Next-gen print kit summit

Barney Cox
Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Having the right technology whether that is the heavy metal of printing and post-press, the beige boxes of pre-press and digital print or the servers to run MIS and web-to-print software is crucial for successful print firms. Picking the right technology is about understanding the needs of both your business and your customers, today and tomorrow, and choosing the appropriate products and services to meet those needs. But the right technology, as will become clear from the discussion that follows, is about much more than the latest and greatest gadgets.

As no one has as yet totally automated their business, the conversation started with how staff interact with technology and where the sticking points are. And it started with the people who are the face of the business in sales and customer service. “The sales team are probably the last people to understand any technology,” says CPI chief executive Mike Taylor. And, with the current rapid developments in technology, he believes that’s a big problem.

Technology-based sales
“It’s never been such a technology-based sell before,” says Real Digital International sales director Andy Ruddle. “Technology used to be the thing holding customers back – it’s now leading the way. It’s essential the sales guy understands.”

Could it go the other way? “You can oversell technology, there’s a fine line,” says Wyndeham Pre-Press managing director Barry Fitzpatrick.

“It’s the guys who don’t understand technology who oversell it,” argues St Ives group technical director John Charnock. “These guys will answer yes to anything: ‘will it cure AIDS and generate world peace?’, ‘Yes, on the fly’. Unless they understand the limitations as much as the benefits, you can get yourself into a horrid mess.”

Bindery staff are a bugbear in production. A lack of skilled staff is leading to wage inflation in what is now the most highly staffed part of production.

“Apart from a few smaller players, post-press technology is way behind press development,” says Charnock. “I believe manufacturers haven’t invested sufficiently in R&D to meet market demands. And by that I mean the demands of our customers for fewer copies more frequently. When you look at the core technology in the finishing department, it’s remained fundamentally the same for decades.”

Turnpike Press managing director Tony Jackson thinks the problem is one of demand as much as supply. “Surely that is because the focus in the past 20 to 30 years has been pre-press and press?” he says.

“Finishing is always the last thing we invest in,” agrees CPI’s Taylor. “Pre-press and print have been where the wages are; you pay people in finishing a lot less.” Which explains why most effort in taking out production cost has been elsewhere. Until now. ESP’s Thirlby, who has invested extensively in automating post-press, reports rapid wage inflation in response to the lack of skilled operators in the past 18 months, at a time when post-press is becoming more important.

“We’re not a printing business; we’re a binding business, because the first thing we look at when taking a job on is the question of whether we can finish it,” says Thirlby. “In the past few years we’ve invested heavily in the post-press department using whatever technology is possible. It’s disappointing there aren’t people out there providing solutions.”

According to Charnock, the drive to digital may encourage the automation of finishing as digital suppliers are waking up to the fact that, as long as there’s a problem in post-press, digital print isn’t able to offer a total solution. “The benefits of developing finishing for digital will impact on litho,” he says.

In the meantime CPI’s Taylor has a top tip for overcoming technological shortfalls in post-press kit.

“When we expanded our specialist finishing department, we knew we couldn’t recruit the numbers of people we wanted,” he says. “So we went out and advertised for people with mechanical skill, and a bit of a brain, but no print skills. We didn’t have a choice. If you advertise in the Daily Mail or PrintWeek you get applicants who want more than what they’re on, driving the cost up. If you accept there aren’t enough people and train them up, within six months an operator will be as good as any that you’ve got now.”

The importance of MIS
While production is the obvious area to apply technology, the right business systems are as important, or even more so, and often overlooked. A glance at the print management sector may show why it’s important for success.

Real Digital’s Ruddle poses the question: “When did print managers invest in technology?”

The defence, surprisingly, comes from St Ives’ Charnock: “They got the front-end right. Their investment wasn’t in presses, it was in MIS.”

“If you want to keep your client, as a printer or a print manager you need to link with whatever internal enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution they’ve got so you become an essential part of their supply chain,” explains TripleArc group operations director Daniel Emerson, a print manager.

It’s a trick Charnock says most printers miss, which Taylor attributes to scale. But both believe that the trick offers benefits.

“You can improve your own processes and deliver a better service if you understand your client’s supply chain,” says Charnock. “They may think they need a 24-hour turnaround, but actually they just need the information at a certain point.”

Taylor gives an example: “We’re doing a lot of digital print that isn’t personalised, but it is a run of one. We’re eliminating the warehouse. So when someone sells a book we print that book and send it to them. The point is that we’re taking out distribution cost. We’re not saving money ourselves, in fact we’re charging more. If we’re talking conventional print for a B-format paperback book at a cost of 40p per unit, doing it digitally in a run of 1-10 would cost £1.75. It’s a huge difference. But it doesn’t have to go to anyone’s warehouse and the cost of warehousing alone is about £1. Warehousing is far more than the cost of the print.”

