Because Listening Matters: An Exclusive Interview


Well-known member
Because Listening Matters
An exclusive interview with Canon EVP Francis McMahon

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Interviews are a great way to hear how people in our industry think because listening matters. I managed to catch up with Francis McMahon, EVP at Canon Solutions America in Boca Raton, Florida. The back-and-forth conversation with Francis could easily have gone on for over an hour because of his deep interest in the industry, how it works, the ever-changing technology, and the state of play that torques the printing market in one direction or the other.

Canon and Francis are in Atlanta at PRINTING United this week, making this an ideal time to roll out the conversation he and I had in early October. If you go to PRINTING United in person or visit remotely, be sure to check out Canon’s latest offerings, including the upcoming varioPRINT iX1700 B3+ size inkjet digital sheetfed press, and the LabelStream LS2000 inkjet press. Announced just a few days ago, both are too recent to be on the show floor, and I’m yet to see either one, but they look to be strong additions to the company’s inkjet products. Let me know what you think!

And speaking of inkjet, I asked Francis…

NW: Inkjet has become the leading technology for digital printing. I’ve been in print shops that had offset, toner and inkjet equipment. Each business owner said he needed all three to satisfy customer needs. What do you think is driving this transition?

One of the most recent trends is the lack of available labor. Running an offset press is more than a skill— it’s really an art, and a passion many offset press operators have. Many of these people are retiring and it is becoming hard to find a skilled press operator. They have a sense for what makes an image look magical. Much of this can’t be formally taught and is only learned through hands-on experience.

Another factor is that run lengths are coming down: the number of pages needed is lower than it has been. At the same time, the quality and capabilities of inkjet printers has advanced. The result is that lot of the high volume, high-color work that has been done on offset presses can be transitioned to inkjet printers. The range of substrate types and formats for inkjet presses has also expanded making it much easier to put jobs on an inkjet device.

Going back to where I started, running an inkjet printer does not need the same skill level as running an offset press. With automation and the software involved one person can often run two inkjet presses at the same time with very little intervention and that helps cut labor costs. What happens is that a print shop owner sees his top press operators retiring and decides that inkjet quality, throughput, and having less skilled operators makes a lot of sense.

NW: One printer told me he had bought his last offset press and was shifting more work to digital, especially his inkjet machines. Some of this is run length, but how else are economics playing into the choice to use inkjet digital presses instead of offset?

The crossover points for inkjet versus offset continue to come down. Offset makes sense for long runs but as run lengths decrease another factor is the patience of the print buyer. Everyone wants fast turnarounds so the lead times have shrunk and print providers have to turn jobs much faster. Same-day or next-day delivery is business as usual.

NW: I’ve gotten fast turns on jobs. Are end-customers willing to pay for the faster turnarounds?

Print buyers are not always willing to pay a premium for getting a job in 24 to 48 hours because it has become expected. Buyers are more likely to shop around for the best pricing. This is nothing new but increased after Covid.

Buyers are often willing to pay for other valued added services printers provide and this is where the margin opportunity lies. This can be tough because print buying companies want to lower their SG&A. So finding the lowest costs for print, or anything else for that matter, has become the priority. And if a buyer can’t find a price they can live with many substitute print for other forms of communication like email.

The price game is not easy right now but I’m watching many of our customers reinvent their value proposition to drive margins up in other ways than just fast turnaround times.

NW: Some offset press vendors are actively leveraging digitalization to make their presses more efficient, even for short runs. OK, they can’t do personalized or individually customized printing, but they claim to be competitive for even short-run printing. How does this play out with respect to digital presses?

I am really impressed with the way some offset press manufacturers have made big advances and taken time out of the print process. There is still a market for offset presses, but as I mentioned earlier, finding skilled operators for these presses is not going to be easy.

The good news for people in transactional and direct mail is that they have more choices of equipment and software than ever before, and the investment by industry vendors keeps going up. Whether it’s equipment or software, we all push each other to provide better solutions for customers.

NW: Canon has both cut-sheet and continuous-feed inkjet presses. Not all press vendors offer both production class cut-sheet and continuous-feed inkjet and toner presses. What is the advantage of having both in the Canon portfolio?

It’s really about building a solution that is right for the customer. Our salespeople can offer toner, inkjet, sheet-fed and continuous-feed printing, plus a variety of finishing and workflow choices. This enables us to build a solution that isn’t constrained by the technology available. This is not to say that other companies and their salespeople don’t do this too, but it is an advantage to be able to offer a complete solution and work with our partners to deliver what a customer needs.

NW: Every print plant I’ve visited has had to change electrical, A/C, and more when adding new digital presses. I imagine the shortage of skilled workers among contractors adds a new level of difficulty. Can you talk about the challenges this poses for digital press vendors?

The challenges actually include many pieces of capital equipment in print operations, not just presses.

We use a team of project managers who work with our customers through the entire process, from order to installation. There are complexities that help and hinder the process, and some of it is out of the control of a vendor. For example, some states and cities are better at accommodating changes in electrical and climate control than others.

We find a key part is setting expectations. We tell customers what they can expect in terms of being ready to go. For instance, a customer may want their new installation done in three months but has not committed to the product configuration. This includes not just the printer but finishing, cameras, or any software that goes with it. Because some parts of a system may be unique configurations, we have to know exactly what the customer needs. The project management team helps move that forward. It’s all in how you manage though it, and that’s what the project management team does.

The other side is something you mention. There can be a shortage of skilled labor, for example, electricians or HVAC techs, on the contractor end. There is only so much we or the customer can do, but our team can sometimes help a customer work through this.

NW: I know you’re familiar with the Imaging Network Group, which comprises some of the largest direct mail and transactional printers in the U.S. As a group they made the shift from toner to inkjet in about three years. How do you see the larger market for inkjet, especially for “traditional” commercial applications evolving over the next few years?

INg might be the most important association in our industry and is led by some of the best and brightest leaders in direct mail and transaction printing. I’m personally spending more time with this group to educate myself on what is important so I can find ways to drive new solutions to help this community.

Transactional and direct mail printing have been our bread and butter for years and we’ll continue to serve them and evolve. What’s interesting is that a lot of direct mail offset printing is shifting to digital and the digital portion of direct mail is also growing. Canon was never in the commercial offset printing part of the market but we have found the ProStream and IX get a lot of attention, especially as offset run lengths decline. As you noted, there are a lot of digital presses in commercial shops, which is why I’m projecting a strong year in 2024.

NW: What have you learned about the industry and about management over the past few years of running Canon CSA?

Listening is absolutely critical. It’s vital to listen to your employees, your top customers, and your partners. Hear and understand what they are telling you. Listen to everyone at all levels, and especially listen to the people who have come from other industries. To do this you have to be involved. You have to be out of the office and in the industry; you have to sense it and feel it. When you do this, you can make the very best decisions because you have included all the necessary constituents. When you listen and take others’ ideas, they become a part of the strategy and the execution of the strategy. Then you have built a culture where everyone has a role and feels ownership for the role they play. Culture defines success or failure–this is the greatest thing I’ve learned. And the culture is the people. You have to hire based on the culture you want to have. People matter!

NW: Thanks, Francis. We have more to talk about next time.


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