The 10 BEST Production Breakthroughs

Jun 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

We’ve come a long way, baby, in production technology. Sure, the printing press helped create the catalog industry as we know it, but advancements in the past 20 years have reshaped the production world. Here, we cite the breakthroughs that have allowed catalogers get to market faster and more efficiently than ever.

THE TOP 10 1. Desktop publishing software. Today it seems ridiculous for a mailer to create a catalog without using some form of desktop publishing software, whether it’s QuarkXPress, Adobe Illustrator, or Photoshop, to create page layouts from text and graphics files. But as recently as the late ’80s, some in the production industry doubted that the software would be able to “translate” those pages through every step of the production process. These doubters were proved wrong, of course. “Many of the people who said that desktop publishing was inadequate are no longer in business,” says Dr. Joseph Webb, cofounder of San Francisco-based TrendWatch, a graphic arts and publishing consultancy and market research firm.

2.Computer-to-plate (CTP) technology. Although CTP technology has been around for nearly 15 years, it wasn’t until the early ’90s that printers and catalogers began to recognize its significant time and cost savings. CTP eliminates the need for film by imaging the page directly from the computer to the printing plate, which can shave as much as a week off production cycles and save up to 20% in materials. A cataloger, for instance, can save $50-$100 per 16-page signature, or form, in film costs. Add the elimination of the film-based proof, which can cost $150 a signature, and a cataloger can reduce the prepress expenses of a 96-page book by $1,200-$1,500.

CTP also allows catalogers to achieve cleaner and crisper images on press. Apparel and housewares marketer Bloomingdale’s By Mail, for one, found that CTP produced more detailed images of crystal, silverware, and dark garments, says director of catalog production Michael Carton.

3. Versioning. After the paper and postage hikes of 1994-95, catalogers discovered that versioning techniques-such as multiple covers, inserts, and selective binding-could boost response rates as well as cut costs by sending only targeted page forms to specific customers.

Versioning works like this: A cataloger encodes its mailing list with specific instructions based on consumer behavior or location. Then at the printer, the page signatures are loaded into the “pockets” (where the signatures are held before being collated) along the bindery line. As the pieces move down the line, the bindery computer tells the appropriate pockets to “fire” based on the mailing list codes. The copies slated for best buyers, for example, may include signatures 1, 2, 3, and 4, while all others may get only signatures 1, 2, and 3.

4. Ink-jetting. Ink-jetting messages onto catalog covers and order forms enables mailers to “speak” to individual customers. A cataloger that mails the same book to five market segments can version a cover specific to each, and then ink-jet a variety of messages pointing out product-specific pages to subsets within each group. New England Business Service (NEBS) and PC Connection are just two marketers that say they have increased response rates by singling out customers with personalized messages.

The new generation of bindery equipment allows marketers to apply 8-inch-wide ink-jetting messages vs. the original 2-inch and 4-inch messages. “The new wide-area imaging equipment really gives power to variable messaging, testing, and pricing,” says Carol Swanson, marketing manager for commercial printer Banta’s Catalog Group. “It provides more flexibility in personalization because it adds graphics and variable fonts to the messages.”

5. Digital photography. The first wave of digital cameras to hit the market in the early 1980s were unreliable and limited in application, thereby generating little interest among catalogers-especially among apparel marketers who used live models to showcase the product. In the early days, digital photography was used mostly for still shots rather than for movement or for fine detail. But nearly 20 years later, the technology has significantly improved, and more catalogers are taking notice.

Because digital photography doesn’t use film, the turnaround time is appreciably shorter; mailers report cutting up to three weeks out of their production cycles after switching to digital photography. Flax Art & Design, a San Francisco-based catalog of stationery and art supplies, recouped its $30,000 investment in digital photography in just six months, says director of marketing Craig Flax. “And we’ve seen no drop in quality. In fact, we’ve been able to produce a cleaner and crisper catalog.”

6. Digital workflows. As catalogers make the transition from film-and-paper-based production to digital production, a fully digital workflow-having every production procedure, from prepress to print, electronically compatible-is crucial to staying competitive, not to mention sane. Not only does a digital workflow reduce the potential for error, but it can also electronically organize and manage product descriptions, price listings and changes, and images. Being able to build a catalog page from a digital database also reduces production cycles because it’s quicker and easier to access information for repurposing, whether for the Internet or customized print catalogs.

Big Toe Sports, a Madison, WI-based catalog of soccer gear, has been fully digital for more than two years. Converting to an all-digital workflow made sense because “it eliminated production steps such as scanning photos and producing film and film-based proofs,” says president Dan Nuthals.

7. Digital content management, or asset management. Digital content management systems combine several databases of text and images into one database that’s easily accessible from the desktop. “Catalogers have always had image-intensive production workflows,” TrendWatch’s Webb says. “And now that they have both print and Internet sales vehicles, catalogers need to manage all their images. Asset management uses databases to coordinate production.”

Coordinating the assets can significantly cut costs and turnaround time. One of Banta’s catalog clients, for instance, slashed its production cycle from 11 months to two months; another client reduced its cost per book from $25 to $5.

8. Digital and remote proofing. Catalogers have long relied on analog, or contract color, proofs as one last check of a catalog’s pages before going to print. But the increased digitization of the prepress and printing processes has made digital proofing an alternative that saves catalogers time and money. Digital proofs are made directly from digital files and printed on high-resolution ink-jet printers. Unlike analog proofs, digital proofs do not require their own set of film; digital proofing can also cut two weeks from the prepress process, allowing for last-minute changes.

Of the two types of remote proofing, “hard” proofing works like a fax. Let’s say a New York-based cataloger works with a color separator in Florida. The separator sends pages to New York via a remote proofing printing device at the cataloger and a high-speed connection. The cataloger can view the proof as quickly as a half-hour later. Conversely, “soft” remote proofing lets catalogers proof pages directly on their computer screen.

9. Portable document format (PDF). PDF, or flexible file format, allows users with Adobe Acrobat software to view files in their final form regardless of which computer system was used to create or open the files. In other words, PDF can open and view QuarkXPress files even on a computer that isn’t loaded with Quark.

PDF also allows catalogers to streamline the final approval process. For example, Viking Office Products, which prints 350 catalog editions worldwide, uses PDF files throughout its international wide-area network. Marketing managers from different countries can annotate the PDF files and route them back to the company’s Los Angeles headquarters for printing and distribution.

You can also send PDF files to printers without worrying whether the printer has the necessary fonts, because PDF documents have all the possible catalog elements-graphics, text, and layout-embedded onto one disk. The printer can drag and drop the file onto the press without viewing it first.

10. Telecommunications and networking technologies. Advancements in modems, electronic data interchange (EDI), integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines, and T-1 and T-3 connection lines allow catalogers to transfer data across remote locations faster and less expensively than with overnight delivery services.

Telecommunications advances now allow catalogers to choose from dedicated, or one-to-one, phone lines, which provide a high-speed pipeline to a particular destination; dial-up, or ISDN, connections, which enable catalogers, printers, and prepress houses to communicate quickly among themselves; and the Web, through which they can transfer data via e-mail. Dedicated T-1 lines can translate nearly 10 megabytes of information a minute to remote catalog divisions, service bureaus, and printers, while T-3 lines send even more information even more rapidly.