Relationships

May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.

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Expose’

May 20, 2009

The phrase that kept coming to mind was “showin’ tail,” which can be defined as either the southern pronunciation of that age old and established grammar school activity where every student brings a frog or a doll or a younger sibling to talk about; or the presumably accidental revelation of the anterior part of the anatomy.

This one’s liable to get Poor Richard into big trouble. It’s not just that I’m making fun of a customer (again), but this time it’s a church. Worse, it’s my church.  I’ve resisted writing this short entry for a couple of weeks now and I guess I could resist some more. Or, I could use Flip Wilson’s excuse, “The devil made me do it!”

The church that beautiful wife and I attend is a small town congregation. It is a friendly, loving group of folks for the most part, with the occasional unpresentable member Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12. Like many small congregations, there are many folks there who “do church” on Sunday, a few who are really into church work, and some who really want to find out where God is working and join in.  It’s the last group that I’m probably going to be in the biggest trouble with, because what I’m writing about is their undertaking.

The undertaking is undeniably good.  It is Celebrate Recovery, which started as a ministry for those suffering with addictions at Saddleback Church. There has been a Celebrate Recovery program in Warner Robins, a larger city to the north of Perry where I live, but nothing in south Houston County, despite the fact that Perry is indeed the center of both the known and unknown universe.

Problem PostcardEnough rambling . . . after all, it should have been a simple enough task.  Poor Richard was asked to print and mail a postcard advertising the new ministry.  All well and good . . . at least until the art came in.  The photo of an obviously distressed woman weeping in front of a closed door was effective. It conveyed a message of desperation and would perhaps lead someone in that state to search for an answer beyond themselves.

But one aspect of the photo was just a bit distracting. The woman pictured is wearing a nightshirt and is sitting with her legs propped at an angle.  Technically speaking, she isn’t actually “showin’ tail,” but to continue in Southern vernacular, “she purty near is.”

I actually don’t know where the photo and concept came from. It’s possible that it could have been supplied by Saddleback Church as part of the promotional package for Celebrate Recovery.  If so, maybe the definition of “nearly nekkid” is different in Rancho Chimichanga, California or wherever it is that the megachurch is located. It is also possible that one of the ladies at our church found the photo and thought it appropriate.  Not having a depraved male mind, I suppose they could have missed the distracting part.

It really doesn’t matter much . . . Poor Richard’s never been much on printing photos of scantily clad women.  Not that we haven’t been asked. I’ve turned down a calendar job or two over the years and an exotic dancer once threatened to sue me for not printing postcards featuring her topless image.  (She really got angry when I told her that she looked better with her clothes on).  But I digress . . . this one just didn’t pass the propriety test, especially coming from my church.

I emailed the lady who had sent the art. “Approved by the pastor,” came the response.  Unfortunately, the pastor was out of town for a week and the postcard needed to hit the USPS before his return. I emailed a couple of respected leaders in the church. They agreed with me, but didn’t offer much in the way of suggestions.

Many of Poor Richard’s readers will understand that the way decisions are made in churches is unpredictable and occasionally unfathomable. Frequently, the cardinal rule of ecclesiastical decision-making is not to decide at all. So, after much prayer, some good advice and with godly wisdom and great courage; Poor Richard decided to sit on the project until the pastor returned.

What Poor Richard lacked  was only a bit of common sense. Fortuitously, the pastor brought some of that back with him from vacation.

“Put the church logo over her bottom,” was the essence of his short email response.

“Duh . . .” thought Poor Richard.

We did and the postcard was in the mail and not “showin’ tail.”


Neither Rain Nor Sleet, nor ?

May 3, 2009

A Summer Sale.

