By Ed Marino of Presstek There are more opportunities to digitize the printing business than ever before--and in one form or another, they are affordable to almost any size business. August 9, 2004 -- Leading up to the recently announced offer to purchase the A.B.Dick Company, Presstek spent a lot of time analyzing the printing market--in particular, those establishments with under 20 employees that comprise an estimated 80 percent of U.S. printing establishments. This segment has faced significant difficulties, particularly in the most recent economic downturn and with the increasing availability and viability of alternatives to traditional print. According to recent data from the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL), compiled from its own research and U.S. Census Bureau and other government data, the number of printing establishments continues to decline, dropping by 9.3% from 1998 to 2001 and projected to decline another 18% by 2007. And the sharpest declines are occurring within theses smaller establishments as they are acquired by larger firms or simply close their doors. Commercial Printing Establishments (1998 to 2007). Source: National Association of Printing Leadership (NAPL) There are a lot of reasons this decline could be attributed to--a tough economy, marketers who are turning increasingly to electronic communications alternatives, stiff competition for declining print volumes, increased capability of office print devices and more. The key to making the right digital choices is a clear understanding of the customers and markets they serve. But as we thought more about this and observed many businesses--both successful and not so successful--I have begun to believe very strongly that there is a crucial factor separating the successful printing establishments from the not so successful ones, regardless of their size: something I am calling, not too originally, perhaps, the Digital Divide. To state it simply, those who have embraced digital technology are finding success while most those that have not seem to be struggling. Since digital printing products began making their way into our business over a decade and a half ago, they have been joined by a growing array of other digital solutions ranging from solutions that improve the way printers issue quotes and receive orders, all the way through the finishing--and even shipping and distribution--processes. Early on, much of the digital innovation was undertaken by larger companies who could afford to spend big dollars on designing custom solutions--because there really were none off the shelf. But drupa 2004 demonstrated that that model has changed. There are more opportunities to digitize the printing business than ever before--and in one form or another, they are affordable to almost any size business. And these opportunities translate to increased cost and performance efficiencies and a surer path to the acquisition and retention of customers, which in turn will result in greater profits. As I talk to printers in the U.S., Canada and other parts of the world, it has become very obvious to me that the most successful businesses have begun to pay serious attention to infusing more digital technology into their operations--in the form of toner-based digital devices, Direct Imaging (DI) digital offset presses, computer-to-plate (CTP) solutions and increasingly automated presses, as well as enhanced digital workflows that extend all the way to the customer. And I am finding that many of these implementations require a surprisingly low level of investment--they leverage Web-based hosted services; they may have chosen to get into the CTP game with entry-level platesetters; and there is an increased interest in the efficiencies offered by migrating to DI and toner-based digital presses. But the key to making the right digital choices is a clear understanding of the customers and markets they serve--"build it and they will come" is not the way to go. The landscape is littered with printers who have tried that approach and failed. With drupa behind us and Graph Expo fast approaching, there is a wealth of information available to owners and managers of printing concerns that will help them make the right informed choices for their businesses to carry them successfully into the future. Whatever the choices, an infusion of digital technology into those businesses is an absolute must, and I believe, is the primary thing that will stem the slide and bring health back to the industry It is my hope that small commercial printers will increasingly embrace today's digital--and more affordable--solutions for all facets of their businesses. At the same time, they should be taking advantage of educational opportunities to stay current with market changes. It has been a tough few years, but with the application of the right products and knowledge, the future can be bright. My message to the owners and managers of those businesses: Educate yourselves. Read everything you can get your hands on. Attend seminars and dealer or manufacturer open houses. Talk to your peers and your suppliers. Maybe even hire a consultant to take a critical look at your business. Whatever you do, take a proactive stance and don't be a casualty of the Digital Divide.