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DIGITAL COPIERS & PRINTERS -- The Urge to Converge

February 2003

Buzz words can become every bit as annoying as the insects evoked by the name. They also seem to multiply just as quickly, often building into a swarm that can obscure the view.

For a time it seemed as if "convergence" was destined for this fate in the digital printing realm. Since the latter part of 2002 and carrying forward into 2003, how-ever, there has been growing evidence of the concept being made manifest in the real world. The term applies equally well to developments throughout the industry segment.

Technological convergence is leading the way and actually dates back the furthest. Increases in resolution, substrate flexibility and data format support have all but obliterated the distinction between digital printers for data center/production printing and commercial printing/graphic arts applications.

Advances in digital capabilities also seem headed toward making the "copier" label a relic of a bygone era. These devices are becoming printers on the network with scanning units for hard copy and an increasing array of finishing options.

Standardization of front-end software and controllers is another growing trend among the manufacturers offering multiple classes of hardware—from copier/printers to high-volume production systems with support for black-and-white and color output. This gives the corporate or institutional user the option of implementing a common interface across its output capabilities.

Win Some, Lose Some

The net effect of these developments is to make it more practical for print customers to meet a growing range of their needs internally, should they so desire. The door swings both ways, though, so greater versatility in digital systems means commercial printers can compete for a wider range of a corporation's printing work.

Increased integration and network connectivity also can make it easier for an outside print supplier to plug into customers at the desktop or chooser level. The Internet overcomes distance barriers for outside companies seeking to offer digital printing services via a facilities management arrangement or from their remote production facilities. The business potential of integration already can be seen in the digital shops that have packaged their print-on-demand production capabilities with fulfillment services and Internet-based ordering and inventory management.

(Product-specific examples of the convergence in technology can be seen in the accompanying sidebar.)

A logical extension of technological advances is convergence at the production level. Preprinting of color shells via offset production for subsequent imprinting on black-and-white digital systems has been an important enabler of print-on-demand and personalization applications. This "hybrid" production concept continues to evolve as digital color systems become more robust.

The latest hot area of development has been short-run book production, with digitally printed covers and inserts fed into high-volume black-and-white production lines with integrated binding/finishing systems to turn out finished books. (The April issue of Printing Impressions will include a more detailed look at this application.)

IKON Office Solutions of Malvern, PA, sits at an intersection of many of these lines of convergence in digital printing. The company offers direct sales and support of digital printing solutions, provides onsite facilities management and operates its own print production centers, chiefly to provide backup capacity for clients. Its customer base includes commercial printers, in addition to a spectrum of corporate and institutional organizations.

From her perspective as senior vice president of marketing, Cathy Lewis sees a number of trends reshaping the marketplace and having implications for commercial printers.

Striving for Consistency

On the technological front, Lewis believes the question of print quality being a barrier to adoption has shifted to a focus on sustainable image and color quality. "Most of the systems today can be tuned to produce a nice initial image quality but, if I'm a commercial printer, I still need to make sure that level can be maintained over a reasonable run length," she advises.

"Still, digital shops shouldn't try to claim that they are replacing offset. The premier type of application for the technology will be a piece that's personalized and customized. Today's technology offers enough quality to drive that market."

Cost per copy claims is another area Lewis says buyers need to take a close look at. "There are some wild claims being made," she reports. "Vendors may characterize production environments in different ways and include different factors in their calculations. Buyers need to make vendors lay out their proposals, line item by line item, so they can see precisely what they are getting."

Tied into both quality and cost is the issue of how much ability the commercial printer has to control the uptime of a device, the industry exec notes. Manufacturers are embracing the "operator replaceable components" design approach to different degrees.

Today's range of digital systems and options can support applications from proofing through high-volume production in a commercial printing environment, Lewis reports. Therefore, she recommends that companies newly entering the market not jump into the deep end, especially in the current economic climate.

"The applications, particularly those truly requiring print-on-demand capabilities for color, are still fairly nascent. Shops can install a mid-level product to develop expertise in digital printing applications without overexposing themselves financially with the investment. They should make sure they can build a sound business case around digital color," Lewis suggests.

Such systems will have enough legs in them—for proofing and shorter run applications—to justify the investment, even as an interim step before installation of a higher end digital color press.

