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Digital Print Visionaries

You gotta live it every day.
Let the broken hearts stand
As the price you've gotta pay.
We'll keep pushin' till it's understood
And these badlands start treating us good.

-- Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

South Dakota's Badlands, renown for their rocky-rough terrain back in pioneering days, have treated the Fenske family pretty well for the past 55 years. One of the most striking facts about Fenske Media Corp.'s immaculate, 90,000-square-foot printing plant is that it only employs 40 people. That means the four brothers who co-own the highly automated operation represent 10 percent of the firm's workforce in Rapid City, SD. They run one shift (10 to 12 hours), five days per week, and the building features an on-site US Post Office due to the massive volume of direct-to-consumer marketing mail produced daily for banks, financial institutions, non-profit organizations, and other vertical market clients. These printed products include a lot billing statements, transactional-promotional mailings, self-mailers, and direct mail.

Perhaps even more striking, however, is the 650-fpm speed at which its one-year-old Prosper 5000XL inkjet web press hums. Using a micro-milled ink formulation developed by Eastman Kodak Co., its print heads can reproduce six to 10 times faster than piezoelectric drop-on-demand (DOD) inkjet devices, according to Bill Schweinfurth, market development manager within the Kodak's Graphic Communications Group (GCG). The 5000XL model is a full-color digital press that offers four-over-four perfecting with a print width of up to 24.5 inches. Depending on job requirements, Fenske often runs rolls as narrow as 18 inches. The Fenske-Kodak relationship dates back at least 20 years, to when the printer started purchasing printing plates from the supplier.

Kodak is betting the farm, so to speak, on its "game-changing" Stream Inkjet Technology—an appropriate metaphor given the agrarian area surrounding Fenske's facility near the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore. Prosper is the most productive inkjet web press available today, Kodak said, with a duty cycle of 120 million A4 or US letter pages per month. Indeed, digital print is the "growth engine" of Kodak, Greg Gresock, GCG marketing director for digital printers and presses, told a gathering of 26 print industry media and analyst representatives who toured Fenske in early December, 2011. Business managers and engineers at the 130-year-old Kodak view inkjet (IJ) production print as fledgling technology: "Its growth is just beginning," Gresock noted, citing statistics that only about one percent of the 64 trillion pages printed annually are produced digitally. The margins are enticing, as digital print represents some nine percent of the total $68.3 billion retail value, he continued.

Schweinfurth reported that, year over year, there are now twice the number of Prosper systems installed, compared with 2010. As IJ technology matures, Stream print head life is increasing, too—up to 1,000 hours per head, which Kodak contends is six to eight times more than their DOD cousins.

Welcome to Planet Fenco

At what the Fenskes and their employees call "Planet Fenco," everything orbits around a centralized database management strategy. "Our business is about computers combining with print to deliver information to consumers," said Dave Fenske, who runs the business with his progressive-thinking siblings: Brian, John, and Tom. It's a marketing model, not a production model, Dave stressed, adding that Fenske Media's scope extends far beyond printing—a transformation that began as far back as the 1980s. Today, whatever the vertical market, data is the commonality for all of Fenske's customers, he added. "We typically deal with lists of 25,000 to 50,000 people."

For more than a year now, since December 2010, Fenske Media has been using its new press to create millions of full-color, highly personalized materials, which drive higher rates of return and increased revenues for its customers. With its automated color management and image quality management system, the high-speed inkjet printing system is capable of print quality that rivals offset output up to 175 lpi across a range of mail applications on uncoated, coated, and glossy papers, ranging from 45 to 300 grams per square meter or 30-pound to 200-pound text weight. To reach the required quality levels its customers demand, Fenske uses pre-treated glossy coated substrates. Last May, the firm added a UV-coating set up, which is still being tweaked.

"Relevance equals revenue, and the ability to personalize these self-mailers based on the consumer's past purchasing behavior is vital," Dave Fenske explained. "That's where our Prosper 5000XL Press excels in more ways than one—millions to be exact. Now we're able to produce highly targeted, data-driven marketing materials in runs that result in much higher response rates, yielding maximum return on marketing investment."

For its digital front end (DFE), variable data flow exclusive to the Prosper Press is driven by the Kodak 700 Print Manager, developed by the vendor's former Creo unit in Israel. Fenske only runs variable print on its Kodak Versamark VL2200 Printing System and Prosper 5000XL Press. It also uses a NexPress Digital Production Color Press and Prinergy Digital Workflow for its computer-to-plate workflow, which is overseen by partner/brother John Fenske, who has helped to develop a proprietary workflow system for conventional and digital press capabilities; Prinergy profiles are employed to match digital and offset output.

Planet Fenco also runs an older model Xeikon 5000 digital press, a Heidelberg sheetfed offset press, and a range of Standard/Hunkeler finishing equipment.

Gold in Them Thar Hills?

Their father, Paul Fenske, the original visionary and family patriarch, lived to see his dream realized. What would become Fenske Media Corp. rose from its letterpress roots in the mid-1950s. But what potential did the Korean War veteran see in Rapid City when he and his wife moved there from Minneapolis? Perhaps he was inspired by the fairly new mountain sculpture at nearby Rushmore, where another man envisioned monumental art when other's could only see stone. Fenske Media casts the shadow of a printing firm, like the tall pine trees shading the Black Hills near which it is situated, but it has become so much more than just a printing company.

Paul Fenske knew the children shared his vision when they designed a new plant for the growing company. The building was erected in 2001 with the move-in date a week after the 9/11 tragedy, recalled Dave. While the timing may have been poor, the dream lived on.

Although their dad passed in February 2010, two months shy of his 82nd birthday and 10 months prior to the Prosper's delivery, he knew what was in the works; how his boys planned to expand his vision and use technology to take printed personalization to a new, long-run level. Their mother, Anne, loves visiting the plant, the brothers said, and she is quite certain that as she looks upon the fancy new digital press, her husband of 58 years is looking on, too, and smiling proudly from a superior, aerial vantage point.