September 4, 2007 -- No exhibitor comes to Graph Expo with a more multifaceted story to tell than xpedx (booth 3808), North America's largest marketer and distributor of printing papers and graphics supplies and equipment. Besides being a supplier of virtually everything that printers use in their day-to-day operations, the $6.7 billion company also is the exclusive North American distributor of RYOBI lithographic presses. xpedx and RYOBI, represented by xpedx Printing Technologies, will exhibit jointly at the show. A highlight will be the U.S. debut of the largest press yet introduced by RYOBI: the 924, a 24" x 36", 16,200-sph, four-color, eight-up press in the new 920 series of full-format platforms from the Japanese press manufacturer. That debut and other news from RYOBI will be covered in our daily reports from McCormick Place.

The goal is to help printers optimize their investment by identifying the best possible combination of products and processes for the kinds of work they produce.

Much of the technical prowess at xpedx flows from activities at its National Technology Center (NTC), a combined testing, training, and product demonstration facility that it operates in Twinsburg, OH, near Cleveland. There, xpedx configures prepress systems and workflows for printers who visit with purchasing plans to clarify or production problems to solve. By interacting in this way with hundreds of printers each year, NTC personnel have gained deep insights into their hopes and, sometimes, their frustrations as they strive to understand the technologies arrayed before them at events like Graph Expo. WhatTheyThink asked Dan Wish, general manager of the NTC, to talk about the connection between what goes on at the facility and what will be presented by xpedx at the show.

WTT: Please give us a bit of background on the NTC. When was it established, and why? What are its principal activities, and how does it relate to the rest of xpedx?

DW: The NTC has been in operation since January 1997. Its mission then was the same as it is today: to offer everyone involved in print production a central location where visitors can see and evaluate multiple combinations of workflows, design and proofing tools, and output equipment in a live and realistic environment. A visit to the NTC is a multi-day process in which we take a reverse approach by eliminating the combinations of products that don't meet visitors' needs. Then, based on their feedback, we can offer solution recommendations that are designed to make sure that what they buy will work not just now, but down the road as well.

We also provide quotes for what we recommend, but it's not a case of selling equipment just for the sake of selling equipment. The goal is to help you optimize your investment by identifying the best possible combination of products and processes for the kinds of work you produce. We do that by giving you all of the information you need for the most well-educated purchasing decision you could possibly make.

WTT: Do printers need to be xpedx or Ryobi customers to take advantage of what the NTC has to offer?

DW: No - the NTC is open to customers and non-customers alike. Every year we're visited by hundreds of printers of all types and sizes, from five-employee shops to some of the largest national and international organizations. And, we visit hundreds more at their own locations.

WTT: A new demonstration and learning center for RYOBI presses will open in Kansas City, KS, in October. What kind of synergy will there be between the new press center and the NTC?

DW: There'll be a lot of mutual support. Both locations have staff members who hold certification in the G7 color calibration and proofing procedures endorsed by IDEAlliance. RYOBI is great at demonstrating presses, and we want those demonstrations to be all about what the RYOBI equipment can do. NTC can help to make that happen by educating and assisting the staff at the RYOBI center in all of the processes leading up to mounting the plates on the press. That way, they'll be ready to deal with any prepress issues that may arise. For example, we'll conduct a train-the-trainer class on imposition to familiarize RYOBI center personnel with best practices in plate output so that they can share these techniques with their visitors as well.

The concern is no longer about the equipment - it's about the processes. Printers look at remote proofing and ask, "Where is it, really? What's the value versus the cost?" They ask about JDF: "What value does it have? Do I need it, and why?"

WTT: What areas of technology do visitors to the NTC have the most questions about? What's uppermost on their minds?

DW: G7 is probably the hottest topic right now. Many of our visitors want to know more about the impact of G7 on printing standards and about the value of becoming a certified G7 Master Printer. In general, though, the concern is no longer about the equipment - it's about the processes. Printers look at remote proofing and ask, "Where is it, really? What's the value versus the cost?" They ask the same kinds of questions about JDF: "What value does it have? Do I need it, and why?"

We're also hearing a good deal of buzz about hybrid workflows: one workflow driving any combination of output devices for any application. This lets us talk about how, with the help of NTC, some installations have replaced as many as five separate workflows with one process that supports every prepress and press output device in the plant.

WTT: What do printers see as the technologies that will do the most to improve the profitability of their businesses? What will they be ready to spend their money on when they come to Chicago?

DW: Automated binding and finishing options will attract a lot of attention; so will hybrid workflows. In recent years, printing technology hasn't changed all that much from Graph Expo to Graph Expo. Right now, we're not going through anything like the transition from film to CTP. So, when printers look at new equipment, they're primarily looking for gains in efficiency. But there's definitely interest in short-run, direct-to-press color and in technologies that create new profit opportunities, such as lenticular printing.

WTT: Are there any technologies that printers are being slow to adopt, and if so, why?

