The Path to Full Digitization
A colleague I’ve known for many years through SGIA, Terry Corman of Firehouse Image Center, (Indianapolis, Ind.) once said, “Everything that can go digital, will go digital.” I agree with this assertion whole-heartedly, and the changes I’ve seen over the past three decades verify his assertion.
Through digitization, printing has become less of a craft and more of a science — a measurable, controllable set of processes. While some lament these changes, what is has brought is here to stay, whether we like it or not.
I recently checked in with Terry, to see where his company is along its journey to digitize what they can, and to seek ways to digitize what they currently can’t.
Marx: With your background in the photo industry, you were an early adopter of digital printing technology — especially wide-format inkjet. What, specifically, was the tipping point for Firehouse to move from a full-service photo lab to a full-fledged graphics producer?
Corman: The tipping point was technological. Early on, the printing technology was slow, with big dots, and it was fraught with day-to-day maintenance problems. When Durst came out with their 205 flatbed/roll to roll hybrid, we bought it, and new markets and customers bought the output. That was at a time when customers made a big distinction between screen printing, digital printing, and sheet-fed printing. That pigeon-hole lasted for a few years. Today, not so much.
Marx: Having talked with you in the past, I know you’re strongly committed to minimizing “touches” in the production process. What’s the motivation behind this approach, and what (and where) within the process have the real benefits been?
Corman: Long-run work is the ultimate in limiting ’touches’, but virtually every run is getting shorter. Right now, the most “touch savings” come from customers writing their own orders, and software doing the proofing and pre-press. Our labor costs continue to increase, as a percentage, while the margin on jobs decreases. Having a paperless system in place helps reduce touches, but it can also be like juggling with knives. At this point, it is not for the faint of heart.
Marx: As technology continues to develop, and as more steps within the production process can be viably digitized, new opportunities come to the fore. What area is Firehouse Image Center is currently focusing on?
Corman: We are focused on having clients do their own quotes, as well as write their own orders. Our sales staff spends a large portion of their day doing quotes. The new software makes it easy for clients to do their own quotes, automate proofing, and send a fully written order. This is our big focus right now: Saving touches on the front end that can be automated.
The move toward process digitization, particularly for moving the job through the shop, offers strong opportunities for reducing touches, limiting variables, and – in theory – controlling chaos. But these systems are new, and don’t (yet) supply “set it and forget it” solutions for the graphics sector. Much of the work we do is still too specialized for that. The key considerations here related to process control and experienced, balanced (or limited) by the high variability of applications in the graphics segment.