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IMAGE CAPTURE -- Market Goes Flat

June 2002
BY MARK SMITH


Digital files have become the norm in print production, but the processes involved in generating them continue to evolve. Image capture—chiefly, photo-graphs into color separations—was one of the first areas to feel the impact of electronics with the introduction of scanners. Decades later, the scanning process and market continues to be reshaped by technological advances and dropping prices. For the past 10 years or so, the production step has also faced possible obsolescence due to the rise of digital photography.

This context gave added weight to Heidelberg's recent announcement that it was discontinuing "all scanner development and production operations." The company said the scanner products set to disappear from its portfolio included all desktop models (the entire Linoscan range) and high-end solutions (including the flatbed Nex-scan and drum-based Primescan).

Making a Big Exit

What the move symbolized, and the very public way it was carried out, made Heidelberg's exit from the market perhaps seem more dramatic than the actual implications for the industry. To many people, high-end scanning used to be all but synonymous with Hell drum machines, and now that lineage is coming to an abrupt end. Heidelberg had inherited that tradition with its acquisition of the Linotype-Hell Co.

According to the equipment manufacturer, the market for scanners in all quality classes has experienced a downturn in recent years, including declines as great as 20 percent in 2001 alone, depending on market and product. "This move is a timely response to the changing needs and trends in the market," says Bernhard Schreier, CEO of Heidelberg Druckmaschinen. "We will be focusing our prepress business on workflow software and plate imaging (CTP)."

Some may see this development as an omen of the inevitable demise of scanning services. However, recent scanner purchasers and the remaining high-end manufacturers say don't write the obituary for scanning just yet.

Given that it is a prepress trade shop, there's a wide-spread perception in the industry that companies like Grafix Prepress, in Columbia, MD, have all died out, never mind the scanning services it offers.

For the first time in its more than 30 years in business, the shop did recently expand beyond prepress services with the installation of an Indigo Platinum press. However, it also has added a new large-format EskoScan 2636 flatbed color scanner from Esko-Graphics.

The shop does general commercial and packaging work from one location with about 30 employees, reports Tim Seal, electronic prepress manager. Packaging work was just part of the reason Grafix needed a large-format scanner, he says. The company also added computer-to-plate output capabilities within the past year, which brought a need for copydot scanning and descreening of existing analog film, Seal notes.

"We had been in the market for a new scanner to do separations anyway, but we were impressed with how far copydot scanning had come," he explains. "We'd looked into the technology about five years ago, but the quality wasn't there. When we did some tests on this system, we couldn't tell the difference between scans from film versus transparency and reflective originals. Descreening films to make new Photoshop TIFFs is a big part of what we are doing now."

Even so, Seal says the company recognizes that copydot scanning and descreening presents a limited-term opportunity. He expects there to be a three- to five-year window before everything has gone digital. "We can't get our money out of the scanner by strictly doing analog film to digital conversions, but it is a nice added service we can offer."

The prepress manager has seen some signs of customers doing more of their own scans, but even then, the shop generally has to tweak the images, he says. "The number of transparencies coming in may have declined, but I don't see the business going away. Designers don't know the printing issues involved, and don't want to be bothered with them."

Digital photography hasn't been a factor for Grafix to this point, Seal adds. All of its customers are still getting transparencies made, he says.

Buy the Book

BookMasters Inc. in Mansfield, OH, is a short-run book manufacturer of mostly trade paperbacks, but also some education, journal and specialty books. The majority of its work involves producing four-color covers and jackets, but black-only inside pages, reveals Ray Sevin, president. "However, we have recently increased our capacity to produce four-color pages and we now are doing some all-color texts. That capability isn't common among short-run book manufacturers."

Book publishers are driving the push to add more color because of their belief it will have an impact on sales at the point-of-purchase level, Sevin says. "While color is more popular now, the quality of the capabilities to produce it has been lacking. Small and self publishers typically don't have the equipment or expertise to provide high-quality scans for their covers, jackets or text pages."

Part of BookMasters' response to this need was its recent installation of a Fujifilm Quattro flatbed scanner, the company president reveals. "Since we run Fujifilm imagesetters and plates, the Quattro was a logical choice," he explains. "Ease of operation and self-calibration were important features we were looking for in a scanner, and it's also a relatively inexpensive product."

Sevin say he hasn't had any customers make inquiries about digital photography services so far, and none has submitted any digital shots for their books.

System Color Services in Minneapolis is a prepress trade house like Grafix, albeit a smaller one with a staff of seven. The company also differs from the other two scanner purchasers in that it remains committed to offering high-end drum scanning.

Brian Dear, the shop's founder and owner, previously had been a Hell drum scanner operator. When he started the company in 1995, though, he opted to go with a flatbed machine to reduce the required investment. "I really was not happy with the scanner," Dear says. "You need a drum machine to get the ability to see into shadows. Also, between the dirt and 'noise' introduced by the flatbed unit, I was spending time in Photoshop trying to fix scans."

The prepress exec says customers taking scanning in-house hasn't been an issue with System Color Services' client base, but he has seen adoption—or at least exploration—of other alternatives. "Some of our smaller customers are sending CDs of digital stock photography instead of film transparencies," he explains. "A couple of our large customers have started using digital photography on a limited basis."

One client recently supplied a half dozen digital shots along with transparencies of the same subject as kind of a test, Dear says. System Color scanned the hard copy and proofed both versions of the digital files for comparison.

