Friday, February 15, 2008

Printers on the run

Printing used to be an art where patience was premium. Creating the plates for a book required years to make all the type. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the moveable metal type, the bar was lowered and more artisans were able to enter this trade. In fact, Gutenberg was really in the font business and allowed entrepreneurs to enter the business without needing a large staff of type makers. Consequently, competition became fierce.

Fortunately, some 50 years later Luca Pacioli invented the double-entry accounting system, which brought with it the new printing application of business forms. About at the same time Aldus Manutius invented publishing, and a vibrant economy with the expanded literacy of the population drove demand for printed pieces, keeping a large number of presses busy.

As Marshall McLuhan wrote, instead of saving work, labor-saving devices permit everybody to do their own work, i.e., it lowers the entry bar. For printers this has always entailed two things: improve the workflow so that rush jobs with special requirements can be handled efficiently, and move up in the value chain to provide integrated services.

Running a press is only the manufacturing part of the business. Understanding the customer means attracting more business and submitting proposals that offer more value to the customer and higher profits for the printer. Next is scheduling the jobs so that employees and equipment are always busy and cost is kept down. Finally, the finishing and fulfillment areas have to be organized for an encumbered workflow.

Workflow efficiency

One feature where a printer can achieve higher returns through mastering a complex workflow is color. Engraved playing cards were a gold mine, especially when a printer was able to print color with fine detail. When in 1797 Alois Senefelder invented lithography, it took only 19 years until Godefroy Engelmann invented chromolithography using 6 to 19 partial colors, but sometimes printing with 24 and even 30 colors.

It took a long time to invent all the technologies to achieve the next big goal, namely separated color: color filters, halftone screening, line screen, crossline screen, and in 1910 finally panchromatic film. However, in mechanical printing color remained difficult and time consuming, because it required color correction through masking, which was more an art than a technology.

The turnaround came only in 1948 when Arthur C. Hardy and F.L. Wurzburg, Jr., invented the scanner, which used the Neugebauer equations to determine the color correction in a single step. We started talking about electronic printing, because the mechanical color separation was replaced with an electronic circuit.

Yet, the quest of making the workflow more efficient had not abated. Actually, the workflow was still the same, with all the problems like pasting a separation on the wrong form in the stripping room, or the film emulsion side up instead of down.

It was only with the advent of the digital press, that a radically new and more efficient workflow was possible. Today images enter the workflow already in digital form, with all the necessary metadata to process it, such as an ICC profile and IPTC information. All devices in the workflow are carefully characterized and calibrated. A color management system handles the device's various ICC profiles and applies the necessary color transformations.

HP has been involved from the beginning in the standardization that led to the ICC profiles, and as a leader in the Consortium has acquired considerable expertise in the domain. We not only offer a range of digital presses, but also a range of proof printers covering the gamut of both digital and analog presses.

Indeed, today an important part of printers is managing their customer’s expectations. McLuhan’s quote above entails that copy creators are no longer skilled editors, but often amateurs, who use the wrong tools, like Word or even PowerPoint instead of QuarkXPress or InDesign. Even worse, they may use a photo printer with glossy media and a dozen inks to create what they believe to be a “proof.”

In such situations, the first step is to create a true proof print for the customer — if necessary remotely at the customer’s location. Today customers also expect to be able to submit distributed print jobs, where shorter runs are printed closer to the end-user to save on transport costs.

At HP we have solved all these problems and no matter whether you have an ICC-based workflow or offer your customers a GRACoL workflow, we have the right resolution to solve the technical details for you, so you can focus on making your customer happy.

Integrated services

The second route to success is to work up in the value chain. Labor saving devices permit also the printer to perform services that are more valuable. For example, in the last twenty years the pre-press houses have disappeared, with printers taking over their place.

Often printers also employ graphic artists that help customers convert a piece created with office tools in a piece with proper optical spacing, ligatures, kerning, etc. In addition, graphic elements can be redrawn with more appropriate tools, with well-chosen line weights, mitering, knock-out, and trapping. Often it is not just the esthetical appearance of the piece, but also ripping efficiency, like when transparency is flattened out.

All this results in increasingly complex pre-flight scenarios. At HP we have deep XML experience that allows us to create workflow management tools with smart pre-flight analysis tools that can automatically sort through the endless pages of errors and warnings to resolve all issues, such as color transformations, locating professional fonts, and finding suitable resolution images.

Today printers are climbing further up in the value chain by maintaining their own address lists and renting them to their customers, sometimes even managing the feedback loops from the cards or Internet responses of the end-user.

Managing address lists evolves to targeted marketing, where the address list contains sufficient demographic data to allow narrowing the recipients of a mailing to those more likely to respond. Data-mining is becoming more and more a valuable tool for targeted marketing.

From there is it a simple step to variable data printing, where each piece is customized to the recipient. For example, the advertisements in a magazine or newsletter can contain the actual address of an outlet geographically close to the recipient’s home address.

Climbing up in the value chain can also mean that the printer no longer requires a PDF file from the customer, but can instead tap directly into the SQL database of the customer’s Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system.

This is where HP is different from the other press manufacturers. Indeed, HP is not only one of the most prominent press manufacturers; HP is also the largest IT company. HP not only provides the datacenters required to fulfill these complex high value print jobs, but also the consulting services necessary to implement them.

Covering the full gamut from proof printers and digital presses to datacenters, IT services, networking, and consulting, HP is in the unique situation of being able to provide integrated solutions that allow today’s printers to succeed in the modern landscape of global competition. With HP, printers can focus on a single vendor and concentrate on what they do best, instead of having to juggle a disparate number of vendors.