by Noel Ward, Executive Editor June 9, 2003 -- My friend Don Dixon from Gartner and I were having lunch at an industry press/analyst junket a few weeks back when he noted, "Digital printing is the most exciting part of the whole IT industry." I agreed and as we chatted about the topic I watched and listened as the other folks at the table--all industry veterans of one kind or another--tried to wrap their minds around Don’s expansive assertion. I’m still not sure all of them got what he meant. It’s so easy to get jaded by technology. There is much that we take for granted, so much that is simply the way we work, communicate, and live that it can be difficult to think of technology as being "exciting." But Don is absolutely right. Support systems, such as faster servers and computers are a sure cure for insomnia, creative ad campaigns from IBM, Gateway and Dell notwithstanding. PDAs can do all kinds of nifty things, but have limited market penetration and don’t generate much of a buzz. Networks, even WiFi, are like the wiring in your house: no big deal. The Internet has become like wallpaper: it’s there, it works (mostly) but any real excitement died with the dot-bomb bust and now it’s just another medium for information, entertainment and communication. Digital print, on the other hand is exciting, not so much because of the technology itself, but because of what the technology enables. And its exciting because it continues changing and improving in meaningful ways. Faster servers, better Internet connections and WiFi PDAs are convenient and may save some time or money. Comprehensive digital printing solutions can profoundly change the way your business works, how you communicate with customers, and add value for both owners and consumers of documents. In Carol Stream, Illinois, an outfit called The Document Centre takes data from a medical association’s call center and uses it to print and mail a couple thousand highly personalized full-color brochures every week. It has converted monochrome offset printing and a manual pick-and-pack process into a highly automated, dynamic workflow that saves the customer money, increases response rates and raises the overall quality of the printed materials. Company president Dave Rohe sees it as a way of developing an annuity type business that can be replicated for a broad range of customers. "It really differentiates us," he says "We find we’re really not competing with very many other companies." In Dallas, Texas, New Benefits, a wholesaler of discounted health benefits, produces full-color, personalized booklets , information kits and ID cards for members of their various customer organizations. The kits used to be a combination of loose pages, many preprinted in color, then laser printed in black. Most of that information now resides in the color booklets, making it easier to use and presenting a much better appearance. And when given the option of having color or black and white booklets, virtually every one of New Benefits customers opted to spend a little more for color. "If you look at the cost of printing color or black and white on a variable data, on-demand basis, the cost is a little more than preprinting," says Marti Powles, director of operations "But when you add in the costs for spoilage, obsolescence and inventory of preprinted materials, those costs are far outweighed by using digital color." These are only two of the hundreds of digital color printing jobs run each week by service bureaus, direct mailers, marketing companies and even some savvy commercial printers. These two examples are run on Xerox DocuColor printers, and others run regularly on presses from HP-Indigo, NexPress and Xeikon. No matter the equipment, every print provider I talk with tells me digital printing is changing they way they do business, how they think about their business, and what they can do for customers. All are excited about what digital print technology holds for them in the future. In almost every case, they are expanding their offerings and adding equipment. Lest you think digital color is the only place with excitement, think again. Book publishers are on a steady migration path to digital print because they see the potential for a transformation of their entire industry. Several major publishers have significant digital printing initiatives underway and it’s very likely that within a year or so many trade paperbacks that don’t make the best seller list will still be available in abundance--all digitally printed based on market demand. And there’s more. A class of fifth graders from Roswell, Georgia just had the thrill of seeing Mystery at Hillside, their class-written mystery novel go to press. The first copies came out just two weeks ago at BookExpo in Los Angeles, produced in conjunction with Océ Printing Systems, which has deep familiarity with book publishing through its affiliation with Quebecor World’s book publishing operation in West Virginia, among others. "We believe the short-run market will become a strong publishing segment," says Chris Hutchison, President of the P. A. Hutchison Company, a leading book manufacturer. Digital book publishing helps overcome the problems of cumbersome offset workflows, costly make-ready and set up, and production downtime for proofs and reprints. It gives publishers new ways to succeed and is a solution for common publishing challenges including books out of print, publisher’s proof, and warehousing. The excitement is about how the technology empowers its adopters. Print engine vendors have us accustomed to thinking first about feeds and speeds, maybe because for a long time that was the only story they could tell. Now there is a story that goes far beyond the nice colors and smooth paper paths. Marketing 101 tells us, "People buy what products do." And when what they do is transform businesses and industries, that’s exciting.