02 June 2016

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The Next Wave of Software Innovation

To run a successful production inkjet business, a print service provider (PSP) needs more than just great equipment, or even the best media. To be successful, a PSP also needs to have the right suite of software to help ensure the entire operation runs efficiently.

Software, though, is changing at blazing speeds, so PSPs can’t just invest in a solution and then sit back and hope for the best. Rather, they need to stay constantly aware of the changing innovations.

The Automation of Print
One of the biggest areas seeing major leaps forward is around automation. As the market continues to get more competitive, margins are continuing to shrink. To remain profitable, PSPs playing in the production inkjet space need to be more efficient. Automation allows shops to remove as many touch points as possible, allowing jobs to move through production faster than ever before.

“We’re seeing that the need to automate is driven by an increase in shorter, more complicated print jobs,” notes Bill Riley, president and founder of Ironsides Technology. “Inkjet technology has made it cost effective to create personalized, targeted documents and mailers. For inkjet operations, an increase in smaller run print jobs can magnify the amount of work required to manage and track each job through the production print, inserting, finishing and fulfillment processes. It also means that companies are experiencing an increase in workload as well as risk.”

Also impacting automation is a shift toward more flexible file formats, which will allow a single file to be run on multiple pieces of hardware, that can follow the job through the workflow. “The trend in software is moving toward less restrictive file formats, often PDF, or IJPDS in the case of hybrid printing for black-and-white spot color work, so that a single, standardized print file can be run on any of the equipment that supports these universal formats,” says Bill Papp, product manager, Document Data Solutions.

Professional ServicesMany shops are looking to make investments in software that optimizes inbound print files as well. “Solutions to support this consolidation must include capabilities to normalize the input streams in order to get the maximum throughput,” says Susan Cotter, analyst, Madison Advisors.

But the hardware itself is also playing into this software trend. While the pace of innovation may not be quite as fast, there is no denying that production inkjet equipment is upping its game, with better quality at higher speeds all the time.

“The production speed of the engines keeps on increasing,” notes Erik Peeters, marketing manager Workflow Solutions for Agfa Graphics. “Today the focus still is on file preparation automation, but the next step is linking web-to-print solutions and MIS/ERP with the production hub.”

The Color Story
Automation might be one of the biggest trends being watched in software today, but it certainly isn’t the only one. Production inkjet equipment isn’t all made alike, with different vendors and solutions better suited to different types of work. For shops with customers across multiple verticals, or with customers who want a true integrated marketing approach — yet all speaking the same language — color consistency becomes a concern.

“Production floors are increasingly home to more varied sets of equipment, a shift that has only been sped up with the growing popularity of color inkjet,” says Eric Staples, director, production software, Ricoh. “As a result, color consistency across devices and locations has never been more difficult to ensure — and, because that makes it a differentiator, it’s never been more important.”

Finishing Strong
Any successful PSP in the production inkjet space knows the job isn’t finished when it comes out of the presses. The software shouldn’t stop there, either.

Just as printer and finishing manufacturers are making their devices more intelligent, the need for connected solutions is going to dramatically increase over the next few years. And, according to Kaz Kudo, associate marketing manager, FUJIFILM North America Corporation, Graphic Systems Division, software vendors will need to work hard to take advantage of all the data that would be available to them through these “intelligent” devices.

Finishing, however, is about more than just the piece itself. With production inkjet, especially, data is being generated right alongside the printed pieces. And whether PSPs like it or not, they need to have the right solutions in place to not only protect that data, but to find meaningful and impactful ways to reuse it to help brands see even better results.

InfoTrends-smart-print-manufacturing-diagram-2017“Data and analytics are already a big part of customized communications. In the near future, I expect more production printers to make a real effort to harness the power of Big Data and analytics to drive engagement and results,” Staples says.

With the current global climate, privacy concerns in particular are going to drive a lot of the software decisions for both the PSPs and the vendors.

“If you’re an inkjet operation working with health care, insurance or financial services customers, you need to comply with several different regulations from HIPAA to SOX,” Riley points out. “Starting in May 2018, companies operating in Europe must comply with GDPR. I would anticipate similar data privacy regulations will be enacted in the U.S. and Canada over the next few years.”

Art vs. Industry
The software choices of production inkjet printers is also driven, in part, by the evolution the industry has been experiencing in the past decade. Namely, that it has been moving steadily away from one that is considered “artisan” to a more “industrial” feel.

This means software has been steadily becoming far more “industrial” at the same time. While there are still many great options filled with detailed preference choices and that offer the ability to adjust even the smallest of factors, more and more seek to simplify, to make it easier for a new operator to walk in and pick up where the old left off, to ensure consistency across multiple shifts and to take the element of human error out of the picture and replace it with an easy-to-use interface.

Peeters broke it down into a few ways production inkjet software is evolving to meet these needs:

A live connection to engines: No more fiddling around with print speeds, UV curing time, etc., at the machine level or even at the operator level. The workflow software drives and controls production.
Color control: Integrated spectrophotometers constantly monitor the print quality and fine-tune the adjustments automatically, without operator intervention.
Engine quality monitoring: Today’s software can monitor how the print quality evolves over time on every piece of hardware on the network. That allows the shop to establish the same quality across the board, even across hardware brands, and pencil in maintenance at the appropriate time to keep production quality the same.
Reporting: With industrialization comes the need to share quality reports with print buyers and brand owners.
What’s Next?
Already, the next generation of software evolution is taking shape. While automation, color consistency, data policies and industrialization will all continue to be major factors, a “new kid on the block” is starting to emerge: virtual reality.

We are still in the early stages of figuring out how print and electronic communications will fit together, and whether it will be printers or marketers who take the lead in how that happens. Production inkjet is the most likely technology to help bridge the gap. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) bring an entirely new take on that interaction – increasingly brands and consumers want personalized experiences that follow an individual across a range of media. To make that happen will require the right mix of creativity, drive and, of course, software.

“As the way physical and electronic communications work together becomes increasingly important, AR is particularly well-positioned to take that synergy to the next level,” Staples notes. “With AR, readers who find a mailpiece interesting can immediately access related content, from informative videos to interactive games. AR looks incredibly promising, and software is helping bring it to production inkjet.”

It is truly an exciting time to be in the production inkjet space, and the rapid innovations in software will increasingly help drive that forward. The only constant is this: no matter how great the innovation, or how cutting-edge the application, software is the underlying tool that will bring it all together.

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