Repro Poised for Profits

Over the past several years, the AEC industry has undergone dramatic changes that have undermined the profitability of many reprographers. But even as some in the reprographics industry lament the apparent passing of an era, the field may be on the cusp of an entirely new data-based revenue stream.

Specifically, advancements in such areas as “big data,” data visualization, smart buildings and smart cities are opening up opportunities for repro shops to provide clients with data that is currently unused, but could be of great value in the right hands. Moreover, the stakeholders in search of the data aren’t limited to architects, engineers, and contractors. They also include building owners, property managers, government agencies, municipal fire departments, and more.

Those who have witnessed a decline in AEC work in recent years tend to voice a philosophy similar to that of John Davis, CEO of Alabama Graphics.

The company is a 60-year-old, 52-employee shop with two Alabama locations focusing on facility management; digital color graphics; scanning; selling and servicing equipment; and offering a software suite of products to manage projects. “If you talk to people in the reprographics industry, 90 percent of them are going outside the AEC industry,” Davis said. “It’s just changed so much that the print model is never coming back in AEC. So if you’re not in that customer’s office, you’re probably missing out on about half the revenue.”

Davis reported Alabama Graphics’ salespeople are spending no more than 20 percent of their time on architectural, engineering, and contractor clients. The remaining 80 percent is focused on new business from retailers, franchisees, churches, hospitals, schools, and many other end users needing color signage.

A New Paradigm

But while some believe the repro industry no longer has a place in AEC, others are convinced it’s on the verge of its biggest breakthrough ever in serving and profiting from the AEC community and related stakeholders. Among them is Paul Doherty, president and CEO of Digit Group, Inc., a Memphis company offering smart city solutions to better enhance the experience of living, visiting and working in cities. Many of those who attended the IRgA show in Baltimore in early April heard Doherty speak on the trailblazing advances coming to AEC—such as big data, data visualization, smart buildings, and smart cities.

Doherty was not hesitant to voice his opinion that the reprographics field has an almost infinite amount to contribute to those efforts. In smart cities and smart buildings, for instance, there is an enormous need for authenticated data.

“The original data of the built environment doesn’t exist with any one individual architect, constructor or owner,” he said. “It exists within the world of big data, which resides within reprographic companies.”

Importantly, reprographic companies have forged long legacies of offering trustworthy service to architects and contractors. “Some kid is not going to replace the decades-long relationship between AEC and the reprographics industry,” Doherty said. “So a repro company already has an ‘in’ within that industry, and has that not just with one company, but all companies.”

While the strength of those long-established relationships are an essential advantage for the repro shop, a second upside may be even more critical. That is that an immense amount of data remains stagnant, Doherty said.

“Inherently, data wants to be free. It never wants to find its way in. It wants to find its way out. So it used to be that IT companies wanted to protect their data from people getting at it. They should instead be seeking ways to release it in a way that benefits everyone. You have the big building blocks, that data wants to be free, and it’s social and wants to get together with other data.

“Reprographic companies are not just the stewards of that data, they’re the managers of the data. That gives these companies an opportunity to have an entirely new revenue stream.”

Doherty believes repro companies should be focused on far more than attending AIA breakfasts. They should be breakfasting with the local hospital networks, universities and business counsels in their communities. There, they will find the need for the data that at present is essentially laying dormant.

Why also zero in on these stakeholders, when the traditional sole focus of the repro industry has been the AEC community? It’s because these entities pay tens of millions of dollars a year recreating data that reprographic companies already have on file, according to Doherty. “It’s transformative,” he said.

“This creates a whole new relationship with an unending market of existing buildings, because there are so many more buildings already built than are being built. There’s no need to pursue a much smaller market when this far larger market exists. Buildings need the digital DNA to expand an office, and provide tenant improvement build-outs. Certain types of jurisdictions have laws in place for energy efficiency enhancement, and there are LEED programs.

“So architects go out and redraft everything. They send kids out and gather all the information and waste all this money, when the data is already reposing at reprographers’ offices.”

Building Automation and More

The trend toward retrofitting existing buildings with smart thermostats, automated control of air and other building automation systems will also profit the reprographic community, Doherty believes.

He envisions a not-too-distant future ushering in mass customization of self-managed office environments, enabling their inhabitants to precisely tailor their areas of a larger office environment to their own comfort levels, or reserve a meeting room or conference room that precisely matches their needs.

In this setting, 3D information will superimpose itself upon a real, physical environment. “This is where the reprographic industry can excel,” Doherty said. “If you have the data on where this particular wall exists in reality, you can feed that information into the creation of these managed office environments.”

Taking the concept a step further, Digit Group is working with the Kansas City, MO Fire Department to gather data on the interiors of every last family home, office building, business park, and additional interior in its jurisdiction. “In a smoke-filled setting, they will know exactly where the walls are, so they don’t have to grope through heavy smoke,” Doherty said. “We will superimpose that information, which will go from the fire fighter’s visor right into his eyeballs.”

How should repro professionals avail themselves of this enormous opportunity? Doherty urges starting with the recognition that you have critical information needed by building owners, operators, and government agencies, which need not just big data but infinite data. “You at the reprographics house have to identify the priority and then attack it,” he added. “Go out, indicate to stakeholders you have the data, and make arrangements to provide that data in return for revenue streams. It’s business marketing 101. It used to be just a few years ago, the financial cost of offering this was prohibitive. Today, that‘s changed to the point where it‘s inexpensive. And in some cases it‘s free.

“How do you not do it if it’s free?”

Document Management

Opportunity also exists for reprographers in document management, said Kim Long, CEO of Toronto’s Reprodux Copy Centres, a more than 50-year-old business. Founded by Long’s father, Reprodux offers traditional AEC printing, consisting of black-and-white bond copies of CAD drawings. It also handles large- and small-format color drawings. And it has expanded into signage, vehicle wraps, 3-D printing and document management, Long said.

The reprographics industry continues to change its business model to adapt to the AEC market, she noted. So in addition to providing traditional hard copy paper prints, Reprodux is now managing AEC clients’ digital workflow.

“We’ve built our document management site like most other companies in this field,” Long reported. “We work with the architects and developers to manage their projects from start to finish. We serve home builders, large condo tower developers. We’ve got everything from the little company to the big corporation. Depending on what you need, we have a system to give you a little or a lot.”
Carving out a niche in document management means listening to clients talk about what is and isn’t good about your document management site, as well as pros and cons of rivals’ sites. “We try to incorporate that into something that is easy to use,” said Long, whose company employs 150. “We work with a wide range of clients. Some are very computer savvy, wanting to enter every option available. Others are overwhelmed and just want to keep it simple.”

Reprodux also provides a digital offering that manages entire document cycles for clients’ construction sites. “We offer this to our clients to manage the complete product cycle, design through to completion,” Long said. “What we see in our market is that its technology that sets us apart from competitors.”

Leveraging Opportunities

Long believes shops across North America can leverage the changes in AEC to their own benefit. But first, they should join an affinity group, such as IRgA, the Reprographics Services Association (RSA), or ReproMax. “In these affinity groups, we have one member per market,” she explained. “At meetings, you are sitting with people who are not your direct competitor down the street. Because they aren’t your competitors, they’re willing to share their thoughts.”

At RSA, reprographers can join for a short time, attend a meeting, and learn what the association is all about and has to offer. The benefits range from educational initiatives to purchasing power through purchasing groups and even web-enabled sites that allow RSA members continent-wide to bid on projects.

“RSA is always lobbying for better ways to serve its members,” Long said. “The offerings and the benefits of being a member in an association far outweigh the costs of membership.”