Connecting paths of cooperation

Sooraj Shah
Monday, January 23, 2017

There is no doubt that technology is helping companies to collaborate in ways that were unthinkable 20 years ago. The internet is of course the main reason for this – but advances in video technology, cloud computing, processing power, and so forth have led to new types of collaborations.

As Jason Oliver, head of digital at Heidelberg, explains, there is a lot of technology that helps to drive partnerships. 

“We’re using digital video and photography, and we’re sharing digital data to communicate faster with our partners such as Fujifilm,” he says.

Keith Dalton, Fujifilm UK managing director, says advances in technology mean that people don’t necessarily have to be present – you can share drawings, work using video conferencing tools such as Cisco’s WebEx and Microsoft’s Skype, share data through apps like Dropbox all from your own office seat, virtually. 

“From a technology standpoint, it’s making collaboration between continents easier,” he says. 

The use of video conferencing is even helping companies to save costs – Oliver says it is sophisticated enough to replace face-to-face meetings, which may have previously required Heidelberg employees to be flown around the world.

Meanwhile, translation technologies such as Google Translate can ease the burden of having to acquire someone with language skills – meaning that companies have an easier line of communication than they may have in the past, ensuring that work gets processed faster. Although Oliver is quick to point out that these technologies are not yet sophisticated and this can lead to more challenges. 

“It can lead to people only speaking in their own language, assuming that it will be translated, but the translation technology isn’t great so there are advantages and disadvantages,” he says. 

For Goss, social media platforms like LinkedIn have helped the manufacturer to develop and organise business more efficiently. However, Goss Contiweb sales director Maarsten Coerman says “personal contacts and relationships still remain a key factor in the sales process”.

But for all of the benefits of these types of technologies in existing partnerships, is technology actually enabling the birth of new partnerships? 

After all, the idea behind collaborations – in any industry, or indeed in any situation, is that they enable the creation of something bigger than the sum of their parts. 

Partnerships within the printing industry are nothing new; all of the major players work with partners of some form. But how integral is technology in stimulating these collaborations?

The combination of LinkedIn and Google Translate may help initiate conversations, while cost-effective ways of talking over video and voice-over-IP (VoIP) mean that you can at least give people your time without having to worry about being too impersonal, or indeed about the costs associated with travelling to meet those contacts.

The integration layer

Sarah Crumpler, Duplo UK’s marketing manager says that technology integration in print, sees her firm “working closer with partners, customers and all the main vendors than ever before”. 

She puts this down to having to find a way of seamless transition between different press work to free up finishing systems, in a bid to avoid costly work delay. 

“All printers want the same thiings: easy integration, automation, precision and zero wastage,” she says.

The demands from customers are growing; they want all of their hardware to be able to communicate, and they want more features than ever before to customise their setups. And so, the manufacturers are looking to partner with each other in order to make this happen.

However, the need to integrate solutions has arguably always been around, as John Murphy, a technical consultant for MIS developer Tharstern, explains, the purpose has just shifted over the years.

“Integration was initially about automating equipment so that we could improve productivity, then about giving automated feedback for analysis and tracking purposes, and as run  lengths have decreased and the amount of saleable product and individual orders have increased, the purpose has once again changed,” he explains.

Now, he maintains that integration technologies are needed to help modern printers prevent any administrative bottlenecks created by an increase in these lower value products, as well as helping printers connect their customers to the final manufactured product.

But no matter what the purpose – advances in technology are enabling these changes, and are driving customers to be more demanding about what they’re looking for.

However, Jim Hamilton, group director of keypoint intelligence at Infotrends doesn’t believe this to be the case. He doesn’t believe that companies – big or small – within the industry, are more open to collaborating than in the past, and he says that the only real advance in technology that has perhaps called for more collaboration are cloud-based workflows such as HP PrintOS. 

“The promise of PrintOS and other cloud-based workflows is that they could enable print service providers to be more likely to partner across geographies, or be more willing to outsource work during peak times, or for specific applications,” he says.

Hamilton explains that this is because shared workflow, processes and colour management would give them confidence in that partner’s ability to produce high-quality work.

While the cloud aspect of the workflow enables firms to scale up or down depending on demand, the fact that it is available in the cloud means that access to data is easy to get hold of for potential partners too, while updates can be made in real time. This means there are fewer issues with access management and productivity. For example, there is less chance that there would be duplication of work.

