Lessons From the Inkjet Summit
The Ponte Vedra Inn & Club, near Jacksonville, Fla., was packed the week of April 7 for the 7th annual Inkjet Summit. The invitation-only event brought more than 120 print providers — including nearly two dozen in-plants — together for some intense education about production inkjet printing.
The Inkjet Summit, owned and run by IPI's parent company NAPCO Media, kicked off Monday evening with a keynote by event chair Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies. He acknowledged that taking the investment plunge could be "a little bit scary" for printers who haven't fully grasped inkjet's potential. But, he asserted that changes in print market demand are making the inkjet investment not only prudent, but necessary, and that putting it off might be the biggest risk of all.
The "sobering reality," according to Boer, is that page counts are down everywhere and that their value is also in decline (although not as sharply as the printed volumes). Moreover, he said, there is tension between the industry's "pragmatic need for automation" and their customers' desire for more flexibility in what printers produce for them.
"There is not one single perfect device for doing this," Boer said. "You need a lot of devices." Among them, he continued, should be an inkjet press, which is essential for automated production. At the same time, it enables printers to develop "new, consultative accounts" based on programmatic selling and adding new kinds of value to the product. Transactional documents, books, and direct mail are examples of applications that inkjet is benefiting in this way, according to Boer.
Something else that ought to draw printers' attention to inkjet are demographic trends that are already making it difficult for them to find people to run their conventional equipment. Declining birth rates, he said, are shrinking the labor pool to a point where "we are heading to $25 an hour labor": a situation he predicted will trigger a "tipping point" to inkjet away from offset because operators for the conventional process will have become too scarce and expensive for printers to employ.
"You have a window of about seven years" before that happens, Boer warned the Inkjet Summit audience. The good news, he said, is that inkjet has proven to be "more reliable than we had ever predicted" and that with diligent research and planning, printers can make profitable investments in it.
"It's not a risky bet," he assured the audience. "It is a pretty safe bet from the calculated risk perspective."
"Not investing in inkjet is the risky decision," he concluded.
On Tuesday, Elizabeth Gooding (Inkjet Insights) moderated a panel discussion titled, "Data Everywhere...How Do I Get in the Game?" She affirmed that data is indeed everywhere and that its applications aren't limited to transactional print. It is being embedded in print of many different types to enhance security, for example, or to trigger omnichannel experiences when people scan printed codes.
The challenge for printers is to locate and acquire the data they need and turn it into the kinds of result-getting printed products their customers want. The difficulty there, noted panelist Ron Jacobs, president of the marketing agency Jacobs & Clevenger, is that customers are the sources of that data – and that they themselves often don't know what they have or where to put their hands on it.
He offered the audience a refresher in the basics of data classification: first-party data, collected and stored by an organization; second-party, referring to data collected and shared by a partner; and third-party, purchased from another source. He also drew a distinction between "big" and "small" data, pointing out that the latter (for example, demographic and credit information) is organized and searchable while the former (such as purchasing intent and behavioral traits) is harder to search and extract value from.
Big data, according to Jacobs, is the raw material of artificial intelligence (AI) and other new tools that marketers are eager to employ. But, he said that despite the "big breakthroughs" they are all searching for, "most clients aren't doing small data well enough to move into big data." What's more, their approach to storing data can be chaotic, as in the case of the client that was found to be storing its information in 40 separate "electronic shoeboxes."
Jacobs said that when his agency works with print service providers, "we want to make it easy for the printer to understand what we're trying to do" with variable text and images and other data-dependent elements of multi-channel marketing campaigns. Expected in return is guidance in striking the right balance of quality, price, and timeliness for the agency's customers.
"You don't have to be data scientists, but you do need to understand data science," Jacobs counseled printers wishing to do business with marketing data experts like Jacobs & Clevenger.
John Gaspari, vice president of manufacturing at Specialty Print Communications, talked about how printers can rise to the challenge of providing service to customers who are serious about controlling the uses made of their data. "Strong data knowledge will win you customers and will retain your customers," he said, noting that many Specialty Print Communications customers ask about the company's data management expertise before proceeding to anything else.
He added that everything is customized in the kinds of commercial and direct-mail printing the company does for clients in the retail, insurance, health care, travel and leisure, automotive, and hospitality markets. Six digital presses – four inkjet, two toner – are at work in the digital division that the company launched 14 months ago.
Gaspari pointed out that as an inkjet printer, the company has had to become adept at color management on inkjet-receptive as well as non-inkjet-receptive stocks. Although "customers used to be OK with giving up quality for variability," he said, they now insist on having their color managed as carefully as their data. Color management, he added, is a major component of press uptime in that it keeps machines from being stopped due to reproduction errors.
Gaspari called workflow "the key to everything" in data-driven production and emphasized the need for standardized procedures to onboard projects after the sale is closed. Production data culled from workflow makes it possible to know "how many pixels or droplets of ink we're going to use ahead of time," an insight that may suggest ways to reduce ink consumption while still meeting the customer's quality requirements
Something else Specialty Print Communications believes in is equipment redundancy. "Almost like Noah's Ark, have twos," he recommended, explaining that clients don't like to think that a shop's only press is going to be responsible for producing all of their work. The sight of a second device reassures them that their jobs won't be interrupted should anything happen to the first one.