That’s what the subject line of the email stated.  I nearly clicked the junk button, but a quick glance at the sender held my attention.  DMMAdvisory.  Wait a minute, that’s the U.S. Post Office.  They don’t have summer sales . . . what’s up here?

mad-letterDMMAdvisory is the USPS email link to keep mailers informed about all sorts of goings on at the Postal Service.  The DMM is the domestic mail manual.  Actually, I think it’s the domestic mail manuals . . . there’s a bunch of them (if you’re curious, you can look at ’em here).  Usually, the DMMAdvisory is all about new rules that are going to be issued because they’ll make the USPS more efficient or rescinded because even though the USPS will be more efficient, everyone else will be less efficient.  The Advisories also talk a lot about Intelligent Barcodes, Move Updates, and services like PostalOne!, the online portal where mailers like AlphaGraphics are supposed to enter in all of their mailing data to make the USPS more efficient.  And we’ll be glad to do it, too . . . just as soon as the USPS figures out how to make the website work.

I’ve never seen a DMMAdvisory that talked about a summer sale. I got kind of excited about that, thinking maybe this was something we could use to promote mailing services. So I clicked on the link to find out about it. What I got was a 32 page .pdf document.  The USPS doesn’t advertise a sale, you understand, they file a Notice with the Postal Regulatory Commission. That kind of advertising wouldn’t get results for the rest of us, but apparently it works for the USPS.

Poor Richard, feeling brave, waded into the document. The first important fact I discovered is that Standard Mail is an important investment for American business and that it is incumbent upon the USPS to encourage American businesses to invest:

The current state of the economy has forced businesses, particularly Postal Service customers, to pull back on important investments necessary for ensuring their continued prosperity. The precipitous decline in the use of Standard Mail for marketing products and services is an illustrative example of the unwanted choices many postal customers have had to make because of the economy. The Postal Service believes it can, and should, find ways to help its customers increase their use of mail during these challenging economic times (pp. 1 -2).

On p. 3, Poor Richard discovers that the sale will run from July 1 to September 30.  A 30% discount for 3 months, that’s some sale! Oops, not so fast . . .here’s a catch on p.4:

The “Summer Sale” program will run from July 1, 2009, through September 30, 2009, and will provide a 30 percent rebate to eligible mailers on Standard Mail letters and flats volume above a mailer-specific threshold. The threshold is calculated by taking the percentage change between a mailer’s postal fiscal year-to-date (October 2008 through March 2009) volume and the volume mailed in the same period last year, and applying that percentage to the volume the mailer mailed between July 1, 2008,
and September 30, 2008.

So, the deal’s not so sweet.  The 30% discount only applies to the increase of mail volume in relation to the ratio of last year’s to this year’s mailings from October to March, factoring in of course the projected daily volume of pork belly contracts in the same period and the average shoe size of a U.S. mail carrier.

Reading on, Poor Richard discovers another hitch:

Qualifying mailers must be able to demonstrate volume of at least one million Standard Mail letters and flats, between October 1, 2007, and March 31, 2008, for one or more permit imprint advance deposit account(s), precanceled stamp permit(s), or postage meter permit(s).

This is looking less like a sale to Poor Richard. One million Standard Mail letters effectively rules out 100% of my customers. In fact, it probably rules out 99.9% of the mailers in South Georgia. And reading further:

Mail service providers (MSPs) are not eligible for the program.

It also rules out mail service providers, like AlphaGraphics; who if they might be large enough to aggregate and mail a million pieces of mail or so for their  customers and wanted to promote mailing services and pass along a little discount, would not be eligible to participate.

“Not a sale at all,” thinks Poor Richard.

The next couple of pages communicate the Postal Service’s intent to contact eligible mailers by letter and then direct them to a website to register to participate in the summer sale. The projected additional revenue for the USPS from the sale is between $38 and $95 million with costs at around $1 million to administer the Summer Sale.  A respectable projection of return, but qualified with this statement:

In particular, an overestimate of the additional volume generated by the incentive or an underestimate of the administrative effort required could unfavorably affect expected financial performance. (p.7)

Unexpected costs related to the malfunction of the response website are also presumably not included. The remaining 23 pages of the .pdf file encompass further justifications of the US Postal Service’s desire to try a “sale,” the regulatory provisions which allow them to do so, why the Postal Regulatory Commission should approve the request, and 17 pages of appendices that detail applicable postal rates, projections on pork belly contracts and historical data pertaining to the average shoe size of a US Postal Service Mail Carrier.

