As we continue to feel the pressure of competitive alternatives to print, print service providers are looking for ways to make their operations more efficient. And the suppliers to the industry are stepping up with lots of alternatives as evidenced by the many offerings on the On Demand show floor. As InfoTrends’ Charlie Pesko said in his recent interviewwith WhatTheyThink, “…the software players and workflow are becoming a much more important part of the business. The hardware, the digital printers, is not where the sizzle will be in the industry.” There is certainly a lot of “big iron” on the floor, but interestingly, as I walked around the show floor, I saw lots of empty space around the hardware but crowds gathered around the monitors, validating the Pesko comment.

It is the software offerings—and particularly workflow-related software—that continue to grow their share of mind in each successive year of the show. In fact, there is so much that one person can’t cover it all anymore! Be sure to read coverage from my colleague, Noel Ward, for the rest of the workflow story. Here are a few of the highlights from the exhibitors I am covering at the show. Stay tuned next week for more.

Apago was showing PDF Appraiser, a tool for validating PDF/A (“A” for Archive) files. With impending government requirements for storage of certain types of documents in PDF/A format, Apago wanted to put an easy-to-use tool in the hands of non-expert users to make this process simpler. Not only that, but the company is literally giving the software away. With the free version, users can validate PDF/A files quickly and easily and get limited reporting. Additional capabilities can be acquired for $349 for the individual user and $999 for the server model, including increased reporting capabilities, automatic fixing of most errors and, with the server version, the ability to embed the application within other applications. It is well worth a demo if you have PDF/A requirements—it is so easy to use, even I could manage it!

Document Sciences was emphasizing its ability to help print service providers take advantage of the convergence of correspondence, collateral, statements, and contracts/policies in multichannel communications strategies as well as the ability to integrate legacy home-grown solutions into one communications platform. The company continues to enhance its core platform to deliver even more graphics-rich direct mail and transactional documents. The company was featuring its newest design component to the xPression dynamic content publishing suite, xPresso for Adobe InDesign, which automates the creation of personalized marketing collateral and statements, in real time and high volume batch processing, for multi-channel distribution using Adobe InDesign as the design interface, enabling marketers to go beyond pre-printed static brochures with targeted collaterals that are easily customized by user and segment profiles, while at the same time allowing creatives to leverage the design tools they are most comfortable with.

EFI was present in a number of partner booths—nine, to be exact—including Canon, Konica-Minolta, Ricoh and Xerox Corporation. The company continues to add functionality designed to automate the production process from the customer’s desktop to the time the project is ready for shipping. Many of the partners are showcasing new EFI products that were announced at Connect 06, the largest user group in the industry, recently held in Las Vegas . EFI-enabled functionality being demonstrated in partner booths included variable data, color management, proofing, and the EFI SendMe document portal. In addition, EFI announced the Fiery EXP50 driving the new Xerox DocuColor 5000, collaboration with Direct Smile to enhance Fiery variable data capability, and an expanded controller relationship with Ricoh to address high-end print-on-demand solutions. Ricoh will also integrate EFI’s MicroPress and Digital Storefront to enhance its offerings in the graphic communications marketplace. EFI also announced updated Fiery controllers for Konica Minolta and Sharp engines, as well as the Fiery XF RIP for its own VUTEk superwide format printers.

In the conference sessions, EFI customers, including Staples, were sharing their perspective on how they have been able to enhance productivity and profitability by migrating to an increasingly digital workflow.

Emtex has integrated JDF support in its VIP (Virtual Intelligence Presentation) solution for Creo’s Spire Server, further augmenting the promotional/transactional convergence, and has enhanced its PDF output management support as well. Following its acquisition by Pitney Bowes, the company is working to more tightly integrate its offerings with Pitney Bowes back-end solutions and leverage Pitney Bowes mail expertise.

Exstream Software, in addition to featuring Dialogue 5.0, consisting of 62 integrated modules and announced at last year’s show, was also talking about a partnership program for small design firms looking to enter the variable data market. Exstream's own design firm, the Williams McBride Group, is the first partner in the program. This offering is another great example of distributing capabilities further back into the supply chain, empowering owners and creators of content and broadening the offerings of service providers.

