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Distribute-and-Print--Linking Presses to Profits

October 1998
As the commercial printing segment absorbs more digital presses, the promise of digital links—such as Agfa's PrintCast—adds profit potential to the on-demand investment.


One year ago, PrintCast was launched. It was to be a digital link, a worldwide facilitator of distribute-and-print capabilities. Agfa had a vision for PrintCast: a distribute-and-print network with a hub operation based in Agfa's Wilmington, MA, facility that would digitally—via ISDN—link all Chromapress installations.

The objective was clear.

The PrintCast hub, the nerve center of the distribute-and-print network, would consist of dedicated facilities, personnel and equipment—all connected by high-speed ISDN links to Chromapress customer locations interested in participating in this international printing network. Agfa's IntelliPac, an intelligent compression technology used by the Chromapress IntelliStream system, would produce compact files that could then be transmitted over the ISDN connections.

What did PrintCast signify?

  • Print-and-distribute changing to distribute-and-print, on a truly global basis?

  • The viability of direct-to-press technology being recognized on a scale of global proportions, using global communications?


Certainly, for print-on-demand to take the next step, for the digital press model to graduate to new levels of marketability and print performance, digital file transfer would have to link one digital press to the next. PrintCast, and technologies like it, were going to be the future of print-on-demand.

Fast forward to October of 1998.

Currently 25 sites around the world are linked to PrintCast. Agfa reports that its goal is to have 50 sites registered by year-end. That goal, reports Philippe Duval, worldwide business manager for PrintCast, is highly conservative.

"We anticipate more than that, with potentially a presence in every country around the world," Duval projects.

Developed by Agfa to enable Chromapress owners to send and receive jobs between more than 400 sites around the world, PrintCast is somewhat unique in having a central location that acts not only as a quality control check for Chromapress sites, but facilitates payments for services to members, regardless of the currencies involved.

"There are a number of issues that might not be apparent immediately when developing a global

distribute-and-print strategy," adds Marc Orchant, market development manager for Agfa's U.S. Digital Printing Systems group. "Back office issues like currency conversion, consolidated billing and prompt payment to providers, along with technical issues like varying substrate availability and language and character sets, all need to be considered."

Resolving these issues and developing a real-time software solution that will work for Chromapress customers around the world posed a hefty challenge to Agfa in the conception of PrintCast. Agfa defines PrintCast sites as "Print Sellers" and "Print Providers."

A PrintCast Print Seller receives a job from a customer, which will be printed by a PrintCast Print Provider. Using the PrintCast Web site, the seller provides a description of the job and when and where it must be delivered to the PrintCast hub facility in Wilmington, MA. Jobs are not transmitted directly between Chromapress locations. In fact, there is virtually no need for direct communication between sites.

For example, let's say a job originating in New York is going to be printed in London. If the London Chromapress site closest to where the customer needs the job delivered would be unable to fit the

job into its schedule, the next closest site would be utilized. The finished product is delivered to the customer.

Once the print schedule and receiving site have been determined, all jobs are routed through the PrintCast hub facility. There the file is test-printed on a Chromapress to ensure it will print correctly at its final destination. This level of quality control is critical for the types of jobs expected to run through the PrintCast network.

"One of the most challenging aspects of distribute-and-print operations is ensuring print quality throughout the process," Duval states. "By using centralized file-checking and test-printing, Agfa can help ensure customer satisfaction with the final printed pages."

And what of currency issues?

In the example of PrintCast, the hub facility does more than preflight and test-print job files—it filters through currency issues that could pose a significant barrier to success. Agfa has developed a process in which customers pay for their jobs when submitting them to their local Chromapress print site.

The location actually printing and delivering the job to the customer is paid by Agfa on a net 30-day basis. Prices are based on thoroughly researched and regularly updated price lists that vary by provider. The price list is maintained in an internal database stored at the PrintCast intranet server and is maintained by Agfa.

Currency considerations and all, few would disagree that PrintCast does indeed provide a unique capability to Chromapress owners as they become familiar with the range of new capabilities it offers.

The essential ingredient, however, will be marketing the service to potential customers. This is an initiative Agfa has attacked aggressively with FastStart, a range of extensive materials developed to show Chromapress owners how to make use of the Chromapress print engines, as well as market PrintCast.

Still, despite all the efforts of Agfa and others involved in breaking ground with distribute-and-print possibilities—and while distribute-and-print has been heralded often as the "killer app" for digital color printing—market awareness and utilization of this potential have been slow.

Why? "In many ways, distribute-and-print strategies are taking a similar timeframe to develop as variable data solutions have," Agfa's Orchant suggests. "While the concept is relatively easy to grasp and the potential benefits are compelling, there simply isn't a lot of verifiable performance data available."

