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Software Is Printing Power


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By:  Nick Howard  |  Date: March 2015  |  Contact the Author

For over 500 years, since the first bible was printed mechanically and in multiplicity, the industry we call Print has been one of exclusiveness and necessity. Letterpress printers, for example, grew their businesses by what inventory of fonts they had, by varieties of type styles and sizes, choice of matrices and pure quantity. If these printers also had the means to make electros and cuts, or perhaps the newest hot-metal-casting equipment, they could prosper simply by providing more choice in style and product. Large font stockpiles often meant winning a job based on greater firepower alone. This environment of hardware strength flourished through the 1980s and 90s as heavy-iron offset presses flooded the printing world.

Printing power, however, is certainily no longer about stockpiling fonts, nor is it commonly determined by the size of an offset pressroom or its variety of printing presses. To drive this point home, even today’s reemerging letterpress industry can produce work without one drawer of type. Relief plates, imaged on CTP devices are used for producing large quantities of work with instant layout and thousands of available font designs. Today’s printing position is not about what hardware can reproduce, but rather what software can create or drive.

Conventional litho print is expensive. It does not update itself and requires constant raw-material input. For an application-based example of this changing environment, consider the recent resurgence of print catalogues being produced by large online retailers. These companies, however, will ultimatley turn toward their own New Media platforms for engagement. It is only a matter of time.

The Globe & Mail’s Susan Krashinsky recently reported that marketers too are turning away from traditional media. Krashinsky was referring to a late-2014 Ipsos Reid research poll of roughly 3,000 marketers and ad agencies (see Figure 1). The poll results specifically mention the continued downward interest in print as a tool for the marketers. Ipsos Reid does caution that the figures do not provide direct proof of where the money is shifting, but explains the results do “reflect a sentiment in the marketing community about where money should be spent.”

Economic Modeling Specialists Intl. and Career- Builder produced a study of projected high-skill occupations growth to 2017. Of the various positions, software developers and computer systems analysts are expected to grow at a 11 percent rate from 2014. Marketing specialists and research analysts could see the highest growth at 13 percent. This speaks again of the New Media position, turning toward virtual and direct- to-consumer tools. Print, as expected, is not even on the list.

Digital printing machinery may offer an extension to the plight of the traditional printing press, but not a solution. The digital platform, as it continuously matures, will provide more variable data, higher quality (closer to lithography) and lower costs due to shorter run lengths and less skilled operator involvement. But this new technology is not cheap and binds the print communications industry into its continued draconian supply network. Everything from special inks and substrates, toners and maintenance supplies need to be purchased – often through a click-charge model – directly from the manufacturer. After all, consumables are the ultimate repeating source of revenue for vendors in the existing supply chain.

Many well established printing businesses that cannot generate enough sales revenue from software, as opposed to their hardware, will secede from print altogether. Litho press makers will not be any better off. A new 40-inch, 6-colour press with standard automation sells for between $1.8 and $2.2 million. More commercial printers seeking to update their presses will do so either through the used market, where costs run between a half and two-thirds the price of new machine, or continue on with whatever hardware is already on their shop floor.

The latter is generally what is happening out in today’s market, as it becomes more difficult to solve the math on completely new printing equipment. Even though there have been engineering strides in the last five years, most presses are still essentially built on the same platform. In the UK and Europe there are many long perfectors and these machines come to market with enormous impression counts. Some have in excess of 350-million impressions. Many in the UK are 10- and 12-colour machines. Of all the platforms, the long perfector as a used machine has suffered the most in value retrenchment. Few buyers exist even though these machines are replaced with new ones. This sort of situation is right out of the digital platform and copier business: Good and needed when new, a boat anchor when used. The investment in software yields a much more palatable return than hardware in today’s printing environment.

Peter Burns, VP and Research Director of the firm Forrester Research, comments: “The pressure is on to shift the focus to software and related business technology services, which is where customers, investors and partners see greater opportunity and value. Nobody digitally disrupts by building multibillion-dollar processor fabs any more. What companies need to do is differentiate on software that improves business technology.”

The printing industry continues to have its bright spots, too. Because of the continued simplicity of printing a job and (in a large amount of cases) little to no in-house preventative maintenance expenses, some printers are doing fine as they either offer more products or do the work for less. One particular new development is the tendency of not disclosing new machinery purchases. I recently had a conversation with two executives of a very large press manufacturer. Quite surprisingly, I learned of at least 15 very large installations that had not even made the news. Not telling the industry about two recent 10-colour press installs and about 13 other major placements was quite a surprise to me. “Some customers just won’t allow us to share this information,” said one of the executives. “I wish we could.”

Traditional print manufacturing has been turned on its ear. Perhaps we have taken the lithographic press as far is it can go. Litho is made for large runs at low cost. Digital is not. Landa and the new platforms he hopes to deliver soon will be very expensive and come with boiler plate growing pains. This is a worry for an industry that is saddled with low profit margins and little new growth. However, digital is the future for print.

Just as Apple took credit for Xerox PARC’s Graphical User Interface and Microsoft snared QDOS (Quick & Dirty Operating System) from Tim Patterson, being first with a new technology will mean little if people do not know how to implement it. New technologies being developed today can provide many powerful tools needed to move quickly from massive mainframe printing presses to smaller more adaptable platforms. No longer can we measure our worth by what hardware we have.

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