In light of today’s uncertain marketplace and extreme budgetary pressures, forward-thinking graphic communications owners are taking proactive measures to streamline their business environments, achieve higher efficiencies and better returns, and weather the current market conditions. The organizations that gain a competitive advantage will survive and thrive. The watchword at this year’s Graph Expo event is EFFICIENCY.

Vendors of digital printing equipment, including direct imaging technologies (DI or on-press imaging), have done a good job of marketing these new equipment technologies. In this challenging economy and an environment where there is pressure from end-user customers to provide affordable business communications, the focus is shifting to making print service providers more efficient than ever before. The key issues facing printers can be boiled down to four critical factors:

    * Demand for shorter turnaround times
    * Demand for shorter run lengths
    * Increasing job complexity
    * Delivering demonstrable return on investment

This year at Graph Expo, vendors are stepping up to the plate. They are emphasizing end-to-end integration, common databases, process automation, integration of information systems, customer-facing solutions, and manufacturing processes that are designed to optimize profitability in print service provider operations.

Over the past few weeks, I have interviewed a number of graphic communications owners. As they walk the floor at Graph Expo, they are examining the larger workflow and staffing impacts, as well as he efficiencies that can be gained by adopting digital workflow technologies. There is a strong focus on becoming the most efficient provider by effectively streamlining labor-intensive processes using information technologies.

A Focus on Affordable Automation

Although the list provided below is not comprehensive, it is important to consider the range of options and alternatives that vendors are providing to enhance operational efficiency and effectiveness. New options and alternatives address everything from the creative process to mail distribution.

·      Adobe Creative Suite 4, which is currently shipping, is a solution that is focused on enhancing workflow efficiency. The Creative Suite 4 product line advances the creative process across print, Web, interactive, and mobile workflows. When service providers are going through a design iteration with clients and remote teams, this product accelerates the design mark-up and approval cycles. In an ROI-driven environment, marketers are striving to leverage cross-media alternatives. The new capabilities associated with the integration of Adobe Flash Player deliver new cross-media creative capabilities.

·      Enfocus is using Graph Expo as a platform to demonstrate its Crossroads technology. Crossroads is a unique community that draws together a large ecosystem of software vendors offering automation products for publishing workflows. Users can link together their various prepress point solutions such as preflighting, color management, trapping, and imposition into one automated workflow. It is a scripting platform that calls the various applications when appropriate as the files are processed through the workflow.

·      Continuing its heavy emphasis on automation, Heidelberg is demonstrating its new Prinect workflow management solutions. One of the new components is the Prinect Scheduler, Heidelberg’s JDF-enabled electronic production planning system. Prinect Scheduler can be used to plan all aspects of print production, including prepress, press, and postpress to increase efficiency and save production time. While Prinect Scheduler is not designed to replace the role of the scheduler, its focus is to eliminate hours of labor and planning time for schedulers, production managers, and supervisors who plan and review schedules. According to Dennis Ryan, Heidelberg USA Prinect Product Manager, “A busy shop could easily save 10 or more labor hours on a weekly basis with this tool.”

·      Responsive Solutions is launching its INTERFACE+ system for custom applications. Many customers need flexibility and specific workflows that standard solutions cannot offer. This toolkit is designed with object-oriented architecture, making customization fast and cost-effective. Integration can be easily achieved through Web services and XML data feeds. The INTERFACE+ development toolkit includes:

          o Customized workflows for everything from changing the login process to customizing the shipping page
          o The interface design can be customized with the unique look and feel that print service provider clients want to truly make it their own
          o Interfaces to connect the front or back-end with MIS/ERP systems

·      In an environment where marketing executives are looking for a return on every marketing dollar, efficiency has never been more important. Kodak announced a partnership with Aprimo to create a seamless digital process that more tightly integrates brand owners with marketing and service providers. Kodak is combining its Design2Launch Solution for brand content management and Aprimo’s Enterprise Marketing Management to enhance the relevancy and effectiveness of marketing communications and provide greater consistency over customer brands. The end objective is to increase efficiency and achieve faster time to market with improved relevancy and ROI.