To change all that, in addition to PrintCast, many initiatives are currently under way to develop distributed printing solutions, ranging from loose confederacies of independent printers to global solutions developed by systems manufacturers.

Time to talk to Heidelberg.

Recently, Heidelberg teamed with Adobe, WAM!NET and CAPPS Studio/Leo Burnett in a series of seminars to conduct live demonstrations of remote printing technology. For the exercise, a digitally developed brochure was produced in Chicago, then electronically distributed to two separate Quickmaster DI press installations for on-demand printing. Heidelberg Technology Centers in Kennesaw, GA, and Mt. Prospect, IL, served both as remote printing sites and the venues for the events.

"We presented real-world situations and solutions for remote printing using the latest technologies from Adobe, WAM!NET and Heidelberg," reports Ron Kendig, marketing director of imaging at Heidelberg USA.

Specifically, the demo job originated at CAPPS Studio/Leo Burnett in downtown Chicago and was digitally transmitted as an Adobe Acrobat PDF file via WAM!NET to the remote sites in Mt. Prospect and Kennesaw. Digital photos were taken of the audience at each location and exported into the file, which was immediately transmitted back to CAPPS/Burnett for final design and simulated client approval.

As representatives from Heidelberg, WAM!NET, Adobe and CAPPS/Burnett called the play-by-play, the finalized PDF file was transmitted to both Heidelberg Technology Centers, where it was RIPed and printed on each site's Quickmaster DI.

"These demonstrations showed that distribute-and-print is a reality," Kendig emphasizes. "It is a workable solution that brings new opportunities to the facilities that know how to use it."

So, who's using distribute-and-print technology for maximizing the marketing power of a digital press?

One example is AmeriPrint, a Vienna, VA-based general commercial printer. David Morey, president at AmeriPrint, wanted to take his sheetfed operation—largely a printer of association materials, with a niche in government printing—and digitally empower it to handle on-demand color work.

With Washington just around the corner, Morey saw potential for AmeriPrint to capitalize on the league of nations milling about Capitol Hill.

Obviously, there was much short-run color printing to be done, with hundreds of international organizations planted in Washington.

A digital press—in AmeriPrint's case, an Agfa Chromapress 32i—and a digital network to link that press to others like it throughout the world could open up new avenues of opportunity and profit.

"We wanted to get into the digital printing market, which, in many ways, is still in its infancy," Morey explains. "From a practical point of view, digital color printing, the entire PrintCast model and others like it are very beneficial. They afford commercial printers the opportunity to sell printing services in a global market. What a tremendous opportunity for us to expand the scope of our services, as well as our profit margins."

Morey realizes that he is on the ground floor of something big. Perhaps something too big even for the average American printing firm to handle.

"What I worry about, when I think about the future of distribute-and-print and the real potential that market holds, is will all the eligible printers in the United States really open up to it? Will they maximize it, or will they shy away from it because of fear of competition?" Morey questions.

Clearly, Morey's tension has less to do with the technology or the concept, and everything to do with those positioned to employ the technology.

"Printers tend to feel threatened of their competition; they tend to be very territorial and protective of their clients," Morey points out.

"This may not be a promising attribute when the mission of the industry is distribute-and-print," Morey continues. "Optimistically, I am projecting our PrintCast link will, eventually, bring us strong profits and even stronger global ties."

Good luck, AmeriPrint.

Lead by example.

E-mail, Then Distribute-and-print

Heidelberg customers no longer need to read through piles of bulletins or browse hundreds of Internet pages to get up-to-the-minute information on select Heidelberg systems.

Why? The company recently launched a new e-mail program that speeds technical and operating updates directly to digital mailboxes.

Tagged UpLink, the program is available exclusively to printers that use Heidelberg presses, including the Quickmaster DI; facilities that carry Heidelberg Service Contracts on their prepress systems; and sites that operate Heidelberg equipment under factory warranty.

"UpLink is our way of responding to the needs of time-strapped operators and managers who have to stay up-to-date on changes in technology," reports Donn Goldstick, senior vice president of service at Heidelberg USA. "Each customer will receive e-mails that are relevant only to the products they run, so they need not waste time scanning irrelevant data."

Included in UpLink's information stream will be news concerning software updates, engineering changes, product enhancements, hints and tips, training classes and upgrade paths. UpLink will even supply a return e-mail address so that customers can communicate directly with the appropriate engineering team.

PrintCast—the ISDN-based distribute-and-print network for Agfa's Chromapress—is currently linking 25 Chromapress sites around the world. Agfa projects another 25 sites by the first quarter of 1999.

Agfa's IntelliStream architecture employs IntelliPac technology to compress data for transmission via ISDN throughout the global PrintCast distribute-and-print network.

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