Poor Richard might humbly suggest that if Standard Mail is indeed in “precipitous decline” (and I have no doubt that it is), this proposal is unlikely to rectify the situation. I might also point out that a rate increase is scheduled for May 11 that will presumably do little to reverse the decline or encourage postal service customers to “invest in their continued prosperity” through a return to conventional mail.

Mail volume, like print volume, is decreasing; but there remains a need and demand for both services, at least in the near term. Mail has come under competitive pressure since the introduction of the telegraph, but in today’s communications environment, the pressures on both mail and print are extreme.  Barring a collapse of the Internet, mail and print volumes will continue to decrease. That said, there are still applications where printed mail is the best solution. Direct mail is demonstrably more effective with the 45 and over age group (dinosaurs like me, irrespective of Facebook enrollment). E-mail blasts will never have the impact of a well-written letter, especially if it is personalized.  Even “junk mail,” because it is tangible, has measurably justifiable place in some marketing campaigns.

Because the cost to disseminate printed mail is  higher than electronic communications, it is necessary to justify its value.  Specifically, this can be measured as ROI (return on investment) in any campaign.  It is also important to make it easier for customers to access and understand both printing and mailing. Poor Richard thinks that the US Postal Service is not succeeding in this area. Recent changes to the postal code (Move updates and the IM barcode) have been cumbersome to implement, difficult for mail service providers to understand, and completely inscrutable to our customers.  These changes have not really provoked anger among USPS customers, because they expect this kind of clumsiness, but the customers are very definitely not encouraged to increase their volume of mailing.

Perhaps the USPS should consider doing something proactive for their customers to encourage them to continue to consider mail as a viable means of communication.  Do you think a sale would work?


Buttering the Bread on Both Sides

February 22, 2009

It’s happened again . . . same story, but a little different this time. In July 2007, Adobe, with indeterminate brilliance, decided that it would be advantageous to link the print dialogue in Acrobat directly to FedEx/Kinko’s (see Poor Richard’s post On Which Side is the Bread Buttered?). The rest of the industry screamed and threatened and Adobe backed down.

This time around, the culprit is Hewlett Packard (HP), who on January 27 introduced a new web-to-print site called MarketSplash (see HP’s press release).  As a standalone site, MarketSplash really doesn’t represent much in the way of an additional threat to brick and mortar printers (like us), who are already under so much pressure that one more straw on the camel’s back will hardly matter. The site will go head-to-head with VistaPrint, the web-to-print leader and compete very well. In fact, with some creative marketing from HP, MarketSplash could blow VistaPrint out of the water.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to explore.  MarketSplash, like VistaPrint, is template driven. And, like many/most of the online printing sites, business cards are free.  So Poor Richard decided to order some. I found a template that I liked, featuring Albert Einstein; and created a business card for a new company I had conceived only 30 seconds before, the Incomprehensible Services Company.  Poor Richard, needing a title, is now the Chief Conspirator of Incomprehensible Services.

I was actually impressed by the design template.  The default font sizes were a little small, but the design tools offered enough for customization of a rudimentary layout. Joe Consumer will be able to operate this design tool without getting himself into too much trouble.  I was also generally impressed by the quality of the layouts that were featured. A proof is approved online. The free cards are all double sided, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the back.  Here’s a screenshot of the proof page . . . I hope HP doesn’t mind.  (If you do, let me know and I’ll zap the image.)

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

The quality of design can be attributed to another HP acquisition, a company called LogoWorks. Purchased by HP in 2007, LogoWorks offers inexpensive design work online.  Like MarketSplash, LogoWorks targets small businesses who are looking for a low cost alternative to ad agencies and freelance designers. Custom design from LogoWorks is also included as an option on the MarketSplash site.

After reading this far, you may be asking, “So, where’s the problem?”

