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Keeping the Work Flowing

Unlike purchasing print hardware—which typically comes with an estimated life span, performance, and duty cycles—investing in workflow software is replete with variables and unknowns. Questions arise, such as who within the company needs to use the software? Does the software need to manage CRM, estimating, costing, scheduling, production, proofing, or invoicing? Is a standalone or networked solution more appropriate? Will the solution continue to serve its purpose as the business grows? What is the true cost of the technology?

By Gretchen A. Peck

Often, the return on investment for workflow solutions is difficult to calculate and predict, sometimes requiring months—if not years—of post-implementation analysis. It’s the primary reason why many wide format print service providers (PSPs) find workflow software a far more challenging adjudication process than choosing print engines and finishing hardware. Deciding on the right software tools is a critical decision for a wide format PSP.

In the commercial print space, market share leaders—EFI and Eastman Kodak Company—work steadily towards lights out management information systems (MIS). While software isn’t entirely there yet, it is close to achieving the ultimate goal of an automated shop floor with a full range of plug-ins to represent every conceivable need.

We spoke with several PSPs currently utilizing a range of low- to high-end workflow solutions to further understand the issues, concerns, and technology connected to workflow.

Striking a Balance
In 1992, Corey Brixen founded Brixen & Sons in Tustin, CA. Though the shop’s roots are grounded in screenprinting, it now operates both screenprint and large format digital engines to serve high-profile clients such as Kroger Company, Nordstrom Inc., Oshkosh B-Gosh Company, The Walt Disney Company, and William Carter Company.

“We have a couple of Mimaki USA, Inc. 60-inch inkjet printers,” Brixen notes. The shop also uses an EFI VUTEk 5330. “It’s ten years old and is a great workhorse. We do a lot of work for Disney on that machine. Within the past two months, we installed our first UV flatbed printer, an EFI VUTEk QS3200,” he continues.

In the past 18 months the company purchased over $2 million in new equipment. In addition to the EFI VUTEk QS3200, Brixen & Sons also acquired a $1.5 million inline screenprinting press.

The shop is more conservative with workflow software expenditures—partly because Brixen is personally adept at programming. He is also weary due to trouble with developers in the past.

“For the first three years, we managed most of our data with Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, but then I started to get excited about Visual Basic programming and put together some processes in Microsoft Access. We’re still using that today for our job costing, estimating, and inventory tracking,” says Brixen.
He notes the only thing it isn’t used for is accounting.

While accounting processes are managed with a separate system, Brixen says that unfortunately the purchase remains a sore subject for him. “Years ago we were talked into buying a $40,000 accounting system. Since then, we’ve gone through three accountants, and every one of them complained about the software. They tell us that it does the job, but is far more than we actually need and too complicated to use.

“We are talking about using something simpler—and I heard that a company of less than $10 million can run just fine on mainstream software like Intuit QuickBooks. We may go that route, but changing over the accounting system is a major ordeal. That has forced us to keep putting the decision off,” Brixen explains.

Brixen is satisfied with the shop’s production and manufacturing workflow. “We’re fortunate in that we work almost exclusively with ad agencies or in-house design teams that are computer literate,” Brixen remarks. Still, the printer provides clients and creative agents with some general guidelines on how to prepare and submit digital content files. He prefers to receive EPS or Adobe Photoshop files, and PDFs are acceptable, as long as they adhere to prepress specifications.

“There is a pre-production area set up so we don’t wait until the last second to find out that there’s something wrong with a file,” Brixen notes.

Brixen & Sons offers its clients a couple of proofing options. Whenever possible Brixen suggests a soft proof—a PDF file viewable on a monitor, which helps keep costs down. For more color-critical projects, a sectional proof is produced on the media used for final output and the precise printer used in the final manufacturing process.

Brixen notes that it’s important to manage customers’ proofing expectations. “Customers come to the shop and stare at a proof for a half hour and want changes made. But say it’s going to be displayed in a mall. There may be 15 different lighting considerations. Maybe it’s going under a skylight or escalator, and you’ve just spent hours tweaking one blue color. It looks nothing like it did coming off the printer because of how it’s displayed. These are points that customers need to consider,” Brixen stresses.

