American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.


Jan 1, 1999 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Whether contemplated as a value-added boon or a breakthrough in production workflow efficiencies, digital asset management has become a hot topic among digitally sophisticated printing and prepress operations.

In simple terms, the still-maturing technology, alternatively referred to as media asset management and content management, features a large database for the archiving and retrieval of 'digital assets.' These 'assets' represent any graphic, text or multimedia file in digital format.

By safely storing and organizing digital media for easy re-use by different departments in the company--as well as customers--the headaches and costs associated with tracking down or recreating lost graphics are eliminated. Also, workflows are streamlined by re-engineered production processes that permit such things as on-line job tracking and file format conversion.

While there are complex issues involved in building a digital asset management (DAM) infrastructure, not to mention a confusing array of hardware and software options to sift through, it is clearly an area graphic arts firms will have to contend with as the industry evolves. Thankfully, there is a real potential to gain new revenues as well as improve the bottom line and foster tighter bonds with customers.

'The reality is printers are becoming much more than printers--they're becoming information service providers and they need to be able to manage their customer s' data,' says Paul Beyer, director of the Digital Content Solutions Lab for Banta Corp. in Boston. 'You don't have to be a genius to figure out that with the sluggish growth and lowered margins inside the industry, printers are not going to get much bigger much faster without looking for ancillary services.

'Asset management is just a continuation of the things that have been happening over the past five years in terms of the digitization of the process and it's not going to stop. If you understand what that continuum looks like, you can benefit as a printer, just as the printers who adopted desktop workflows early on grew their businesses. But if you turn your back, you're going to get run over by this. It's just that simple.'

Jon Hornstein, the director of technical services for DAM software vendor Canto, maker of Cumulus, claims that even the most basic implementation of a DAM system puts a graphic arts provider 'leaps and bounds' ahead in workflow efficiencies.

'What I constantly see is companies who recognize the need for an asset management system and even commission someone to come up with a plan and investigate software, but end up not doing anything,' explains Hornstein. 'They're so afraid of a misstep. But just by having that ability to find images without even knowing what they are called or where they actually live on the server or on the folder hierarchy is a tremendous advantage.'

Hornstein, an independent digital imaging trainer ansd consultant to graphic arts providers for five years before joining Canto, advises that the first consideration in picking a DAM solution must be the company's overriding business goal.

Is the objective to move jobs through faster? Is it to cut staff requirements? Do you want to reduce the need to re-shoot pieces of art? Do you want to engender deeper loyalty from customers by keeping their assets? Are you trying to keep up with a competitor who's already adopted and is advertising a DAM system?

'Once you've decided what your objectives are, then you have to make decisions in a series of different categories,' says Hornstein. 'One of them is technology. How are you going to store the images? What kind of platform do you want--if it's an all-Macintosh shop, do you want to stay with the Mac as a DAM server because it's easier to support or should you go to NT or Unix because that might be more powerful or cost-effective? If you're looking at remote use, what kind of network or high-speed backbone line is going to be required?'

Another category is workflow. First, are you willing to change workflow in order to optimize your use of the DAM system? Secondly, where is the most benefit that can be reaped for the smallest number of changes? Where can you get the maximum improvements for the least amount of investment, whether it's a capital investment or an investment that comes from changing workflow and the work habits of employees and customers?

The third area is future growth and expansion. 'If all this technology is dynamic, you might be planning to obtain media business,' reasons Hornstein.

Banta, for one, is committed to making asset management an integral component of its commercial printing, digital variable printing, CD-ROM and Web site development services. Toward that end, the Menasha, WI-based printer has developed the application software Centrus for use by its customers, including catalog publishers, corporate publishers, marketers and retailers. As an example of its customized DAM system's capabilities, catalog customers can now link on-line merchandising systems (with order entry and inventory information) to Banta's automated catalog production system.

'There's a fundamental distinction between just archiving final form images and being able to have a production system that handles versioning and different renditions,' explains Beyer. 'The whole point is to streamline the workflow. The database can give you tremendous automation if you know what you're doing and automation is what sells. When you can create pages three times faster than you did last year, that's how you get customers and that's how you make money.'

Like Banta, the Chicago-based Seven Worldwide, Inc., formerly Wace USA, has assumed a pioneering role in asset management in response to client demand for lower costs and turnaround times. Currently, the prepress company, with annual sales of $200 million, is offering DAM, from simple archiving to file translation and transmission and complete workflow reengineering, to more than 3,000 of its customers worldwide.

'As a business, it was clear to us we had to start marrying this proven technology with its production capabilities to add value to our client relationships,' says Michael Conner, communications director of Seven. 'For our industry, the whole process, from design and production to delivery, will be more and more affected by digital workflow advantages.'

Part of meeting the changing needs of clients is helping them with their struggle to implement national and international brand campaigns across an increasing range of media and markets. With Seven's DAM system, digital files are transmitted via ISDN lines, modem and satellite, allowing people from diverse areas of the globe to receive the same file in various formats and media. 'Consistency and speed are integral components to all this,' says Conner, reporting that Seven's estimation of the growth potential for imaging businesses is $350 billion worldwide.

