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Apr 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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It's time for your annual dental check-up and cleaning!" This isn't exactly the kind of friendly reminder most people look forward to receiving in the mail.

But from the perspective of dentists across the country, the customized postcard appointment notes printed by SmartPractice represent an ideal marketing tool.

It was in 1970 that SmartPractice, a manufacturer of infection control products such as latex gloves and X-ray films, had the smart idea of marketing postcards to health care professionals as a means of helping them keep in touch with patients--everything from appointment reminders to "Happy Birthday" greeting cards and "Thank You for the Referral" notes.

Then a decade ago, the Phoenix, AZ-based company came up with the equally smart idea of bringing the printing of the postcards in-house. Today, $10 million of the 250-employee firm's $50 million in annual sales comes from its printing operations. And even though there have been several competitors to emerge since SmartPractice introduced the idea of healthcare postcards, the Arizona firm maintains 60 percent of the marketshare, printing five to six million postcards a month. More than 120,000 practicing dentists in the United States are regular customers. This doesn't include all the other healthcare professionals, including veterinarians who even send sympathy cards when a pet dies.

"The market for growth in the healthcare industry is big and we're looking at expanding into other markets such as real estate," says Don Roeder, plant manager at SmartPractice. "We're looking at producing multi-color business cards, pocket folders, information fliers and promotional giveaways."

In conjunction with these products aimed at new markets, SmartPractice is moving into database marketing.

"What this means is if there's a new doctor opening an office, we can target residents within the same zip code or demographic area and put a mailing together," explains Roeder. "Or if there are new residents, we can send them a card about the doctor's services."

Customization in SmartPractice's products includes printing the healthcare professional's name, address and phone number and the specific message to be sent, chosen from a catalog. While doctors still fill in the patient's address and appointment times before mailing, SmartPractice is moving into managing client databases.

"One of our key philosophies for customer service is if the doctor places the order today, we'll personalize it and ship it out the same day," says Roeder. Every day, SmartPractice's two distribution centers in Phoenix ship truckloads of orders, arriving from its 5,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing facility, to customers in the U.S., Canada, Germany, England, Japan, Australia and New Zealand.

In August, SmartPractice installed a Heidelberg/Creo Trendsetter 3230 to become 100 percent computer-to-plate-to-press, feeding a new Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 six-color with a fully automated perfector.

The single machine turns out 60 plates a day and still has capacity to spare. In fact, prep supervisor Dennis Meadows sees its output increasing in the future. "I haven't seen anything approach overloading it yet," he says. "I do see adding a second workstation to feed the platesetter, because if there's one problem, it's that we can't feed files fast enough."

While the Trendsetter takes about four minutes to produce the first plate for the 14 x 20 inch SM 52, it can then produce one plate each minute thereafter.

Becoming 100 percent CTP took many steps. For the past decade the SmartPractice prepress department had been producing its duplicator plates digitally. Three years ago, the department began building the digital foundation to become 100 percent computer-to-plate and then eight months ago the company eliminated analog proofing in favor of virtual proofing. "Virtual proofing is a feature that is built into the software from Creo allowing us to proof on the computer screen and see the imposition of a job prior to outputting," explains Roeder. "This represents a big cost-savings because we do this for work going straight to our presses. "We've totally abandoned film. The quality has improved dramatically. Our prints are much sharper. We've been able to increase the accuracy of plates going to press and its reduced cycle time of plates getting to the press."

For awhile, SmartPractice was scrambling to convert all its existing film to digital files. Some film dated back to long before the firm ever used computers to create designs. The problem was eventually solved by plugging a Heidelberg Topaz Copix scanner into SmartPractice's prepress production stream. In addition to producing high-quality color scans, the flatbed scanner provides descreening and copydot functions to bring analog separations in the digital workflow.

"We have a monoscan feature on the Topaz. It scans each film separation individually, and then combines the files and deposits them into one digital CMYK file," Meadows explains.

The key obstacle in this process has been time. Since each separation must be scanned individually, converting a complete set of film takes about an hour. Multiply that times the thousands of separations in the firm's archives, and it becomes a major project. But Topaz is up to the task with its automated capabilities, and the time spent scanning is just a fraction of what it would take to rebuild the file digitally from scratch.

"This is something everybody will need to contend with if they start moving all electronic or to an entirely computer-to-plate environment," says Meadows. "There is always going to be that job that's just on film."

Despite the occasional film job, the current print process is very different from a year ago. Before purchasing the Speedmaster 52, SmartPractice produced the one-over-four jobs on a 25-inch two-color Heidelberg M-Offset perfector. It took three passes to put down the four colors, perfect and varnish. Now that's all done in a single pass five to six times faster, according to press supervisor Randy Horton. "We've bottlenecked just about every other area with this Speedmaster 52 because of its speed and versatility," he says.

The press runs two eight or 10-hour shifts each day, turning out more than 14,000 sheets per hour on 10-point stock. With the shorter makeready times averaging about 15 minutes each, the press also has helped save money by providing SmartPractice with just-in-time performance. Before, SmartPractice would reprint and warehouse its product, then customize an already printed card. But by reducing turnaround time, the firm customizes cards from scratch. That means keeping fewer reprinted cards in the warehouse and reducing storage costs. Technology has helped SmartPractice work smarter and faster, while also helping you get to the dentist on time--to keep that healthy smile.