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Choosing a printer

Too often we take our printers for granted. We don’t give them a lot of thought, until something goes wrong, when all hell breaks loose. Not all printers are the same, and price isn’t always the best differentiator between them. Choosing the right printer needs careful consideration, says Matthew Parker, if nasty surprises are to be avoided down the line.

By Matthew Parker

As over-capacity becomes an ever greater issue in the industry, today's print market is becoming more and more competitive. Suppliers are busy expanding into different markets to try and fill their presses. Furthermore, the primary issue concerning supplier choice is usually seen as price, arguably a trend that has been led by the print industry itself. Today, there are a huge number of suppliers targeting buyers, and the task of differentiating between them can seem very daunting, especially as many sales pitches from printers seem very similar! At the same time, print purchasing has often been devolved to staff without specialist experience.

The purpose of this article is to encourage print buyers to consider in more depth what it is that they require from a supplier and the best methods to ensure that these requirements have been fully investigated. It is hoped that this will bring a two-fold benefit: to make it easier to draw up a suitable supplier shortlist, and to prevent price becoming the dominant factor in choosing a printer and therefore risking the appointment of an unsuitable supplier.

One important issue to review before thinking about choosing a supplier is the specification of your product. It is important that you know that your product will be produced to the right look. Equally, it is important to think of how a product may develop, to ensure that a new supplier will be able to help you grow your business.

Many procurement exercises today begin with a price gathering exercise and it is only later that the capabilities of a supplier are considered. However, this can lead to an uncomfortable situation later in the process when a buyer may be trying to find a supplier who is well placed to produce an item at the price tendered by an unsuitable supplier. I therefore believe that it is worth considering the capabilities of a supplier before going out to tender. I have expanded on some of the most important areas to consider below:

1. Plant list. Buyers need to understand the most efficient and economic ways in which their products should be manufactured. How will the pre-press workflow manage the client's files? Are a supplier's presses well matched to the product specification? Will a supplier have all the appropriate finishing equipment in-house? If not, how will they manage any outwork? How will the supplier manage any mailing requirements? The correct choice of press can also mean great differences in paper costs.

2. Financial stability. For most publishers, print is a core part of their business. It is therefore important to understand the trading position of potential suppliers. Unfortunately, in today's economic climate, using standard credit checking is unlikely to give a true picture of actual trading. Instead it is better to ask for copies of printers’ accounts, have an open dialogue with the financial director and understand their exposure to their key clients.

3. Quality control processes. Nearly all suppliers have some form of quality control process in place, but the standard of these will vary. The ‘tick box’ standard is ISO9001. However, this only demonstrates that suppliers have a system in place for producing to set quality standards, not that these quality standards are to a particular level. It is worth understanding what a supplier considers acceptable quality, the production tolerances to which they work and how this compares to your demands.

4. Colour management. This is still an area where many suppliers are improving their offerings. How are presses calibrated, and how accurately will suppliers’ proofs match the final product? How is the printed colour actually measured by the supplier? It may be worth ensuring that suppliers work to ISO12647 or similar standards.

5. Market position and strategy of supplier. Two suppliers with very similar plant lists may still produce very different prices for the same specification. A printer specialising in the magazine market will be set up to produce magazines and nothing else. This means that it should be able to produce a magazine much more competitively than a general commercial printer, but may well be less used to producing some ancillary work as efficiently as its commercial competitor. In addition, the magazine printer should have a better understanding of relevant areas such as correct presentation for newsstand distribution, and offer other magazine relevant services. However, it may not have the same understanding of downstream access postal prices as a direct mail specialist.

6. Account handling and resources. It is important to understand the level of customer service that a supplier can offer. Is the client expected to manage most aspects of the job, or will the printer offer a level of project management? How proactive will the customer services team be, and are they actually empowered to resolve your problems? These issues can have an immense impact on the in-house resource required at the client. And what will happen when the main account handler goes on holiday?!

7. Other services available from the printer. Often, printers will today offer more than pure manufacturing services. Magazine printers should be offering suitable mailing services as standard, but may also offer services such as the production of digital editions. Other services may include advertisement sales, subscription services and digital asset management. A buyer will need to understand the extra requirements of their business and whether a potential supplier can add value to the business in other ways than just print.

