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The Image Store

Mar 1, 1997 12:00 AM


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"The printer or trade shop that holds the image owns clients' printing work" is a relatively new, but increasingly true adage. Just ask the growing number of graphic arts firms delving into the storage and management of their customers' digital image libraries.

"Graphic arts firms and their customers are starting to realize that images have a lot of value," stresses Gary Stephens, president and COO of Color Associates (St. Louis). "They are customers' assets. Thus, if they can reuse them electronically, clients are saving tons money lost in generating the same image over and over."

Sounds great, right? Hold on a second: it isn't as straightforward as it sounds. Sure, simply storing these digital images isn't a tough task for a firm to accomplish. The real rub comes with the management of these images, that is, just where the heck did you store that image, what exactly did you name it, and which version of the image is under that name?

"Managing the data is not difficult, but it is challenging," relates Robert Nuelle, vice president of World Color's Digital Services Div. (Orlando). "It requires that you have a good hardware and software system, and that you are customer-aware and customer-intimate. You must understand what clients' current requirements are.

"Data from an asset management system can be held in any of three physical states of existence: alive, hibernating and asleep," he continues. "If customers think you are keeping their data alive and, God forbid, it is asleep, you've got to wake it up and resuscitate it. That's where a firm can run into serious problems if it isn't aware of customers' expectations for data. You must have a solid, fundamental management system that takes into account the implications for versioning, data integrity, backup, security, etc."

"Managing digital images can be a nightmare," laments Chris Lewis, president of Lewis Creative Technologies (Richmond, VA). "For example, some clients will initially scan several images, then decide they are no good and not worth using. Then they'll come back three years later and decide that, hey, maybe they were worthwhile after all and we have to find them. A printer or trade shop must have the discipline to manage the information thoughtfully.

"Managing images is driven, in most cases, by the clients and their organizational capability," he continues. "For example, we have some clients that manage digital images manually with a spread sheet or a simple log book. Thus, we keep track of their images by passing that log book back and forth, making copies of it, etc."

However, as Lewis points out, by far the most efficient method is using an electronic database. You still must have the discipline to keep track of all changes made to an image, rename it properly and know exactly where it is in the system, however. It all still comes down to the human factor.

Finding the database right for your own firm's particular needs, unfortunately, is easier said than done.

"There are no really good commercial products available to track images," claims Lou Laurent, president of consulting firm Laurent Associates International (Sarasota, FL). "That's because systems expect printers to adhere to certain pre-established database parameters. So, unless you can work within these systems, with a broad range of customers supplying files in different ways, they are difficult to use. The best systems typically are home grown."

Color Associates has developed its own database called Vision Point, which tracks all the images customers send. "The system tracks all the pertinent information, i.e., whether the image is line work or color, its height and width, etc.," notes Gary Stephens. "We then keep those images stored on a server so that all of our customer service reps and salespeople can access them and find images based on certain characteristics, typically by job number."

Also, customers are given remote access to their images via passwords of their own choosing. "Customers can categorize their images any way they like for their own use," Stephens points out. "Although our staff may think of these files as number one, two, three, etc., customers prefer to refer to them as, for example, a pretty picture of a sunset, etc."

McKay Communications (Midland, MI) is in the process of ramping up its own image management service for customers and understands the importance of establishing manageable databases. "The databases are important because they are what will link all of the image files, making them searchable, downloadable and movable," points out Dale Kowalski, product and service development manager. "It's not so much a technology challenge, however. For example, file naming conventions and how we want to sort our 'stuff' are going to be highly important for search criteria.

"We also plan to have plenty of reporting and tracking built in," he continues. "Customers always will know exactly what they have stored and who is accessing those images. In addition, we can provide different levels of access for various levels of a customer's corporate structure or its various service providers. Also, all activity will be recorded, enabling us to bill for the service."

Another progressive firm, Applied Graphics Technologies (AGT), has developed Digital Link, a highly automated digital management system installed in all of the firm's prepress centers. According to Mel Ettinger, chief operating office of the New York City operation, AGT developed the system in conjunction with Eastman Kodak.

"Every image we process through our prepress centers automatically is archived, so there is no extra work for the operator," Ettinger relates. "We also use a number of sophisticated search engines. Once the image is in the system, it can be searched by using a string of characters that narrow down the choices very quickly. Up to 32 thumbnail images can be called up on the screen at one time, and customers have found it very easy to use."

