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Does the large-format, digital-printing industry deserve its own management software?



I just returned from the Electronics for Imaging's EFI Connect 2006 user's conference, which was held April 30-May 2 at the Venetian Casino in Las Vegas. As you read this, EFI (Foster City, CA) is celebrating its first anniverary of having acquired VUTEk (Meredith, NH) for $281 million. This seventh annual conference (best attended yet, with more than 1,300) included more than 200 educational sessions. I was one of 26 invited journalists invited from 11 countries. I was the only person from a sign magazine.

EFI is a $485 million company that primarily provides software-system solutions to help various kinds of printers manage their businesses: quick printers, direct-mail printers, digital printers and even offset printers, such as R. R. Donnelley, which prints ST .

The conference included a mini tradeshow with 21 companies and some very recognizable names: Xerox, Ricoh, Canon, Toshiba, Heidelberg, Adobe and the National Assn. for Printing Leadership (NAPL). The tradeshow's 14-station "lab" allowed attendees to go online and try out these software products. A conference highlight was an hour-long "fireside chat," complete with a 20 x 40-ft. Vutek-printed backdrop of a den with a fireplace, at which EFI CEO Guy Gecht interviewed Adobe CEO Bruce Chizen.

In the back corner of the tradeshow area, a Vutek PressVu was displayed. The neighboring display promoted EFI's Fiery RIP, which was originally designed for narrow-format production. Vutek has provided the ColorBurst RIP (Sterling, VA) with its machines for several years. Currently, PressVu purchasers have a choice between the ColorBurst or Fiery RIP.

Marc Olin, EFI's Sr. VP and GM of Professional Printing Applications, presented an hour-long update on all of EFI's product introductions from the prior year, as well as upcoming innovations. Primarily MIS solutions, these products carry brand names of Hagen, Logic, Fiery and PSI, and they help printers manage their operations in terms of estimating, mailing, color, invoicing, post-job costing, Internet selling and seemingly any other type of printing concern.

Olin seemed to explain much of this off the top of his head. Perhaps that's why he was awarded the NAPL's 2006 Technology Leadership Award for his "longstanding and ongoing dedication to the development of innovative technical solutions to enhance the graphic communications' production process." NAPL's website says it represents the $100 billion+ "graphic communications industry."


That's pretty big.

We'll assume that industry represents the customer base for EFI's traditional line of products. In stark contrast, the superwide-format market (72 in. wide or more) is smaller.

I attended two Vutek-specific sessions. EFI's Michael Wozny led one entitled "Superwide-Format Opportunities" amidst 18 other concurrent sessions. It attracted nine people, mostly from overseas. A three-member user's panel, although quite interesting, attracted less than nine.

In this issue's Lighting Survey (see ST, June 2006, page 88), fluorescent lighting repeats as the electric-sign industry's most prevalent illumination form. As you read this, I'll probably be back in Las Vegas at the Lightfair show. I'll be hard pressed to find any exhibitor there who cares about fluorescent lighting for the sign industry. It's just too damn small. When I once wrote about VOC emissions from paint, a manufacturer told me that sign paints represented "a pimple on the ass" of the total coatings industry.

So, to what extent will EFI revamp its narrow-format printing products for a superlarge-format audience? Would it worth it?

Connect-attending journalists received a press kit. Inside were numerous case histories. One focused on 80-year-old Kubin-Nicholson, a billboard-printing company that outputs anything big. It purchased its first two Vutek printers in 1996. In January 2005, Kubin-Nicholson bought EFI's Hagen OA production software, which manages printing projects. The case history states, "Kubin-Nicholson is looking forward to increased [emphasis added] integration between Hagen OA and its Vutek RIPs."


It later says Efrem Powell, Kubin-Nicholson's MIS director, awaits "the promise of integration between Hagen OA and the Vutek equipment." Powell is quoted: "We still get real-time data into Hagen OA from our Vutek presses, but it requires the operator to enter the information. Once the integration is complete, that process will be automated."

When I returned home and called EFI, I was told Hagen OA can "estimate wide-format work. Specifically, standards can be established to calculate printer production time based on square feet or meters per hour. In addition, the user can now control multiple default settings to simplify the estimate entry process." Of course, the much larger question is, will any companies find the sign industry a worthy target for business software? Yes, there's Cyrious Software (Baton Rouge, LA), and a few others, but not many $485 million companies.

Simple economics, I assume. The market will determine EFI's interest level, as well as that of potential competitors.



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