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ONLINE INTERFACES -- Printers Set Sites on Clients

February 2005
BY MARK SMITH

Technology Editor

For better or for worse, and maybe a little of both, self-service has become the model of business efficiency in the modern world. Vending machines aside, the trend first took hold at the gas pump, then led to ATMs popping up like weeds and now is spreading to the grocery store checkout line.

Online interfaces to customers are the printing industry's latest take on the self-service trend. The basic concept is not new, but the way printers are now executing it differs from the wave of eProduction/eCommerce ASP ventures that enveloped the graphic arts during the dotcom bubble.

A key difference is that these solutions are being rolled out by individual printers using infrastructures they control. Those at the forefront are moving beyond offering bits and pieces—such as simply supporting online file submission or even proofing and preflighting—to developing a comprehensive and unified strategy for interacting with clients online.

It comes as no surprise that some of the industry's largest companies are leading the way, as a couple of recent headlines attest. Cenveo launched eCENergy, which it describes as a Web portal providing access to a suite of "eSolutions" designed to automate and streamline transactions with customers.

As part of its strategy, Quad/Graphics become a minority shareholder in Dutch workflow vendor Van Gennep—M.A.C.

It's not just the industry behemoths that have the vision and wherewithal to be on the leading (not bleeding) edge of this trend, however. While they don't precisely represent opposite ends of the industry spectrum, as evidence consider the experiences of Brown Printing in Waseca, MN, (which reported sales of $400 million in 2004) and Rapid Press in Tallahassee, FL, (which is building toward $5 million in sales).

Lee Edberg is the central premedia manager within the b.direct workflow group of Brown Printing. The group falls under the organization's IT department and is responsible for setting standards and driving technology across its three divisions. That makes Edberg one of the point people for Brown's online strategy.

The company is striving to provide customers a "picture window" into its production environment, he says. Various technologies are being deployed throughout the process to provide the view, but customers will access it all—some as an option on a fee basis—through personal, secure Web portals.

Not all access will be equal for another reason, Edberg notes. Premedia/prepress operations require a higher level of customer interaction than other stages of production, he adds.
 

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