by Mike Chiricuzio Blue Moon Solutions, Inc. (Dr. Printing) September 13, 2004 -- I recently facilitated a retreat for leaders of a local printing industry association, and was a bit taken aback when I heard one of the attendees comment that he felt like the industry was making a comeback and that things were getting 'back to normal'. Normal? What is normal? And how would we get back? Would we want to if we could? Although they say that history repeats itself, time does not move backward (at least not that we can detect). And, although nostalgia has a tendency to trick us into thinking so, the 'good old days' were really not that good, it's just that by comparison to recent industry conditions they appear preferable. Technology Although nostalgia has a tendency to trick us into thinking so, the 'good old days' were really not that good Think of the staggering changes that we have experienced in the past 15 years or so. Even the wildest of soothsayers could not predict the extent and rapidity that we have seen. Considering that we have tended to naturally be a somewhat conservative and traditional industry, it is perhaps amazing that any of us are left standing after this onslaught. We've had to learn, and adapt, and change gears--not once, but many times. Unless you are prone to motion sickness, I ask you to consider: Desktop Publishing This was the first of the rapid technological advances of recent times. Of course, we knew that this was not really going to catch on, because the quality of the typesetting, the separations, the trapping, really everything about it, was lousy at best. But it did, and quickly. Why? Because it added speed and put control of the process into the hands of the originator. The quality came eventually, as necessity is the mother of invention, but it was speed and control issues that drove the usage. Digital Prepress Of course, to be able to deal with this onslaught of nasty files coming from every type of application (and every kind of operating system) you needed to have experts on the Production side of the equation. Thus was born the real world of Digital Prepress. As 'stripping' largely died out, electronic imposition and wizardry took over. Many lagged behind here, and paid the price for it. Computer to Plate The only thing better than being able to output ready to use film would be ready to use plates, right? Of course, that meant that you didn't have a piece of film to use in preparing a final proof before printing, but hey, no problem--we'll figure that out. Eventually. This process, in its many forms, did more to improve productivity in the pressroom than almost anything else. When combined with press automation features, it allows current printing technology many of the advantages of digital printing, by saving steps, saving time and improving productivity. Direct Imaging Printing Ok, so now we don't need art. We don't need film. We don't need to make offline plates. We'll make our own, right on the press! No problems, right? Ok, so a few problems. And it adds to the cost of the press-- So, in multiple press environments it's perhaps not as practical, especially with computer to plate systems working so well offline. But, it does open many doors in the quick turn and short run markets, and becomes the saving grace of many a service bureau and others. Digital Printing At every turn there have been obstacles, each one seeming to loom larger than the last. And yet, here we are, still bumbling into the future. Now, that's the ticket. To coin a phrase from an ad I placed in 1995: No Film. No Proof. No Plates. No Makeready. No Drying Time. No Kidding! (OK, I started with 'No Sh!t' but got shot down). Immediacy. Flexibility. Variability. It's THE FUTURE! Which was pretty painful when you realized that you were plunking down $500k for a piece of equipment that would work-- in the future! And there would be a market for it--in the future! And there would be applications to support it-- in the future! It all made for kind of a bleak 'present' back then. Each one of these relatively large transitions involved us having to re-educate ourselves and our personnel (not to mention our clients). Decisions had to be made about direction. Alliances to our traditions providers of equipment and services had to be reconsidered, as we pondered the seemingly continuous writing of big checks (or, at least, signing big leases). At every turn there have been obstacles, each one seeming to loom larger than the last. And yet, here we are, still bumbling into the future. So, what is it that makes our business so difficult today? Competing technologies other than print, such as Internet advertising, email, text messaging, internet publishing, all provide fast, inexpensive ways to get messages to intended recipients. In the process, they replace 'pages' that used to get printed. Changes in printing processes other than traditional sheetfed offset have eaten up, down and sideways into the sheetfed market. Web offset and gravure have realized many of the improvements of digital technologies and now can setup faster and compete in shorter run lengths. Flexo technology has improved much and now maintains significant market share in packaging and label markets. And DI and Digital presses are attacking every realm they can. The result of the situation is a condition by which we tighten the noose around our own necks in a futile effort to free ourselves. Add to this the over saturation of the installed base of print equipment of all kinds, the maturation of print technology and the significant pricing pressure caused by widespread pricing knowledge, high client expectations and the lowering of standards, and you have a truly price-driven industry, where having a stand out product is difficult at best. The result of the situation is all around us. Lower print sales, reduced margins, lack of direction and focus. This leads to competitive desperation, a condition by which we tighten the noose around our own necks in a futile effort to free ourselves. So, What To Do? Some of the approaches I commonly see are perhaps not done as conscious decisions, but here they are: Reduce costs and 'wait it out'-- waiting for the waterhole to fill back up, hoping that the hungry and thirsty lions don't find us cowering in the bushes. Slash prices over and over again, until you truly find the bottom of the well and realize it's a dry hole. Status Quo, don't change a thing, it's always worked before. The Road Less Traveled: Better choices for today's market: Control costs and pricing strategies. Listen to your clients and find the needs that provide niches with available margins. Keep your existing niches that work, and find new ones that fit. Play to your strengths, not your weaknesses. Utilize technology where value dictates. The Need For Leadership: It's All in Your Hands Take the opportunity to Set The Tone For Success: Listen to Your Employees Listen to Your Customers Create a Simple, Well-Understood Plan Be Flexible & Creative Measure Performance & Share Results Stay Focused Sounds simple, right? Of course, it's not. Remember this. You're the expert! You can do what you need to do, you've done it before. If you need to tweak things, then do it. If you need to re-invent your company from scratch, then do that. Of course, nothing is as easy as the consultant says, but you're the leader. And it is leadership, more than technology, or market studies, or anything else, that will prove to be the difference in the end. Be that leader. In a moving world readaptation is the price of longevity. George Santayana