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Small size, big progress

Apr 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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this small Texas print shop turns out large-size shop quality by using digital technology

Ed Grubbs and his customers don't believe that bigger necessarily is better.

That philosophy may help explain the success of Communications in Print (CIP), the company Grubbs founded in 1978 in the Dallas suburb of Richardson, TX. Grubbs and six employees make up the entire staff. There is no outside salesforce; referrals have built the firm's client base of corporations, advertising agencies, designers, print brokers and typesetters. Work includes brochures, sales sheets and small catalogs.

"We offer large-shop quality in a small-shop format," remarks Grubbs. "We're equipped like a large plant, but provide our customers with a small shop environment."

Despite the small staff, CIP handles a growing workload, increasing from 15 percent to 20 percent in each of the last three years. This year, the printer predicts even greater growth, with sales of approximately $1 million.

The key to handling growth is to invest wisely in technology, says the owner. He admits, though, that it's not always easy to know when the time is right to get into a new technology, regardless of whether it's hardware, software, films or plates.

However, Grubbs is certain of the need, even as a small shop, to move into the digital market. "Anyone who fails to get involved in digital services, in one form or another, eventually will be out of business," he asserts. "We made the transition to ensure our longevity - to position ourselves for the future."

The technological changes have come fast and furious since opening the business. "We started with an A.B. Dick duplicator, an old camera and a card table," relates Grubbs. The instant and commercial print shop, originally known as Commercial Instant Printing, was changed to Communications in Print (CIP) to reflect more accurately the high-end prepress and press work coming out of the plant.

These days the duplicator sits covered near the Komori Lithrone 26 six-color press and the camera is used rarely since more than 95 percent of work coming in is digital. Also, the table has been replaced with large work surfaces to hold computers, scanners and other electronic paraphernalia.

Even a small shop can be a technological leader. For instance, CIP was one of the first shops in the Dallas area to install a Linotype-Hell Topaz flatbed CCD scanner.

Nevertheless, small shops may have difficulty making big investments in new technology. Early adopters often pay the highest price to be on the cutting edge of technology, comments Grubbs. Second- and third-generation products not only are less expensive, but also are more stable.

"First, we judge everything by its performance, then look at price," he emphasizes. "When salespeople pitch a product 'that's just as good as . . . and cheaper,' they will have a problem with us.

"Basing your buying decision strictly on the lowest cost is false economy," Grubbs continues. "The price you pay for an item is just the incidental cost. The cost of performance is much more significant." This reasoning holds true for any of the shop's graphic arts products, from the Topaz scanner and Power Mac 8100/80 to Kodak films and Aqua-Image lithographic plates.

"The Kodak 2000 film we use on our Herkules imagesetter is a good example of how a product's performance can affect quality and productivity," offers Grubbs. "We've been able to run day in, day out without altering a basic calibration - it's so stable that it stays at [+ or -]1 percent. Also, variations in processor activity don't affect film calibration."

Print shops must look at each step of their operations as part of an overall integrated system, Grubbs adds. "If we can't generate an extremely hard dot on film for stochastic screening, then the plates - no matter how good they are - will have problems. It's the same way with the press. Each element is integral to the whole printing process."

The firm is doing extensive testing as part of its move to offer stochastic screening. Part of the research involves generating color test forms, running them on the Komori press and measuring results with a spectrometer. The device enters values into the computer, allowing staff to compare measured values on printed sheets to values output on forms.

"This process allows us to map the color gamut for our particular press and produce more consistent color," observes Grubbs.

The company expects clients will use stochastic screening for jobs demanding the highest quality. However, there are tradeoffs, notably between the coarseness of rosettes and the appearance of grain. "Buyers are familiar with rosettes and expect them, while the grain in some colors may be a new experience," he explains. "But, it's a better alternative and provides more photo-realistic printed images."

Since stochastic screening likely will generate more work for CIP, management is looking for a new location that will triple the organization's current 4,500-sq.-ft. plant. Also, the shop will add a second press operator for a second shift and plans to hire additional personnel, which could double or triple its staff by the turn of the century.

"We want to be large enough so the quality of work and personal lives are enhanced," Grubbs stresses. "There's a happy medium there, between not being big enough and being too big. We haven't found it quite yet."

However, the company has found the importance technology plays regardless of its size. Grubbs insists, "We can't expect good work from our craftspeople unless we put good tools and materials in their hands."