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The Copies Overnight/Copresco Story

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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A key to achieving success in any business is to find an unmet customer need and base the business upon filling that need. One unmet need has been short print runs. In the 1970s, the advent of direct-image plates spawned the quick-printing boom, but that only addressed single-sheet, single-color work. This was great for stationery, but there was still no easy solution when someone needed 200 prints of a process-color page or 100 books or manuals.

My last job before cofounding Copresco (Carol Stream, IL), our digital on-demand print business, was at a commercial print shop with both duplicator and fullsize offset and letterpresses. Occasionally an order would arrive for a short-run book. Everyone groaned when this happened. How do you handle 100 copies of a 400-page book? If the job was produced on the large presses, it would be plated for 16-page signatures, meaning 50 makereadies on a single-color press, with almost no running time! Spoilage was high on the press and even higher on the folder.

The alternative was to run one page at a time on a duplicator press. The makeready per form was slightly faster, but any advantage was lost by having to burn and hang 400 direct-image plates! The individual sheets then had to be collated.

We all felt there had to be a better way.

Business plan for digital

When the personal-computer revolution arrived, there was a marked increase in these types of short-run jobs. People were no longer beholden to a publisher or a typesetter to get their work into print, and there were signs that clients might be receptive to new, more economical processes.

In 1986, I developed a business plan recommending formation of a new division to harness new technologies for print. The plan was long on both technical and marketing details, but the general overview included the following overlapping concepts:

Specialization

The new digital processes were not envisioned as a replacement for offset. Rather, we would concentrate on those customer projects that had never worked well using offset or any other printing process available at that time.

Integration

By the mid-1980s, a series of technologies had been developed but were not yet interconnected. Our plan called for organizing these new machines, many of which were never intended for the graphic arts, into a seamless, cohesive process.

Justification

Nowhere did we insist on the use of new technology just for the sake of being high-tech. Better workflows meant better solutions to customer problems. Our customers didn't care about PostScript or lasers, but boy, did they love that faster turnaround could be achieved for a reduced cost per book!

Focus on print quality

While customers were willing to try new things, the industry itself was more skeptical. I presented the plan to the owner of the commercial sheetfed shop where I worked. After some consideration, his decision was that, as a printer, alternative technology did not belong in his shop. (Ironically, 10 years later he was sitting in my office at Copresco, asking for advice regarding the purchase of his first DocuTech!)

Sometime later, I reviewed the details of my plan with Chuck Legorreta, a friend from the carton and packaging industry. He, too, foresaw the massive changes that were coming to his industry, and suggested that we join together to begin a new venture. After all, if we were willing to risk someone else's money, why not our own?

True digital printing as we know it did not exist in those prehistoric days. Our plan recognized that the graphic-arts community's biggest concern was quality, and that the inkjet and toner-based digital-printing technology already in place (hooked to mainframes for printing invoices and statements) was not sufficient to produce the crisp type that books required. The first PostScript printers were tiny desktop affairs, and could never withstand the rigors of a production environment.

We therefore looked instead to xerographic processes. Xerox (Rochester, NY) was suffering from both management and quality problems at that time, but Kodak (Rochester) was getting rave reviews for the images it was producing with its Ektaprint line of high-volume copiers. The first production-level printing device to incorporate electronic collation and inline binding, we believed these “copiers,” when properly maintained and operated, were capable of fidelity to the quality of typeset originals. Hence the original name of our firm, Copies Overnight.

Turnaround expectations

Opened for our first day of business on Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, we soon discovered that our research had been accurate. While the stock market was crashing down around us, the demand for a better way to print was even stronger than we had predicted. Our very first job, only 40 copies of a 380-page book, validated the business model. This run, perfect for us, would have been unthinkable in the commercial-print and book-manufacturing shops of the time.

There was no need for a sales force. Commercial printers were eager to take such work off their presses to make room for more profitable runs. They were happy to act as our sales channel by farming jobs to us. And with a name like Copies Overnight, there could be no doubt about what our business or our premise was. Although technology and even our name has changed since then, these philosophies still guide our success.

The first challenge our new company faced was controlling turnaround times for complex projects. Our promise of copies overnight as originally intended meant the production of book blocks ready for binding by the next business day. A key element of our business plan was to “hook” customers with fast turnaround, perhaps even faster than was needed. FedEx had proven the efficacy of this model: Once clients grew used to sending letters overnight, the old standard of a week to cross the country was no longer acceptable.

Once again, we found that people embraced the Copies Overnight concept with a vengeance. Previously, they would have waited weeks for printed book bodies. Once they grew used to our fast service, even that was not good enough. Although we promised only the printed pages overnight, some customers asked for fully bound books, expecting all finishing and printing to be accomplished by the next business day.

