Tie web to work and growth is automatic

Have you heard the one about the rise of automation in printing, asks Neil Parr-Davies, digital services manager at Cambrian Printers. In the not-too-distant future, he says, the only handlers manning a press will be a man and a dog: The man is there to feed the dog, and the dog is there to bite the man if he tries to touch the press, he quips. In the automated future, the less an operator is involved in a job, the higher the profitability.

The Aberystwyth-based commercial printer has a history dating from 1860, when it was founded as a regional newspaper printer. There is a nod to this legacy in chairman Robert Read’s office, where a letterpress block of the newspaper’s masthead sits beside a framed illuminated address given to his great grandfather, Henry Read, in 1918 for 30 years’ service to the newspaper industry. But for future growth, Cambrian is banking on its digital division.

Operations director Doug Gray, who joined the printer 14 months ago, says the digital arm was originally created “like most printers, by just bolting on a digital service”. He adds that most printers just expect that the existing customer base to migrate to digital naturally. “It doesn’t happen,” Gray says. “If you do that, you don’t make money. I challenged the board to say we either make money out of it or we close it. The answer was ‘We’d like to make money out of it’.”

The solution was web-to-print software RedTie. One of RedTie’s unique selling points is that it was designed by printers for printers. Northampton-based CSS Digital initially developed the tool for its own use three years ago, but then decided it was good enough to commercialise, selling it for £10,000, plus a monthly hosting and support fee.

Print’s new specialists
Parr-Davies is the driving force behind RedTie’s uptake at Cambrian.  His exuberance for digital print’s possibilities is clear. He says understanding digital is a “generational thing”, requiring operators who are more at home with circuit boards than dampening or inking. “The digital press owes more to Bill Gates than it owes to Caxton.”

Gray says selling digital is “totally different. You almost have to divorce it from [sales development director] Carrick Wilkie’s department.” One vital step first step is to hire staff who know how to sell digital and the firm has recruited a new salesman tasked exclusively with that work. It is also separating digital and litho, both physically and figuratively in its 3,160m2 site.

Implementing RedTie is a two-step process, driven by the software’s two editions. The first component, RedTie Quotation (RTQ), is aimed at business clients. With that rollout going smoothly, the next task, and one that requires a more pronounced sea change, is to get the consumer-facing RedTie Template (RTT) up and running. Cambrian is now using RTT to prepare a swoop on the town’s university market, where Parr-Davies hopes to peddle a vast array of print, from yearbooks to posters for the student union.

Each job type requires Parr-Davies to put together an online template, which involves coding and developing. Something as simple as a branded website with a choice of business card templates including the customer’s logo takes around three hours. A personalised calendar site would take a few days. However, once a template is on the web, the customer then does all the work. With a job run through RedTie, the first time someone at Cambrian needs to spend time, and hence money, on a job is when it rolls off the “top-of-the-range” six-colour HP Indigo 5000 or “workhorse” Heidelberg Digimaster 9110 CP.

Parr-Davies sees consumer print as a prime money-spinner, with a plan to offer personalised calendars by the end of July. “We’ll start on the website, and we’ll have a different URL, look and feel for each one. But it’ll all come off the same server, and all the money will come into the same place.” And Parr-Davies and Gray are not talking about the cut-throat price wars of wholesale print, but a generous retail price tag for a one-off job sold direct to the public.

Gray says: “Where we’re looking to go with this is Joe Blogs on the street, who’ll pay a fiver for a poster with a really good margin. We’re not exploiting them because they see the value in it, and it would give us 80% more margin than a book that gives us 2%.”

Automated RTQ jobs are still very much in the minority and go from the tiny, such as a recent 100-copy run of 4pp A5 leaflets, to the modest, such as Cambrian’s biggest win yet, a 250-run 64pp perfect-bound book for a local business. A key target is to move existing clients to RTQ in the next few months.

The new model requires “button pushers” more than printers, says Gray, adding that in many cases, knowledge of traditional print is irrelevant. Parr-Davies goes one further, saying that litho experience could be a hindrance.

Fresh thinking
Gray says that to make web-to-print a success, “you need to divorce it from any old thinking that’s out there”. Making a success of RTT means grabbing the attention of the public by turning the old sales model on its head – forget clearing artwork and shaking hands on a price before firing up the presses. “With RTT, once you’ve created a project and a website, that’s when you have to go in front of the customer and sell it,” says Parr-Davies.

It’s a matter of finding new customers, preferably ones who are happy to part with their cash. Gray guesses he passes £100,000 of undiscovered work, such as large-format posters or menus for local restaurants, every time he drives between Aberystwyth town centre and Cambrian’s offices, 10 minutes down the road.

Digital has been growing steadily, increasing 1% per year after accounting for less than 4% of business in 2006. However, Wilkie says he plans to grow total sales from the current £6.7m to £7.5m in the next 12 months, with the hope digital will account for 10% of turnover. And to divert these new revenue streams into the digital pressroom requires a change of tack. In the consumer arena, there are plans to have a few websites up and running “pre-Christmas” selling calendars and photo gifts, says Wilkie.

The printer’s location in Aberystwyth could be a boon. Wilkie says that currently “75% of our litho business comes from outside Wales. In digital, we could get 75% of our work from inside Wales.”

One hurdle is changing perceptions: local firms think Cambrian is too big to take on their short-run jobs, but the expansion of RTT will come primarily from tiny run lengths for small-scale buyers. Each job’s return might be small, but because the customer does the work, it helps Cambrian put a 20% margin on digital jobs, where it only adds 10% to litho runs.

And it should cost the customer less too. Parr-Davies says there are three ways to buy print: the first, and most expensive, method is to take the traditional path of phoning the printer with a request for a quote; the second is to send in a spreadsheet of the specs; but to get “the best, rock-bottom price”, he tells prospects to “go on our website and do half the work for us”. A typical litho job bag goes all around the factory before it ever hits the press. Exploiting RedTie to its fullest means cutting at least seven stages from that process. And having fewer humans involved means less margin for error, while also freeing up staff to bring in more money or push out more work.

While it will take considerable resources to see the full benefits of web-to-print, the growth offered is worth the effort. In March, RTQ brought in £400. In April, the figure had jumped 1,500% to £6,000, and this is without any formal marketing drive.

Other print firms may complain that their investments are slow to show a return on investment. Cambrian, on the other hand, foresees success in the not-to-distant future with the digital print arm run not by a man and a dog, but by the customer itself.

Success in digital requires a different approach to litho

  • Don’t just assume customers will naturally migrate to digital because you install a digital press
  • Making the most of digital means learning how to sell a service, not just a printed product
  • Getting the right staff is vital, as digital print requires ‘button pushers’ more than it needs qualified printers
  • Look for new revenue streams rather than just approaching existing litho customers. Consumer print and extremely short-run personalised work are key growth areas
  • Separate digital from the litho press room, not just physically, but also how you approach sales, marketing and customer service 



Printer Cambrian Printers
Size 90 staff
Scientific and technical journals, magazines, books
How to make a success of a shift into digital
RedTie web-to-print software


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