Computer-integrated manufacturing, computer-to-plate technology, variable data printing, dynamic communication and distributionナthis is not your father’s print shop.

Since the mid-1990s, we have seen some of the most significant technological achievements in the history of magazine publishing. And most of those changes have affected production and, therefore, impacted the printing process. In fact, many of the new technologies, systems, and equipment have come from ; or were first embraced by ; the printing side of the publisher-printer relationship.

Here are some of the trends:

Computer-integrated manufacturing
Computer integrated manufacturing (CIM), or process automation, computerizes manufacturing and business processes for the printer and the publisher alike, offering lower production and distribution expenses and enabling higher employee productivity with fewer mistakes, less waste and faster turnaround. This allows authors and advertisers to move ideas from concept to consumption at a pace that is more competitive with other media.

"Advances such as closed-loop color and computer-to-plate have created a better print product," says Bill Amstutz, senior vice president, operations, at CMP Media. "Schedules are shortened slightly, but the real benefits are more cost savings and fewer quality complaints."

Today’s computer-integrated printing plant is highly sophisticated, relying on automation in many production and distribution processes. For example:

ユ Content digitization, in combination with closed-loop, color-feedback press systems, enables the press to retain a uniform color match throughout the run. This translates to much faster press runs with less paper waste. In combination with better bindery-system controls, this opens up high volume Web offset printing even to magazines with only a few thousand copies in circulation.

ユ Publishers are compiling more subscriber demographics through online subscriptions and renewals, and more accurately targeting subscribers. And they’re applying that data at the printing plant. Geo/demo binders now enable sophisticated subscriber preparation for realizing lower postage costs.

ユ USPS work-sharing programs are optimized for significant postage savings through the availability of computer-driven co-mailing and co-binding systems.

ユ Time-to-market is being reduced as more printing and distribution processes become automated.

Computer-to-plate technology
Computer-to-plate (CTP) technology eliminates much of the cost of prepress services. More importantly, it saves time. Any alteration of content can be accommodated in hours, if not minutes, and even remotely.

The product that helped publishing and printing achieve CTP is Adobe’s Acrobat software. Many publishers have since switched to Adobe’s InDesign software and have brought prepress in-house. Common file formats have been established, using a set of standards that designers, publishers, and printers all agree upon, thereby making it easier for advertising agencies to submit ads and for publishers to communicate with their printers.

"It just made sense to deliver PDF/X-1a files directly to our printers," says Stephen Hart, director of pre-media technologies at Hearst Magazine. "Consistent color from Photoshop to InDesign and then to Acrobat PDF greatly aided our need for uniform color proofing."

The switch from film to digital content through CTP also inspired digital asset management software ; an application that stores digital assets (content) as a combination of image files and metadata, which describes an image’s purpose using keywords and other parameters such as embedded ICC color profiles for proofing and the press.

The final step toward a complete "virtual prepress workflow" is soft proofing, which enables publishers to eliminate physical proofs and intermediate proofing steps ; again, saving critical time and significant expense. The use of soft proofing remains limited, as some printers still need to equip their presses with monitors of sufficient size to display inline pages.

Variable Data Printing
In variable data printing (VDP) ; also called one-to-one marketing or digital print on demand ; a publisher can combine variable text and images stored as records in a database to create printed documents. VDP provides a more powerful and automated means of database publishing, one in which the publisher can selectively target individual subscribers or prospects and deliver a unique, customized message to each individual.

A publisher’s existing database can be dynamically linked to Adobe InDesign or Quark Xpress, and the printer seamlessly imports the data. With minor tweaking, using a digital press, the printer then varies the content on each page of each printed piece, allowing the publisher to deliver total personalization, discrete imagery or coloration, and individualized messaging to each recipient.

VDP has become a hot topic in the printing industry, as it is a service that any printer ; large or small ; can deliver by investing in the necessary digital equipment and software to support the service. And VDP as a strategy, reportedly, doubles or triples response rates for mailers ; again, regardless of size.

Dynamic Communication and Distribution
The Internet has irrevocably changed the traditional business model of magazine publishing, just as it has the traditional services offered by printers. Whether for list processing or logistics planning, soft proofing or asset management, sophisticated printers now incorporate the Internet to ensure efficient and predictable product preparation and delivery for their publisher customers.

And while print-based products will remain a vital product of the publishing industry for the foreseeable future, publishers today must see their printers as communication/information services providers that can help them produce content for a variety of media ; from the pages of a print magazine to the pages of a website or to the tiny screen of a hand-held wireless device.

"Roughly 15 percent of our total revenue this year will be from the Internet," reports Jeff Klein, CEO at 101 Communications. "We have one business unit where e-product revenue is greater than the print magazine revenue. Internet revenue has been growing at more than 30 percent a year."

Digital Editions
As high-speed Internet connection becomes the norm, publishers are more and more inclined to publish digital equivalents of their print publications ; including the advertising ; that are delivered via the Web. In fact, the industry may be moving to the point where adding a digital edition becomes the norm,

Digital editions serve everyone: the publisher, the subscribers, and the advertisers.

ユ Publishers find a digital edition augments their print product, adds new revenue sources, expands their readership, and offers unique advertising opportunities. Digital editions also cut costs on paper and postage.

ユ Subscribers have instant access to the same product as the print edition and often extra or enhanced content; they can print articles, search archived material, and navigate through links.

ユ Advertisers also have more options when preparing ads, such as interactivity, video, and sound.

Trade magazines have been particularly successful with their digital editions. Subscribers ; especially the international audience ; can access the latest industry news and information immediately and affordably. Also, reading the magazine online appeals to managers who commute, travel, have limited time, and want to access archived material.

The concurrent publishing to both print and the Web allows for:

ユ faster service for hard-to-reach subscribers (e.g., international)
ユ quick service to new subscribers
ユ inexpensive trials for new audiences
ユ rich-media content enhancements (e.g., sounds and video)
ユ Web links
ユ searchable archives
ユ controlled access

Transforming print-ready magazine pages in hours to Web-ready "digital editions" is a reality for some publishers, who have produced digital editions for years and for whom digital subscribers represent 10% or more of their circulation. It is also a differentiating factor among printers, as those with the capability to prepare and distribute digital editions have invested in the technology required to provide that service.

So hang onto your hats, because ; ready or not ; the world of publication printing is evolving. We’re in the midst of a virtual revolution in printing technology that you can safely expect will become even better, easier, faster, and more sophisticated as time goes on.