By Frank J. Romano Printers are discovering that they need computers to run their businesses and they need computers to run their plants and they need computers to offer new services to their customers. August 4, 2005 -- EFI runs one of the largest conferences for printers in the world. It is called "Connect." Never heard of it? It is an annual event for the users of Hagen, Logic, PSI, PrintSmith computer systems, PrintCafé software, and EFI Fiery digital printing front ends and workflows. More than 1,000 printers attend--not printers and vendors, or printers and their families, or even printers and consultants--over 1,000 real printers. No trade association or conference promoter is drawing that kind of audience today. "We are entering the age of the user group," one printer told me. "We are focused on the tools of our business." Most of the printers were represented by their IT/MIS managers. I even found a few $5 million printers with IT departments. Printers are discovering that they need computers to run their businesses and they need computers to run their plants and they need computers to offer new services to their customers. And computers require software and the people to manage software. Printers told me that they are using the computer systems and PrintCafé software to link customers over the Web for order entry, job quotes, and even scheduling. Large flat screens are being used to convert the manual scheduling systems into programs that can display more information than manual boards. Once in software, the scheduling information can be integrated with other processes and viewed from any computer. Printers have always had an affection for that large scheduling board that gave them a view of workloads and volumes. Today, that view is more dynamic and flexible. Today, printers need to know more about what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. They need information to help them make decisions. "Data is power," we have always said, and one can see how many printers are getting better and better information from their systems for making decisions. Thirty years ago, I worked with a printer who only wanted to know one thing: how many impressions were scheduled for each press. Today, printers need to know more about what happened, what is happening, and what will happen. They need information to help them make decisions. One printer told me that he was managing his business as we spoke. "I go online and see all jobs, their status, and any problems. I e-mail or call the right people and problems are solved." He was 3,000 miles from his plant. Many of the printers I spoke with want more information. And they would like to see that information displayed as charts or graphs. Many years ago, I was with the production head of the Washington Post discussing an RIT degree for Post employees. "I want people who can think through a problem, not work through a problem," he said. The distinction between these two approaches was brought home when his assistant brought in a graph showing paper waste over some period of time. "See, this identifies a trend. Now we can fix it." This year, I have been to a number of user groups--EFI and Xinet and InDesign--and I see many of the printers who used to attend the broader conferences like Seybold. They are seeking more specific information about their existing systems. The seminars at the PRINT 05 event are very specific in terms of content because printers want immediate solutions, not futures.