The move away from pre-printed shells
If you wander the warehouse of many direct mail or transactional printers, you will likely stumble upon roll after roll of preprinted forms—so-called “offset shells.” For years, preprinting static color content on an offset press and rerunning them through a digital press to add personalized content was the most efficient and cost-effective way of handling variable printing. However, there are downsides to this approach. Number one, of course, is storing them. Number two is waste; if the static content changes before the inventory of shells is exhausted, it’s discarded. Thus, the dream of many who have adopted production inkjet printing is “white paper in” or WICO (“white in, color out”); the static and variable information are printed in one pass.
“If and when it comes—and it will come—and you can run white paper and put everything through four-color process inkjet, you eliminate all that warehousing, warehouse control, all the obsolescence, and throwing things away,” said Andy Mandell, CEO of Data-Mail. “That’s the real advantage to inkjet.”
Data-Mail was started in 1971 by Addressograph-Multigraph veteran Mandell and his wife Joyce as a lettershop. The company expanded into offset printing and, eventually, digital printing. Today, the company has two locations in the Hartford, Conn., area and specializes in direct mail and marketing for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and ad agencies in the financial services, publishing, insurance, and retail verticals. The company started with continuous-feed laser-based printers, later adding several iGens. For several years, Data-Mail ran web offset presses, continuous-feed digital toner, and cut-sheet digital toner. Then new demands started to appear.
“We were getting a lot of requests for color personalization which we couldn’t do unless we did it on an iGen,” said Mandell. That was doable, but they needed something faster. So, about three years ago, Data-Mail installed a Canon Solutions America (CSA) Océ JetStream 2200 color inkjet press. The company bought a second 2200 two years ago, and earlier this year installed two Océ ColorStream 3900s. “We have tremendous capacity to do color, but market is not quite ready for it yet,” said Mandell. Indeed, only about one-fourth of Data-Mail’s volume on its inkjet devices is full-color. One of the problems, Mandell said, is that the print quality has yet to completely approximate what can be printed on a toner device. “It’s 80 percent of what you can get on a laser device,” he said. “The client has to understand this. Once they do, then you’ll see inkjet really take off.”
Still, avoiding the shell approach can be worth the price of entry.
“We had a lot of work that we were doing as hybrid applications—letterhead shells and imaging them on cut-sheet devices,” said Elly Chichester, Chief Marketing Office for Allied Printing Company. “Price was increasingly becoming an issue. We had more and more customers who wanted to incorporate four-color variable, which we could do on an iGen, but it was cost-prohibitive.” The company was also wrestling with “speed to market” issues as they had to drop 100,000-piece mailings within a very short “launch window.” “Inkjet became a serious consideration for us.”
Based in metro Detroit, Allied Printing Company was founded in 1952 as a commercial letterpress shop, and has evolved into offset printing and, eventually, digital production, adding mailing and fulfillment services as well. Given its location, it’s logical that the company does a lot of work for the automotive industry, as well as financial services, retail, and home products.
Allied’s COO had started investigating production inkjet in 2010, but it wasn’t until last year that it was deemed mature enough to bring in-house, so last fall Allied installed an HP T300. “Our installation was the first commercial installation in the state,” said Chichester. “There was a lot of buzz, so there’s been a lot of interest. Customers have been very accepting of the technology.”
The challenge for Allied was not necessarily the printing technology. “Initially, we had some challenges on the sales side in understanding the ideal market,” said Chichester. “It took us a few weeks to get to the point to say, ‘This is the stuff we ought to be looking to put on the press.’”
Feeding the Beast
“The easy thing is buying the press,” said David Johannes, Senior Vice President of Operations for IWCO Direct. “The hardest thing is feeding the press.”
That applies not just to acquiring work for the press, but physically getting jobs to it. For companies like IWCO Direct, inkjet has led to major changes in the approach to prepress.
