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Summary:

Cloud print, which lets companies create digital “print” jobs from their desktops and tap into a web of connected print facilities, can save resources, money and time. And preserve the value of hard copy print for select applications, writes Peecho founder Sander Nagtegaal.

Digital publishing is growing rapidly and our affinity for consuming real-time media shows no signs of stopping. Despite this, as GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram recently reported much of the content we put online is actually getting lost in a non-stop stream of information. The problem is, hard-copy print is still best for some jobs — or for some audiences.

My frustration about this led me to start Peecho, a free service that lets people turn digital content into a physical product. Peecho’s service infrastructure draws on cloud printing, a technology that helps transform digital data into printed products by tapping into networks of production facilities through the cloud. Other companies in this arena include HubCastMagCloud, and Shapeways.

Here’s how the cloud print model can streamline the process. A big financial services company typically prints tens of thousands of annual reports it sends out to shareholders — most of whom promptly toss the reports in the garbage or recycling. What if that company instead asks its shareholders to specify print or digital versions of that report. Then the company uses a digital network  of providers to print copies just for those who will really read them, eliminating wasted materials, carbon emissions creating and shipping the hard copy product, not to mention postage. Since printing remains a volume business, the price per copy is higher now, but total cost to the company falls. And as more printers see the opportunity of cloud print, the economics may improve.

In the recently published Cloud Print Manifesto, I argue that cloud printing has a unique potential to revolutionize publishing. It promotes full-blown digitization by allowing for the “occasional” transformation of digital data into 2D or 3D objects on demand. This would help preserve valuable digital data while foregoing the aforementioned environmental costs of mass production.

Let’s explore the potential of cloud print to revolutionize publishing.

Trading virtual content for atoms 

The use of paper as the primary means of communication is coming to an end. For example, a few weeks ago, the Guardian reported that Amazon’s Kindle eBook sales are outstripping print for the first time, in line with the declining hardcover revenues reported by the Association of American Publishers in June 2012. With digital content exploding, it is hard to envision a future for print. Yet some content — lost amidst an ever-increasing amount of blog posts, status updates, tweets and videos — may be more persistent than daily news and carry deeper personal meaning.

This is exactly the kind of content that begs for the level of engagement and permanence provided by a physical product. Turning personalized, high-quality digital content into professionally managed physical objects is a service that will be increasingly in demand. Or as John Bracken eloquently states: “As more and more of the content we consume is based on bits, the ability to engage with atom-based media will, for some, gain value.”

A few applications are already embracing this model, using print to monetize digital content. PostagramPrintstagram and Canvaspop are some of the simplest examples, built to monetize Instagram photos.

The enormous amount of data on the Internet leads to a staggering market potential for these companies, but the execution is not that simple. So far, transforming digital data into physical objects is by no means a commodity.

Print as a Service

For website owners, the print feature should just work — like water from the tap or electricity in the home. In reality, the cultural differences between the digital world and the realm of mechanical product manufacturing pose a significant challenge. As a result, huge sums are spent on negotiating and integrating with one or more printing facilities, international expansion, global delivery, monitoring orders and customer service.

Therefore, simple infrastructure is required to provide Print as a Service instead. By accessing professional print as a hosted commodity resource, users can avoid the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware, software and processes.

Why didn’t anybody successfully implement this idea before? Only recently has the print industry started to shift from mass pre-production to the production of unique items on demand. Secondly, connecting a website to a service is much easier these days, using simple technologies like REST, JSON and JavaScript. However, the most important change is the decreased cost of the infrastructure itself.

Enter cloud print

The web contains a lot of content, but almost none of it conforms to required production standards: sizes, quality and aspect ratios differ greatly and cut marks, color management, spines, bleed margins or ISO certificates are unheard of. To put it bluntly, it is a mess. Transforming such heterogeneous online data to standardized, print-ready components requires serious processing firepower.

To keep associated costs and energy usage relative to revenue, systems should be able to scale up and down with demand. In other words, to cope with the Christmas peak and the January low at realistic cost levels and with as little energy consumption as possible a system should be fully elastic.  Cloud computing can offer this.

So, a profitable business case for Print as a Service can only be made by using automatically scaling cloud print.. 

The provider void

So far, significant steps towards a cloud print solution have been taken in the consumer market. Xerox and Ricoh followed in the footsteps of Google CloudPrint  with their mobile cloud solutions, while Hewlett-Packard implemented a similar mechanism with ePrint.

However, professional cloud print is not yet a commodity. Only a few independent players  — Hubcast, MagCloud, Shapeways and my company —  have ventured into this area, providing professional, on demand manufacturing of 2D and 3D products from digital assets using a network of printing facilities.

Cloud print will revolutionize publishing

 The potential of cloud print to revolutionize print publishing should not be underestimated. Websites, applications and games could be powered by a single cloud print infrastructure that allows access to a network of professional print facilities, leveraging print as a shared commodity resource while avoiding costs and complexity.

By providing eco-friendly, on-demand manufacturing, cloud print providers could support the global transition away from mass paper production towards full-blown digitization, promoting sustainability in the industry.