There are a couple:

  • First, even though HP is not the first to offer a web-to-print site with low prices, they are going into competition with part of their customer base. This is admittedly a weak argument because HP’s desktop color printers were among the first technological developments to erode a segment of conventional printers’ business. (Home offices and the smallest of businesses were the first to go to self-printed business cards and letterhead).
  • Like Adobe, HP picked the wrong partner. They have teamed with Staples Office Supply for overnight delivery of product. While the geographic distribution of Staples’ centers certainly makes sense, the assumption that they will have the capability of quickly producing and delivering a quality product is open to question. To HP’s credit, they are open to “co-branding and licensing of the MarketSplash platform” to other retailers.  Poor Richard has no clue what this actually means.

Conventional printers may re-evaluate our purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to high end digital presses. HP has been the market leader with their Indigo line.  The quality and capabilities of these machines are impressive and many printers the size of our AlphaGraphics (including us) had planned to migrate to this machine as leases for our existing digital equipment run out. HP also has a strong presence in the wide format arena. But HP does not have the market share in our industry that Adobe Systems has. Also, unlike Adobe’s software, there are good alternatives to the HP products. HP’s decision falls squarely into the category of “calculated risk,” and the potential return may well outweigh the consequences from agitating bothersome printers like us.

Can brick and mortar printshops compete? The answer unfortunately is “yes” and “no.” If it’s a question of price, the answer is a definite maybe.  We won’t be giving away business cards, and we’re really not interested in selling 100 of anything for $39.95, but by the time you add freight some of the other items are not so cheap. The online printers convey the impression of low price, though, and it is sheer folly to say that the web printers have not eroded the low end of the customer base.

Repeat letterhead and envelope orders from small companies were profitable “bread and butter” business when our AlphaGraphics started. That business has virtually disappeared as correspondence has gone online and as a result of the VistaPrint – type alternatives. Freelance designers also once represented a good base of business for postcards and flyers. They began funneling these products to gang run printers a few years ago, similarly attracted by cheap pricing (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor). It is not just a little ironic that LogoWorks and MarketSplash actually represent direct competition to the freelance market segment, though the freelancers themselves may not realize it.

Especially in this economy, conventional printing companies are competing for a larger share of a rapidly shrinking pie. Many of us will not survive. Most of us are hanging on by our teeth and clawing with our fingernails. For those of us who will fight through these rapidly changing times, it will mean finding new ways of doing business, new products and services, and working harder and more closely with the customers we have left.  Local companies have the advantage of proximity, of reacting quickly to customer needs, and the ability to provide expertise to those who still value it.  Poor Richard thinks (hopes) that the ability to survive and eventually succeed again will still be based on that value proposition.

It will be another 6 or 7 days before Poor Richard receives the cards for his imaginary venture. They’ll be shipped by an unnamed ground transportation company. The order represented a $13.95 value, charges graciously waived by MarketSplash, and my cards will be printed on a medium matte paper. I’m anxious to see what that is, too. Be assured that another post will follow!

Postscript

Got the cards about five business days later.  They came Express Mail (USPS). The printing quality was good, but not exceptional. Digital color on an 80# Matte cover, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the reverse side. The freebies presume that more profitable orders for other items will follow from satisfied customers who have received their wonderful free business cards. I’m sure that that is a valid assumption, but I wonder where the breakeven number falls.

Even with streamlined ordering, there is a real cost to print, cut, package and ship the stupid things.  I’d figure between $10 and $15/set in a really efficient production operation.  If one in four customers actually order another item, that’s $40-$60 in additional sales required before a margin is achieved.  A low volume business model must turn high volumes to make a profit. This is  a combination traditionally not compatible to a specialized and detailed business like printing.

Poor Richard confesses that this may be the business model for the times we’re in.  It’s not a model that will be conducive to the kind of business that good local printers have traditionally done. I regret that and I think that one day the customer’s we’ve lost may regret it too.


Possessed

December 15, 2008

My printshop is possessed by demons and I’ve been given the job from Hell.

Aside from that, things are going astoundingly well.

devilLet me preface this post with a simple statement of faith. I know that God is still in control and I am firmly convinced that he has a sense of humor. I will not sit in the ashheap in sackcloth and bemoan the situation, because it really is too ridiculous to be serious.

