Scanning the Wide Horizon

Offering scanning wasn’t always an option for print shops. Scanners were expensive, the software needed to run them was hard to master, and the entire notion of scanning being a profit center seemed years away.

But the future is now for many wide-format imaging professionals. Scanning equipment is now well within their financial range, and the software currently available makes the transition easy. What’s more, the market for scanning services is ready made. Many of the same customers that wide-format shops serve from the printing side are likely to want scanning services as well.

Those in the business of supplying large-format scanners report there are a multitude of ways for print providers to make money in wide-format scanning.

Among experts voicing this argument is Jane Napolitano, of Costa Mesa, CA-based Paradigm Imaging Group. “Depending on the type of scanning, you can do large-format black-and-white, including engineering documents, plans, and drawings,” Napolitano said. “Or you can do large-format color, which could be anything: renderings to photos to fine art to plans with redlining or markups. It’s more popular for people to scan their own fine art pieces and make copies, and sell those copies.”

Many municipalities are looking to scan old blueprints and building plans to convert them to digital format. They use 24- to 55-inch scanners that start at less than $4,000 for black-and-white scanners, upgradeable to color, she said.

“Repro shops are becoming more and more interested in it, and are now moving from being interested to actually buying the scanners,” she added. “It’s another revenue stream for them. They have opportunities walking in the door, but can’t do anything to serve these people without the right equipment.”

Those print providers have sacrificed the business of wide-format scanning to others because it was too expensive a business for them to enter, and the software was difficult to deal with, Napolitano said. Today that’s no longer the case. Prices have fallen on newer scanner models, and today’s software makes transitioning easy.

“Should they add wide-format scanning?” asked Neil Zdunkawicz, product manager for Santa Ana, CA-based Graphtec America. “They already have clients in that business, and they’re doing print jobs for them. If they’re already doing printing jobs for those kinds of firms, those firms would need scanning services.”

At Océ, Chicago-based product marketing manager Maree Joyce reported that for print providers, the ability to offer scanning services sets them apart. “Scanners not only supply a differentiating factor, but they also allow companies to be more efficient in their workflow,” she said.

Phil Magenheim, president and COO of Herndon, VA-based Contex Americas, Inc., agrees that print providers are looking at scanning as a way to provide additional profits. “There are many who focus on big signs, big graphics, and they find that having a scanner gives them the opportunity to do short-run reproduction of existing artwork and existing images they have and want to recreate. That’s been the most common usage. There has also been a big increase in selling or renting the equipment for their customers to use. For example, they’re placing the equipment in architectural offices or construction trailers to provide black-and-white markups...[Those users] will do the smaller projects on site, but for the bigger distribution will send that work back to the shop.”

Is It Worth the Investment?

To learn whether an investment in a scanner would be a wise one, shop owners first need to determine the number of scans needed to pay for the scanner, the computer, the software, and the scanner operator, “because you obviously need someone to run it,” Zdunkawicz said. “That involves a cost analysis to justify the purchase.”

Let’s say for argument sake that a scanner costs $10,000, a computer is $5,000, and an operator costs $30,000 per year. Scanning-only services are charged at about $5 a scan, he said, noting in this scenario shops need to scan 2,000 documents for return on investment on the scanner.

“Calculate how many scans that computer is capable of doing per hour, and you can calculate your revenue potential,” he said. Using a worst case scenario of five minutes per color, E-size, 400 dpi scan, shops could bring in about $113,000 yearly, working a 40-hour week, with vacation and sick time. Not bad against fixed costs of about $45,000 in the first year.

Step two is market research. Shops considering scanner purchases must determine whether their market areas are or aren’t already saturated by other companies offering scanning. “There are numerous online companies, but many clients don’t want to ship documents,” said Zdunkawicz. “They want to do it all locally because of concerns about privacy and loss through transit.”