However, there is no dominant cloud print infrastructure provider for professional products yet. What do you think this provider should focus on? Join the discussion in the comments below and check out cloudprintmanifesto.org. 

 Sander Nagtegaal, the CTO and co-founder of Peecho, will discuss what really motivates customer moves to the cloud at GigaOM’s Structure: Europe in Amsterdam next week. Prior to Peecho, Nagtegaal was chief architect at Albumprinter, which was acquired by Vistaprint in October 2011 for €65 million.  

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user imageZebra;  3d printer image courtesy of  devopstom

  1. Nicholas Paredes Sunday, October 7, 2012

    I am in the process of designing an adjacent service, and would agree that there is nothing out there except specifically. However, the step for a company like VistaPrint to escape their hellish purchase experience is small in execution. It may of course be too difficult culturally. You don’t get ten screens of product suggestions fo no reason!

    It will be interesting to see how something like this shakes out…

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  2. Educated Chimp Sunday, October 7, 2012

    So how does it go from the printer to the home? If we are using cloud print, doesn’t everything still come from a company? To me, it doesn’t sound so revolutionary but maybe there’s something I’m missing.

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    1. Sander Nagtegaal Monday, October 8, 2012

      Thanks for your comment. Let me try to answer your questions.

      1. From the factories, the product gets shipped to the recipients using regular postal companies.
      2. By using print as a service, you don’t have to arrange machines or factories yourself – even the smallest order volumes are taken care of in a specialized facility.

      So, the “cloud” part is not so much about the production as it is about the simple transformation of digital data and the subsequent distribution of the print job to a network of facilities. First, cloud compute allows for automatic scaling of compute capacity, necessary for transforming the data without a giant investment up front – secondly, we can make sure that everything gets produced as close to the recipient as possible (using local facilities all around the world is quite eco-friendly).

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      1. I appreciate the clarification! Now it sounds more like a data revolution than a manufacturing one.
        I guess it means multiple companies can be on the same page or have the same queue, and the queue can be extremely large because of the “cloud” sharing concept between printers? Am I on the right track here?

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      2. Sander Nagtegaal Thursday, October 11, 2012

        You are absolutely right there. We do not own facilities, but connect many of them. They usually specialize in a certain product and are by no means owned by the same company.

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  3. Daniel Koller Monday, October 8, 2012

    You might split up the delivery chain between content providers (of e.g. 3d shape files), local printers(e.g. copyshops) and transport facilitators).
    So you can for every order (“3d lego persons with real faces to be printed in the next available 3d printer shop and delivered to address XYZ” ) create a custom logistic workflow. Is that something you are thinking of?

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    1. Sander Nagtegaal Monday, October 8, 2012

      Yes, that is exactly how it works! Cloud print as a service decouples the actual business of a content provider from production logistics – which should be a commodity. The difference per cloud print provider sits in the details of the proposition and the execution.

      For example, Peecho does not really work with smaller copyshops, but only with really large print facilities all around the world. Next to that, we completely hide the internal workings of the routing from end users, since we believe that the customer should not be bothered with the inner workings of our network – so we don’t offer custom workflows per order, but merely route everything ourselves according to an algorithm.

      The thing that makes it hard is that we believe that tomorrow’s publishing world is all about the millions of digital assets that will be published on tablets, e-readers, mobile devices, websites and games – that will only be transformed into physical things every now and then. The more “occasionally” production orders are placed, the more every resulting product becomes unique and thus more complicated to manufacture.

      Strange as it may sound, the largest problem is the diverse nature of that data: our main challenge. As long as Peecho finds ways to sanitize this data, facilities can create objects. That is what we spend most of our time with.

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  4. There’s a well known vendor with 1800+ networked locations and 15+ large format printing facilities spread around the US along with multiple Heidelberg presses and HP Indigo digital presses. Google chose this vendor as the default for their Cloud docs without even hearing a pitch from them first, and they’re also tied into HP’s ePrint app, Box.net and DropBox.

    Leaving FedEx Office out of this piece was quite an oversight.

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  5. Sander Nagtegaal Tuesday, October 9, 2012

    Thank you for your comment. Of course I could have mentioned FedEx, but chose to mention the technology of Google instead. I gave it some thought and considered Google Cloud Print the cloud print provider in this case, rather than FedEx.

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  6. Thank you, Sander, for a great post. I have been posting content on cloud publishing on my own blog, monographer.wordpress.com. I would like, if I may, to reblog your post there – obviously with grateful acknowledgement. Please let me know whether you’d be happy for me to do so.

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    1. Sander Nagtegaal Thursday, October 11, 2012

      Sure, feel free! Do not forget to check out the larger article on Cloudprintmanifesto.org: http://www.cloudprintmanifesto.org/motivation.html

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  7. Manfred van der Voort Sunday, November 18, 2012

    ICR3ATE develops and is soon te deliver a webtop for 3D Design with Cloud power. With this webtop, professional users can co-design & co-create in 3D, here, there, everywhere. In the end pro’s and teams want to publish their 3D model or let’s make it using 3D Printing (additive manufacturing).

    We would be happy cooperating to enhance the existing Google Print en HP’s ePrint techs with open standards for the 3D Print use cases.

    For more information, please have a look at http://www.icr3ate.nl

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