HP’s PrintOS already has a number of partners, including Duplo – the two companies have collaborated to integrate HP PrintOS with Duplo’s remote machine monitoring service, as well as a connection between Duplo’s e-Tandem remote servicing technology and the PrintOS cloud-based print production operating system. For both HP and Duplo, it must make commercial sense to partner, to get the best of both of the companies’ technology features. 

Konica Minolta goes a step further, believing that while innovation in technology has enabled it to partner with numerous organisations, those partnerships can stimulate new ideas further down the line.

“The ideal mix is where a company can focus its attention on applications developed with a business partner that is committed to providing good advice to lead innovative solutions and technology – this is particularly important so that people can bounce ideas off each other,” says Mark Hinder, head of market development at KonicaMinolta Business Solutions Europe.

Forced collaboration 

Hamilton’s suggestion that technology wasn’t enabling an increase in the number of collaborations is backed  – albeit not comprehensively – by John Corrall, founder and managing director of industrial inkjet specialist IIJ. 

“You could argue that it’s not new technology that forces collaboration, but actually the lack of it. To be more exact, it is the difficulty that established manufacturers have in adapting new technology to their businesses,” he states.

Corrall uses a large conventional press manufacturer as an example.

“In my experience, it wasn’t the cost of an inkjet development that was the issue as inkjet systems are small and cheap compared to massive conventional presses. It was more a case that the willingness to learn new technical skills, and a corporate determination to change. Both seemed to be in short supply,” he says.

“If a large company can’t grow its own new technology, then the only options are acquisitions or collaborations,” he adds.

Stumbling blocks

Inca’s director of research and development Steve Wilson says that having machines talk to each other is a must for customers today – but that there are politics when it comes to arranging commercial deals between various parties.

“I can’t tell you about confidential discussions that are underway, but we are talking to various other providers, workflow companies and kit providers about our machines and software packages communicating automatically,” he says. 

Tharstern’s Murphy suggests that while multi-vendor projects are beneficial to all of those involved, they can be extremely difficult to manage and always pose a big challenge.

“Politics can impede progress, particularly if vendors operate in some of the same markets,” he says.

Another reason companies increasingly have to work together, on the integration layer is with standards – but this is where corporate egos can take over once again, as every company believes their standard is what all other firms should conform to. 

Even the JDF standard within the industry could do with improvement, according to Wilson.

“Almost no one in the industry actually conforms to those standards, JDF is like British English, American English, Australian English, and so forth – all of them are different, and despite being able to communicate with each other, you have to tune in to different accents, this is because different companies implement different parts of the core standard and they add bits on,” he states. 

“It doesn’t help because it doesn’t provide a common platform to work from, but it is a core functionality which once you’ve gone beyond the functionality is quite difficult to standardise without making it restrictive,” he adds.

Heidelberg’s Oliver maintains that JDF is a critical component for most companies within the printing industry. He expects the standard to be worked upon and improved in the coming years, calling it “a first step” to getting to the right stage.

A stab in the back 

All companies will argue that they need some level of stubbornness to ensure they remain relevant and competitive – and to an extent they are right.

The message from Fujifilm’s Dalton is that collaboration is a powerful tool, but it’s not always clear that both parties will benefit.

He explains that there are two types of companies; those that patent their ideas and hold on to them, and those that license out their technologies to drive the market faster. 

“If you look at the drivers in our world, inkjet, and you look at the original showing of the Jet Press back in 2008, it was a lone product. But if you look at last year’s Drupa, the technology has been licensed to a number of other users to accelerate development,” he explains.

Dalton believes that because of technology, the world is moving towards more collaboration rather than going it alone – he points to iOS and Android as examples of this, as thousands of developers can create applications for the respective smartphones. Of course, the biggest winners here are Apple and Google, but in the printing industry it may be less clear cut who is likely to benefit the most from partnering. 

There is another element too, which many of the companies should be wary of – and this is the growing importance of data.

If only one of the two companies has direct access to the data, or to more data than the other party – whether it be customer details, machine feedback data, or any number of other areas – then they will benefit more from the partnership in the long term. 

Data is fast becoming one of the most important resources in organisations, and when making a deal, the amount of data and how it is likely to be shared should be a huge focus of the contract. 

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