Published in New England Printing and Publishing 2001© Ron Ellis

Ron Ellis: Profitable opportunities exist for printers in excellent customer service, good communications & efficient use of new technologies

Editorís Note: NEP&P recently met with Ron Ellis, a well known New England-based prepress consultant specializing in integration, training, and workflow development. Ron has been working in the printing industry for 20 years, through his own consulting service and through vendors and manufacturers, most recently focusing on computer-to-plate installations.

Where you see growth in the industry?

As far as technology, I think growth is occurring in prepress and digital services.

Over the past 10 years we have seen a number of the front end functions being automated and becoming part of the digital workflow. If you look far enough ahead you can pretty much see a computer hooked directly to the press - thatís it.

All the areas we currently have in-between will be gone. CTP is close to that, but it is going to go a lot further. In the future, imagine the pressman and prepress people being the same person. In any case the area of digital services will continue to grow, and unfortunately make printing less of a craft (which is one of the reasons I was interested in printing in the first place). I think this area will also be providing us with technologies that can bring us closer to our customers as well.

We are just getting to the point where technologies such as contract digital proofing and remote digital proofing are so very inexpensive that even small printers can afford these technologies and achieve amazing results.

And I think we will see more printers adding themselves to the customers ďnetworkĒ in manner that makes them so close and so convenient, that they are like they are a resource in the building, rather than across town or across the country. People have always talked about these technologies but in the past they have been expensive and unrealistic, especially for small printers. At this point digital proofing with inexpensive inkjets is becoming a reality - even for contract proofing, and with networks and new services anyone can talk with a customer and show each other what they are thinking and talking about.

As far as commercial printing, I constantly run across small commercial printers who step up and provide their customers with something unique that the larger printers seem to lack, and that is personality. I am always amazed when I go into a small printing plant and see the owner, his family, and staff interacting with customers in a way that gives them better services, direct communication, and a process that seems much more human.

They may be small but I think they often provide a relationship that is unique and gives the customer a more satisfying experience.

I am always hearing that the printing industry has a rotten profit margin, no room for growth and other negative comments, but I still run into a number of small printers who are growing like crazy by providing unique personal services.

For the equipment dealers and resellers I think growth lies in integration and services. Digital prepress is increasingly an open world, and more than a specific equipment brand I think customers are looking for a way to tie it together. When ten boxes fall in the room the customer wants them to all function together and to not have to get involved in figuring out how to make them all work, or how to get the color right between these two devices.

They also want to be able to make a call and get a solution when something happens to those ten boxes. In some cases that is happening, but in many instances customers are not able to get everything they need, or the expertise to put it all together. I think customers would pick and pay more for a mediocre system that comes with excellent support before they would pick a better system with no support.

Where do you see opportunities for innovative business moves?

There are some areas that lend themselves to innovation. Personally I think the biggest innovation is providing good communications and service. Beyond that I think that most printers do not use their systems to the fullest capabilities.

With many of the standard prepress products, IT technologies and productivity tools there are tricks and features that can allow you to be more productive and to tie yourself more directly to your customers.

Almost nobody takes advantage of this, mostly I think because of the time it takes, and partly because I think they arenít thinking far enough ahead. The standard operation is just using basic functionality, even though they have paid for systems that can do much much more. Even if you donít use your systems and technology to full advantage it is at least work taking the time to know the capabilities of your systems, and the technologies that fit into the systems you have already.

Ideally these systems can be used to extend and automate, and to tie yourself closer to your clients. A prepress audit such as those provided by PINE is a good way to determine this. Also some of the vars in this region can provide some of these services as well.

What departments (CSR, Prepress, Finishing, etc.) employers should be

restructuring or strengthening ?

My focus is prepress. Within prepress there are some basic things to focus on. It is important to make sure your IT infrastructure is up to the task of handling all the data that will be flowing into prepress in the next few years.

This means networks, servers, backup, and automation tools. Remember with ctp everything in the plant moves through that network one way or another.

Investigate digital proofing - you may be able to replace some of your older and more costly proofing systems, or if you have no digital proof now is a great time. Make sure all the components of your prepress systems are based on open technologies and can work with each other.

Especially make sure that any new purchases are based on open systems and can generate common file formats such as 1-bit tiffs and other open formats. Learn about color management because in the next few years as the prepress and pressroom tighten up, you will need to know some basics of color management.

If you are not using CTP you should at least learn the skills needed such as Make sure you know the capabilities of what you have, including the obscure capabilities. (For example how would your rips handle remote proofing if you had to do it right now?) An audit is probably a good idea. And think big. If in the future it is just going to be a computer and your pressroom that will be some system, and it will require you to adept at todayís CTP technologies.

If the economy continues to be sluggish for the foreseeable future, should companies take this time to review and revamp their operations? Or what?

A slow economy is a good time to review and make changes, as well as upgrades. During normal times, most prepress departments are so straight out that they do not have a chance to learn anything new, to try anything different, or to even think about how the work they are doing moves through the plant. A slow economy is a perfect time to have operators learn new skills, research new systems, and implement new workflows and technologies. Sometimes when people are slow they donít even think of developing extra capacity because at that point it may seem you have more than you need. Still, it is important to plan for growth. Also keep in mind that with ctp, cip3 and prepress moving closer to the pressroom you will need extra capacity. It is a question of when rather than if. Its amazing how little it takes to max out the average prepress department. I think the economy also may make the resellers a little hungrier and willing to negotiate as well, so it actually can be a good time to upgrade. If I was a printer and had some extra time right now I would have my staff researching the state of the technology, color management, rips, inkjets, servers and other productivity tools. And coming up with a plan on how we can implement these items, and under what conditions they would make sense. (Beats paying people to cruise the internet!) Now really is the time. Many prepress operations resort to fire fighting when busy. Now is the time to straighten it out, as well as to plan for

Technically, where do you see things headed and what should printers do right now?

Technically I see us headed towards complete integration between prepress and the pressroom, to the point where they are no longer separate departments. Thatís a while away though, and with the economy a little slow, I see steady progress towards that goal. Big thing right now is to take a look at the new opportunities presented by digital proofing, by the new open rips, and by some of these new technologies that allow you to work closer to your customers. Rips and devices are becoming better, easier, and less expensive. You can do much more for a lot less money, and do it better right now.

Any other comments you wish to make?

If you need help with any of the issues above call Frank Cullen at PINE. PINE can help. PINE provides overview seminars that review the technology and current directions, and PINE can also provide you with on-site consulting and evaluation services.

Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant specializing in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at www.ronellisconsulting.com.