"The scanned images definitely were better than the supplied digital," the prepress exec claims. "That doesn't mean digital photo-graphy is inferior. It could just be a matter of the way these files were done. In the end, the client said he was not impressed with the digital shots, but he is still going to investigate digital photography further."

The company owner says he has explored bringing a photographer in-house to establish a digital studio, but he decided to back off the idea for now. "I still feel conventional scanning and color correcting is superior to the supplied digital images we've seen," he asserts. "Digital capture also isn't cheap."

Since it does have clients sending a variety of oversized originals, the shop just upgraded its scanning capabilities with the addition of the larger Screen SG-8060 scanner. "We do work for an art publishing company that needs scans of prints," Dear notes, "so the higher resolution and larger drum of this machine were key selling points." The prepress exec did hedge his bet a little, though, by opting to acquire a pre-owned scanner. "I strongly considered a new machine, but we got a good deal on this unit."

What about the remaining high-end graphic arts scanner manufacturers? How do they see the future shaping up for scanners and scanning services?

Drumming Up Business

"The drum scanner market is a mature market and, as a result, sales activity has been declining for the past few years," concedes Ray McAllister, senior manager at Screen (USA) in Rolling Meadows, IL. It's a classic good news/bad news situation, however, since McAllister says the company actually has seen an increase in customer inquiries because it is the only remaining manufacturer of drum machines among the traditional big three vendors.

A global perspective is needed to truly evaluate the viability of drum scanners, the product manager adds. "If you consider a developing country like China, for example, drum scanner sales are still strong. Therefore, Screen will continue to manufacture both types of high-end scanners: drum and flatbed."

Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A. in Hanover Park, IL, actually beat Heidelberg to the punch in going halfway down the same road. "We didn't make a big public announcement, but we stopped selling our drum scanner line (Celsis) as of about the first of this year," reports Eric Neumann, product manager for color input.

While drum scanner demand has been on the decline, Neumann says flatbed sales in the graphic arts market have been stable to slightly increasing. "And since we only recently started going after the photographic market, we've seen some pretty big jumps there," he adds.

Even though Fujifilm addresses graphic arts and photographic users as two separate markets, Neumann says both support on-going development of the technology. The company's Finescan product lines for the photographic market and its Quattro graphic arts scanner are all built on a common platform, he points out. "The different capabilities, productivity and price points of the products are targeted to the specific markets, though.

"Color management is a key area of enhancement for all of our scanners and an area where we are putting a lot of our focus as a company," Neumann adds.

William Gillooly, marketing manager for input systems at Creo Inc. in Bedford, MA, says his company also recognizes the opportunity for the photographic market to help drive ongoing development and support of scanners. "The digital revolution that has been going on in the printing marketplace over the last 10 years is happening right now in the photo lab business," he points out. "The photography market is becoming very significant for us."

Creo is taking a slightly different approach to the market, Gillooly says. "Philosophically, we believe in giving every tool to every customer, regardless of market or scanner model."

Not Missing a Photo Opp

The scanner manufacturer also is a player in the digital photography arena through its stake in the Leaf Group, but Gillooly doesn't believe the technology is having a big impact on scanning. "There are niche markets, like catalogs, that are working very hard at converting over to a digital photography workflow," he says. "In general, though, there is more of a buzz about digital photography than actual purchases being made."

The marketing manager doesn't think the market for scanners actually has turned all that bleak. "There is more color work being done in the general commercial printing market so, consequently, more scanning is being done," Gillooly says. "At the same time, designers and ad agencies are the number two market for our entry-level machines."

The availability of inexpensive, low- to mid-level scanners has put more color capabilities into the hands of print buyers, agencies and designers, agrees Susan Wittner, marketing director at Agfa Graphic Systems in Ridgefield Park, NJ. "As workflows move 'completely' digital, the need for scans has been greatly reduced," Wittner says.

"We predict within five years most images will be created digitally," adds Deborah Hutcheson, Agfa's U.S. marketing manager for workflow and digital proofing systems. "While the market for scanners is declining, low-cost flatbed scanners continue to improve in capability. Combine those two factors, and vendors find it difficult to justify continuing to support high-end scanners in this market."

According to Wittner, Agfa is not aggressively selling scanners in the U.S., but it continues to do so in other countries. "Selling a scanner is easy, but to do it right, a vendor really needs a scanner specialist team to support buyers," she asserts. For the U.S. market, Wittner says Agfa is focused on using its color management expertise to improve proofing and workflow.

Predictions about the demise of scanning are nothing new, reveals Kjeld Moselund, vice president of product marketing for commercial printing and scanners at Esko-Graphics in Denmark. "Some scanner developers declared the market dead as early as 1990," he points out. "Our scanner sales have held steady, and we're still finding a significant market in first-time buyers, as well as shops looking to expand their existing capabilities."

"We believe the market for scanners will continue to be viable for two to five years at least, and we remain committed to this market," adds Lars Jensen, Esko-Graphics' product manager for scanners. "Of course, as the inventor of copydot scanning, I must admit printers purchase our scanners for copydot applications, as well."

There would appear to be a consensus that the market for scanners, like their design, is flattening out. Even though the end of the product cycle for high-end graphic arts machines may be in sight, it's not quite time to pull the plug.
 

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