Showing the Digital Way--Alex Hamilton
Having just returned from Chicago, home of the Graph Expo trade show, I must now return to the drudgery of daily work. And right now, that means forecasting the future of the prepress industry.
If only prognosticating were easy.
Frankly, it's anything but. The data are clearly contradictory. On the one hand, sales are rising (although profits are not) and all the leading researchers seem to agree that this is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, there looms the impact of the Web, which most pundits predict will severely impact commercial printing's future.
Yet, if navigating one's way through the crowds tromping around McCormick Hall is the yardstick by which to measure the printers' optimism for smearing ink on smashed trees, these folks don't seem too worried. Attendance was strong and many of the major vendors reported selling lots of gear.
Of course, exhibitors showing "direct-to" technologies (direct-to-plate and direct-to-press) were among the busiest booths on the show floor. Interestingly, however, these technologies are still in their infancy, at least in terms of the number of installations and revenues generated.
CTP has now been around for about five years—at least as a viable technology. And while a quick read of this or any other trade journal would suggest that just about every printer on earth has given up on film, that is just not true. According to data presented at the Executive Outlook session just prior to Graph Expo, digitally imaged plates are projected to account for 9 percent of all plates this year, up from 7 percent in 1999. And, while they are on an upward trend, plates imaged on CTP systems are expected to account for less than one-fifth of all plates in 2004.
Although there is a current bottleneck in plate availability, this is not likely to last too long; it just takes manufacturers such as Agfa, Fuji, Kodak Polychrome Graphics, PDI, Presstek and others a while to crank up plate volume.
Perhaps the reason why more printers haven't made the transition is the one that everyone is facing in the graphic arts: money. Depending on your plate consumption (translation: what kind of pricing you get), digital plates cost between 25 percent and 40 percent more than conventional ones. For many printers, this more than accounts for the difference between the combined cost of film and conventional plates. When you add in plate remakes due to human error or AAs, many printers still find it more economical to stick with film-based workflows. Given that there are some very attractive deals on imagesetters and film these days, it may be some time before CTP becomes the dominant method of making plates.
Since I have done more than my fair share of touting CTP as "the way," it's difficult to concede, but the reality is that a printer with good process controls can gain many, if not all, of the financial benefits of CTP in a film-based workflow. Stripping, makeready times, ink and paper waste—all of these can be achieved by using an all-digital workflow to drive a full-format imagesetter. And you can even run poly plates through them for short runs, though this usually requires changes in the processor and in the pressroom.
Another technology that was shown at DRUPA and again here at Graph Expo is on-press imaging. While I think the technology is appropriate for small-format presses such as the Quickmaster DI and the new Ryobi-Presstek two-page press (also being marketed by Xerox as the DocuColor 200 DI-4), I am struggling to understand the logic behind integrating this technology on large sheetfed and web offset presses.
With automatic plate changers and makeready systems, it's currently possible to do complete changeovers in less than 20 minutes on many sheetfed presses, and the same capabilities are now being implemented on webs.
Basically, I have two huge reservations about on-press imaging. First, given the huge investment in this type of equipment, why would anyone want to keep such a piece of capital machinery idle? Second, even if on-press imaging is as fast as an automatic system, why would you want to have a plate-manufacturing system that only works on a single device? For me, I would invest in one or more off-press imaging systems and then feed plates to all of these devices.
As for the customization/variable-data benefits of on-press imaging, it seems difficult to see how this will pan out. The more likely scenario is that traditional offset presses will be retrofitted with ink-jet systems that print tailored messages on the just-printed "shells." And, of course, there are all-digital color presses and software to print totally customized pieces on every sheet.
For printers that don't have the financial wherewithal to go this route, there are more economical alternatives, such as working with firms like DigitalWorks, which offers variable-data processing services using an ASP model; all the printer needs to supply is a monochrome digital printing device.
Of course, no discussion of trade shows would be complete without mentioning the "dotcoms." And they were all there. I moderated a session that was supposed to help printers "sort it all out—maybe," but it is doubtful that anyone left the room with answers to all their questions about how to implement electronic commerce in their organization.
The real question right now is not one of if, but, rather, more difficult questions such as when, with whom and how (financially). Given that many of these firms were launched with dreams of—and venture capital focused on—the IPO pot of gold, we have since hit what some call the "trough of disillusionment." Clearly there is not room for every e-commerce firm currently operating and it is likely that one or more of these companies will not survive the shake-out.
The hard part for printers is determining which firm best fits with their needs and operations, and making sure their choice has the means to make it over the long haul. One thing that does seem clear is that, given most printers' and prepress trade shops' profit margins, a transaction-based pricing model is going to be a tough sell.
Attending trade shows such as Graph Expo helps identify the options for implementing tactics. However, it is no substitute for strategic thinking and cannot replace objective analysis of a business or clear understanding of customers' needs. So I will continue gazing into my crystal ball, hoping for signs that point clearly in the right direction.
About the Author
Alex Hamilton, a former technical editor with Printing Impressions, is president of Computers & Communications Consulting, which specializes in digital technologies for printing and publishing. He can be reached at (215) 247-3461 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.