By Noel Ward, Executive Editor of and Managing Editor of WTT's Trade Show Coverage October 18, 2004 -- My last report covered how Kodak Versamark had plugged a pair of their printheads into a Rotatech 2-color offset press to place variable data on what amounted to a pre-printed shell. Not to be outdone, Nipson showcased a 2-color Muller Martini Concepta press with a VaryPress 400, showing how printers can combine traditional offset printing with variable data. One of the applications they were running was instep with the times, too. You know all those blank checks credit card companies send out in hopes of enticing you to transfer balances and buy things you probably don't need? Well, Nipson had a check-printing application running in their booth that printed the letterhead replete with color logos on the Concepta press while the VaryPress laid down a personalized letter and the blank checks, running at about 410 feet per minute. Since the toner used by Nipson printers is magnetic--Nipson's imaging technology is called magnetography--the checks are MICR by default, and readable by standard check-reading equipment. What this means for print providers, explained Alain Flament, president of Nipson America, is more versatility in the services they offer their customers. "We've had a number of commercial printers come by and see this as a way to expand their business by adding variable data to documents they print every day. At the same time, we've had transactional service bureau owners looking at this as a way to move further upstream." This makes a whole lot of sense. Many service bureaus owners are toner-heads from the get-go. They just outsource whatever pre-printed forms are required or store those their customer has ordered. Either way, they don't make any money from pre-printed materials. But if they can provide offset printing and bundle it with their standard offerings they stand to get bigger share of their customers' printing needs--and wallets. The approaches demonstrated here with Nipson's check printing and Kodak Versamark's direct mail campaign, are evidence of a key convergence of offset and variable data printing. As modern offset presses become better suited for fast set-ups and shorter runs, and electrophotographic printers can better match the speed of offset devices, the two technologies offer synergies that have been long envisioned but not delivered until now. The bigger question is which type of print provider--the commercial shop or the digital one--is best positioned to take advantage of this convergence? On the one hand, it would seem a commercial printer could add digital capability fairly easily. Both the Nipson and Kodak technologies can be added to most offset presses. But that's the easy part. Developing the skills, knowledge and workflows necessary to run variable content is a steep learning curve with a slippery slope, especially as marketing information is added to transactional documents. That presents a significant, but hardly impassable, barrier to a commercial shop. After all, a commercial printer does not have to go after the same types of jobs now going to a service bureau: He can begin by offering less complex variable data services to existing customers. On the other hand, the service bureau owner's team is already familiar with the heavy lifting on the data processing side. They have the workflows in place to run transactional jobs and are poised to add marketing messages to bills and statements. While the service bureau owner may not understand offset printing, people possessing requisite skills are far easier (and less costly) to hire than the data mavens required to make variable data printing work properly. And I don't mean this to be unkind, but as commercial print shops close their doors there are pre-press folks and press operators who would jump at the chance to get some ink under their fingernails again should a service bureau owner need a printing staff. This convergence of offset and digital is clearly a place to watch. At first glance, my money would be on the service bureau guys, simply because of their intimate knowledge of information handling. It just seems like an easier jump for them. But commercial printers have proven time and again to be a remarkably resilient group of individuals. And as variable information comes to be expected rather than an exception, I believe there will be numerous commercial printers with some type of digital print engine hung onto their offset press. Leading industry analysts point to the need to make print relevant. If hybrid printing is what it takes to make that happen, we can expect to see more of these options in the very near future.