Lessons Learned on Our Journey to Inkjet
By Robert Clark, Manager, Digital Print Operations, IWCO Direct
When you’re good at what you do, it can be difficult to switch gears and take on new challenges, even when you know those challenges will pay off in the end. Back in late 2009, IWCO Direct was already very good at conventional print, but was looking ahead at adding new technology and expanding our manufacturing capabilities with production inkjet technology. The more we investigated inkjet, the more opportunity we saw.
We found that we could move customers from a preprint environment with little versioning to a new platform that allowed for variability of every aspect of their mailpiece. We also saw efficiency gains in removing production steps and going to a white paper solution. In terms of marketing, one-to-one targeting was the next big game changer. When our clients are successful, we are successful, and in order to help our clients reach their customers on a more personal level, adopting inkjet seemed to be the most logical step.
As our company made the business decision to move in this direction, we continued to see new benefits from the technology. The pros far outweighed the cons, but that didn’t mean the journey to inkjet came without a learning curve. If you’re looking into transitioning to inkjet, learn from what we did right—and what we could have done better.
Partner with Manufacturers to Optimize your Equipment
We made a decision early on to invest in inkjet technology as quickly as possible. This allowed us to stay ahead of our competition and learn the technology as it developed. It also permitted us to partner with manufacturers to shape the technology to our needs in some areas. This was a huge boost to making the technology work for us and appealing to our customers, but meant a lot of troubleshooting and trial-and-error testing.
If you’re transitioning to inkjet, create a testing plan for deciding which manufacturer to partner with for both hardware and front-end solutions. Remember that when you partner with a manufacturer, your success becomes their success. Setting goals and timelines benefits all parties by ensuring feedback loops and technology growth in areas the market needs.
Don’t Anticipate an Easy Transition
Our first misstep was thinking that the transition would be smooth and this equipment would not be all that different from our other printing technology. After our first installation, we realized we needed to address some unanticipated challenges with moving from a conventional workflow to a variable inkjet workflow. This included setting up color profiles and dealing with asset management, both of which quickly became a focus for our teams.
We had to take a step back and invest the required time and effort to get the equipment running to our standards. With any manufacturing investment, making the equipment run efficiently and effectively has to be the first priority, and that begins with looking at the front end of operations. Building out the front end (e.g. color management, workflow, and assets) is the place to start when adding new technologies like inkjet.
Involve Stakeholders Early on and Form a Dream Team
After our initial press investment, we created a team of internal experts composed of color specialists, engineers, operations experts, paper specialists, and content creators. As we looked at expanding our portfolio, we wanted to ensure that our testing and acceptance looked at all facets of the equipment. We developed a strenuous testing regimen that was designed to push the limits of the equipment and what our manufacturers could do to customize it for our business. The testing outline was given to all manufacturers, and we went through a six- to nine-month information gathering period. As a company, you must find what will work in your market and—as no platform is the silver bullet—what trade-offs your company is willing to make.
Keep Your Focus on What You Have
The manufacturers continue to make technology leaps year after year, which can be challenging when looking for the combination that will give the end customer the trifecta of speed, quality, and paper choice (i.e. being paper agnostic). What we learned is there will always be a newer, shinier version of tools for your business, but finding what works consistently and efficiently in your environment takes time and is a commitment that an organization will need to make in order to be successful.
Anticipate a Shift to Inkjet
With technology advancements over the past years, and those we see in the future, inkjet will be able to provide the same quality and speed as conventional print. However, there will always be a customer or project need that will have to go on a conventional press. With the workforce becoming more sparse and skill sets being at a premium, the market will be forced to change. End clients have become more accepting of the quality difference between conventional and inkjet, and have seen more benefits from one-to-one marketing. They have done their own internal audit and found that cost and targeting outweigh any lingering quality concerns they may have when switching to a new manufacturing technique. Technology acceptance along with a labor market shortage will continue to push advances and grow inkjet output every year.
Make Sure Your Organization is Up for the Challenge
I was lucky to work for a company that provided the resources needed to ensure a successful transition. If you are beginning to make that commitment and investment, ensure you have the internal resources to meet your objectives. Clearly map out your end goals and develop a strategic plan with measurable milestones to keep your company moving forward and ensure a smooth transition or adoption phase. This helps ensure you stay on track and everyone has both internal and external visibility.
About Robert Clark
As manager of digital print operations at IWCO Direct, Robert is responsible for providing leadership for all digital print operations at the company’s Chanhassen facilities, encompassing cut-sheet and continuous devices with both monochrome and full color capabilities. He played an instrumental role in developing IWCO Direct’s digital print capabilities, and continues to help refine and expand the company’s service offerings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.