Welcome to Dr Print

February 21, 2010

A meeting this week with a small printer through up a side comment that bears thinking about. He reckoned that for those specifying print today, dealing with the printer is only part of their job, and a small part at that. No arguments there, it’s been something noted and bemoaned for quite some while now. But the new angle on this is that these people like the print buying bit because it breaks the monotony of the day job, the one that they get measured on. Because nobody else understands printing either, the ‘print buyer’ gets an awful lot of freedom to choose who they like working with. Any complaints and it’s easy to justify a decision by getting other quotes that show that the chosen printer is damn good value. What does it mean? That when printing for a certain group of companies out there, SME’s in the main, it’s important to be nice to your customer. Listen to them, empathise with them. Don’t think like a company selling them a few leaflets or brochures, be the company willing to let them sound off, and perhaps offer useful advice. Don’t be a printer be a psychiatrist.


Why Nexpress deal makes sense

January 25, 2010

Heidelberg is getting a lot of stick over a reported volte-face regarding digital printing. According to Handelsblatt, a reliable German newspaper and subsequently repeated by a wide range of sources (including a Tweet from the home of this blog), Heidelberg is moving back into digital printing and is talking about some kind of alliance with Nexpress.

This proves, it seems, that Heidelberg was wrong to end its JV with Kodak in the first place, that digital printing is the future blah-blah, blah-blah and offset is about to disappear. Not so fast. It was only a year ago that Kodak was forced to defend its Nexpress business after a Wall Street Journal reporter picked up the wrong end of the stick in a press conference and suggested Kodak wanting to shed it. Kodak is trailing HP and Xerox in provision of digital presses, and third is not where it likes to be. Late last year it was reporting that sales in digital printing were 17% lower with customers favouring lower priced models.

Since then the proposed Canon-Océ merger has come along with a potential knock-on effect for Kodak’s cross-marketing arrangements with Canon, which might now change.

In Heidelberg that the last 12 months have been even more devastating than in Rochester has been well documented. But for all that Heidelberg is still selling more sheetfed presses (and Kodak obtains more revenue from sheetfed presses thanks to the plates business) than Kodak has sold electrophotographic digital presses.

Both companies have problems that the recession has brought to light. For Heidelberg the economic crisis has devastated its monopolistic business model. The largest litho press manufacturer cannot be the nimblest on its feet and its choice to move into large format presses looks ill-timed.

Yet digital printing has not really taken off in the way it was predicted to do. Look back at the sunny forecasts of yesteryear, not just Benny Landa’s prediction, but also Xerox’s that it would sell 1,000 iGens in the first year, and it is a litany of missed targets. The printing industry has preferred to cling to the technologies it knows rather than switch to the new and frankly digital developments have failed to deliver the knock out blow to litho. In addition litho press manufacturers have responded to the threat and come up with easier to use, faster and slicker machines.

Consequently, it would be no surprise to learn that the Nexpress project has not delivered the results that were expected of it. And the signals from Kodak are that it sees inkjet as the technology for the future and one where it owns the crucial advantage. While there have been incremental improvements in the Nexpress, most of the emphasis is going on Stream while piezo inkjet is providing the support technology (and revenue) while Stream matures.

In the Q3 results published at the end of 2009, Kodak states

The company has also made a decision to focus its investments at the core of its strategy which are consumer inkjet (including Stream technology) and enterprise workflow


It will reposition certain other business to generate maximum value

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the Nexpress product line and should the right proposal be made . . .

Likewise Heidelberg must have been some serious self-examination in the last year or so. It knows that the market for offset litho presses is shrinking among commercial printers, hence that push into large format and packaging. It can see sales of B3 presses plunge as digital wipes up the bottom end of the market. Its problem is managing the change and switching from a business model where everything seemed geared to producing printing machinery in volume as efficiently as possible to one where custom-built machines are the order of the day. This demands fewer resources in terms of people and space as orders for Speedmasters and going to be lower. It must surely be looking to see what other products it can turn its engineering skills towards producing. It is not averse to digital printing as the slow emergence of an inkjet division, aimed at printing on packaging, indicates. But this is a very long way from being able to operate as an alternative to litho in commercial printing.