Kodak and its customers were also well-represented in the conference sessions, participating in nearly a dozen of those sessions. And the company’s presence on the show floor was impressive. The theme was “The Power to Grow,” and the company showcased its broad portfolio—digital printing, distributed and production scanning, unified workflow, software tools, and monitor and inkjet proofing. On the hardware side, Kodak has reduced the cost of entry to the transactional/promotion market for with the introduction of the Versamark VT 3000, at 250 feet per minute, targeted at the mid-sized printer producing 1 to 1.5 million pieces a month. The VT-3000 is fully field upgradeable, enabling printers to invest early and easily grow capacity as their business grows.

In terms of unified workflow, Kodak invested a significant amount of effort in its booth in talking about creating a unified workplace within the entire organization, emphasizing that workflow is not only about whether and how a job goes to offset, CTP or digital, but also about online collaboration with the end customer, incorporation of digital assets, and taking into account order to cash flow, broadening workflow beyond “disk to paper” to an entire business solution. Kodak TeamWorks 2.0 software, which allows participants in the development of creative content to share, organize, review, proof, annotate, track and approve files online, was also premiered at the show. A Kodak developed digital asset management solution, EyeMedia, was debuted as well. This is a good example of the value to both the print service provider and the customer in being able to reach back to the desktop, in a highly interactive and collaborative work process.

Kodak also launched a new business development program at the show, called Kodak MARKETMOVER. In addition to the need to establish a more productive workflow, print service providers also need help with tools and services that enable them to get the word out to customers and potential customers about the value of the products and services they offer. While Kodak had primarily been delivering this type of support through its Business Development Specialists and a printed kit, the company has been hard at work developing an intuitive and interactive Web site that will provide customers with even more access to these tools and support. The program was originally designed with the NexPress in mind, but with the ongoing organization integration, the program is being extended to the Digimaster and the DirectPress DI, with the Versamark family on the roadmap for future development.

WhatTheyThink interviewed Jeff Jacobson, COO of the Graphic Communications Group. Look for that interview next week.

Responsive Solutions, Inc. (RSI), a relatively new player in variable data solutions, debuted CUSTOMER+, a suite of fully integrated applications for the complete management of marketing collateral. RSI’s feature set includes easy-to-use, client-driven tools that give clients the choice to administer their own marketing supply chain initiatives, thereby decreasing the costs for the print provider and increasing convenience for the customer. CUSTOMER+ has digital asset management built right into the solution, making it easy to locate, use and re-use assets across a variety of campaigns. Print service providers can access this innovative solution for as little as $8,000 for implementation, training and first customer setup on an ASP model, with monthly fees of $250 for up to 250 transactions a month, or $500 a month for unlimited transactions. There is also an unlimited license available in the enterprise model for those print service providers who prefer to run it on their own servers. RSI has been developing and testing this solution for about three years, and has kept a low profile—wanting to make sure the solution is “ready for prime time.” According to executives, that time has arrived, and the solution, already in use by many Fortune 100 companies, including some of the largest hotel chains, will now be actively marketed. Expect to hear more from them over the coming months. It is a highly customizable, well integrated and well thought out solution, quite easy to use, and has one of the lowest price points on the market, yet is a robust offering that is designed to be easy to integrate with enterprise ERP and other solutions.

Rochester Software Associates (RSA) continues to enhance its WebCRD electronic storefront offering, making it easier to use which saves times for both the print service provider and the customer. One exciting enhancement announced at On Demand is AutoStock. As print service providers recognize the value of offering fulfillment services, they often struggle with the logistics of managing the inventory of items to be fulfilled. AutoStock, a WebCRD module, tracks inventory levels of finished goods in real time, and automatically notifies inventory managers of the need to replenish stock. WebCRD can recommend the correct amount to order and create a closed-loop system of ordering and fulfillment of stock to predetermined levels. Operators can always view their production screen to see at-a-glance if the quantity of items on hand is sufficient. When supplies of catalog items start to run low, AutoStock signals that a reorder would be appropriate, and can place such an order with a single mouse click. This is a great example of an application that can deliver true productivity improvements while reducing the chance for human error.

RSA also introduced Makeready Integration forQDirect, its output management solution, allowing print service providers to output universal PostScript from Xerox FreeFlow Makeready allowing reliable printing to any PostScript output device, an important capability in increasingly hybrid, multiple technology, multiple vendor shops. RSA’s WebCRD is also now fully integrated with Xerox FreeFlow Process Manager, allowing print jobs to be automatically sent to Xerox FreeFlow Process Manager for pre-flighting and downstream production processing.

Check back next week for more workflow coverage. There is lots more exciting information to share.