bp default image

The Shakeout in 2006

Update your printers and software, because the digital industry industry is constantly changing.

It's disconcerting how quickly things change in this business. It's even more disconcerting how that change has a snowball effect"?the momentum keeps building and there's nothing that can hold it back.

Wide-format has always been a digital environment. And because it was spawned in the digital era, you might think print providers are in little danger of being shut out of the market by technology innovation. As you prepare your business for 2006, however, keep in mind that you may again have to upgrade your equipment"?particularly your digital front end and software. In fact, keeping up with technology may be more important now than ever before.

Wait, let me catch up
If your digital front end is more than 3 years old, any competitor with the latest machines can probably clean your clock in terms of both speed and quality. And it's probably fair to say that your competitors are not going to stop buying new machines just so you can catch up to them.

Bigger, better, faster, and cheaper are what this market is built upon. The difference between 3-year-old models and today's current products is equivalent to comparing a leer jet with lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. Sure, the old prop plane got "lucky lindy" from New York to Paris in about 33.5 hours, but few people would want to try that today given the power, speed, and comfort of the jet planes now available. It's fun to read about, and lindbergh will forever be a symbol of courage and tenacity, but who wants to run a business living with the daily fear of the equivalent of crashing into an inky black atlantic Ocean?

The "fast" computers of 3 years ago are beyond obsolete "?they have become barriers to production and need to be relegated to surfing the Internet (or something even less taxing). Today, computer manufacturers are shipping dual-core machines that simply blow away their predecessors. and not only are they getting faster, but they're also becoming more affordable"?you can buy two or three cutting-edge machines for what you once paid for a single slogging behemoth.

What about software? admittedly, we're typically forced to upgrade software simply because our customers are doing it"?not because we get anything out of it. There are few items in the latest releases of any of the major software products that really give print providers added capabilities. and the cost of these upgrades seems to be inversely proportional to their value"?little value: ridiculous cost.

But you have little choice but to keep up with the latestand- not-much-greater versions. and since it's a trend that will not stop in 2006, my best advice is to get in on some of the deals offered by software companies, such as adobe's Print service Provider Program. Not all software vendors offer upgrade programs, but they're well worth the time and effort to check out. software upgrades are likely to cost you several thousand dollars a year without providing much gain in efficiency; a little preventive planning is at least a partial budget solution to this problem.

Files: bigger, less-professional, more PDFs
You probably have already had a glimpse of some of the incoming- file trends you're sure to see more of this coming year. Here's what I believe you'll find"?and have to deal with"?in 2006:

  • Files are bigger. Remember when digital files arrived on floppy disks? Today, many files won't fit on a 100-MB Zip disk (remember those?). Raise your hand if you are starting to get files on UsB flash drives. My company receives the vast majority of its jobs on CD and some on DVD. I admit to a slight panic flutter when a job arrives on a half-dozen CDs, but this isn't uncommon.
  • Transparency is the "in" thing. It may still choke your RIP to get multiple-layer Photoshop files from your customer, but you will probably need to figure out workarounds because designers simply love to play with transparency. It's another reason you need the latest-and-greatest hardware backing up the latest- and-greatest software.
  • Who's creating these files? You've no doubt seen a growth in the number of nonprofessionals involved in creating files intended for professional output. You're likely receiving files created in Word, PowerPoint, and Publisher"?and all by people who have no idea what it means to embed fonts, convert color space to CMYK, or collect for output. They have no idea what the terms "color management," "overprint," or "trap" mean, but they love to play with their software controls for all of these file attributes. If these folks are not already making your life miserable, they will be.
  • PDF is taking root. Customers providing PDF files could be a good thing, but it probably won't be until designers figure out how to create printable PDF files. Given the penchant for transparency and the increasing lack of appropriate training for file creators, PDF is not yet the holy grail that had been hoped for. But standards committees such as the Ghent PDF Workgroup (www.ghentpdfworkgroup.org) and new Acrobat features are helping, and 2006 could be a year when designers begin getting the PDF training that will help make our lives easier.

    Print providers can help themselves by providing their own training to customers, and promoting products such as Enfocus Instant PDF and PDF Create (www.enfocus.com) and Apago PDF Enhancer (www.apago.com). It will also pay to continue training your own staff"?this is no time to be stuck with old technology or untrained technicians.

    What doesn't kill us"?
    As negative as all of this may sound, files and design will improve after customers get over the novelty of transparency and receive proper training. Improvement will also come once the "business-software" file creators get hit with enough rework charges to realize they should be using software that's actually designed for print (or at least learn how to make their files more print friendly).

    The year 2006 is going to be a shake-out period, and it won't all be pleasant. But most of us will survive, and those who do will be better for the experience.

    Stephen Beals (bpworkflow@verizon.net), in prepress production for more than 30 years, is the digital prepress manager with Finger Lakes Press in Auburn, NY.

View more from this Big Picture issue