Step three should be a survey of the existing client base. Ask clients how many paper drawings they have stored, whether they worry about the drawings fading or being damaged, and how much space they are taking up physically. Filling space can lead to a cost per year for storage.

Also, ask how long their engineers have to wait for drawings to be delivered, and what would happen if the paper drawings they have were lost or destroyed. Other questions include whether they have a disaster recovery plan, and whether drawings are viewed serially or concurrently by employees; the former being a situation where a single employee could hold up key processes.

“The last thing is whether they need drawings at remote locations,” Zdunkawicz said, noting they likely do if they have several engineers situated in different states or countries working on the same project. A “yes” answer to any of these questions indicates a need for scanning services, he added.

For her part, Napolitano sees profits not just from scanning, but printing as well. “Let’s say [clients] come in with their photo from their wedding,” she said. “You can scan it and print it out on canvas, making a beautiful piece of artwork.” Shops could charge up to $120 a piece for such services, Napolitano added.

What Kind of Scanner to Buy?

Contex’s Magenheim reports higher-end scanners allow the running of a wider variety of images and colors, while the lower-end scanner is better geared to technical drawings and images that do not feature wide-color space.

There are two broad types of scanners recommended for wide-format print providers. Which one you choose will depend on the needs of clients, said Roger Ilgen, president of Canton, OH-based GEI WideFormat.

The first, and lowest-priced, type of scanning technology is called Contact Image Sensor (CIS), Ilgen said. This kind of scanner is best for documents such as line drawings and those with intricate, fine details. The other type, a Charged Coupled Device (CCD) scanner, offers a higher definition of color.

“So if you’re doing artwork, or a higher level of scanning, such as an aerial photograph or, really, any photo or artwork, you’d want a CCD scanner,” Ilgen said.

Napolitano agreed on CCD scanner applications, noting they are better for “artwork, fine art photography, anything calling for high quality color capture.”

Joyce believes shops should invest in scanners that are as versatile as possible, enabling them to handle a wide variety of applications.

Choosing New or Used

When wide-format print providers decide to invest in a scanner, they’re likely to run up against the question of whether they should choose new or used.

Answering that question goes back to the type of scanning your shop is likely to perform, Napolitano said. “If you’re doing a lot of CIS scanning, the cost of those scanners is very reasonable, so I don’t see buying a used one even being an option,” she said. “But if you’re investing in a large CCD scanner, you may want to consider buying used. But then again, do you want to buy used and just have to turn around in a year and buy new?”

Joyce also leans toward buying new. “New equipment always affords purchasers the assurance they are receiving the newest and most energy efficient technology available, and that this technology will have the capabilities they need to incorporate into their existing software and printing equipment.”

There’s no reason not to buy a relatively recent generation pre-owned scanner, Magenheim said. It makes less sense if the scanner is of a much earlier generation, because that scanner won’t be able to take advantage of newer software developed either by Contex or by third-party providers.

But finding a comparatively new pre-owned scanner may not be so easy, he added. “People tend to keep our scanners a very long time,” he said. “We generally say seven years is the right length of time to keep a Contex scanner, but many users continue to use them for substantially longer periods.”

Ilgen said renting for a short term is another option. “We have a fleet of used equipment to rent to people who have shorter term projects,” he said. “If you have a need for scanning limited quantities of documents, and then won’t need to scan any longer after you convert those documents to totally digital databases, it makes sense to rent.”

Whether print providers begin providing scanning services through the rental or purchase of new or used scanners, Ilgen is convinced the timing is right for this offering. “It’s a very robust market, to be quite honest,” he said. “People are scanning more and printing less now, even during the downturn.”

In addition to Printing News, Jeffrey Steele’s articles have appeared more than 2,000 times in such publications as the Baltimore Sun, Boston Globe, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, Indianapolis Monthly, Los Angeles Times, Modern Luxury, New York Daily News, OrlandoSentinel, Press-Enterprise of Southern California, and Consumer’s Digest’s Your Money magazine.