By Tom Wetjen The adoption of converging technologies and new print communications applications is transforming the industry to a service model geared to meet customer needs. March 28, 2005 -- Ten years ago, the discussion about convergence in digital printing was about publishing and print-on-demand-focused capabilities of the corporate reprographics department merging with the data center and its transactional print mission. Today, with advancements in digital color image quality, the Web and digital workflow, convergence has many additional fronts, including: Digital color and monochrome printing, which have traditionally required separate workflow tools, Print and electronic output on CDs and for Web presentment, which have traditionally required separate production paths, Cut-sheet and continuous feed printers, which traditionally have not been able to share applications, And workflow systems for digital and offset color presses, which have traditionally run independently. Many of these converging technologies enable new print communications applications and new opportunities to profit and grow. Their adoption is transforming the industry from a manufacturing model to a service model geared to more precisely meet customer needs. The Impact of Digital Color Tighter integration of offset and digital workflow is critical to optimizing profitability and service at mixed digital and offset shops. Digital printing convergence actually operates on two levels. In research labs, the development of digital print engines has long capitalized on the convergence of communications, computer and imaging technologies. In print shops, convergence refers to the consolidation of operations and services enabled by technology advances. Recent breakthroughs in digital color print quality and operational profitability, for example, touch not only digital print shops that must gear up for color, but commercial printers who specialize in offset, too. By delivering offset-like quality at lower costs and with faster turnarounds, digital color presses have carved out a role in many traditional printing plants as a complement to offset. The challenge Most traditional printers manage their output with digitally based workflow systems dedicated to offset technology. Consequently, they manage offset and digital operations separately, and output technology is selected far upstream, limiting flexibility. Tighter integration of offset and digital workflow is critical to optimizing profitability and service at mixed digital and offset shops. One approach is streamlining file preparation through reliance on industry standards like PDF files, which can be used both for creating plates in computer-to-plate systems and for printing on digital presses. A single controller compatible with both monochrome and color printers and presses helped StorageTek cuts down on staff training time and added flexibility for switching from one device to the other. Other developments include the first workflow system for manage both offset and digital printing from the same operator interface, which reached the market last year. And the JDF (Job Description Format) standard holds great promise for providing even deeper integration of offset and digital workflow in the future. Similar integration efforts seek to bring digital color printing workflow into closer alignment with monochrome systems. The print center at StorageTek Corporation, for example, has standardized on a single controller that is compatible with both monochrome and color printers and presses. As a result, StorageTek cuts down on staff training time and improves flexibility to easily switch from one device to the other as needed. Changing Nature of VI Print Recent increases in computer processing power have coupled with advances in digital image quality to make personalized color variable information (VI) printing a reliable and profitable offering. Color VI also introduces a new set of issues for the print provider. For example, most CRD operations need to develop database skills to initiate color VI programs; most data centers need to develop color expertise. Many leading-edge direct marketing communications programs facilitate response tracking via Web sites personalized for each recipient. A further challenge: color VI work is generally more complex than traditional monochrome VI, in which data is pulled from a transactional database for incorporation into a statement or invoice. Color VI is more often for marketing pieces that are personalized based upon customer preferences stored in customer databases and using images stored in separate image databases. These databases must be integrated, and the print shop and marketing organization need to work together more closely than they do on more traditional programs. Another wrinkle: few of these integration projects are undertaken without addressing the Web’s potential role in building and updating customer databases -- and in delivering personalized communications as a complement to print. In many of today’s leading-edge direct marketing communications programs, for example, direct mail response tracking is facilitated with personalized Web sites for each recipient. Typically, the direct mail piece offers an incentive to visit the Web site, where the offer is reinforced and personal information on purchase preferences is collected to tailor the follow-up communications. Some of today’s leading providers automate production of both the personalized direct mail piece and the personalized Web site from a single data feed — improving their productivity. In addition, the information collected contributes to continual improvement of its programs, boosting response rates. Flexible and efficient services helped Cathedral Corporation achieve 70 percent year-over-year growth while its customer cut costs, improved customer satisfaction and positioned itself for a future . Merging of electronic and paper options is also an effective strategy for transactional documents. For example, Cathedral Corporation in Rome, N.Y., generates both paper and Web-based, electronic statements from the same data stream, on behalf of its client, UMassFIVE Colleges Federal Credit Union. Members who prefer to continue receiving paper statements can do so, but many are transitioning to Web-based statements, which offer more in-depth information and customizable views, at lower cost to the credit union. Flexible and efficient services such as these helped Cathedral recently achieve 70 percent year-over-year growth in its credit union business, while UMassFIVE Colleges Federal Credit Union has cut costs, improved customer satisfaction and positioned itself for a future as an e-services provider. The Latest in CRD and Data Center Convergence Incremental advancements continue to enable the merging of CRDs and data centers, as well. In merged operations, continuous feed printers increasingly are deployed in print on demand, as well as transactional applications. A new generation of operator interfaces offers the capability to share print jobs across continuous feed and cut-sheet printers without rewriting the applications, boosting staff productivity to improve job balancing. In addition, the latest monochrome printing platforms combine the capabilities of print-on-demand publishing with transactional printing, to natively address all the major applications of both environments. Convergence, by its very nature, brings together previously unrelated disciplines. Print providers rely on their vendors for industry knowledge and complete solutions because few print shop managers are expert on both sides of a converging operation. The rewards of successful convergence efforts — cost-saving efficiencies and profitable new applications — can be great. But the challenges can also be significant. Few managers are experts on both sides of a converging operation, because convergence, by its very nature, brings together previously unrelated disciplines. That’s one reason why more print providers rely on their vendors for industry knowledge and complete solutions that can include integrated products from multiple vendors, training and marketing support. The trends toward technology convergence and delivery of complete solutions are inextricably intertwined. They provide the print providers’ best opportunities for building profit, growth and strategic relevance. Print providers need the vision to deploy these technologies in the ways that make the most sense for their individual businesses. In the process, they will continue to make the transformation from manufacturers to full-service print and communications providers, which is critical to long-term success.