Higher intelligence
Integrating with your customer through e-commerce or web-to-print is one part of the business technology puzzle. Another piece is business intelligence — software to help suppliers interpret markets and customer behaviour and requirements. This is commonly part of an MIS.

“It’s being intelligent enough to understand what the demands of the market are,” says Thirlby. “We can analyse the customer base and what the trends are.”

Then there are the cold hard facts of the financial condition of the business, and the use of technology to get a better handle on what’s going on.

“Our MIS gives us the bottom line,” says Thirlby. “Finance drives everything that we do. It’s about what data is in the system and how you visualise it. We’ve had to sit down and decide what we want to see. That’s meant that sometimes we’ve had to have third-party scripting. I don’t think there’s an MIS out there that will give you the direction you need.”

“That’s right, unless you’ve got a completely bespoke solution,” agrees Taylor. “And most of us have bought a package. Some are better than others and some are more suitable for certain businesses.”

That need to match the product to the printer is echoed by Charnock: “I make no apologies for the fact that our business has seven different MISs. No single MIS can do everything from books and magazines through to point-of-sale. We’re an acquisitive company and we’re not going to bring everyone onto a standard. What we do need to do is interrogate those systems and get something common out of the back-end.”

Another issue, highlighted by TripleArc’s Emerson, is the ability to customise the system, preferably with your own resources: “Find an MIS supplier that is flexible. Having both built and bought, I can say that, whichever you do, you want the flexibility of an internal team that can modify that system, because customers demand that sort of responsiveness.”

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when going for an MIS is the relationship with the supplier and the need for it to be a lasting one. “Everyone gets in bed with one player at an early stage, and unless they’re bloody awful you tend to stay with them,” says Taylor. “Because there’s nothing more challenging than switching an MIS. It is a trial.”

Future tech
At this time in the technology calendar you can’t ignore the elephant in the room, or rather exhibition hall, that is next summer’s Drupa. For a fortnight from the end of May the future of print technology will be on show in Düsseldorf. Our panel already have clear ideas about what will be on show, what will be exciting and what in particular they’ll be looking for.

Digital colour is the dominant theme. “I’m looking for cheap digital sheetfed colour with no click charges and no toner,” says Taylor. “Oh, it’ll be inkjet, I absolutely detest toner, I hate the business model.”

Pureprint’s Aaron Archer believes that it is too early to write off toner: “Drupa is going to assist in changing that model a bit because you’re going to get inkjet starting to compete heavily and electrophotography is going to have to become more competitive.”

Charnock believes that it won’t just be one digital process competing with another digital process. “You’ll definitely start to see inkjet and xerographic technologies in high volumes that will begin to be seriously disruptive to traditional offset markets for the first time,” he says.

“Think back to the early days of computer-to-plate – 27 vendors and their concepts. Just like then, we’ll see names that we’ve never seen before.”

As a solely sheetfed offset operator, ESP’s Thirlby has a shortlist of things to check out, and it doesn’t include digital.

“For us Drupa is about taking JDF as far as we can and seeing what third-party vendors can provide,” he says. “We have no desire, given our model, to look at digital, so we will be looking for faster makereadies and more sheets on the floor. It’s a case of fine-tuning what we’re doing, and at the moment we’re being held back by the big players. We need more integration and automation. I’ll be going to Drupa to look at how seriously they’re all taking the commercial print market. I think for the digital players it’ll be a fantastic show, but for the side we’re in I can’t see anything too exciting.”

Front-end developments
Naturally it’s the front-end applications that will occupy Wyndeham Pre-Press’s Fitzpatrick. “We’re interested in how much or how little they’ve developed. How those products integrate with the back end is quite interesting,” he says.

Archer is also focusing on front-end software: “Something that is going to be the diamond hunt at the show is software. Applications really breed competitive advantage in average sized print companies such as ours, allowing a multi-disciplined, flexible approach. It’s going to be around variable data, collateral management and customer automation using web portals to deliver that.”

Turnpike’s Jackson sounds a level-headed note on how to assess the show: “I’m sending two technical guys over who will make a report, and I’m keeping hold of the chequebook.”

Charnock sees a bigger picture than just print emerging at the show.  “We’ll start to see convergence,” he says. “Other media will be displayed. Brands we’ve never seen before see print as a sector they can cross-sell into. It all comes in the front-end. Definitely display technology — screens. We’re starting to talk about Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch being used as a method of delivery. Suppliers such as Adobe are going to be talking about multi-platform delivery. We think of ourselves as printers, but we’re service providers for the marketing department. And if we’ve got customers that want screens to display prices on the edge of their shelves, we’ll do it, if that’s what we need to do.”

As well as new players and new markets, there will be a different approach from the established vendors. “We’ll see real collaborations and partnerships that we haven’t seen before,” he says. “There are going to be significant changes at Drupa.”

This round table on new printing technology was sponsored by Kodak Graphic Communications Group
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