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Technology  October 1, 1996

Technology: Printers’ friend or foe?

By Dan Whipple

BOULDER — Faster. Better. Riskier. High tech. Fast paced.

It isn’t the B-1 Bomber. It’s the printing industry, which has seen its business change at breakneck speed for the last 25 years with no letup in sight.

Bob Stoker, president and owner of Boulder-based March Press, says, “The technology rages on … It’s a very difficult thing to determine when to jump into technological change.”

Stoker said, “When we first started in, we had hot lead and a Linotype department. That was in 1974. Since then, we’ve gone through phototypesetters. We’ve gone into typesetting primarily being done on a Macintosh, and completely obliterating an entire part of the industry, which used to be typesetting houses … They’re gone now.

“Then came the Macintosh, and that required the graphic artist to have to suddenly become capitalists … It’s been a supreme challenge for the graphic artists to apply the technology to their artistic roots.

“In the ’80s they were selling us the Scitex systems, which were costing upwards of a million dollars,” he said. But improvements in technology made it possible to do nearly everything on a Mac that a Scitex could do, cheaper.

“The problems are the capital investment and the return on investment. As soon as you’re comfortable, there is newer and better and cheaper equipment coming along — before you’ve paid off the old stuff.”

The new dawn in printing is digital presses, a half-million-dollar-a-pop technology that takes a customer’s computer disk creations and prints them straight to paper, without the intermediate steps of negative, film and plate.

The high costs have set up a new battleground between the large printing firms on the one hand, which can more easily finance the new equipment, and the small and medium firms, which have to decide whether this wave of technology is the one to catch — or whether to wait for the inevitable next one. Cheaper. Faster. Better.

Printing has long been a Republican poster child industry. Both in Boulder and in the country at large, it has been dominated by small and medium-sized firms, usually employing fewer than 100 people. These firms have served the wide variety of smaller customers who need a few hundred or a few thousand high-quality copies of their real estate brochure, political flyer, pizza ad. But the new expensive digital presses are geared precisely toward this short-run, high-quality, quick turnaround market.

“The paradox,” says Morgan O’Brien, president of BEI Graphics, Boulder’s largest printer, “is that the marketplace for the digital printers is the one served by smaller printers. But the equipment is very expensive. Some people are going to have trouble supporting it. Somewhat larger printers are moving in and taking some of the business.”

“The big boys are winning these battles,” Stoker said, “but the customer service is taking a backseat from what it was in the 70s. The primary difference is that firms are looking to merge. Many, many different firms are trying to purchase market share by purchasing competitors. Technology is at the forefront of this change. The large firms are able to garner the capital at far more favorable rates.”

The issue is not decided, however. March Press has looked at the digital presses and decided not to wade into those waters yet.

“Digital printing is a wonderful technology seeking a customer,” says Stoker. “The technology is way ahead of the customer demand. It focuses on very short-run business, 500 copies or less. You’re butting heads with high-quality copiers.” At a price as high as $2 a piece, it is the kind of thing that can be used for brochure selling a million-dollar house, or a very small direct mailing, he said.

“It’s a very niche market. It’s miraculous to printers, but they have a hard time figuring out who is going to buy it. The technology is ahead of being able to utilize it, and obsolete by the time you do use it.”

Another Boulder printer, however, is surfing the digital wave. Jim Kinkead, owner of D&K; Printing Inc., says his company has been operating an Indigo digital press, a half million-dollar machine produced by a Dutch firm, for about a year and half now.

“We saw the need for a way to produce a very short run of high quality brochures or catalog sheets,” Kinkead says. “We looked around, and Indigo had the solution we liked. Their resolution and quality was better than anything.

“It eliminates negatives, film work and plating. We can print straight from a computer file. It prints on various weights, including label paper. It’s not limited to a narrow range of paper.

“It’s turned out to be a pretty good decision,” he said.

“Printing has been in the clutch of the digital revolution in the past half dozen years in very earnest measure. The Indigo is limited in sheet size and run length. The cost per sheet doesn’t drop very much with volume, so it has a low-quantity niche.”

With the Indigo press, the plate receives a new brand new image with every revolution of the press, making it very versatile. “We can switch jobs, switch customers on the fly. We don’t have to put a different plate on and do a make-ready to everything in position. We can break in and go to the next job in a matter of minutes.”