Sue Robertson, corporate vice president and general manager of the media asset solutions division of Inso Corp., which recently acquired Bitstream's Media Bank, sees DAM as being in 'the second lap of about an eight lap race.' The key for anyone getting involved at this early stage is to focus on a system offering flexibility and compatibility. MediaBank product is targeted toward providing DAM solutions to prepress firms, catalogers, publishers, ad agencies and corporations.

'As opposed to some vendors on the market who dictate a workflow, MediaBank has been set up to be an adaptive workflow in which users can continue to use the words and processes they are comfortable with, but with more information at their fingertips,' says Robertson.

'Firms should definitely get started with something that's server-based because that's really the only way they can truly share assets with the outside,' she adds. 'Our product has a Mac and a Windows interface that is TCP connected to the server for wide-area sharing as well as a full Web interface.'

Quebecor Litho Plus, one of the largest prepress facilities in Canada, uses MediaBank software to give clients access to files held on its DataVast storage server, including remote retrieval of stored elements using an Internet browser. When a client requests a file residing on the server, the Internet server module dynamically generates HTML pages displaying thumbnails of the elements.

'Our customers often retrieve their digital files for repurposing of the material--including dropping in elements for new jobs,' confirms David Ballantyne, manager of electronic applications at Quebecor. 'For many of our catalog and retail clients in particular, it gives them an additional return on their investment in the creation of digital files, especially images. Now, an image can be reused repeatedly without the need for rescanning, correcting or retouching.'

One of Quebecor's major customers, Canadian Tire, which produces weekly retail fliers and large catalogs, has realized a significant savings per image every time it is reused, according to Victor Imbrogno, digital asset manager at Quebecor. Quebecor's service charge for each client depends on the size of database being housed and there is a monthly maintenance fee.

In developing a DAM infrastructure for the handling of thousands of images and documents, planning is essential.

'A DAM system, if used properly, is a key enabling technology for the whole organization, so that also means it has the potential to directly affect everyone and everyone should be in on the decision-making process,' reasons Hornstein. 'The creative department is looking to meet its needs: 'We have to be able to drag from the catalog window into Quark'. The IT people are looking for other things: 'Well, it's got to be TCP/IP'; and the accounting people are looking for their own things: 'It's got to be able to import records into our Oracle database system'. Then you have the salespeople who see the potential for it to help them.'

Dave Koteski, director of technical sales for the Digital Imaging Division at Arandell Corp. (Menomonee Falls, WI), figures a year went into planning the ins and out of his firm's initial DAM installation. Arandell is one of the largest providers of printing and services to the catalog industry, including digital imaging and customer identification services.

'From my experience, everything starts with educating people in the plant, as well as the customers, about how much is involved in DAM--it's not just a matter of taking a bunch of digital files or images and throwing them into one big storage device,' says Koteski. 'You really need to plan your naming conventions. Think through and plan how you're going to structure the database so that those images are easily retrieved for future use.'

Koteski stresses the need to have one qualified person oversee the system to ensure consistency in naming conventions, search criteria and the organization of that information within the database. In essence, that person serves as a librarian.

'Like a regular book library, you don't just throw a bunch of books up on the shelves--there are very detailed procedures for building and organizing that library,' says Koteski. 'Unfortunately, designating a person as the 'librarian' is an afterthought for some managers. They look around and see Suzy over there doesn't have a lot to do--'Let's put her in charge of the database.' The fact is anybody can buy the software and put in place, but the person who manages it, who does the hostkeeping and organization, is really the key to it being successful.'

Training of employees, in fact, is the most crucial component to planning and building a DAM infrastructure, says Hornstein. He even puts it above picking the right technology.

'There are actually two types of training for a DAM system,' he says. 'One type is teaching people how to use the program. This means, for example, showing there are four ways to catalog something and six ways to search. That's generic training and it's better than nothing. But what's most valuable is 'customized training.' It's things such as showing the traffic manager how a category is set up so he or she can look by clicking on a certain icon. And by doing this search, he or she can see exactly which pages are still in copy-editing.

'So customized training isn't just showing people how to use a piece of software--it's showing them how to do their jobs better using that piece of software. In order to provide that kind of training, the trainer really needs to understand the workflow. This is what we do for Cumulus clients.'

Customers must also be 'trained' as part of launching a DAM system, says Imbrogno of Quebecor. One example is training them to provide archiving key words for the new files they submit.

'There are operators on the client side who like the way things are and they don't want to change, so by training someone as the administrator on the customer side, it's a lot easier to implement the program,' says Imbrogno. 'Depending on the size of the database, it may only take 20 to 30 percent of their time, but it's important they fully understand the system. If there are any problems on the customer side, this person can then help out the others, and that creates a greater chance of acceptance within the organization.'

Arandell, currently a beta site for WAM!BASE developed by WAM!NET of Minneapolis, is examining new methods of working with its customers.

Offered as a turnkey solution for printers and their 'partners' (agencies, customers, service bureaus), WAM!BASE covers cataloging, access, transfer and security through it's high-speed WAM!NET network. The printer pays by the megabyte for storage and doesn't need to buy any additional equipment.

