No category of vendors has a better window onto what printers of all kinds are thinking, doing, and spending than the graphic arts suppliers: comprehensive purveyors of all things that printers use to sustain and grow their businesses. Two of the leaders were among the exhibitors at On Demand, and we interviewed representatives of both to gain the distributors’ market perspectives and technology insights in the context of the show.

Enovation Graphic Systems is the distribution subsidiary of Fujifilm and a channel partner of Xerox, which has engaged Enovation to sell the DocuColor and iGen3 digital color presses to the commercial market. At On Demand, Enovation helped Xerox to launch its new DocuColor 5000 digital color press, a 50 ppm, 2400 x 2400 dpi device designed for print providers that average between 30,000 and 150,000 impressions per month. Enovation also showed the DocuColor 8000 digital color press, aimed at commercial printers, service bureaus, data centers, and in-plant operations; and the DocuColor 240/250 printer/copier. The Mutoh Toucan LT large format (64" or 87") inkjet printer was Enovation’s offering to providers in the outdoor poster/banner market.

Enovation also presented Fuji Hunt Ultracoat UV X2, a UV coating that can be applied over fused powder or liquid toner. Optimized for inline coating with Xerox’s iGen3 digital color press, the product also can be applied offline using UV coating devices like those manufactured by Enovation partner Dorn SPE, which provided the DMC roller coater used at the Enovation stand during the show. Enovation said that offline coating with Ultracoat UV X2, which is available in gloss and satin finishes, costs less than one cent per 11" x 17" sheet.

This year’s event was the third On Demand for Enovation, which, like every other exhibitor, was looking for evidence of a rebound in the equipment market after a long dry spell. Speaking of the supplier community as a whole, Steve Bennett, Enovation’s vice president for wide format products, noted that “9-11 hit just at the moment when we’d oversold the industry” on productive capacity, triggering a deep and protracted slump. Since then, he said, the market has fought its way back with the help of digital print, which is being integrated into offset environments and is making up for some of the loss of traditional volume.

No, Not a Copier

At On Demand, Bennett said, Enovation encountered many commercial printers searching for digital printing solutions with a clearer idea than they used to have about what they were shopping for. Nowadays, printers understand that a digital color press is a digital color press, not a copier; and that digital printing capability is a when, not an if, as an investment in the future of their businesses.

Phil Kane, Enovation’s vice president for digital printing, also saw an upsurge of interest in digital output on the part of commercial printers. “We used to have to open the conversation by asking, ‘Did you ever think about doing things differently?’ “Now the printers are asking that question of themselves,” he said.

By providing color management (CM) consultation, Enovation aims to help printers integrate digital capability by showing them how to assure that the color coming out of their digital devices looks like the color that they are used to seeing from their offset equipment. Enovation’s CM support includes fingerprinting presses for color characteristics and teaching printers to synchronize their proofers and other color devices to lithographic output, the default color space for commercial work.

Few Takers for Variable Output

According to Kane, variable data output still has not caught on as a mainstream application for traditional printers that have added digital capability. Although their customers are beginning to request variable print, he says, delivering it remains a “Holy Grail” for plants that are only now getting used to doing large numbers of short-run jobs on non-offset platforms.

Bennett observed that because commercial printing is a “cash flow business” with many recurring expenses to cover, there necessarily is less interest in specialized variable-print projects than there is in the kind of bread-and-butter work that can keep the cash flowing. More to the point technically, he added, is the question of how many printers actually have access to databases and understand what it takes to manage them for successful variable output.

A better plan for going digital, Bennett said, is to start by building a “short run skill set” and mastering the “flat curve” of digital print economics, wherein cost per piece doesn’t decline with quantity—the opposite of what offset printers are used to.

xpedx , a subsidiary of International Paper, bills itself as largest marketer and distributor of printing papers and graphics supplies and equipment in North America. Its objective at On Demand was to burnish its image as a one-stop source of supplies, equipment, and services to digital, commercial, and in-plant printers and to print fulfillment companies. Among the product highlights of its exhibit were a new portfolio of eight coated and five uncoated HP Indigo printing papers; an expanded line of Vector papers for DI (direct imaging) presses; Konica Minolta’s LD-5100 digital press; color management tools from EFI and GretagMacbeth; and online training in prepress and graphics.