In 1999, we changed our name to Copresco, but our plan still called for the fastest possible turnaround of all projects, including billing. So rather than fight customers on this point, Copresco found ways to bring on-demand workflow to our bindery. This didn't always mean inline finishing — but it did mean bringing the “on-demand” mentality to all company departments. Clearly clients did not view our process as photocopying. This was the birth of on-demand printing.

Technology challenges

The original equipment lineup we'd chosen presented two immediate challenges that continue to beleaguer all digital printers:

  1. Image quality
  2. Machine reliability.

The Kodak 300 was indeed able to accurately reproduce type and line art, but was not as satisfactory in producing tints and halftones. The machine also couldn't handle the volumes that Copresco soon demanded of it.

Our corporate culture required us to always be on the lookout for new technology that could improve our processes. When Xerox revealed its long-talked-about DocuTech machine in 1990, we knew the fit was perfect for Copresco. Xerox didn't even want to show it to us; apparently companies like ours weren't one of its targeted markets. But we persevered and installed our first DocuTech in 1990. Today, the majority of installed DocuTechs worldwide are in graphic-arts facilities.

These machines immediately addressed Copresco's needs for both better dot quality and higher throughput. The original DocuTech produced a better halftone dot than was possible from any other toner-based machine of its day. And our tests showed that one DocuTech could replace three of our Kodaks. We ordered a second DocuTech within months of the first.

That was the positive side. The downside? Constant breakdowns, and a lack of understanding of our quality needs by vendors. Our customers — not the machine manufacturers — dictate quality requirements.

Xerox also overpromised on the DocuTech's connectivity. When we installed the first machine, it was still not a networkable printer. The promise was that a PostScript-enabled RIP was forthcoming, by the end of the year. In reality, it took the vendor three more years to enable its DocuTechs to accept PostScript files.

Dawn of color

Copresco's emphasis on continuous improvement led us to examine the newly introduced color devices in the 1990s. The new printers pushed by Xeikon (Itasca, IL) and Indigo (now HP Indigo, Palo Alto, CA) were intriguing, but before we put the manufacturers' claims to technical tests we needed to analyze the market.

The digital color market posed one very marked difference from digital black-and-white. Whereas commercial printers had been happy to take short-run, black-only jobs off their presses, they were not nearly so eager to relinquish process color — and for good reason. High-end four-color was still beyond the reach of those early digital presses, and most clients were unwilling to compromise image quality for a little cost savings.

But Copresco discovered two distinct areas where digital color could succeed. The first was powered by tremendously popular software, such as Freelance Graphics and Harvard Graphics, both of which have now been replaced by Microsoft PowerPoint. Originally used to create slideshows, these programs were being widely employed to produce all sorts of documents and presentations. They were usually color-rich and of pleasing quality. These files had never been on an offset press, and in fact usually gave prepress departments conniption fits.

The second area was truly short runs integrated with digital black pages. That meant multiple pages of color and black collated together into books, the very market Copresco already specialized in. With at least two markets fitting our business model, we began testing digital color presses.

How do you manage change?

We eventually discovered that the two brand names that were hits with the trade press would be little more than novelties at Copresco, since neither one could pass the cost/benefit test. We believe the fledgling digital color industry continues to exhibit a higher-than-necessary failure rate because of a tendency to choose the “coolest” new digital press without consideration of a positive ROI.

It is worth noting that our caution in the color arena did not in any way slow Copresco's growth. In 1996, before installing our first full-color digital press, Copresco was named to american printer's Top 50 Fastest Growing Printers list. At the same time, we began winning the first of many awards for print quality and innovation, validating our position that high quality standards and the digital process were not mutually exclusive.

Today, Copresco continues its philosophy of innovation. Our current equipment lineup reads like a Xerox roster, using the new-generation 6180 DocuTechs and the 2000 DocuColor series. But we still test comparable equipment from Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) and Canon (Lake Success, NY) in our constant search for improved image quality, better workflow integration and greater ROI.

Letterpress ruled the world of print for more than five centuries, with the technology virtually unchanged for the first four. Offset has ruled the roost for less than 40 years, yet in that time prepress, makereadies and image quality have changed almost beyond recognition.

The quality and accuracy of the color images Copresco currently produces surpasses anything produced via offset just a few decades ago. The old cliché that the only constant is change must be taken as a given in the printing business. It is the way that change is managed that will ultimately determine the long-term success of a digital printing operation.

The more things change…

Since digital printer Copresco (Carol Stream, IL) was founded 16 years ago, technology has moved forward at a blinding speed. Yet there is an eerie feeling of déjà vu on the management side. In 1987:

  • Workflow was key
  • Customers were demanding lower prices…
  • Faster turnaround…
  • And better quality.