The giant smorgasbord of print called Graph Expo is fun because I get to catch up with things I don't think about as much as I'd like. One of these is wide format printing. Not just the machines from Inca, Oce;, Gandinnovations, Mutoh, VUTEk, and others whose output is intended for signage, vehicle wraps and other promotional applications, but some that are increasingly finding homes in photographer's studios and as proofing devices in design firms.

Such applications require a different approach and Epson has been steadily redefining what a wide format ink jet printer can do. I could write a whole article on their systems but since people are most interested in making money, I'll just look at one offering that is intended to help its owners do just that.

The Epson Stylus Pro 4880 is the latest version of the 4800 model with several significant upgrades. Notable are two new shades of magenta --Vivid Magenta and Vivid Light Magenta. You might think these would raise havoc with the gamut of the machine but instead the gamut widens on the red-purple and green ends and provides a much better balanced color space overall. These are part of Epson's updated 8-color UltraChrome K3 ink sets and are available on several models in the product line. Ink delivery is via a new 8-channel MicroPiezo head and is aided by Epson's AccuPhoto HD screening technology. Seen side by side, the images are definitely a step up from the earlier model. But that isn't the cool part of the story.

Epson is also rolling out what it calls "Print Shop in a Box," a term I wish I trademarked and licensed, since at least three companies began using it at Graph Expo. At Epson, it is a tool designed, interestingly enough, for wedding photographers, who are increasingly dissing their silver halide photos for the numerous advantages of digital images and ink jet production. Print Shop in a Box basically gives wedding shooters a web-to-print system, managed by Epson, with a secure photo gallery for customers to view and select pictures, order photos and pay for the images they select. The order is immediately transmitted to the shooter who outputs the pictures and delivers them in the agreed upon format (singles, albums, etc.) to the happy couple. The photographer tells Epson as the photos are printed and shortly thereafter, receives a check from Epson. This gives the shooter a streamlined way to do business, makes it easier for customers to see and select the shots of their big day and keeps him out of the busy work of invoicing and chasing payment. The necessary software adds a couple hundred dollars to the price of the 4880, which seems a no-brainer to me. And I can think of several other types of photographers --as well as print providers with Epson equipment-- who could use the same type of system.

The Power of Partnership
Partnering is a popular term these days and can certainly be over-used, but one place it seems to be working is within the Xerox Premier Partners program, which held its annual fall meeting at the show. Bob Wagner, Vice President, Xerox Creative Services Business and Premier Partners Program says membership has grown by 33% this year and stands at 651 printing companies worldwide. Reflecting the global nature of modern business, members are increasingly sharing jobs across the U.S. and across the oceans. They also share knowledge and experience about all aspects of digital printing and operational issues in their businesses.

Wagner said members tend to be very comfortable sharing with each other because they all undergo a vetting process that ensures they have the knowledge, experience, equipment, and financial resources incumbent with being a successful print provider. "This ensures that someone in New York sending a job to a Premier Partner in LA or Tokyo or Paris will get the level of quality and reliability his customer expects," says Wagner.

Interestingly, the program is largely self-administering. Xerox does not monitor the flow of jobs or have any tracking of what is being printed where or what company is doing the work. It all just happens, and helps memberss serve their customers better. While the program started slowly in 2000 and has gone though a few iterations, Wagner says the 125 members attending this year's meeting generally agreed with the comments of one member addressing the group who said, "The more I take advantage of it, the more I get out of it."

Ambassadors of Print
The enduring nature of print is the focal point for Kodak's Print Ambassador program, a multi-faceted approach to showcase how the printed page has set the tone for much of civilization, how it continues to be a vital media, and how to find providers of print who can meet a customer's needs.

While there are aspects of the program that promote Kodak (this is a marketing campaign after all), it is just as much a promotion of the power and value of the printed page. The materials being provided are timely, creative, compelling and overall very useful. Plus, many of them reach to the people who make the decisions about which media to use.

"Print is the number one media choice of Chief Marketing Officers," says Jeff Hayzlett, CMO of Kodak's Graphic Communications Group. "Over 50% of their spend is in print: it's the interactive marketing tool that they use." Hayzlett says part of the campaign is to reach out to ad agencies, CMOs, CTOs, CEOs to show them the value of print, how it provides a better return, and what it can deliver for their companies.

At Graph Expo, Kodak was also encouraging people to submit their own ideas for what it's calling "Great Moments in Print," which could range from something as momentous as Gutenberg's Bibles to the first copies of a new author's novel. Or something that is only really important to a family, such as a photo book of a family reunion. The message, says Hayzlett, is that it is all print, and that all of us in the industry should be advocates and evangelists for print. Like the actor on the Print Ambassador site says, "Booyah!"

The Side-shooter
Many say ink jet will ultimately replace toner for many applications, but that's still a wait and see. Still, some applications are tailor made for ink jet and they aren't limited to wide format machines and the outsized images people want to take home from the show. In fact, they can be just the opposite.

Xaar, maker of the very print heads used on some of the big machines, also makes heads used for less impactful applications such as addressing, flexible packaging and labels. And they are raising the bar on these with a new head that brings full color ink jet to the label, packaging and addressing spaces in a compact format that offers long head life, precision drop placement and variable drop size.

The new Xaar 1001 piezo heads were set up in an engineering frame (used for testing and development) showing how the new single-pass head can print text or  photographic images, on a wide range of substrates while running for hours without downtime for cleaning. By comparison, thermal heads require regular cleaning that eats into productivity. The self-cleaning capability on the new Xaar heads is enabled by circulating the ink sideways (hence the term side-shooter) past the nozzles so it is continuously circulated rather than being heated and forced through the nozzles. It's much easier to show you than it is to explain, so check out the Flash animation Xaar's website.

Print quality in the show demo was good enough for many purposes, and the continued refinement of this new head, especially as printer vendors begin implementing it in their products, is likely to yield some great results. Standby for drupa on that score.

And I'm about out of space again. So come back soon and I'll have more. I have a few more things to tell you before I have my last words.