Catch us if you can

By The Drum, Administrator

March 3, 2003 | 6 min read

Print is the original information technology. The invention of the Gutenberg press in the 1450s was perhaps as revolutionary and impactful in its time as today’s computers and the internet.

But the technology of printing continues to change, now at a pace never before experienced.

The printing process has been virtually re-invented – from the generation and transmission of text and images to be printed, through to the proofing stage, and on to print production in turn.

The introduction of the photocopier, the PC, the fax and, more recently, laser and inkjet printers and scanners has also impacted the commercial printing industry. Printed materials that could once be produced only by a professional printing establishment can now be generated in thousands of offices and homes. At the same time, the print materials produced by the commercial printing industry have achieved a level of quality and variety of output never before possible, retaining the printing industry as one of the UK’s largest manufacturing industries, with an annual turnover in the region of £10 billion.

So, with the high levels of investment and the highly competitive nature of the industry, it is vital that printers are seen to be offering a service that is both cutting edge and effective.

Ron Davidson, managing director of PM Solutions, says: “Clients are looking for added value. If you sell a service, you have to be able to provide that service but, more so, you have to be able to go beyond just the basic, standard service.

“Printers can be blinkered. If everyone does something one way, many find it hard to break out of that ‘they’re all doing it, so, so will we’ mould. But you have to look at each client and each job on its own merits and see if there is anything that you can do, both to better the service and product for the client and to better the investment of time and money for the printer. Technology is running wild. Sometimes a small step back can breathe a whole new life into the industry.

“It’s got a lot to do with attitude. There have been great changes but often the customer can be forgotten.”

The pace of innovation is one of the biggest challenges facing the commercial printing industry. Companies must continually re-invest in new computer-based hardware and software as last year’s technology becomes obsolete. To deploy the new technology, the companies must also re-invest in employee training. This puts further cost pressure on companies that are already cash-strapped by their capital investments in new technology.

However, investment is not the only problem facing the printing industry. Innovation is often what the client wants. And that does not come automatically with investment.

Robert Grey, managing director of Colour Network, says: “Printers can often be stand-offish when it comes to providing new or novel solutions to problems faced by clients. Yet the print buyers themselves are often found lacking when it comes to looking for this innovation. Too many don’t understand the new technology and what it offers. They are too happy just to go with the norm.”

However, Alun Joseph, group business development manager at Digital Typeline, says: “The print solution, the sales contact, the proofing, keeping clients up to date, good finishing, on time and on budget, still count for a great deal. Technology can help with all these elements but still the human contact is often key.

“But it’s not a lack of education if the clients do not have the ability to utilise the full capacity of the new printing technologies. It’s a lack of communication from the printers. New digital technologies might well open up new options for print buyers that may not have been available before. For example, the speed of turnover can be dramatically reduced and the ability to do a shortened print run.

“People often want their finished work yesterday. They have spent weeks and weeks in design and production and now, at the end of the line, they want their finished article.”

Neil McRobb, managing director of McRobb, agrees: “It’s our job to tell the client the new reaches of our capabilities. After that it’s up to the client to show their creativity and then we can, hopefully, meet that creativity with our technology. Good printers should be willing to work with their clients to find either new or novel solutions to problems that are being encountered.

“We always welcome a challenge. Sometimes we regret saying that we do, but printing can be mundane. It’s good to be challenged and to see just what our limits are.

“Innovation is a bit of a buzz word at present. But there has to be a new way of thinking. It’s innovation – and that’s not just technology – that helps you stand out from the crowd.”

Still, IT (Investing in Technology) is something that all printers must do to stay ahead of the field – or at least on it. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that investment in people is often the most important expenditure that any business can make.

Gordon Samson, managing director of Pillans & Wilson and Waddies, says: “We need more creative people in this business. Not designers, but creative thinkers. This is not something that the print industry fosters – it’s more geared towards the technicians.

“As a group, we are not being innovative enough. The printing industry is not being innovative enough in the way that it positions and promotes itself to attract people into our business.

“Maybe there is not enough time spent sitting down, as a company, with the client at the early stage of a product. You have to be challenging from the word go. Efficiency is not innovation.

“Innovation is also inadvertently linked to the technology. But the problem is that too many people think that a faster production or a digital production or simply being different is being innovative. You can do it all, but really you have to look at the end product. The right advice may be to do none of these.

“We need to make more time for quality thinking and management time. Not in the car in between meetings, but some real blue-sky thinking. We need the time to engage the customer, but sometimes customers can have even less time than us. Print buyers are under more and more pressure too to get the service delivered at a good price. Everyone’s talking about cost, but perhaps we should be focusing more on value.”


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