8. Ability to reduce costs through process. Print buyers also need to evaluate the total cost of production, not just look at the invoiced price. There are many digital workflow opportunities and these can dramatically reduce production schedules and the amount of skilled work required from the client. This article is not the place to cover these options, but a good starting point is to ask a supplier how they can reduce your production costs.

9. Paper management. If a client is purchasing their own paper, a printer will have to demonstrate suitable storage and relevant reporting procedures. Will a change in printer mean any changes to paper purchasing and specification, or the opportunity to reduce paper usage?

10. Sustainable paper accreditation. If an item requires the printing of an FSC or PEFC claim number, the printer will also need to be FSC or PEFC certified. It is worth noting that this certification has to be re-evaluated annually.

11. Environmental policies. There is a huge variation in the environmental policies of printers today and how they are applied within a company. What is required will depend on a client's own CSR policies.

12. Security issues. For items with sensitive data, printers should have suitable confidentiality agreements with staff. They should also have suitable policies for the destruction of manufacturing waste sheets. Financial products may also require a supplier to comply with specific on-site security and monitoring requirements. It may be worth ensuring that suppliers work to ISO27001 or similar standards.

13. Data policy. A regular off-site data backup should be in place at a supplier, and it is surprising how many printers do not have this in place. In addition, it may be important to understand how long data is archived and how data security is achieved.

14. Disaster recovery plans. A disaster recovery plan may not be so important for the supplier of peripheral print, but it is important to understand what may prevent printed items that are core to a business going out on time and how a supplier may address these problems. In these times of over-capacity, it may be tempting to assume that it will be easy to find another supplier, but the cost and effort in changing a supplier should not be underestimated.

Once drawn up, how should a list of requirements be evaluated with a potential supplier? I have suggested four stages below. I am not suggesting that all stages are carried out with all suppliers: rather that the stages are used as a filtering process so that time is only spent on a factory visit with the most relevant suppliers.

* Evaluation forms. A good way to obtain a swift overview of whether a potential supplier will be suitable is to develop a supplier evaluation form. However, these documents can, justifiably, be regarded suspiciously by printers who may regard these as box ticking exercises. It is therefore important to consider what is required from a supplier and how this should be translated onto an evaluation document. For instance, if a printer with a strong environmental policy is required, it is easy to simply include a check box that asks whether a printer is ISO14001 certified. However, is it right to exclude suppliers who have opted for certification to other standards, or who have a rigorous environmental policy that is not yet certified? And how does one distinguish between suppliers that comply with ISO14001 as opposed to those that use ISO14001 as one of a range of solutions to really try and make a difference to the environment? Careful wording of an evaluation form is necessary, as is appropriate communication so that the supplier understands how they may gain through completing such a form. Finally, it is important to make sure that evaluation forms are not too lengthy in order to ensure that not too much time is wasted for either supplier or buyer in processing these forms.

* Customer testimonials. These can play an important part in the evaluation process. A printer will only nominate their best customers, but even the most satisfied can be more honest than a printer would like! My experience shows that concerns are more likely to be raised through an informal conversation rather than a rigid audit document and that the most useful responses are in regard to specific questions rather than a request for a general overview of a supplier.

* Visit from the supplier. An initial sales visit from a prospective supplier can be surprisingly revealing. The knowledge of personnel attending, and their ability to expand on an evaluation form will show much about a company's culture, and whether the values that they publicise are lip service or ingrained in all staff.

* Factory visit. The final stage of a supplier evaluation should be a factory inspection. It may be that this is only carried out with suppliers that are short listed after a price evaluation exercise. One should expect to see all areas of a factory and receive a detailed explanation of all aspects of the operation that will be relevant to the end product. These may include: customer service, scheduling, paper control, pre-press, print, finishing, warehousing and despatch. One should also expect to see quality control and production processes in action and that they should match the processes outlined in the evaluation document! It is always useful to try and speak to the staff on the factory floor: after all, they will be producing the final job! If there are minor shortcomings with what is seen, it is worth being honest: a supplier may be prepared to make some changes to their processes in order to gain work.

This may seem a very thorough process. However, it will ensure that a supplier is genuinely capable of delivering the results that you require, and that you will be comparing like for like pricing when beginning price negotiations. Now the tendering process can begin!