An under-the-radar flight pattern for MCS Inc.

by Sean O’Leary

The first thing Glenn Toole said to me was “We change our world every 4 - 5 years and if we don’t we’re not moving ahead.”

It was just last week that your PrintPlanet reporter stopped by MCS, Inc.’s Bolingbrook, IL National Demonstration Facility for a follow up chat with Glenn Toole, Vice President Sales & Marketing. This trip was sort of a continuation of a brief Print ’17 booth visit, after which I had been dogged by a feeling that there was more than a trade show story here. I realized that MCS was a positive example of a mid-sized American company that had been making all the right moves for decades, and maybe that kind of story needs to be told more often. Below is a summary of my wide-ranging chat with Toole.

MCS, Inc. develops and manufactures inkjet imaging systems, inserters, electronic tracking systems and integrated platforms for the mailing industry. They have managed to get here by figuring out how to thrive in a highly competitive, unpredictable business space by identifying the places where larger companies were not and moving fearlessly into them, or some cases, creating new niches based on close observation and intuition. In some ways, MCS’ history of adaptation mirrors the evolution and automation of the direct mail industry as it morphs into the digital age.

The Beginning
Imagine if you will the murky days of 1989, when Windows was on version 2.0, the World Wide Web was just emerging from the realm of ARPANET, commercial inkjet printing did not exist and MCS founder David Loos was selling Point of Sale software in the restaurant industry. It was a bit of a sideways shift then, when he established Micro Computing Systems as a reseller of Group 1 PC software to the mailing industry. The Group 1 product was an early database marketing product that was eventually sold to Pitney Bowes.

Although the business model of MCS would evolve many times over the years, the anticipation of the data driven future of mailing and direct marketing would remain constant. According to Toole, the early connection with the direct mail business culture has also conferred street cred vs competitors with wider ranging interests.

“At that time, direct mail represented a business opportunity with a low barrier to entry,” says Toole. “Even though a lot of things have changed, the small business point of view still more or less informs these companies today. We are relevant to their business because we understand the need for flexibility.”

With that software platform as a core template of sorts - and although the vision may not have yet been fully formed - MCS began filling in the other components of a fully automated direct mail system.
The first move beyond software was to incorporate Nipson laser printers into the printing workflow. Why Nipson? According to Toole, Loos was betting that cold xenon flash fusion technology was superior to standard for label printing, because it did not generate heat. That was the first of against the grain bets that paid off.

In the nineties, inkjet was still a tentative concept in graphics printing, but MCS was already moving to incorporate industrial inkjet into a direct mail system. Within a few years, the company developed a proprietary monochrome addressing line based on Trident inkjet technology, followed in 1996 by a transition to HP nozzle technology. The next year (1997), MCS had introduced ImagerPro which OEM’d both the HP nozzles and front end.

As the 21 Century dawned, Toole says the company decided to continue to OEM the HP nozzles, but go back to their core expertise with a more robust software platform built in-house by MCS developers. The result was the Array Imaging System addressing system, which anticipated the end-to-end digital workflows in the pipeline. The inkjet arrays could be expanded to 16” wide, a plus as direct marketing moved toward more content on each mailing piece.

Toole gathers momentum as he paints the rest of the picture for me. With profits being squeezed out of the mailing industry, the demand for precision became a driver for an industry under existential pressures. To meet that need, CEO Loos ordered up a camera and electronic tracking system that would integrate with open standard software environments. Next, the company developed its own transport systems designed to integrate with the rest of the platform. And finally, with an eye toward expanding substrate compatibility and drying speed, MCS established the ThinkInk division. Toole tells me that a new nano polymer AS100 inkset will run on aqueous coated, gloss, uncoated and UV coated stock at full speed.

Throughout much of this history, MCS had managed to dominate a niche by focusing primarily on challenges for advertising mail companies -- which haven’t been targeted by the larger industry players. So for inkjet solutions, they have focused on monochrome. “It takes deep pockets to chase color, when there are several players already competing.” says Toole.

But that is changing too. As color inkjet begins to make rapid inroads into toner-based systems in the graphics world, the trend is mirrored in the direct mail niche. MCS is now partnering with Konica-Minolta to offer high speed inkjet based systems that can be inserted into the company’s integrated systems like a promo piece into an envelope. With digital color mailings growing at a double digit rate, this is clearly where the next opportunity lies.

“The time has come to challenge the economics of toner-based imaging in our world,” said Toole. “If you look at what we’ve done along our timeline, we both reflect and also sometimes drive the evolution of the mailing business.”

“The way we look at it is that our market is horizontal, whereas most other vendors in this space address a vertical market,” says Toole. “Ultimately, direct mailers know data, and we know how to help them leverage it to stay competitive. So to stay successful, we simply need to continue to follow our customers’ lead.”

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