Working on the Web
Large format print may not seem ideal for a Web-to-print workflow, but PrintRunner Inc., a Chatsworth, CA-based commercial print business recently applied its Web-to-print workflow to large format print jobs derived through its Web portal. The portal offers customers real-time quotes, order placement, content upload, and financial and transactional management for all aspects of the job.

Though PrintRunner predominantly produces traditional narrow formatted offset and digital commercial work, the company installed some large format equipment to tap into new business—an OcŽ North America Arizona 500, two Roland DGA Corporation SOLJET PRO III XC-540s, and two Epson Stylus Pro 9600s.

“Our wide format capabilities grew by offering vinyl banners. This is definitely a viable market for us. We are growing this business with the intention of providing a myriad of large format products,” explains Corey McGrath, VP of business development, PrintRunner.

The company’s foundation—the Web portal—is largely a homegrown solution developed internally. The production workflow, however, does benefit from a few off-the-shelf products like Markzware’s FlightCheck, used to analyze incoming digital content files to ensure that all elements are present and accounted for.

However, as the volume of work increases exponentially PrintRunner’s management team realizes they need a more sophisticated system for receiving, checking, proofing, normalizing, and sending content to the designated print engine as quickly as possible. The company is planning to make a significant future investment in workflow.

“We’re planning to create a workflow that compresses the amount of prepress time spent on a job. It will completely cut down on the internal touches. Those checkpoints and quality control measures will be assisted by new software—everything from content review to proofing,” McGrath notes. “It’s a necessary expenditure for us with the amount of growth that we’re seeing.”

McGrath concurs that a print business’ success is largely dependent upon having a streamlined, end-to-end workflow.

“The Web is the key to our business. In this industry it’s about being the first to answer the customer’s question. If you’re the first to answer the question, you’ll likely get the job,” he adds. “It’s imperative to quote within minutes. Now we can improve our service by making a key investment in our production workflow.”

Imagine a New Workflow
“Three years ago, we were a company with a small facility,” recalls Dagmar Conventz, sales executive, Imagine Graphics, based in Eugene, OR. “Previously called Signs of the Times, we had a few machines and a lot of outsourced jobs.”

Chris Meeker, owner and president, Imagine Graphics purchased a building, renovated it, and stocked it with digital printing equipment and finishing complements.

“When we first moved here, we had a thermal printer, an Epson Stylus Pro 9600, a vinyl-cutting plotter, and a 54-inch solvent printer,” Conventz recalls.

“Currently, we have a Roland SOLJET PRO II SC-540 and two SOLJET PRO II SJ-1000 EXs—one running solvent inks, and one running dye-sublimation (dye-sub) inks,” notes Jon Bogart, operations manager, Imagine Graphics. “We also have a Spyder from Inca Digital Printers and a Lambda from Durst Image Technology US LLC.”

Indeed, Imagine Graphics isn’t particularly conservative in its approach to technological adoption, but its investments are smart ones. Besides an array of traditional signage, banners, and POP work, the company is also experiencing significant growth in vehicle graphics and fabric-based prints.

One area of high growth for Imagine Graphics is dye-sub fabric. “They’re versatile, especially for trade show applications. Our customers appreciate that fabric hangs nicely, and because it’s not printed on a glossy type of media, they don’t have to worry about where or how it’s being displayed,” comments Bogart.

Imagine Graphics does some fabric work for retail environments. They produced in-store signage printed on sheer fabrics for Pendleton Woolen Mills. “They like the sheer material because they use it as window graphics without blocking out any light,” says Bogart. The company is also looking to capitalize in the interior decorating market.

In addition to hardware installations, the company invested in workflow with Control Customizable, an MIS solution developed by Cyrious Software. Depending on specific workflow needs, print businesses tailor Control to assist in any number of business processes—estimating, customer data management, scheduling, job tracking, invoicing, marketing, and sales reporting.

“It was important for us implement Control with a clear understanding of our workflow, so we began charting our processes to tailor the solution to what we needed. Implementation began in November 2006 by importing data from our former system—about 12 years of customer and job information.”

“We created a spreadsheet to reference pricing based on square footage and material. Gradually those individual products and their pricing were placed in Control,” Conventz recalls. “Now we are considering adding the Purchase Order module as well.”

