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Oct 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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While Suzanne Cowan was sure she wanted to return to the business world once her twin daughters were grown, she wasn't so sure about her former career as a bank trust investments officer--she didn't want the responsibility of investing people's hard-earned money. So she opened an AlphaGraphics franchise with her husband.

"The funny thing is running a business is no different," laughs Cowan, sole proprietor of the Ft. Worth, TX quick print shop since her husband died two years after the store opened in 1987. "You work with hundreds of different clients who all have different requirements and different needs, needs that always are changing."

And keeping up means continually investing in new technology. Cowan's latest effort toward satisfying clients' evolving and varied needs--including faster turnaround, complete digital format connectivity, enhanced image quality, variable data printing and satellite/remote access--is the integration of Xerox's DocuTech 6100 digital printer three month ago. As a result, she projects sales will jump from $1.5 million to $1.8 million this year.

"Our customers are becoming more and more digitally savvy and so we were looking to get into the black-and-white digital arena," she testifies. "We're really becoming more of a small commercial shop. The possibilities with the Internet alone, being able now to take e-mail files, is going to open a whole new area for us. We'll also begin to get into (personalized) marketing pieces because of the capability now of merging databases."

One of three AlphaGraphics inside Ft. Worth, Cowan's 13-employee, 5,000-sq.-ft. shop represents one of the region's largest quick printers, catering to corporations, insurance companies, managed health care programs and human resources organizations,with products such as training manuals, provider network manuals, review materials for testing purposes and handbooks. It also produces a whole range of forms, letterheads, brochures, envelopes and newsletters.

The shop offers full four-color process printing, spot-color and black-and-white printing, three offset presses, high-speed duplicating with two Xerox 5090s and a 3060 engineering copier and two color copiers with Fiery RIPs. The graphics design department uses both Macintosh and PC computers. Its prepress department includes an imagesetter capable of handling negatives, halftones and direct-to-plate processing.

One of the key factors for choosing the DocuTech 6100 new printer/publisher, was the shop's need for PostScript and total network compatibility. Another feature Cowan was sold on is the printer's speed of 96 sheets per minute. "At this point, we anticipate getting rid of one of our 5090s because of the productivity improvements made possible by the 6100," she says. "We've really tried to put a wide variety of jobs--booklets, newsletters, anything that has screens --on the new machine and I've been absolutely amazed at how well the quality is in comparison to the 5090."

Cowan does admits she and her staff were initially intimidated: "For the first couple of days, we all kind of looked at it and thought, 'Okay, what are we supposed to do with this?' " she recalls. "All of us were used to light lens and having a document feeder and then all of a sudden here was this printer with no document feeder."

Scanning from the DigiPath software turned out to be a breeze, though. "We can throw 50 sheets on the scanner and walk away," reports Cowan. "And since the software is not part of the printer itself, it's not even in the same room. I can come in early in the morning, scan whatever jobs needs to run that day and when the key operator comes in later, the work is sitting there for him to do. He decides which jobs are going to be more efficient to run at what time. But they will already be programmed and RIPed to the 6100. That really makes scheduling easy. You don't have to wait for one job to finish before setting up for the second, third or fourth job."

It didn't take long for everyone in the shop to see how easy the software was to learn. "It's just point and click," says Cowan. "It's so close to any normal graphics program that if you know how to work in Quark or Photoshop, it is super simple."

Because the printer won't operate if programmed improperly, it provides a perfect safeguard against waste-making errors such as those by key operators who don't read the print order and thus print on the wrong stock: "It becomes an ineligible job and the machine won't indiscriminately print anything, which is a big cost-saver," says Cowan.

As proof of the new technology's remedy for makeready headaches, she cites a quarterly auction catalog for heavy machinery that AlphaGraphics has produced for a number of years. The original job collateral is brought in the Friday before the Sunday auction and AlphaGraphics must begin deliveries of the 2,500 finished catalogs by Saturday evening.

"The paste-up of the original was always the biggest nightmare because it would take one to two days to do and would hold us up," explains Cowan. "Now, with the 6100, we are able to do the makeready on a scanner and it takes only six hours. We can scan pages where they need to be placed and, therefore, don't have to do any physical cut-and-paste. The customer was dumbfounded by the quick turnaround and liked the improved quality--it was simply a much cleaner job than ever before."

Another customer, a local church congregation who ordered a memory book, commented on the much-improved quality of photographs as a result of AlphaGraphics being able to contrast and lighten the screens. "You could actually see (facial features) better than what you could in the actual photographs," Cowan reports.

By being the first AlphaGraphics franchise in her area to have the new DocuTech 6100 with DigiPath production software, Cowan expects the other 23 franchise locations in the "metroplex" region of Ft. Worth will start taking in digital work and using her facility to produce it.

As for the other small shops she competes with, "I think they will have a lot of trouble keeping up. Our volumes are growing every year and it can be attributed to staying on the edge of technology. People will turn to us because they know we can handle their needs."