Heidelberg also has a vast sales and distribution network, which has been deployed to shift the presses that the factory builds. Of late heavy metal sales have been waning and the natural response has been to offer consumables, support, training and consultancy in order to build a revenue stream to sit alongside press, prepress and finishing equipment sales. The problem is that few print company owners will recognize the value of consultancy advice and delivering it successfully will generally mean one customer flourishing at the expense of another.

Adding a digital press to the basket of products makes an awful lot of sense in terms of driving revenue through the Heidelberg nervous system. The problem last time was that the front line troops were too used to the techniques of selling litho presses and couldn’t really adapt to the different priorities of the digital world. That is the challenge Heidelberg faces, whether it chooses to work with Nexpress or any other digital press.

The promise of the eReader

January 11, 2010

For the Chinese this is going to be the Year of the Tiger. For the techno-gadget minded among us this will be the year of the eReader. The momentum of expectation that Apple is going to introduce iSlate/iTab/iTouch later this month is such that even initial sceptics are being persuaded. At CES Plastic Logic has shown off its device, the first generally available with a colour display. And a flood of different units is expected from Korea and Taiwan before the year is out. Some expect there to be more than 50 such devices introduced this year. If Amazon’s Kindle could be dismissed as clunky and with a very restrictive business model, this is not going to be the case any longer.

But what of the content? Four or five years ago professors at universities engaged in the European mobile communications project were bemoaning the lack of support from publishers for the new 3G and proposed 4G and 5G platforms that they were thinking about. There was a lack of common interface on phones, publishers could not see how they might be paid, the phones themselves were awkward to use, concentrating as they did on text messaging,  phone calls or music. Apple’s iPhone changed all that and has spawned a new eco-system of smart devices that just happen to make calls as well as being a platform for games, information, maps, and countless other tools, some useless, but including some that are already indispensable. And some of these have included digital versions of magazines, majoring on the ability to read an issue which might otherwise be unobtainable rather than because the digital version is better than paper.

The coming generation of devices might be about to change that. Condé Nast has shown what Wired magazine might look like transferred to a handheld flat screen, Time Inc has done the same with Sports Illustrated. Best of all, to my mind, is the work that London agency Berg has done with Swedish publisher Bonnier . No doubt the world’s other major publishers must be considering how they can transfer the magazine experience into a projected rather than reflected view and other examples are waiting only until Apple lets slip its dogs of war.

However, the question must be whether switching a magazine, or a book for that matter, from paper to display, is the best use of the technology. Even the most fastidious reader rarely consumes every page of a magazine received. The arrival of portable, touch sensitive screens surely provides the opportunity to create new and engaging ways to present content. I envisage an iTunes Store for articles, groups of articles. Readers will be able to browse by genre, by author and by subject to pick an article and pay using the micro payments system that Apple has established for music and its Apps environment. The author/publisher is recompensed and perhaps a new reader is uncovered. I’d certainly be happy to pay to read stimulating articles by Christopher Hitchens say when Vanity Fair is difficult to find in a rural newsagent in the UK.

They might also give rise to a new type of content, the ‘barticle’ ­ – longer than an article in a magazine, but shorter than a conventional book. More like an old-style pamphlet in fact. The logistics of producing short books like these rules them out for most publishers who otherwise control distribution channels. But with digital distribution and consumption, this is no longer the barrier. Without the hassle of costing, ordering paper, print and distribution, the author/publisher can be quick to market and catch the wave of interest in a subject in a way that simply was not possible before.

What does this mean for printers who for nigh on 500 years have lived off the publishing industry? There will still be a need to clean up content and shape it for publication, something that publishers will not always want to become involved with, but of course most printers will continue to count on a strategy where the last man standing wins.

Hello world!

December 30, 2009

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