WF sector plays catch-up in web-to-print stakes

Barney Cox
Monday, May 5, 2014

It is a truism that wide-format printers lag behind their commercial counterparts in the adoption of productivity software, such as workflow, colour management and MIS. And the same seems true with web-to-print software too.

In fact, this apparent failure to keep pace with commercial print is born in some ways from a positive situation. Fortunately for wide-format printers, the sector has not yet reached the kind of overcapacity and price wars rampant in other parts of the industry, which goes a long way towards explaining the lower importance currently placed on productivity enhancing software.

But in recent years, workflow and MIS have become hot topics in wide-format. So, with several wide-format sites now using W2P, it seems it could be time for W2P to have its moment too. 

One of the companies to recently launch a wide-format W2P is MTA Digital in south London. Beginning as a digital printer with an HP Indigo it has since added an EFI Vutek to offer wide-format work. Last year it opted to add web-to-print with EFI’s Digital StoreFront, and started with wide-format and a separate web-only brand www.digitalprintlondon.com.

“We decided to start with wide-format because the products are less complicated,” says director John Sinnott. “There’s less involved in the formats, materials, sizes and finishes – a poster is a poster.”

Sinnott is, though, something of an exception in seeing wide-format W2P as more straightforward. Most agree that introducing W2P to a wide-format business is still much trickier than in commercial print, with still far fewer using it for this purpose than for small-format work.

“Of the small sign and graphics firms, less than 10% have W2P,” reports EFI Northern Europe regional sales director Danny Morris. “The interest in W2P in commercial print is much stronger; even the late adopters are investing.”

Morris’ estimate is backed up by other vendors including RedTie managing director Jamie Thomson: “I’d estimate 10%-15% of our customers in the UK have wide-format print. However not all of them offer wide-format on their W2P system.” 

Tim Greene, wide-format director at print industry research firm Infotrends elaborates: “Part of the reason is because many wide-format shops are small and have achieved their success through direct sales, so investing in W2P software has been a low priority.” 

The size of the organisation is not the only reason, though; there are some commercial and technological impediments that make W2P less necessary and less practical.

“A lot of wide-format work is complex and project-based, such as installation services and site-specific formats, and therefore more likely to need face-to-face contact,” explains Fujifilm Europe print production workflow marketing manager John Davies.

Size matters

Technically the biggest impediment is getting files from the client to the printer. 

“Comms can be an issue because of the huge file sizes; it can definitely be a consideration depending on where the printer and the customer are located,” says Vpress managing director Tim Cox.

To get around the file transfer issue either needs an investment in additional bandwidth or a workaround, which is the most popular approach today.

 “Currently W2P works in wide-format for re-ordering jobs and templated files where the hi-res artwork is already at the printer,” says RedTie’s Thomson. 

That option restricts the market to ongoing relationships and contract-based work rather than ad-hoc clients, although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing according to Graeme Wilkie, IT director of Imprint Group, who works that way.

“We find that our clients are unwilling to spend the time going on to a website to produce their own design. Imagine having to do that and manage a £20,000 print project for all of your stores nationwide. People just don’t have the time,” he says. “For us W2P is all about offering our clients a variety of ways to sell more of their products and to put in the minimum of effort to achieve the maximum impact. Target marketing mixing both small-format and large- format together as part of an overall promotion has proven to be successful.”

This approach of W2WFP as part of a wider W2P system, aimed at established customers is one some vendors take to promote their software. In particular this is how Ricoh positions its Marcom Central software, which it showed alongside its first wide-format printer, the L4100, at Sign & Digital UK recently.

“We see W2P as just part of a broader marketing automation system,” says Ricoh UK strategic marketing manager, Gareth Parker. “We think there will be interest from signage companies and commercial printers adding wide-format.”

Ricoh isn’t the only firm that argues it’s hard to look at wide-format in isolation from other markets when considering web-to-print. “We see commercial printers adding W2WFP,” says Fuji’s Davies. 

And just as you shouldn’t treat web-to-print for wide-format in isolation to other types of print, you can’t consider web-to-print in isolation to the rest of the business. “Regardless of the format, W2P is a big project to take on and it’s more than a technology issue, it’s a business issue – what products you sell and how you promote them,” says Fujifilm’s Davies. “Firms who got burned by going into W2P found that it was a failure of implementation that causes the problems. Implementation needs to be a series of well-planned steps.” 

So where do you start? For Imprint’s Wilkie it’s key to understand what type of business you are and what you want to do.

“Having a nice web frontend to attract small-order quantity consumers is in the end counterproductive, particularly in a medium-sized enterprise, like us,” he says. “The administrative handling charge for each order is the same for a £42 order as for a £500 order. [To make that model successful] you either have to be small with low overheads or be able to achieve mass, and then you are competing against the likes of VistaPrint and other behemoths.”

There’s also a danger that you could be a victim of your own success. It’s for that reason that while there are B2C wide-format W2P opportunities out there, the consensus is leave that to the specialists. A poster may be a poster, but when it comes to keeping consumers happy it really is how you serve them that’s more important than having the right means of production. It’s all very well getting extra orders from a new market but if it interferes with your ability to deliver regular clients’ work it could be counterproductive.

“If you get a lot of work through W2P you get challenges with scheduling and allocating work to the most appropriate printer,” says EFI’s Morris. 

Other priorities

Other aspects of your infrastructure also need to be up to speed so that you have strong foundations for W2P. The most important part of those is an MIS.

“The conversation about W2P comes after – maybe a year after – the installation of the MIS,” says Optimus sales director Steve Richardson. “There’s still a tremendous way to go in wide-format with the adoption of MIS. Nine out of 10 wide-format companies need to sort out their MIS.” 

He adds: “Ipex was a good reflection of that. People approached us initially asking about W2P, but it soon became apparent that they needed to get their MIS in shape.” 

That is reflected by MTA’s experience. “We started with EFI Digital StoreFront a year ago,” says Sinnott. “In the meantime we’ve put in EFI’s Pace MIS and that became the priority.”

Intimately interlinked with the MIS integration is how you price jobs.

“Price is area-based,” says Fuji’s Davies. “The materials are more expensive and therefore size has a more dramatic impact on the price of the job.” 

That may be less of an issue if you are offering template-based contract work but does become important if you are accepting jobs blindly from online customers. 

So certainly there is a lot to consider when it comes to W2WFP; much more, it seems for most, than where smaller-format work’s concerned. Bandwidth, customer demand, the difficulties of B2C work, and the practicalities of delivering and pricing the work once it’s been ordered online are all important considerations.

And yet it’s clear from the number of software packages now available in this area that the vendors are now seeing increased interest in W2WFP. Despite capacity and pricing still feeling favourable for printers in this sector, the take-home point might well be to get ahead of the competition. For the canny wide-format printer now might be the right time to take the plunge.

In the words of EFI’s Morris: “For large-format firms looking at W2P, it’s a good time. Now most small-format firms are making the investment as a reaction. For WFP companies it is an option to be pro-active – roll on the pioneers.” 

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