Walking into Graph Expo this year, I was immediately struck by the way the show floor reflects the changes our industry has undergone as we continue to leverage more digital technologies for increased productivity, profitability, and a wide range of new products and services.  Of course, Heidelberg, long a main-stay of printing industry trade show floors, still holds the prime spot, front and center, with a staff of 250 and nearly an acre of booth space (31,000 square feet) reflecting its new Hei-Tech branding.  Immediately behind Heidelberg, attendees found Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and Eastman Kodak.  What I found very interesting was the placement of Canon, to the right of Heidelberg in the front row, and EFI right next to that.  Both companies had smaller booths than Heidelberg, but substantial nonetheless, at 8,000 square feet each.  According to the folks at EFI, in 2002, the company's booth was a mere 1,200 square feet!

Once again, the task of covering workflow-oriented solutions was overwhelming.  The number of companies and offerings continues to climb, and increasingly, companies are showing not only their own solutions, but demonstrating how they can effectively operate in a multivendor environment through the use of JDF and/or industry partnerships and alliances. And show attendees were placing a significant amount of focus in this area.  Almost every exhibitor I spoke with echoed the same sentiments:  The booths were busy and the quality of attendees was up.  Not only did people come to the show looking for solutions to specific problems, but they were in a buying mood.  Owners and managers brought production staff and even financial folks, hoping to leave the show with those problems on the way to being solved.

Whether you spoke with attendees of exhibitors, a single piece of advice resounded:   Show attendees should be spending their time at the show looking for solutions that will make their operations more efficient and profitable. And there were plenty of options available!  Just a few of the highlights will be covered here.  Watch for Part Two of this review.

4Over, Inc. made quite a splash at the show with lots of signage and sponsorships, and a tagline of Perfecting Your Profits. Consisting of five production facilities, the company provides printing services to the trade. To drive orders to its HP Indigo and Komori LS presses with super coaters, 4Over developed its own proprietary software, which lets brokers and others for whom it prints, enter orders directly into the 4Over system. Printing everything from business cards and postcards to books and calendars, the company was touting is ability to offer a cost-effective outsourcing solution for these often low-margin items.  As an indication of the success of their strategy, the company tripled its sales in 2006, and expects to repeat the performance in 2007.

Adobe is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2007, and its presence at the show reinforces its interest in and support of print. Although the company had no specific announcements at the show, Adobe PDF Print Engine was shown being implemented in many booths across the floor, and there were a wide range of productivity-enhancing Adobe plug-ins being shown.  As always, there was a strong educational component to Adobe's show presence where attendees could learn how to deploy various Adobe and partner tools and products to enhance workflow.

Alwan Color Expertise talked to attendees about its strategy of standardization and providing tools within those standards to help companies print to the numbers, counting among its customers companies like RR Donnelley and Sandy Alexander.  The company is extending its solutions to the entire graphic arts supply chain, from artists and designers to photo shops.  Its CMYK Optimizer Version 3.0 was awarded a Worth A Look, with its built-in Adobe PDF library and new press calibration tools.  The company reports that customers are increasingly using CMYK Optimizer as an adjunct to other workflow products, lifting the job from the workflow system, optimizing it and then returning it to the workflow process with all metadata in place.  While Alwan has primarily been focused on the offset printing process, the company reports that it is making significant investments in the development of tools that will standardize color output across a range of different devices, from offset to digital, to accommodate the increasingly hybrid offset/digital workflow many companies are implementing. Alwan solutions come packaged with consulting and needs analysis and start at less than $10,000.

Avanti Systems announced JDF integration into Creo color servers, marketed by Kodak's Print On-Demand Solutions Group. This allows job information to be automatically transferred from Avanti's MIS solution to Creo servers via hot folders, eliminating rekeying and opportunity for error. The companies plan to implement JMF messaging for even tighter integration, allowing transaction data to be sent back to Avanti for invoicing purposes.

DALiM was showing a fascinating technology demo of a new 3D capability for MiSTRAL, the company's project management and job tracking system.  Once a magazine or catalog has been laid out using MiSTRAL, it can be converted into a 3D image of the publication for more realistic proofing.  The image embeds all essential metadata so the client can check color values and other aspects during the proofing process. But proofing efficiency is only one part of this equation.  Now that the publication is in e-zine format, it would be available for publication in that form, including embedded links and other interactive features.  And rather than being generated by a third party, like Zinio or others, it is a new service the print service provider can offer. In fact, DALiM's vision is that these publications can actually be generated dynamically and on demand, completely customized to the recipient and stored for distribution in DALiM's Digital Virtual Library. For anyone into publication production, this is well worth looking at. Although e-zines have not been nearly as successful as projected, this application combines business value - i.e., the enhanced proofing ability - with consumer value - a completely customized interactive publication - in a unique manner that is likely to generate new revenue streams for both the printer and the publisher. The company expects to place this in beta in the first quarter of 2008.