The IKON marketing exec believes adoption of variable data printing, in particular, has been constrained by the need for developments to come together on several fronts. "CRM is the great buzz word, but only a handful of companies of any size have a functioning system that enables them to not only capture customer data, but to leverage it intelligently," she says.

Data Is the Key Variable

"There's also an issue in how service providers are structured today. Commercial printers know how to work with digital system front ends, but not databases. Then there are the data service bureaus, mail houses, etc., that are good at the second piece, but not at printing," Lewis asserts. As one might expect, some of these companies are entering into partnerships.

"Variable data technology offers a compelling value proposition, so I do believe that it can move the market," Lewis says. She contends there is enough capability and quality in all categories of digital printers (above the desktop level) to at least support experimenting with variable data printing and to start building a relationship with end users. "I don't think any development work, regardless of the level, is wasted effort," she adds.

"Consolidation" probably would be a more accurate description for some of the corporate-level moves being made by digital equipment manufacturers.

At press time, reports started circulating about a pending acquisition of Minolta by Konica. In an official statement on its Website, Minolta characterized the deal as "an integration of the management of both companies based on stock swaps through a spirit of equality." It went on to say that, "by October 2003, the operations of both companies will be integrated through a business restructuring, forming a new corporate group (called Konica Minolta)." The statement didn't say anything about the impact on product lines or corporate assets, but there were reports of a potential 10 percent work force reduction (some 4,000 employees).

In late 2002, Ricoh Corp. formed Ricoh U.S. as a new business unit of the West Caldwell, NJ-based organization. It is comprised of the corporation's former Office Products Group (including the Ricoh, Savin and Gestetner brands), Office Solutions Group and the four Ricoh Business Systems sales subsidiaries. The units are all under the direction of a single management team and business plan. The move was said to be "a major step in the transformation of Ricoh Corp. from a copier and fax hardware supplier into a total document and printing solutions provider."

To date, the best example of convergence at the manufacturer level arguably has been Océ-USA Holding folding its Document Printing Systems (office products) group into Océ Printing Systems USA (production/commercial printers). According to Guy Broadhurst, director of product programs, the organizational change was a response to ongoing trends in the overall market.

Corporations with facilities for printing bills and statements are looking to do other work to bring up utilization rates, Broadhurst says. Meanwhile, commercial printing operations want to start doing some billing work to both balance and expand their workloads, he adds.

When it first explored realigning its business segments, Océ found there was almost no overlap between the existing customer bases for its office products and production system units. However, Broadhurst expects technology to change that going forward.

"We are seeing convergence of the decision-making authority within corporations. Since it's possible to serve multiple printing needs with one product, that can make the buying decision simpler."

Implementing a common infrastructure to serve all of an organization's printing (and copying) needs should be an easier and more efficient approach, he adds. The technology trends are also making it more practical for non-print firms to bring work in-house again to gain more control, flexibility and savings.

In order for this to be practical, the output quality must be up to the standards of all the applications, asserts Broadhurst. He says Océ's plan is to make standard the highest level of quality demanded by both the corporate and commercial printing worlds. "This gives users the option of switching applications as needed."

Robust Solutions Needed

It's probably more accurate to say that buyers are looking for a level of performance, not just quality. All users want to print at the fastest speed possible, but a corporation is thinking in terms of producing a job with 10 million records while a commercial firm is looking to produce a piece with a large amount of graphics and color fills at high resolution, he explains.

The bigger concern for commercial operations is reliability, Broadhurst continues. "When you have tight print windows, you can't afford downtime. Commercial users expect equipment to perform flawlessly," he notes.

Océ is responding to the market trends by implementing an "Adaptable Printing Architecture" that is said to enable solutions for different applications to be built off the same platform. "Almost every product will be encompassed in this mentality to suit the flexibility of customers in the convergence world," Broadhurst says.

One capability that Broadhurst sees crossing all applications and product ranges is variable data printing. He even sees utility for it at the level of the copier. "We have to include the capability," he says. "It used to be that a company just had copiers sitting around the office and a large part of the time they sat unused. Now, these 'copiers' also do network printing while still serving walk-up needs. Utilization goes up dramatically, which reduces costs."

There was one notable exception to the convergence trend this past year. Nipson was reborn as a company and product brand as a result of Xeikon's bankruptcy proceedings. There has to an exception to every rule, though.

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