I’ll try to chart the sequence of events.  I think it began when Debra, the service tech who works on our nearly palindromatic digital color machine (begins and ends with an X) was given a week’s vacation by her nearly palindromatic company.  Good for Debra, bad for AlphaGraphics. The nearly palindromatic machine kicked out and backup was sent in.  At 10 am on day one, he had been trained to repair the machine and was fully confident. At 7 pm on day one, he was missing parts and had patched the machine well enough for us to run some critical jobs. At 9:30 am on day two, we had run one critical job and the X___X digital color machine had melted down. Backup showed again on day 3, this time with tenacity, a cell phone, and a full day’s supply of cigarettes. Day 3 and Day 4 went by and backup gave up completely.  Poor Richard calls for reinforcements from the big city.  They show up on Day 5 and we’re up and running . . .

BUT: We’re printing in bright reds and bright blues.

Upstairs . . . the fans won’t go off on the machine that is manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet.  The fans are a good thing . . . they cool down the ultraviolent lamps that make the ink stick to whatever it is that you’re running through the machine. It doesn’t take 2 hours for the lamps to cool. Mike, who runs the machine upstairs, decides that two hours is indeed excessive and perhaps he should turn the machine off and on to see if it will reset. He is successful at turning the machine off.

We have a good customer, who, like all of the rest of our good customers, is trying to squeeze blood from turnips. We’ve missed a couple of jobs, but she’s sent us this one. It’s a booklet . . . all ready in Microsoft Publisher. She needs 75 of them. All of the photos and none of the fonts are embedded in the file.  It’s ginormous . . . we could actually see the lump coming over the phone lines as we downloaded it. It has 6,374 photos compressed into 24 pages.  All were taken with the camera in my cell phone and they’re all in RGB mode. She needs 75 books in color and she won’t understand it if we charge her to fix the file. Nor is she particularly excited about fixing the file herself.

Fast forward from last week to today . . . Jamaal, my remaining pressman, is totally unflappable.  What that means is that he can’t be flapped. I am convinced that he could smile through the devastation of a hurricane or the horrors of nuclear war. At 1 PM he prepares our envelope press for a short run of remittance envelopes. Printing these envelopes requires a special feeder. It is a fairly cantankerous beast on a good day. Today, the envelope press will not run . . . it is putting ink where paper should go and paper where ink should go.  Jamaal switches the envelope feeder to another press. It will not feed.  Poor Richard tries to help and makes matters worse . . . much worse. By 4:30, Jamaal is flapped . . . he has managed to accomplish 45 minutes of work in 3.5 hours.

Upstairs, a technician has arrived to fix the machine manufactured by the company whose initials begin with the 8th and 16th letters of the alphabet.  He is fortified with 3 large boxes of parts sent by that company . . . all of the circuitboards needed to fix a wide format printer or put a man on the moon. None of them are working.  Poor Richard is praying that his customers will be patient. Didn’t it take about 10 years after Kennedy’s speech before Neal Armstrong actually played golf on the moon?

Debra has returned from vacation! Hallelujah!  The booklet from hell is still printing in bright reds and blues! Not Hallelujah!

If there is one thing that I have learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that sometimes the best solution is just to go home. The kids have band concerts tonight. What could be better than that?

God is good. Isn’t life grand?


Finesse it with a sledgehammer

August 22, 2008

It’s difficult to describe the exact series of sounds. It started as the usual “kerklunk” rhythm, uniform and predictable as the books are stitched, folded and trimmed. Moments later, the sound had altered. Now a “kerflam,” there was a slight metallic echo after each cycle. An undertone swelled up from deep in the bowels of the machine; a grey and forbidding rumbling foreshadowing some dire sequence of events. With a crescendo and a roar the machine was momentarily quiet, then emitted a last staccato series of clicks a loud metallic “klang!” and fell silent.

I knew we were pushing the limit. The book we were working on had started as 36 pages, well within the capabilities of our trusty bookletmaker. But in a short week it had grown to 68 pages of gloss text and a cover . . . just a little more than the machine is actually rated to do. The hardy machine actually made it through about 600 books before the audible complaints began. It spit out another 30 or so in its death throes, leaving us only 370 to put together by hand at 5:00 on Thursday, for an event that was to take place the next morning.