Chanhassen, MN’s IWCO Direct, founded in 1969, offers customers—which include some of the biggest names in a half dozen vertical markets, such as Capital One, GEICO, Delta Air Lines, Best Western, Sirius XM, and Healthways—a “total package solution,” supplying all of the components of a direct mail campaign. IWCO Direct was an early adopter of production inkjet, and in June 2015 was the first installation of CSA’s Océ ImageStream 3500, a continuous-feed press that offers the ability to print on offset-coated papers. The ImageStream “changes the creative world” for IWCO Direct’s marketing team and its customers, said Johannes. “We’re no longer constrained by substrates and can move away from inkjet treated stocks,” he said. “Part of [customers’] branding is their stock selection. That was one of the challenges in the early years, paper that didn’t look or feel quite right. It’s now a lot closer to offset.”
Indeed, the paper problem has been one that has plagued inkjet from its inception. “Our biggest issue is that you have to use a treated or coated paper to get the quality that lets you compete with an iGen or an Indigo,” said Data-Mail’s Mandell.
Last June, IWCO Direct was also the first installation of the CSA Océ VarioPrint i300 cut-sheet production inkjet press. (This was the unit that had been code-named “Niagara” for much of its development.)
“The decision to buy [the VarioPrint i300] was driven out of a need created by a gap in our equipment arsenal,” said Johannes. IWCO Direct has a big fleet of continuous-feed inkjet presses, and on the cut-sheet side, several toner-based iGens. The VarioPrint, said Johannes, “gives us a lower-cost option for people that want to do color cut-sheet but don’t need the quality of the toner. I think now the VarioPrint quality is getting very similar to what we get with toner.”
But there’s more to inkjet than the quality issue alone. It’s all about managing expectations. “It’s really getting them to see the values and benefits of [inkjet], showing them the things it could do rather than always being focused on the things it couldn’t do—it doesn’t look like offset, brand colors aren’t perfect like they would have been on a conventional press,” said Johannes. “It’s getting them to think about the things we could do with postal optimization, driving response rates, and more one-to-one marketing.”
What companies like IWCO Direct have found is that the education and outreach is also not necessarily about the printing technology, but the value of mail in general. “It’s very much an outbound sales effort in terms of identifying a market that was not effectively using direct mail and being able to talk to them about the value of mail, rather than being focused on the production,” said Debora Haskel, VP of marketing for IWCO Direct.
Another important consideration with production inkjet is that much of the action happens upstream, not necessarily on the press itself. For companies that are doing the white-paper-in variable-data printing that inkjet enables, prepress is no longer about RIPing an InDesign file or a PDF and printing conventional proofs for customer sign-off. “Proofing is a whole new ballgame in this environment,” said Johannes. “It’s not like you can say you’ll print out 10 versions and give them a proof of each one, because there aren’t 10 versions anymore. Depending on the combination of variables that you plug in, there can be hundreds or even tens of thousands of versions.” Needless to say, proofing each impression is impractical. “The process becomes, you’re not signing off on versions, you’re validating the business rules that you create to drive the versions,” he said. As a result, prepress becomes a process somewhere between IT and data processing.
Hungry Hungry HIPAAs
Allied Printing also found the need to revamp their workflow software to make it more effective in a continuous-feed inkjet environment. “It was designed for a more conventional shop,” said Chichester. To take on new kinds of clients and work also required some other changes. “We went through the process of HIPAA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliance so we could do some health insurance health plan mailings,” said Chichester. “We’ve improved our security, and we have redone our entire operation to create a contained digital direct mail center. It’s a closed-loop operation. From a security and a logistics perspective, it’s very nice.”
Changing the Conversation
Companies these days often need to be taught the value of direct mail, and that as a customer acquisition tool, it remains highly effective—when executed well. The approach to direct mail that production inkjet allows lets printing companies play a more active role in their clients’ marketing activities.
“[Inkjet] has dramatically changed who we’re talking to and what we’re talking about,” said Haskel. “There’s a lot more focus on the return on marketing investment, not the cost per piece. It’s a much more strategic conversation or strategy-focused conversation.”
And it opens some doors. Once upon a time, the feeling was, why would a company’s chief marketing officer want to talk to a printer? Now, said Haskel, “The CMO actually wants to talk to us because we’re not just a printer anymore.”