By Carro Ford Convergence covers a lot of territory, and it can be interpreted in multi-layered contexts of equipment, workflow and application. July 6, 2004 -- Why does convergence continue to stay on our radar? The vision it promises is appealing, and its acceptance appears inevitable. "Convergence is possible because the printing technologies are merging to a point where a single multi-function printer can cater to the printing needs of both environments," suggests Nick Khatri, marketing manager of Emtex (emtex.com), a provider of document transformation and output management technology. "Consequently, most companies now see this as an opportunity to consolidate print operations into a single 'digital smart factory' to maximize utilization of printer and finishing assets, minimize floor space and operational staff, and ultimately reduce overall document production costs." "As it relates to us," explains Khatri, "convergence is the coming together of previously discrete printing environments. The data center or service bureau that is producing mission-critical transactional documents such as billing, statements, invoices, or direct mail, is incorporating digital publishing capabilities for POD manuals, booklets, brochures and presentations." Another form of convergence surfacing today is the merging of applications into a single document. "Take one-to-one marketing in transactional documents, such as statements," says Khatri. "Here two previously discrete applications from two environments -- the statement and the marketing insert -- merge into a single unit to create an effective dual purpose document. Service bureaus are well positioned to offer this service to their clients." A Lot of Ground to Cover Service bureaus are well positioned to capitalize on this realignment and capture incremental volume by expanding services, while consolidating their digital publishing environments. While convergence by definition involves consolidating multiple functions into one environment, anyone implementing convergent solutions quickly realizes their scope of knowledge must actually expand. No matter how you define it, convergence covers a lot of territory, and it can be interpreted in multi-layered contexts of equipment, workflow and application. "Acceleration is likely as environments and applications converge: offset to digital, paper to electronic, single purpose to multi-purpose devices, one size fits all to fully customizable, and marketing to a large audience to marketing to an audience of one," says Khatri. "Service bureaus need to keep pace with these trends and have the technology, people and processes in place to capitalize on them." Service bureaus are well positioned to capitalize on this realignment and capture incremental volume by expanding services, while consolidating their digital publishing environments. "Service bureaus are comfortable in complex print workflows, and therefore more adaptable in incorporating POD workflows into their existing environments," notes Khatri. Ready to Converge Certain capabilities in software and other resources are particularly important in helping service bureaus adapt to and exploit the opportunities presented by convergence. Open, flexible output management is required to manage multiple sets of workflows, disparate print streams, and output to and control virtually any print device. "A centralized any-to-any print stream transformation solution is critical," says Khatri. Sophisticated document re-engineering gives convergent operations full control in automating workflows through added integrity marks like barcodes or OMR marks, full reprinting capability, and maximizing postal discounts. A central accounting database allows "digital smart factories" to track and bill clients quickly and accurately with minimal effort. A service bureau must have the correct software and hardware to cost effectively manage convergence-capable workflow. The right technical, sales and marketing skills are also needed, along with the right management, accounting and planning processes. A convergence-ready environment must satisfy other requirements, including centralized job control and management, end-to-end tracking, and comprehensive reporting. The shop must be able to re-engineer documents and support any-to-any print streams transformation and pass through. Centralized intelligent resource and workflow management will help maximize utilization of the "do more with less" technology that's probably already been installed. E-delivery of documents for archive and web will further satisfy convergence's need for output flexibility. Where Are Those Customers? Convergence is more prevalent in the US, mainly because the print volumes are typical higher and therefore the value proposition for convergence is higher." Once you are ready, where should you look for good prospects for convergent printing applications? Certain industries are more convergent-friendly than others. "Insurance companies and financial services such as retail and investment banking, and brokerages are good candidates for convergent environments, since they have both transactional (statements, billing, EOB and policies) and POD applications (financial product brochures, newsletters and fund performance analysis) which would benefit hugely from convergence," Khatri says. "Telecoms and utilities are also likely convergence candidates for similar reasons. Even central and local government could be targets. "A few of our services bureau and commercial printers are currently managing convergent workflows or are planning to," Khatri says. "An international arm of a very large US service bureau based in the UK is well-entrenched in convergence, and in my opinion is leading the way, especially in one-to-one marketing in statements." Interestingly, he notes that convergence does not seem to be spreading equally throughout international markets. "Our perception is that convergence is more prevalent in the US, mainly because the print volumes are typical higher and therefore the value proposition for convergence is higher." Wherever you are located, if you are a service bureau, keeping convergence on the radar is probably not a bad idea.