Eastman Kodak was awarded a Must See ‘em for its Web-to-Print solutions, which allow both conventional and digital printers to take their print businesses online.  In addition to a storefront and variable data capabilities, Kodak Web-to-Print solutions integrate into the rest of the workflow, including such things as support for online international payment (177 currencies) and languages (15).  An Excel-based pricing engine is also included. Especially for shops with a Kodak workflow, the integration can deliver efficiencies that can be difficult to achieve with a standalone solution. The company also launched an information kit entitled “Begin Your Passage to Sustainability,â€? to help printers understand the dynamics of developing a sustainability program. Materials in the kit define sustainability as it relates to our industry and includes a white paper and case study relative to environmentally responsible practices. Kodak also announced the availability of a Pantone Matching System Color Reference Book for its NexPress digital production presses.

EFI had many announcements at the show, and its press conference played to standing room only.  In its booth and in the press conference, EFI treated attendees to a fashion show with designs by Brazilian fashion designer Alessa.  Fabrics were printed by Studio Alfa in Brazil on an EFI VUTEk FabriVu superwide format printer, and each of the models also carried another item printed using EFI technology, ranging from glass to personalized postcards and travel brochures, a creative way to demonstrate the spectrum of the graphic arts supply chain covered by EFI products. The company showed enhanced workflow solutions ranging from Fiery Central - a modular, digital-specific workflow - to Digital StoreFront 3.0 and PrintSmith Scheduler.  Digital StoreFront, already installed in more than 2,000 locations according to EFI and reaped a Must See' em award for the company. Digital StoreFront now offers 13 language choices as well as a choice of VDP solutions. The company was also showing enhancements to PrinterSite Internal, PrinterSite Fulfillment and showcased a PrintFlow scheduling solution for its ProGraph customers in the publications market, as well as featuring its wide range of MIS products. AlphaGraphics CEO Kevin Cushing was on hand to talk about how the company has partnered with EFI to deploy deploy XMPie's uDirect Professional Premier Edition, optimized for EFI solutions, to its 250 franchise locations worldwide to enable them to provide a new level of variable data printing services to clients.

Although newly-formed EskoArtwork still had two booths at the show, its new web site is up and the booths displayed consistent branding.  I focused my attention at the show on the company's 3D offerings for the packaging industry, DeskPack 3d-X, a plug-in for Adobe Illustrator, and Esko Visualizer.  Both were slick solutions that allow designers to more effectively design dimensional packaging.  In a pre-show interview with EskoArtwork's Mark Vanover, he discussed these solutions. But what was intriguing to me was their ability to also streamline the proofing process.  For example, once the designer has finished the design using DeskPack 3d-X and Illustrator, she can make a 3D PDF.  Call me a PDF novice - which I really am - but I had no idea this was a capability!  This means that the PDF (922KB .pdf) can be sent for review to the customer, who with the free Acrobat Reader, v.6 or above, can actually manipulate the packaging in 3D to see all sides.  Taking it to the next level, with different ambient light conditions applied to the design via Visualizer, the designer can make a movie (1MB .mov) of the final design that can either be manual or auto-run.   This takes virtual proofing to a new level and is a terrific example of digital technologies being leveraged to improve productivity, and reduce cost and cycle time.

FujiFilm Graphic Systems earned a Worth a Look for its C-Fit color and image optimization tool, which enhances both the color and the quality of digital images, including transition between RGB and CMYK workflows, eliminating manual editing of individual images in the spirit of overall process automation. A Worth a Look was also granted to the company's Taskero Universe quality assurance solution.  Designed to provide up-to-date information on every part of the print production process, Taskero Universe monitors hardware from the prepress stage through to the pressroom and offers a method for monitoring, controlling, and maintaining consistent quality throughout all phases of the printing plant. It consists of three components:  ColorPath Verified, Server Performance Management and Hardware Performance Management.  And FujiFilm experts can monitor performance remotely via the Internet for preemptive problem solving.

GMG Color showcased enhancements to its ColorServer, including the ability for potential customers to download a free trial of the software. Version 4.5 of its products, including ColorProof, FlexoProof, ColorServer and InkOptimizer all contained new features focused on support for new printers, simplification of profile configuration, more image sharpening and easier hot folder use. GMG was one of many sporting the Pantone Goe logo, having licensed the new Goe color libraries, and claims to be the first SWOP and GRACoL certified solution for the new HP and Epson inkjet printers. GMG also announced GRACoL in a Box, a unique way of providing its products to the marketplace.  Priced at $150, it includes proofing media, 30-day software license and a certified proof, allowing printers to set up a standard GRACoL proofing environment in less than an hour.  A full license sells for $2,750.

A new face on the printing landscape is Hubcast, a printing network founded by industry veteran Toby Lavigne.  Hubcast is a technology-based global distribute-and-print network front-ended by a print utility that the company says is an easy way to get print jobs to a press in an automated fashion.  The company is signing up distributed print partners with Hubcast acting as the digital “last mile,â€? transmitting bits, not boxes, by producing printing at or near the point of need.  Lavigne reports that business was brisk at the Hubcast booth, with lots of printers interested in signing up.  Participating printers will provide a pricing matrix and will be certified by Hubcast.  It requires a $7,500 one-time setup fee, and print revenues are allocated to the respective referring and producing print shops based on an agreed-upon formula, with Hubcast collecting a small fee per job. Thirty locations have already signed up, and the company plans, at this time, to limit nodes to 200.  Hubcast warrants delivery of all work and is responsible for a clear chain of accountability throughout the process.