'For customers who just print with us and are monogamous with us, it makes sense to keep their database here on site where we can manage it for them, but for our customers who work with multiple printers and prepress suppliers and have a very large database, WAM!BASE is a better solution,' explains Koteski. 'It's open so anyone who needs data from that database can pull it out themselves, eliminating the need for them to call us.'

For Harper House, a medium-size prepress color digital images service provider in Dallas, internal production management was the primary objective behind developing a DAM system based on a LinoServer Manager database from Heidelberg Prepress. The server solutions are based on the Data General hardware's Windows NT or Unix platforms.

'Secondly, we wanted to provide a means for clients to browse the Internet and download their low-res files to build documents,' says Chris Jackson, vice president, director of technology for Harper House. 'A key consideration was having something flexible enough for people to be able to work in or out of the system.'

Heidelberg's DeltaBase Manager is another option offering a modular, open-architected solution for small to large prepress environments. Users can access their digital assets via thumbnails, larger viewfiles or detailed element information. 'With computer-to-plate and now the addition of signatures and imposition to the scheme of things, it becomes a management nightmare survive in a production environment without some sort of DAM solution on your production side,' stresses Tom Krumm, prepress product manager for Heidelberg.

Also touted as an integrated solution is Imation Publishing Software's Media Manager. 'We are not offering an off-the-shelf, shrink-wrapped product--service and support aspects are really key for us,' says Jason Thunstrom of Imation. 'We are dedicated to knowing clients' individual workflows, financial tracking needs, file reporting needs, etc.'

George Alexander, an editor with Seybold Publications, warns that while asset management is obviously an exploding field with tremendous potential for graphic arts firms, it remains in constant flux as a technology that has only emerged in the last three years. Also, some vendors have recently downscaled operations or changed their target markets, suggesting there can be a significant financial risk involved for firms investing in multi-user hardware and software packages that range from a few thousand dollars to a few hundred thousand dollars.

'Not only is it difficult to understand which package is going to best suit your needs but it is also difficult to convince yourself of the long-term future of some of these (vendor) companies because there is so much competition right now,' reasons Alexander. 'I would listen carefully to what the potential vendors are saying about their interest in your market specifically and I would also look to their installed base. What percentage of their base is doing your type of work compared to some other kind. As they're increasingly forced to specialize, will they specialize in your direction or away from you? Do they have customers in your industry? If they can't come up with any firms that have a very similar position to yours then you may end up being the lonely owner of something they're really not interested in targeting after all. The conservative approach is to look for people who've had successful experience in a very similar business to yours.'

One firm making headway in the rush to refine digital image storage and production for prepress is Iterated Systems in Atlanta. Its product, StiNG, based on a patented Fractal Transform Technology, can create resolution-independent, scalable images for print delivery without a loss in quality. The big selling point is 'lossless compression.'

Color Technology, Inc. (CTI), a leading high-end prepress shop that produces ads for Coca-Cola, Nike and Microsoft, uses STiNG and Iterated's new reXpress digital imaging software in-house to streamline the prepress workflow , increasing efficiency and improving image quality. The aim was to enhance the efficiency of the process advertisements undergo before final output. Images now need only be scanned and edited once, saving significant amounts of time for artists and production staff, testifies Russ Dodd, director of research and development at CTI.

'As the world quickens, the deadlines shorten,' he says. 'From CTI's standpoint, DAM is opening up new business opportunities because we have freed time to take on more projects. This is definitely the next dominant wave of the whole digital process and we're finding that having an underlying image architecture is going to be a key component, not just a slick Web browser or a great search engine or storage device. It's about making sure once the customer or production worker can find the image, something can be done with it. So the asset management tool needs to be a tool and not just a variation of a library card catalog system. What you're looking for is flexibility and power.'

Here are some basic tips to consider when building a digital asset management infrastructure: *Have a goal in mind. Decide exactly what the firm's overriding concerns are. Is the objective to gain production efficiencies and/or new revenue streams? Are you simply aiming to tie yourself more closely to clients? *How much is enough. What kind of database platform best suits your foreseeable needs and how powerful and flexible must it be? *Remotely concerned. Customers often want remote access to the database, either with a dedicated dial-in service like ISDN or T1 or over the Internet, to download images or track a job's progress in production. *Get to workflow. Instead of trying to devise a system that does something for everyone, start by identifying where the most benefits can be reaped. Remember, production workflow must be fully understood before it can be reengineered. The system must integrate into the rest of the workflow. Some DAM systems incorporate workflow management features such as the ability to track client production schedules and determine status of job components. *Planning makes perfect. Before charging in, figure out who needs to be involved. 'Sit down with the key people who will be using the database and decide how you're going to make files and organize them,' advises Dave Koteski of Arandell Corp. 'The whole idea is to set it up so anybody can access it and can easily find the information they need.' *Trained and ready. Qualified and able administrators are needed for setting up the server, assigning permissions and access, monitoring activity, creating effective category structures, using status to automate the workflow. You can't find something if it's hidden, mislabeled or misnamed. Clients must also be taught how to add assets to the database, enter information about those assets, and execute simple and complex searches.