The cost is relatively high, though. “For an 11-by-17, four-color, two sides, you’re looking at $1.50 to $2 per sheet after the press is up and running,” he said.

Kinkead faced and dealt with the marketing problems that Stoker anticipated for the digital presses. “It sure wasn’t a shoo-in,” Kinkead said, “It’s something that we’ve had to market pretty hard.” But they found outlets in ad reprints, binder covers, real estate flyers, and small-run annual reports. “Graphics standards manuals have been pretty good for us, where a company will need to put out 150, 32-page, high-quality graphics standards manuals. We can customize a run — run covers for different regions for a sales catalog without the need for new plates. Just by downloading a new file, we can customize a job.” Phone cards have been a good market, as well, since the press can number the cards sequentially with each revolution.

But, he admits, “The market has not been one that people were lined up taking a number so they could buy. It’s a lot easier to sell than it was a year and a half ago. Being on the bleeding edge has been a little interesting, on occasion.”

Another segment of the digital printing market has been seized by companies like Boulder’s Graphic Dimensions, which does large-format poster-style work digitally. Scott Firstenberg, company owner/partner, said that his technology is considerably cheaper than the Indigo-style press, with start-up costs on the order of $100,000.

The technology developed out of the CAD market, which originally was used to produce architectural drawing and schematics. “This is different,” Firstenberg says, “in that it is strictly for large-format printing jobs. We print on 50-inch rolls of paper, but it’s more economic.” Customers include trade show graphics, short-run posters, signs, banners, photographic enlargements and vehicle graphics. Some versions of the technology also are used to produce billboard art. “I’ve seen data that the output alone from these devices will be a $5.8 billion industry by 1998.”

One thing that everyone in the business agrees on is that, because of the advances in technology, customers expect much quicker turnaround of their jobs than before.

Kinkead says, “Lead times on all printing jobs have shortened dramatically in the last few years. It’s easier for a designer to make changes up to the last minute because they are working off a computer file instead of an art board. They push their deadline to the limit, which shortens our time to get it out. So it’s a little more hectic than it used to be. With the Indigo, we’re talking 24-hour turnaround. We’ve Fed-exed the printing industry.”

BEI’s O’Brien adds, “From a customer’s standpoint, they have a lot of opportunity. They can do things that they had to rely on outsider for before. They can save money and shorten the turnaround.

“They need a technical expertise that they didn’t have previously. That has sometimes hurt them when they send in their disks that they’ve worked so hard on, and they haven’t included some important piece … Educating the customer has become a bigger part of the job.”

But this type of change seems permanent. “Over the past three years,” he said, “We’ve gone from about 10 percent disk supplied to about 85 percent disk supplied. That’s completely changed. There is very little barrier to entry. Anybody with a Mac can do it.”

The technological advances have meant radical changes for many portions of the printing business. Graphic artists and photographers are being forced to adapt to the changes. Some segments of the business may be disappearing. Color shops, for instance, may go the way of hot type.

Stoker is cautiously optimistic about the future. “All of us are running fairly scared knowing if we don’t keep up we probably won’t exist.

“I think there will be a big backlash in favor of some artistic qualities. The whole point of advertising is to make yourself stand out in the marketplace.

“Realistically, it comes down to the fact that customer service and one-to-one relationships are always valued. You always need the guy who knows more than you do to help you out.

“The printers are the local guys who you’ve been working with for 20 years. It’s a very complicated arrangement. Printing doesn’t really lend itself that well to a manufacturing process. It is heavier on the service side. You need a lot of advice, a lot of hand holding in this business.”

By Dan Whipple

BOULDER — Faster. Better. Riskier. High tech. Fast paced.

It isn’t the B-1 Bomber. It’s the printing industry, which has seen its business change at breakneck speed for the last 25 years with no letup in sight.

Bob Stoker, president and owner of Boulder-based March Press, says, “The technology rages on … It’s a very difficult thing to determine when to jump into technological change.”

Stoker said, “When we first started in, we had hot lead and a Linotype department. That was in 1974. Since then, we’ve gone through phototypesetters. We’ve gone into typesetting primarily being done on a Macintosh, and…

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