DW: If there's anything that printers are being slow to accept, it's remote proofing. We think it's because of all of the variable costs associated with the process. With most remote proofing systems, there can be multiple costs per access to collaboratively post, view, edit, and print out the material being proofed. This means that any touch of the file brings the opportunity of a fee or a charge. When you add all of those charges up, it's often cheaper just to put hard copy in a FedEx envelope and eat the extra day of production time.

There's also the fact that definitions of "remote proofing" can be confusing. Solutions that claim to deliver monitor proofs that are accurate at the press require running to parameters based on the monitor. But running to monitor values is still not a standard procedure, and the price of the solution tends to keep people away.

WTT: From what your customers are telling you, what do printers see as the most serious challenges facing their businesses? Overcapacity? Excessive competition? Insufficient profit margins? All of the above?

DW: The perennial problems of running a printing business haven't really changed, and most of the challenges that printers are facing come back to these things. With industry consolidation, the larger printers have grown more efficient, and that makes them even more difficult to compete with. As a result, printing companies want to become more turnkey in their capabilities. More and more of them are providing value-added services such as digital asset management.

WTT: At Graph Expo 2006, xpedx announced a plan that would enable printers to install and operate color digital presses on a pure "pay-per-click" basis - in other words, without any capital outlay for the equipment itself. What's the status of the program, and what has the response been like?

DW: We continue to offer the program, and the response has been good. It's a very flexible plan that enables printers to install digital color output devices with some up-front costs or with no up-front costs at all, but without having to own the equipment in either case. For instance, if a customer agrees to pay for freight, installation, and training and is willing to commit to a minimum monthly click volume, we can offer the clicks at a discounted rate. The click charge is higher for customers who choose not to pay up-front costs or accept a minimum volume, but these users can install their digital presses with, literally, a zero cash outlay.

xpedx can supply most of the digital presses in the Xerox DocuColor line, including the iGen3. It's like saying, "I'll let you have the Lexus - you just pay me for the miles." The program does away with the fear of being stuck with the wrong solution, because you're never locked into a particular piece of equipment. You can replace presses at will to deal with seasonality or when your needs change for any other reason.

We think that response will go from "good" to "great" when we enhance the pay-per-click program with a variable-data printing (VDP) solution that we'll announce at Graph Expo. By adding VDP capability, we will be able to offer printers a turnkey and sellable way to succeed in digital printing.

In recent years, printing technology hasn't changed all that much from Graph Expo to Graph Expo. So, when printers look at new equipment, they're primarily looking for gains in efficiency.

WTT: That's our cue to ask how xpedx's exhibit at Graph Expo will reflect the capabilities of the NTC. What will we see in Chicago that you're also showing to visitors to Twinsburg?

DW: We're working with a number of new technologies at the NTC that also can be seen at Graph Expo. These solutions address some of the concerns that we've been discussing.

We'll announce relationships with variable-data printing (VDP) solution providers in live demonstrations both at the NTC and at the show. These demonstrations, which will include output, will be different from most VDP demos in that they'll educate users about the value of variable print - not just how it works, but how to make it sellable. As mentioned, we'll make the capability available to users of digital presses installed in our pay-per-click program.

We'll be showing KwikFlip, a proofing solution developed by the NTC for use with Epson print engines. It's a combination of software and physical alignment guides that are installed on the Epson device. With KwikFlip, supported Epson printers can produce four- and eight-up, two-sided imposition proofs as accurately as any automated proofing system now on the market. We're positioning KwikFlip, which can be up and running in 60 minutes, as a cost-effective alternative to stand-alone imposition proofers.

Opticular, another product developed by the NTC, is a turnkey solution for special-effects printing on lenticular materials. It consists of a specially engineered Okidata toner engine driven by custom software for creating 3D, morph, flip, zoom, and other special-effects imagery. We also supply a laminator, a cutter, and a patent-pending lens that permits the user to output stock photo images with the desired effects directly to the lenticular surface.

Opticular's software has been custom-programmed to short-cut a lot of the complex steps associated with lenticular printing. It's available in North America exclusively from xpedx, and at Graph Expo, it will be offered for a fraction of what a system for lenticular output would normally cost.

We'll also introduce a remote proofing solution that fits our definition of what "remote proofing" should be: a very low-fee way to post, collaboratively view, comment on, and then output proofed pages in a color-managed environment. At Graph Expo, we'll show a solution for two-sided remote proofing that operates at a cost of $1 per posted page, for the life of that page. This means that the page can have as many views, edits, comments, and printouts as it needs, all for $1. We estimate that charges for other remote proof systems, at their lowest cost, work out to $8 to $10 per page. Our solution also provides a complete audit trail to track all changes made to the page.

WTT: That's quite a lineup of announcements. What else can Graph Expo visitors expect to find when they drop by the xpedx/RYOBI stand?

DW: People who'll listen carefully to what's on their minds about any aspect of operating a graphics business today. Sometimes it's helpful to let somebody else step back and look at the big picture for you. At an event like Graph Expo, that's what xpedx really is there to do: help printers to make sense of technology today so that they can make money from it tomorrow. We're looking forward to having a lot of those kinds of conversations at the show.