Jeffrey E. Higgins, director of marketing services and information, said the company was riding the momentum of a “fabulous” first quarter in fiscal 2006 and was winning recognition for the “breadth of product” that it offers, going beyond paper and equipment to consulting support for strategic planning. He noted, for example, that more printers are seeking advice from xpedx about breaking into package printing, where they are realizing that they need to develop new capabilities for finishing and shipping.

Play Safe, Play Clean

Higgins said xpedx also consults in plant safety and sanitation, activities that take on increasing urgency as plants decrease their headcounts and become more vulnerable to absenteeism from work-related safety and health issues. xpedx helps, he said, by conducting on-site safety surveys and recommending simple procedures that can have large benefits, such as putting safety tape on the floor to mark off hazard areas and using absorbent “pigs” to soak up spills.

As the U.S. distributor for Ryobi offset presses, xpedx decided against displaying Ryobi litho equipment in the heavily digital environment of On Demand. No decision has been made about bringing Ryobi presses to Boston when the event migrates there next year. But Higgins said that between now and then, at Graph Expo (Oct. 15-18), “all of the components of our business—everything that xpedx does—will be in one place,” with processes represented by the product line displayed in proper order.

Putting everything on view will require a spacious booth, given that the xpedx line encompasses everything from software to finished output. Dan Wish, general manager of xpedx’s National Technology Center, said the marketing strategy behind the product array is “not manufacturer driven,” but focused on helping end users identify technology solutions that fit their specific applications.

By helping customers “sort out the fact from fiction,” said Wish, xpedx serves as the “J.D. Power of the equipment market”—a source of practical information for customer satisfaction. The payoff for xpedx is in finding ways to help printers “stay in business, be profitable, and buy more substrate from us.”

Twinsburg Tech Center

The main fountain of knowledge is xpedx’s National Technology Center (NTC) in Twinsburg, OH, where the company offers nearly every leading digital production workflow for evaluation and testing. Customers can bring files for processing through these workflows and output them on a large assortment of proofing devices. Wish said that hundreds of customers have visited the NTC during its 10 years of operation, typically spending two to two and a half days in consultation with the center’s technical experts.

Additionally, 48 weeks each year, xpedx deploys imaging and workflow specialists to customer sites for training and process evaluation: not training on specific pieces of equipment, but determining the best ways to maximize job throughput with the equipment the customer already has or has recently purchased.

Commenting on purchasing trends, Wish said that xpedx is seeing considerable interest in color management and remote proofing. But while CM solutions are gaining in popularity with creatives as well with printers, installations of remote proofing have been limited because the concept has been misdefined. According to Wish, xpedx doesn’t support the notion of approving color from a screen. It prefers to define remote proofing as “remotely accessing a file and printing it locally, making sure that it matches” a set of reference values within an established ? range.

To implement color management, Wish said, the user first needs to determine what kinds of color will be managed and what proofing systems will be used. He noted that xpedx takes a reverse approach to selling CM by first eliminating “products that don’t fit,” and then helping the user to evaluate what remains.

Recipe for Disaster Recovery

Higgins said that the Hurricane Katrina disaster spotlighted every printer’s need for a business continuance strategy, particularly a plan for backing up data to a remote location in an emergency. Consultation in business continuance is a specialty of xpedx, which employs experts certified in disaster recovery for enterprises. At Graph Expo, Higgins said, xpedx will demonstrate a drag-and-drop solution for data backups to remote locations outside a 300-mile radius (the zone defined by the insurance industry as the area of devastation from the combined effects of a nuclear blast).

xpedx is serious about promoting business continuance. At Graph Expo last year, the company displayed a burned and melted file server as an object lesson in the need to be prepared for the worst. Wish was critical of what he called “grossly overpriced” file servers and storage hardware now being marketed to printers, claiming that xpedx can provide complete business recovery resources much more affordably.

xpedx seeks to head off another kind of disaster—software malfunction—by working with developers of operating systems and applications to uncover flaws that could snarl graphic production. For example, the company has been rigorously testing Windows Vista, Microsoft’s forthcoming next-generation OS, for compatibility with printers’ data storage requirements.

“We beat it up—we beat the hell out of it,” Wish said.