Upstairs, the wide format printer was spewing cyan ink in places that it was not intended to spew. The company that manufactured this machine has recently been purchased by a company whose initials are comprised of the eighth and sixteenth letters of the alphabet. I think they’re having some difficulties digesting their acquisition. I’m tempted to say that the machine is a lemon, but every moving part in the thing has been replaced so it seems more likely that the whole concept is flawed and the new manufacturer doesn’t have a clue how to fix it.

The technician who comes to make repair attempts is a very nice fellow who sincerely tries his best to keep us running. In Poor Richard’s experience, there are two kinds of technicians. The first is tidy, organized and efficient. Bob Jordan, who works on our presses, falls into this category. He has magnetic hands . . . the right tool always just seems to be there.

The tech for the wide format machine is of the second variety. Brian calls him Pigpen and begins humming the theme from Peanuts (Linus and Lucy) as he approaches the door. You can see the dustcloud from 100 yards away. He is neither efficient nor organized. Tools and screws vanish in his presence. Seemingly minor repairs can lead to catastrophe and major component failures.

In this case, it was disaster in absentia. Printheads had been replaced the previous week, leading to vacuum problems, leading to a new part which we installed, leading to more extreme vacuum problems, culminating in cyan ink spewing in places where it should never spew.

My dad was in the blue jean business for a time, operating a sewing plant only a block away from Alphagraphics. I remember his mechanic very well.  I guess Frederick was an aberration.  I don’t recall him being either neat or organized, but he had Bob’s innate sense of how things run. He worked very well with a hangover. Frederick was acquainted with wrenches and screwdrivers, but his favorite tool was a ball peen hammer.  He could actually occasionally get sewing machines to run by striking them a solid blow at some strategic point only revealed by God to Frederick.  Or maybe it was like zen . . . he was one with the machine. He called it “finessing with a sledgehammer.”

Some days what I really need is Frederick and the ball peen hammer, or  a minor miracle, or maybe a whole 55 gallon drum full of pixie dust. What I’ve got is customers who only want booklets and wide format. Isn’t life grand?


Digitally Pressed

November 29, 2007

So what exactly is a Digital Press anyway?

Xerox 6060

The word “digital” has been bandied about to such an extent in the printing industry, that I’m not sure it has any meaning whatsoever anymore. In the broadest sense, digital printing could be described as any print process that begins with a computer file and ends up on some sort of imaged substrate. This runs the gamut from the $80 Canon inkjet on your desktop (that rapidly consumes ink cartridges worth their weight in gold) to the most sophisticated devices made by Xerox, HP/Indigo or a host of others.

The phrase “digital press” is definitely in. Many of the manufacturers dub their higher end production machines with this moniker. Easily 95% of the digital presses in the marketplace today simply aren’t. Let me explain that . . . they are digital, they aren’t presses. The “press” part of the nomenclature comes from the root word “pressure.” In the case of an offset press, there is actually pressure between the blanket cylinder and the impression cylinder that causes ink to set off (ergo “offset”) onto the paper. Not so with the digital press. For the most part, digital presses are toner devices. Mechanically, they are more akin to a copy machine than a press.

Poor Richard is, admittedly, a reformed offset press snob. For a long while, I referred to our color machines as “color copiers on steroids.” We started with a beast from Canon. It was digital in the sense that you could send a file to it. It worked on the principal of a rotating drum. Each sheet of paper went around the drum 4 times with a different color toner applied each revolution. The result was usually fairly consistently horrendous from one sheet to the next and absolutely unpredictable on consecutive days or if the weather changed. It would run 24# bond at the astounding rate of 6 sheets/minute.

But times have changed. The Xerox monster we have today runs almost any smooth stock at 10 times the rated speed of the Canon beast. Unlike it’s predecessors, it is very receptive to all kinds of files and color modes (RGB, CMYK, Spot). Ever so grudgingly, I even have to admit that the quality is every bit as good as offset. Maybe it’s even a little bit better.

