Firehouse Blog

Author Archive: Terry Corman

The Future of the Printing Industry – Part 3

terryblogPrint is not going away. However, it will continue to evolve at an ever-increasing pace. Technology that is emerging in the marketplace will forever reshape the nature of print providers and their relationships with print buyers. For printers to survive they must also evolve, NOW!

Here’s what’s coming to reshape the print industry in much the same fashion as we witnessed with the change of the photo printing industry. (Remember it?)

First, fixed-array inkjet printers will increase print speeds exponentially in the next few years. They will have an impact on every print segment. This means that the ‘bottleneck’ in printing plants moves dramatically, and those print providers who can adapt quickly will grab market share. Printing plants will require nimble management who understand the ‘theory of constraints’, as they constantly rebalance their in-house resources to expand or expire.

Second, the software advances that I discussed in my last article are real and will change how clients interact with large-format printers. Order writing, file submission, preflighting, prepress, job queuing and job tracking can, and will, be automated. The result is that the front-end costs for doing short run is the same as doing long run.

PizzaVsPrintInnovators will shake up the number and size of print providers as did the handful of power players who reshaped the photo printing industry. I have said to anyone who will listen to me that Firehouse is a software development company that prints to pay the bills.

For any reader who is skeptical of my viewpoint, I offer up this article on technology and the pizza industry. Domino’s CEO is quoted as saying technology was at the heart of their turnaround. Their sales and profit growth is stunning. How Tech is Killing Off Independent Pizzerias

Technological advances and software development will take actual costs out of the print process, speed production time, increase the accuracy of print orders and provide clients with an online interface to monitor and track their jobs from anywhere. The most successful printers will implement and lead these advances.

This also means the print buyer will have to reshape much of how they go about their business to get these benefits. Early adopters will be more successful. This is where print vendors need to concentrate their efforts. They need to nurture a collaborative relationship with their customers to bring these advances to them and strengthen those relationships. Print buyers will cluster around print providers whose software technology best fits their requirements. Firehouse has a growing number of clients with whom we work in a highly collaborative structure, using software to reduce front-end costs and increase the speed from order placement to ship date.

SparkLogo300_RGBFirehouse’s automated client interface is named Spark. It allows 24/7 access and provides real-time info on your print projects. But it goes deeper than that. Spark is serving clients a customized version of our MIS system tailored specifically for their work. As Spark evolves, the level of integration and automation will make print buying as easy as ordering a pizza.

As we witnessed with the consolidation of the photo industry, all of this will put a burden on print vendors and print buyers who do not adapt to this new business model.

For the printing industry, as in every industry today, “What can be automated, will be automated.” and virtually everything in the printing business can be automated.

Terry Corman
Firehouse CEO

The Future of the Printing Industry – Part 2

terryblogFuturePart2During my years in the photographic industry, I bore witness to a business workflow that went from laborious hand work to near total automation. Prints used to be produced by skilled craftsmen in darkrooms with enlargers. They would frame and focus and expose and tweak—often manipulating the light with filters and dodging and burning to achieve the optimum result. That changed rapidly to an all-digital production with photos imaged to paper with lasers. Both methods produced photographs on photographic paper.

Once the automation hit full stride, we saw pricing drop from around $25.00 a square foot to $1.00. Automation of this printing process devastated all but a few tech-savvy survivors. The entire size and structure of this area of the printing industry was altered in a brief period of time. As photographic labs disappeared, so did the suppliers and the trade associations.

The ultimate question for each area of the current printing industry is “what will the effects of automation be in the future?”

We see two major innovations coming our way—software and robotics.

The software written, to date, to automate processes in printing companies has come primarily from the equipment manufacturers to make their machines work better. It gives them a competitive edge. But these are all stand-alone solutions. Very little has been done, to this point, to create a total, integrated workflow solution or to reduce total cost of ownership of equipment offerings. However, now, the printing industry is beginning to see software solutions that will eventually eliminate many front-end workflow processes. For clients willing to integrate more closely with their print vendors, a total solution is near. This goes beyond a front-end order entry portal. That’s where the process starts. The magic will be tying the output from the front end into fully customized software that will direct those source files through the workflow (order writing, preflight, proofing, prepress, tracking, etc.) and land it in the proper print queue. It’s coming!

The use of robotics in printing has been limited to a very few large flexographic and specialty printers. Robotic solutions for material handling at all stages of the printing process are either now, or soon will be, available at a reasonable return on investment. Firehouse will have a robotic arm solution for taking sheets from our flat bed printers to our large digital cutters eliminating the labor in that process. Further, robotic carts with preprogrammed destinations will be carrying ‘work in progress’ from cutting to our quality control and packaging department, eliminating that labor. Both of those automated labor-saving solutions are a worthy automation investment.

What can be automated, will be automated. As this happens, the structure of the printing industry, just like the photographic industry, will change quickly. Will large-format print companies react in time?

The final and third segment of this blog post will contain some predictions for the future, as promised.

Terry Corman
Firehouse CEO

The Future of the Printing Industry – Part 1

terryblogFuturePart01It’s pretty brazen for a small player like me to take a stab at predicting the future of printing—especially since I have always said that predicting the future of this industry is nearly impossible. That said, my 26 years in the printing business is a unique set of experiences. I was a long-time board member and past president of the Association of Professional Color Imagers (APCI). It was an international trade organization of photo labs, and I was president during the last convention prior to it downsizing and being absorbed into another trade group. I bore witness to the demise of Eastman Kodak, a trade association, and many, many businesses both in, and tied to, the photo lab business. Perhaps the most important take-away from the experience is that the 1999 annual convention was a heavily attended, lavish event held on the island of Maui. It was a grand time! Everyone was buoyant and prosperous. By way of contrast, the APCI convention in 2003 was poorly attended, in a Chicago hotel to spare expenses, and no one held out much hope for the future of the industry. In only FOUR YEARS a very large and prosperous industry died.Yes, Firehouse made the change from photo lab to successful digital printer during those difficult years, but that transformation was not easy or obvious.

DigitalCrushingFilmThe root cause of the demise of the photo lab industry was the loss of film and film processing. Certainly, that was the major factor for most labs that closed their doors. But, the paramount reason they went out of business was their inability to see industry changes and change with them. Film processing went away, but photo output did not. It changed from a custom, artistic, hand-made product into a commodity. As such, the pricing for commercial photo output plummeted nearly 2,000 percent from the top in 1995. If you could survive the price drop, you could survive. If you could optimize your workflow and automate the process, you could still make a profit. But many never thought about how to change their business to survive—and they didn’t.

Now I sit on the board of directors of another industry trade association, and I see history starting to repeat itself. No, the remaining printing industry is not going to lose an enormous revenue stream as we saw with digital cameras at the turn of the century. But, I can see the gathering storm. What we did to survive those tough times, we will have to do again. We have more time during this industry shift, but not forever.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series.

Terry Corman
Firehouse CEO