” so that marketing communications can be updated as changing circumstances dictate.

If this is the essence of print on demand, then “the ink-on-paper guys will tell you that they have been doing print on demand for a long time,” Hunt observed. He sympathized with conventional printers, noting that the rising demand for quick-turn, short-run work is placing “increasingly unrealistic deadlines” upon them. Fortunately, he said, the digitization of print workflow is “scrubbing” steps from their production routines and helping them get more done in less time.

Just Takes A Little Getting Used To
Alon said that Creo had attempted to “profile” commercial printers’ adoption of digital printing in order to understand how they integrate it with their conventional capabilities. Creo’s research showed, Alon said, that printers typically create a separate department for digital printing until they grow familiar and comfortable with it. Then they begin to experiment with finishing on demand; running jobs with mixed stocks; working with variable data, and integrating other functions for a full range of digital print capability to complement their conventional operations.

Alon’s boss, Creo president Judi Hess, said that a printer’s goal in acquiring digital capability should be to achieve “sustainable differentiation” between his company and their competition. Others, including Hunt, pointed out that printing by itself is no longer sustainable or differentiated enough to serve as a long-term business model.

Be they made of ink or of toner, “dots on paper are fundamentally a commodity product,” according to Hunt. What printers must figure out now, he said, is “how to pump margins back up to an acceptable level again” without depending on dots to do it for them. Simply churning out more pages is a dead end, agreed Lewis, who warned that “there is an overabundance of equipment” out there already for producing commodity work.

Greater versatility through more flexible workflows was vigorously advocated at On Demand as one way out of the commodity-printing trap. Some printers already have their own do-it-yourself workflows, or at least parts of potential workflows. The challenge for the vendors was to make their branded workflow solutions appear integrated and benign, not hydra-headed and threatening.

“There isn’t any one workflow, and everybody believes that his workflow is unique,” acknowledged Thomas V. Keene, Xerox vice president for business and product strategy on the monochrome side. A colleague, Richard J. Cutri, marketing director for Xerox’s production color business unit, said that customers typically look to the vendors for ways to streamline their workflows without jeopardizing what they already have in place.

Who Said, “Proprietary”?
Anyone who wants to sell a workflow to printers must make sure it is “simple, rather than an IT task,” according to Bill McGlynn, vice president, digital printing solutions, Hewlett-Packard Co. The one thing that customers don’t want to worry about, he said, is “getting trapped into something proprietary” that will force them to depend on the workflow technology of just one vendor.

That is one reason why vendors, in designing their solutions, must try to support all of the customer workflows that they encounter, noted Frank Nacca, marketing manager, cut-sheet products, Océ Printing Systems USA. The other reason for close support of customers is that workflow, like production technology in general, doesn’t always perform as expected. “Nothing is truly seamless” in any workflow, Nacca said.

There was universal agreement that improved workflow can help to move variable-data output into the mainstream of the print-on-demand market by making its powers easier to harness. Still, it was more than coincidence that three senior marketing executives—Alon, Hunt, and Lewis—used the same word, “nascent,” to rate the present market appeal of what has always been characterized as the most revolutionary feature of digital print-on-demand.

The dictionary says that “nascent” means “commencing, or in process of development; beginning to exist or to grow”—an uncomfortable definition for a technology now in its second decade of gestation. The problem, agreed the experts at On Demand, lies not in the technology, which is doing everything—albeit on a limited scale—that its providers have always claimed it can do. The obstacle to variable data’s broad adoption remains what it always has been: the slowness of the print-buying market to perceive the value of what it can produce.

Gaining the perception requires an understanding of the IT (information technology) and data management routines that put the “variable” into variable printing; but that learning curve, according to Alon, is “a long process” for most print buyers. He also pointed out that for variable-data printing to succeed, it will be necessary to eliminate “the conflict between IT and marketing” that frequently blocks the latter’s attempts to do things like using billing data to mount one-to-one direct-mail campaigns.

Pompoms for POD
Until the misperceptions and the conflicts are removed, variable-data output will remain a “latent market requirement” with an uphill path ahead of it, said Keene. None of this, however, has diminished the vendors’ zeal for the technology and its undeniable potential.

A sign of progress, according to McGlynn, was that at this year’s On Demand, Hewlett-Packard had six developers of variable-data solutions as co-exhibitors in its booth—a threefold increase over last year. Creo shared booth space with no fewer than 15 variable-data software providers, said Alon. Lewis reported that with IKON’s help, big enterprises like American Express and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) have learned how to deploy their robust CRM (customer relationship management ) systems to “reach out and touch people” with the response-generating influence of one-to-one print marketing.

While optimism may be a bit hard to come by in some quarters of the economically subdued graphic communications industry, the vendors at On Demand shared a sanguine view of the outlook for their segments of it.

The industry is “on the cusp of unprecedented growth” thanks to digital printing, said Richard Sand, director of Heidelberg’s Business Development Services unit.

From now on, the difference between the “haves and have nots” of the industry will be the extent of their movement into producing higher-value applications via digital color, noted Cutri.

As for the sluggish economy, McGlynn called it an “advantage” for marketing digital solutions because in slow times, customers are more open to learning about new ways to improve their performance and profitability. The “why fix it if it ain’t broke” mentality tends to predominate when times are good and people are making money, McGlynn said.