Ultimately, Imagine Graphics will rely on the Cyrious solution to supply cost calculations, enabling the management to precisely pinpoint the costs associated with producing various genres of big print. This requires a continuous population of line-item data into the system.

“We are very close to achieving this,” Conventz suggests, “but we decided that it was more important for us to tackle pricing and estimating first and foremost.”

The company’s Web site contributes to an efficient workflow. “Customers submit orders, request estimates, and upload artwork files to our Web site,” Conventz explains.

Imagine Graphics’ customers have a number of proofing options, including a simple color bar print for adjudication. Others may opt to receive a PDF soft proof. And still others prefer to touch and feel the real deal. “In that case, we print a section from the file, at full size, on the material and the machine it will print on,” Bogart explains.

“Here’s where you get to really foster a personal relationship with the customer,” he adds. “Some love to stop in, come to the back, and see the machines running, which is always fun for them and for us. We also give a lot of facility tours, providing as much or as little technical information as they’d like. This gives clients a better appreciation for the amount of work, science, and craft that goes into their job. They begin to understand that it’s not just a matter of hitting a button.”

While content receipt is often a bottleneck in a print businesses’ workflow Imagine Graphics’ team makes a conscious effort to educate its client base on how to prepare and submit production-ready content.

“I would say probably about 75 percent of what we receive is good to go,” Bogart estimates. “We have a lot of repeat business, which is really nice. We’re also fortunate to work with a lot of ad agencies, which are equipped to give us what we ask for. But that’s not to say that every so often we don’t have a customer call and ask if they can send us a Microsoft PowerPoint file.”

Adopting for Growth
Graphic Innovations, based in Providence, RI also made recent hardware and software investments to steer the shop into more advanced digital production. Late last year, the large format print specialist installed its first flatbed device, a Fujifilm Graphic Systems U.S.A., Inc. Acuity HD 2504 flatbed printer, which prints on media up to eight by four feet and nearly two inches thick. The solution complements two Hewlett-Packard Designjet 5000s, a Seiko I Infotech ColorPainter 100S, and a Seiko ColorTextiler 64DS dye-sub printer. ONYX Graphics’ RIP software provides the backbone to the production and manufacturing process.

Jim Larkin, owner and president, Graphic Innovations, says the flatbed purchase illustrates the company’s approach to technology adoption.

“Four or five years ago when flatbeds hit the market, you could see that it was the direction our segment of the print industry was going. We wanted to jump on board, but it was a matter of timing for us. The equipment was still fairly slow and offered low resolution. So we watched and waited until the kinks were worked out,” Larkin recalls. This patient approach suits Graphic Innovations when it comes to the company’s business processes as well. “When I started out in 1996, there really wasn’t any MIS system for the large format business. I ended up tailoring an old commercial print system to provide us with some estimating help,” Larkin recalls.

“But I was literally the only person in the shop who really understood how it worked, and I waited for something to come along that was affordable, right for our shop, and well suited to the large format market. There were others on the market that we looked at, but at upwards of $40,000 to $45,000, they were outrageously priced and still didn’t quite work the way we needed them to. So we came to Cyrious,” he continues.

Graphic Innovations is currently implementing Cyrious’ Control Customizable, and according to Larkin, the software manages everything from estimating to accounting and marketing.

“It allows us to move work through the shop more efficiently, which enables us to handle a larger quantity of jobs; bill faster; and concentrate on what we should be doing—growing the business,” he notes.

Seamless Workflow
The business of print is made up of time and money. These are PSPs two most precious assets. Nothing drains a company of resources more than antiquated, sluggish, or inefficient workflows.

As the global economic crisis unfolds, those destined to survive—if not, thrive—in the market will certainly be those that keep their finger on the pulse of technological innovation and make smart investments and implementations that allow the work to flow quickly and seamlessly. With heavy economic pressures PSPs need to take a hard look at their business processes and implement an efficient workflow.

Wide format workflow integration continues to evolve, though it is not as nearly developed as some hoped it would be at this point. High-end shops employing analog, digital, and large format printing will continue to evolve their own workflow based on personal needs and vendor development.

Mar2009, Digital Output

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