I am as guilty as the next guy at looking at new technology and services to add to the capabilities of the print industry at large. It is a drupa year, and we will all be tempted and teased with a whole new season of offerings to streamline and automate the production of print for our customers.

I have long been a proponent of www, w2p, and 3D printing as futures for our business. I still believe in these things, but it is also important to live in the present. The here and now of our industry is a result of years of efficiency and change due to the computer, and as a result we have built workflows and business that are designed to deal with getting print out the door.

If you read industry news and trade shows however, many pundits are suggesting that we all have to transition to new media or 3D, as well as an online procurement portal, in order to remain a viable or competitive company. But I would counter that the truth is not anywhere near that.

Yes, I am firmly convinced that the key to our future viability is being able to print products and services for our customers that are more than just ink-on-paper, but I am also realistic. We still have an existing business, an existing clientele, and an infrastructure about keeping our presses running. Any good printshop knows this, and is usually very good at being able to balance how much of their business is from traditional salesperson-csr-print and how much they can expect to get off the street through their web-to-print solution.

I began to talk to the people who know. My colleagues that run printshops. I found that for the most part, they had implemented W2P for nothing more than to keep up with the competition, and to show their customers that they are forward thinking as well as high-quality. In the main they had implemented web-to-print solutions for the sole purpose of proving to their existing customers that they were looking towards the future.

Automated W2P has watered down print as an asset. Catalogue printing of heavily restricted print products makes for a simple automated workflow, but at a price to being able to provide service for your customers. Let’s face it, printing is a complex process, and custom, complex print projects require custom complex plans. Simple business cards have always been cheap, but automated business card production means that the customer cannot do things like to add bleed to their design, or to add a simple die-cut. This is a reminder to us that the services that many of our customers use us for, are to be able to perform a complex role for them. Something you just cannot automate.

I like to look at web-to-print like autopilot or cruise-control. It is great for the simple stuff, like flying a jet at 10,000 metres in the air between Melbourne and Sydney, but you cannot use autopilot to land or take-off. Landing and taking-off are complex tasks that involve many details that are difficult to automate, and that is much like a print project. The bottom line is that the customer knows this, and if they want anything outside of the simplest of catalogue printed jobs like simple business cards, they will be willing to pay more for that service.

Print is a professional service industry, not a machine, and not a factory. We may ultimately be in the business of smearing dead dinosaurs on ground up trees, but we are really more in the business of providing that complex service to people who do not have that expertise. Print takes expertise, equipment, and professionalism, and when you try to change that into just equipment with web-to-print, you are missing out on one of the best ways to interact with your customers, face-to-face. It is in those face-to-face interactions between sales, CSR, and customer that the person paying our bills (the customers) see the real value we bring as professionals in print.

So, yes, of course add W2P services, but focus first on the additional benefits that it can bring to your existing workflows. A W2P workflow can bring automated file/content submission and preflight capabilities for your customers. This is a great value-add to the designers that submit jobs for conventional printing – even if the product is not an automated print product. Further, JDF and MIS implementation can allow a W2P interface to update job status and production milestone details to production coordinators and CSRs as well as production co-ordinators and planners.

So, in a year of drupa innovations and new product offerings, the lesson I learned in speaking to my print colleagues is they use technology (and update it frequently) but in particular when they use technology it relates to keeping their analogue press business running more efficiently.

“Yeah, we get a few jobs a week from our W2P system, but there is not a lot of profit on them, there is too much competition for the simple jobs.”

I think that is the real lesson here. It is one thing to implement a W2P or workflow automation solution and that is of course a great benefit to many workflows. It is also, however a reminder to us and to our customers, that the print process is not simple, and it takes the expertise and experience of professionals like ourselves to be successful in print projects. We are selling that. We must not forget that, nor let our customers forget it, and every time a customer realises that they need our expertise, they more firmly become our customers.

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