Today I spent a half hour scoring and folding one of the prettiest digital press pieces we have ever produced. A trifold on 100# text with heavy ink coverage, it was designed by one of our university customers. The design was beautiful, but it would have been a bear to print on a press. The front featured a heavy orange solid that had to match up to the reverse. This is the kind of stuff that causes pressmen to go cross-eyed bonkers. We would have wasted 1000 sheets of paper to produce the 1000 brochures that were ordered. As it was, we ran 40 extras digitally for binding waste. The results were spectacular.

With all that said, there are still a few elements that need to be taken into consideration when designing for digital printing. Here are Poor Richard’s tips:

  1. Watch the solids. Big solids that can be a problem on press can also be a problem when they are printed digitally. Depending on the device, solids can fade, stripe, or ghost. The Xerox monster we’re running now really does a wonderful job on solids and is operator-friendly enough so that we can change a belt or drum when a problem occurs. This isn’t the case with all of the digital presses on the market or with all of the human beings that operate them.
  2. Watch the gradients. This problem is sporadic, but there is a more pronounced tendency for gradients to show banding when they are printed digitally. Light screens may also occasionally print unpredictably.
  3. Use a consistent color model. I really like the color gamut that our monster produces from RGB files. It is bright and the color pops. It isn’t color accurate, though. Most of the toner devices are CMYK and (if calibrated properly) will emulate a spot color as closely as process color on a press. Beware:  combinations of CMYK and RGB may yield some very surprising results. And WYSIWYG still isn’t . . . I’m sure that the photograph of the local news team that was sent to us for their Christmas Card looked wonderful on the monitor at the station, but they were all mellow yellow when they printed on our digital press. Be conscious of this and correct color just like you would for offset.
  4. About Color. Color accuracy on digital devices is still a little hit and miss and calibration is as much art as science. One disadvantage to digital presses is the “tweaking” of color. Unlike offset, there are no ink keys that can be used to dial in by eye. That said, if your printer manages and monitors color on their digital machines, colors should be pretty consistent (but not exact) from one project to the next.
    Remember that calibrations and color profiles for digital presses are specific to both device and paper substrate and it is totally impractical for a printer to calibrate to every paper in existence. This means that color will shift slightly between paper stocks. Color may also shift slightly from day to day due to the peculiarities of the machine, even if it is calibrated regularly.
  5. Ask for a hard copy proof. One of the wonderful aspects of digital printing is that you can produce just one copy to look at. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. If your project is color sensitive, ask for a hard copy proof on the paper specified for the job.Don’t expect your printer to produce this for free, though. There is time and overhead involved every time a file is opened or transmitted to a device. Printers should and do charge for this.
  6. Think Downstream. If you’re printing a flat sheet, you’re safe. But if the printed piece you design will be folded, this might be a problem. As stated above, most digital presses are toner-based devices. The toner adheres to the paper, but “piles up” on the surface to a much greater extent than does offset ink. When folded, the toner tends to crack, producing a ragged edge at the fold. Ask your printer about this before you design. If they don’t have scoring equipment that is designed for digital printing, you probably need to adapt your design so that no solids will cross a fold line.

What’s Coming:

Rickie, our pressman, who’s had nearly 30 years running offset presses of some sort will occasionally pick up an aberration produced by our Xerox monster, wave it in the air, and yell for all the world to hear, “Job Security!” He then heads off to his press and wastes 300 sheets to dial in color for the next run. He has job security, but only because he’s cross-trained.

There will be a place for offset for the forseeable future. My generation likes to read stuff on paper and we’re not dead yet. Offset is extremely cost-effective for medium and long runs of a static product. There is no replacement for offset on the horizon when it comes to producing magazines, programs, books, etc.

But offset will never be able to produce variable data or images (the subject of a future post) or meet the economies of scale needed for the short and quick color runs that are required in today’s business environment. Digital quality continues to improve. The next digital press we buy will probably use a liquid toner and be able to print on textured substrates . . . the technology to do this is already available.

I love my offset presses, but to quote scripture, “Mene, Mene, tekel, parsin.” (Daniel 5:25) The writing is on the wall.