·      Xerox FreeFlow Express to Print Software was demonstrated at drupa 2008 and is currently available. Express to Print increases productivity by automating frequently repeated jobs and routine job preparation for more efficient job management. In addition, Express to Print is designed to be affordable for printers of all sizes. With a list price of $4,000 and a 30-day trial offering, printers can test this alternative and gain a greater understanding of the business impact.

·      Crawford Technologies, Solimar Systems, InfoPrint Solutions, and others will demonstrate Intelligent Mail Barcoding (IMB) technologies and enhancements. These tool sets focus on enhancing the effectiveness of mail operations. In addition to supporting the compliance of new IMB postal regulations, they integrate with automated document factories and create comprehensive mail piece tracking capability.

Print Service Provider Priorities

I’ve spoken to a number of print service providers over the past several weeks, and there were two schools of thought—optimism and pessimism. While the pessimists were concerned about the future, the optimists believed that they would emerge stronger at the end of an economic downturn. The logic was simple—over the past several years, they had worked closely with clients to understand and deliver value. They took a long and hard look at their products and services, decided what actually provided value, and went out and sold it. When asked about investments, the focus was on improving Web-based customer interfaces, enhancing operational productivity, and improving bindery operations. These investments are all linked to increasing customer service, delivering value-added ROI, and meeting turnaround time expectations. Making Marketing Easy combines digital color printing, variable data manipulation, and the reach of the Internet to enable small businesses to produce professional-looking postcards, flyers, and brochures and to launch effective direct marketing campaigns regardless of their budget or design resources. In June 2007, was acquired by infoUSA. President and CEO Lee Dietz stated, “A year ago, 95% of our business was focused on the real estate market. While change has proved challenging, our non-real estate business is currently up 300%. I am extremely optimistic about the future” From an investment perspective, Dietz elaborated, “Our focus is on developing application programming interfaces so that you can seamlessly order a list and marketing materials from anyone’s Web site. We are investing in software development this year. Even in a difficult economy, businesses need to market. We are delivering marketing tools to companies that haven’t been able to market before and we are helping them market affordably.”

RT Associates: Lean Manufacturing

RT Associates, a Chicago-based digital print company that was established in 1982, offers online media solutions and unique print capabilities to enable marketing professionals to improve and maximize the results of their marketing programs. Owner Bob Radzis stated, “We are a services-focused company. We provide our clients with digital and offset print capabilities, Web-to-print solutions, online multi-channel campaigns, and tracking solutions and we communicate to customers that this translates into improved ROI.” He went on to say, “In a difficult economy, marketers are on tight budgets and they want to achieve more effective targeting.” This year, RT has seen increases of 8% in traditional offset and more than 20% in digital. The key challenge that Radzis faced was taking a disciplined approach to improving manufacturing efficiencies. He is investing in re-engineering work processes, and this is paying off for RT Associates as well as its customers. Profits are up 4%, work is moving through the plant more quickly to improve turnaround time, and the quality of the products and services is better than ever.

Sir Speedy in Whittier, California: An Economic Alternative

George Coriaty, Owner of Sir Speedy in Whittier, noted, “We’re like an economy car. When budgets get tight, clients want fuel-efficient options. They will embrace target marketing, produce short runs, and buy only what they need. While price is important to clients, efficiency in terms of what and how they buy takes a higher priority.” The Whittier Sir Speedy offers short run digital and black & white printing, project consulting finishing, and mail and fulfillment. Coriaty continued, “My business is up 15% this year and margins are great.” When asked about his planned investments, he acknowledged, “Bindery operations need to be improved. Because of the volume of short run work, I’m going to assess my finishing options at Graph Expo.”

The Bottom Line

This year marks my twentieth year of involvement with production-oriented digital print technology. Initially, the issues involved acceptance of digital black & white technology as an offset alternative. The next phase was digital color and variable data. Later, we saw the onslaught of value-added services without a clear roadmap, and next we saw the emergence of more and more marketing services providers. This year is about making investments work better. The transition to collaborative, automated, and efficient end-to-end manufacturing process using new and automated equipment is the only strategy for long-term, sustainable profitability for printers.

Let Barb know what you think! She can be reached via email at [email protected]