What is print quality, really?

Printing has effectively been made a commodity, thanks to linear film out-put at nominal screen rulings of 150-175lpi to SWOP standards. This state of affairs has been amphibologies that take much of the mystique out of the prepress function, such as desk-top publishing, scanners and inkjet printers.

Print buyers are increasingly taking advantage of this situation, demanding ever lower prices and faster turnaround times. This has forced many printers to seek new ways to differentiate themselves.

Some have added ancillary services, such as digital asset management and creative design. However, at its core, the business of print is about putting ink on paper. Savvy printers are exploring ways to distinguish themselves in their print manufacturing processes, and are rethinking the notion of “quality” from a different manufacturing and sales point of view. This requires challenging some accepted “truths.”

Two industry truths (that aren’t)
1. Print buyers buy print
2. Printers sell print

Print buyers don’t purchase printing for a lack of presswork; they see print as a media that fills a communication need in a way that is more effective than other, often less expensive and easier to implement vehicles, such as the Internet. They are buying the unique value that only ink on paper can deliver. As a result, expectations will be different from buyer to buyer, project to project. Today it will be pleasing colour for a flyer, tomorrow, hi-fidelity for an annual report. One size does not fit all.

In turn, successful printers do not simply sell print. They form relationships with buyers that allow them to be seen as a print solutions provider. Producing customer-tailored products and services provides them with the best opportunity of being considered whenever print is the chosen vehicle. The printer is therefore perceived not as a commodity, but a valued partner in solving the print buyer’s communication needs.

However, customising the manufacturing process for every unique customer expectation can quickly send printers into bankruptcy. Print production is at its most cost efficient when standardised, which would seem to conflict with the printer’s ability to meet unique requirements. Traditional mass production manufacturing models do not apply well to an industry that produces custom products.
How can the printer reconcile the opposing needs of customisation and standardisation?

Customisation enabled by standardisation
Many companies are revamping their production lines to make them flexible enough to spin hundreds of variations on a single product, from the same assembly line. This model is awkwardly named “mass customisation,” as it is designed to merge the best of two opposite manufacturing models—mass production and custom production. Mass customisation is intended to support both low production costs through standardisation, and competitive differentiation through customisation. A move to mass customisation can deepen market penetration, solidify customer loyalty, and create a cost-efficient production cycle. There are six key concepts in mass customisation.

1. Evaluate printing in customer terms
This means understanding your customers and their needs, then confirming that you truly offer products based on those expectations. In the same way that you might like a hamburger prepared in a posh restaurant one day, but only have time for a fast food burger the next, print buyers may consider some jobs as critical and others not. In response, you might consider standardising a few different production streams for projects. This allows you to scale your production and costing according to the customer’s needs for the specific project at hand. For example, different production streams for colour might include:

• Critical colour production paths (high fidelity). This might include high-fidelity scanning/custom CMYK
conversion settings; laminate proofing, specified tolerances for colour deviation on press, frequent documented press sheet consistency checks, and frequent post-bindery documented quality checks.

• Pleasing colour production paths (medium fidelity). This might include basic digital scanning/generic automated CMYK conversion settings, inkjet proofing, industry-standard tolerances for colour deviation on press, less frequent press sheet consistency checks, and random post bindery quality checks.

• Base production paths (low fidelity). This might include unaltered customer-supplied scans, laser or soft proofing, industry-standard tolerances for solid ink density deviations on press.

2. Offer the appropriate number of choices
Effective mass customisation depends on not only understanding what customers want, but also translating that information into an appropriate number of choices. Print buyers may require high fidelity for an annual report as well as SWOP-targeted presswork for a catalog. Instead of offering one presswork standard, such as 175lpi at SWOP densities, you might consider standardising several presswork targets.

For example:
• 175 lpi GRACoL standards.
• 175 lpi at Dmaxx. This is presswork run at higher-than-standard solid ink densities in order to provide
more saturated colour.
• Staccato screening to provide near continuous-tone fidelity and photographic detail.
• C2MYK. This is CMYK with an alternate magenta ink hue to allow the printer to alternate between
favoring either reds and oranges or blues and purples.
• High fidelity via an extended colour set. This can be to expand the colour gamut, as with a Hexachrome-like hue set, or to replace spot colours, as with the Creo Spotless system.

3. Create a modular production system
Volkswagen is a leader in successful mass customisation. With only four platforms to choose from, they manufacture over 30 different vehicles around the world. Believe it or not, the Volkswagen Beetle and Audi TT sit on the same chassis as the Volkswagen Jetta, Volkswagen Golf, Audi A3, and various Skoda and SEAT offerings in Europe. The secret is that the parts the customer does not see are standard across the different models, but the parts that the customer sees are unique to each model. In printing terms, the printer could standardise a few key presswork characteristics that provide maximum visible customisation. These would then be pre-tested and integrated into the production workflow. When the sales representative discusses the project with the client, one of the standardised packages can be offered as the “custom” option to meet the specific expectations for that project. The key is developing, pre-testing, and standardising options rather than waiting for a customer request or experimenting on live jobs.

4. Provide fingertip access to all information
Everyone in the company should be able to access relevant information about customer orders and the individual steps of production. Having information readily available allows flexibility in that anyone from executives to production can see where an individual order lies in the process and where a process or module might need to be changed to adapt to new customer demands. It also enables every employee to be “on the same page” in supporting the company’s commitment to meeting each customer’s expectations. Database as much information about jobs as possible, and only make new mistakes.

5. Establish a direct link with customers
When customers order custom products, the company finds out much more about customer preferences than it could ever learn through traditional market research. Database as much information about customers as possible—building relationships is key to success, relationships depend on intimate knowledge. Printers could potentially profile their customers, workflows, and presswork to tailor production and service for each customer and product. Referring to this information can also lead to better estimates, guide new equipment purchases, and suggest new service opportunities.

6. Make it hard for customers to go elsewhere
Beyond giving customers product choices, mass customisation can create an addictive customer interface, which in turn can create loyalty. You want to make the customer’s experience of dealing with your company as consistent as you expect your presswork to be. Every point of contact between your organisation and your customers —personal or technological— should be tuned to make the customer’s life as easy as possible.

So what about quality?
Quality is, as eloquently defined by business management guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming, “meeting customer expectations.” Therefore, a true “quality” printer is one that understands that it is not a question of high or low quality, but rather how closely they have met the expectations of their customers. The ability to efficiently tune a standardised manufacturing platform to meet these custom expectations becomes a cost-efficient competitive differentiator.

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