Yet another company, Color Graphics (Atlanta), has established a program called Cyberease, allowing clients to warehouse, maintain and manage their images in a password-protected image vault within the printer's server systems. Each client has fire-walled access to only its own images and files. Once pages are completed, Cyberease allows clients to move the files directly in the firm's workflow, and low-res images are OPI-ed on-the-fly.

Although the program has been successful, Bill Gillespie, vice president, marketing, relates that his firm initially experienced problems with customer-transmitted files ending up in the wrong place. "We have had to rethink and redesign our work path because image files were being transmitted straight into the prepress workflow as opposed to going through the customer service department," he points out. "We actually are redesigning the system every day so we don't have an image parked next to some Mac operator who doesn't know what he or she is supposed to do with it."

However, some firms either do not have the resources or the expertise to develop a complex automated system tailored to their own companies. Thus, they have adapted less complex, yet still effective, systems that work fairly well.

"We don't have the benefit of hindsight," offers Don Kopf, prepress manager for Coastal Printing (Sarasota, FL). "Thus, we do not have an automated system for storing, finding and retrieving files. However, we have set up a semi-automated system whereby we file images' job numbers and file locations on our customer service order entry database. The database indicates whether an image has been dumped, put on tape or, if we anticipate reusing it, put on Mac optical."

So, once a firm has established these services, how does it go about charging for them and actually making a profit? For that matter, should a firm charge at all? Predictably, industry opinions vary.

"We do charge but, in most cases, it is invisible to clients," notes Bill Gillespie of Color Graphics. "For example, we have some very substantial customers that use our image management service, but we offer it to them free of charge in exchange for long-term contracts of big volumes of business. That's really how we make money on it. When a more modest client without the big guns to commit large amounts of printing to us wants to use Cyberease, we underwrite a portion of it commensurate with the amount of work being done. However, we bill the rest, depending on the nature of the contract. They may be charged per megabyte for image transfer or megabyte or gigabyte for storage."

According to Kopf of Coastal Printing, his firm also does not charge for these management services in an obvious way. "If we do a catalog with four gigabytes of data, for example, it's just assumed that it is going to be stored and we are going to have it here available. However, we do not put this service on invoices as a separate item," he relates. "It's just a function of doing our work for customers."

On the other hand, some experts believe that graphic arts firms are missing the boat by not taking better advantage of a potential profit center.

"Charging for these services is the hitch," explains Lou Laurent. "Typically, printers and prepress houses are too generous about giving things away. They have established a paradigm that says 'we will store your images just because you are our customer, as long as you keep the work with us.' It seems easy to do, and printers want to use it as a competitive edge. Unfortunately, image management is a significant expense to manage, maintain and keep track of, but customers have become accustomed to not paying for it.

"What we need is more of an association-based look at pricing to determine what the true costs are," he continues. "What are the appropriate mark-ups for the service? Should there be a monthly or annual charge? Until this happens, there will continue to be pricing dilemmas."

McKay's Kowalski relates that his firm's pricing structure will consist of a number of different levels, depending on equipment issues as well as the size and the amount of time files are to be stored. These varying levels also are in place at World Color.

"We give our customers storage options," points out World Color's Nuelle. "Some don't plan to use the data again, so it's all right for us to simply write it to tape when the job is done. However, if a client expects to have not only a set of low-res images, but also a set of Internet or Intranet-ready files available just-in-time and all times, that's a totally different scenario. We can provide these strategic sets of services to clients, while building in some incremental revenue for us. It's a service that can be perceived as a real value if you charge it the right way."

"A year ago, people said to me 'anybody who claims they are managing data for profit is either lying or deluded,'" concludes Nuelle. "I doubt they would make that statement today, and those who do are really missing the boat."

It's not a given that managing customers' digital images will make a firm money right off the bat. Nor is it necessarily true that offering such services will be a seamless, simple endeavor. It obviously requires that all the image management pieces are in place and that graphics arts firms and customers are on the same page regarding access and pricing.

Once all the digital image pieces are brought together, there's no reason that managing digital images can't become a winning proposition for everyone involved.