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Making Workflow Worthwhile

Implement an Efficient Solution to Satisfy Specific Needs

By Melissa Donovan

An automated workflow solution is profitable and scalable, when implemented correctly. Print service providers (PSPs) shy away from these systems because they can’t see their existing workflow—automated, manual, or a combination of both—fitting into a new scenario.

Determining a multi-featured system for your firm is not for the faint of heart. PSPs must invest time, and eventually money, into a system that fits their needs. Manufacturers of workflow solutions stress that now is the time to become educated on the benefits of implementing a workflow system. Doing so will differentiate successful PSPs from the rest.

According to Gerald Walsh, director of market development, advanced professional print software division, EFI, a dated definition of workflow is the practice of addressing the order of a set of tasks performed by various agents to complete a job. However, “this definition is seriously lacking and leads to the downfall of many businesses. The focus of a workflow strategy must address the global set of tasks required to complete all jobs, with an emphasis on a dynamic plan that streamlines operations, eliminates touch points, and delivers the most jobs on time and on target.”

Realizing the potential of moving from a manual to an automatic process is key. “Workflow is taking a manual process and automating as much as possible, from start to finish,” explains Michael Naughton, director of software program deployment, EskoArtwork.

An Evolution of Endless Possibilities
Naughton credits the advancement of workflow to the graphic arts’ continued evolution. A chain-like cause and effect pattern occurred. “Everyone purchased a wide format flatbed printer, the range of materials and compatibility with various inks allowed companies to focus on indoor and outdoor graphics. This created a demand for large digital images. With these images came the need to work within a higher resolution. It’s not enough to resize a smaller image. Customers expect a PSP to easily accept these files, manipulate if necessary, and produce them quickly, which in turn requires a sophisticated workflow system,” he says.

“As the industry evolved, shorter runs, more printers, variable data opportunities, and sophisticated finishing equipment and advanced options added complexity and increased the number of tasks to be managed. This environment requires a good workflow strategy to maintain efficiencies and profitability,” agrees Walsh.

Advances in the industry may not be enough to push PSPs into adapting an automated workflow solution. Others may be spurred to try something because they spoke with a friend or read an article in an industry magazine, shares Charlie Carter, CEO, Cyrious Software, Inc. He continues, “or it may be an owner or manager getting frustrated with repeat problems that occur with manual systems.”

Each solution can do as much or as little as needed. Cyrious Control’s automated bill of materials (BOM) and job costing features are popular tools found in the company’s workflow bundle. As the user enters key information, the system builds out estimated BOM in real time.

A dashboard feature allows users to focus on orders or estimates in the queue, tailoring each dashboard to a specific employee. This enables the designer to possess a personal list of jobs, while a manager adds each queue to his own screen and includes financial, sales, or production information.

EFI Pace and PrintSmith provide PSPs with a solid management solution foundation—addressing integrated Web-to-print, estimating, job tracking, shop floor data collection, costing, invoicing, receivables, payables, financials, reporting, and analysis. These solutions integrate with the EFI Fiery XF RIP, creating enhanced connectivity to wide and superwide printers, such as the EFI VUTEk and Rastek devices.

EskoArtwork’s SignUp Auto is a fully automated nesting and tiling solution targeted towards companies looking for a nearly lights-out process. The program processes XML and PDF files as prepress input. Its automation is ideal for receiving Web-to-print storefront data.

Estimator Corp.’s Wide-Format encompasses a variety of pricing features including square foot pricing. Reports include email-able estimate, order confirmation, cost and profit analysis, catalog and automated POP, work tickets with allocated hours, shipping labels, delivery tickets, and invoices.

Fujifilm Graphic Systems’ ColorGATE ProductionServer5 was announced in April 2009. The ColorGATE RIP and color management system supports the Fujifilm Acuity series, Mutoh America, Inc. mild- and eco-solvent printers, Epson’s Stylus Pro GS6000, and Inca Digital printers—all available from Fujifilm. Users can utilize this product for up to six printers; handling big banners, contour displays, mega-sized posters, billboards, vehicle wraps, trade shows, photos, and fine art prints. The user interface allows the operator to view output prior to printing, ensuring accurate visuals and positioning. A JDF Module is available as well, once the program is installed the interface allows external systems to control various job parameters. The Print&Cut Module takes care of synchronization marks and controls the automatic recognition of position and alignment.

Why Some Haven’t Made the Move
PSPs may notice a shift in the industry and continually experience unreliable results with their existing workflow, but still haven’t decided to move to an automated system. The question is, why? Time is one issue, as is cost, and the idea that a current system is unique and aids in beating the competition. “PSPs are adverse to change as they feel comfortable with their supposed unique solutions and they believe it gives them an edge over competitors,” explains Mark L. Myers, president, Estimator Corp.

Then there is the mathematical problems some may have, trying to calculate whether the long-term cost savings is a valid reason to invest in workflow automation.

The return on investment on a machine is easy to calculate, admits Carter. “The profit gained from reducing your error rate by 35 percent, improving re-work by 30 percent, or increasing your close rate on estimates by 50 percent is tougher. Many owners and managers are simply not as comfortable doing this math,” he continues. “Nevertheless, the impact on profits adds up very quickly.”

Business growth may pose a challenge. As a company grows, it splinters off into separate satellites—“sales, planning, administration, and production departments operate as islands,” shares Walsh. This creates a disconnect, making it even more difficult for things to fall under one workflow.

Overcoming these hurdles is not an impossible task. If any of the scenarios apply enlist the help of a mathematically-adept person to find out if the benefits outweigh any hardship.

NJ-based Digital Arts Imaging replaced its homegrown estimating system with an estimating solution from Estimator Corp. to power the creation of large and grand format print for retail, event, and dŽcor graphics. The shop’s printers range from 60 to 126 inches in width and include flatbeds, solvent, and dye-sublimation models.

Paper Workflow
Every sign shop has a workflow in place, whether they realize it or not. One common program used is Excel. “Excel is a favorite, as there are few innovators developing adequate estimating and workflow solutions in the industry. Hastily prepared price lists are also available, but they do not reflect the new complexities, variety of substrates, and finishing operations that makeup a PSP’s environment,” adds Myers.

Without a full-featured workflow system, each part of a company could handle respective tasks in drastically different ways, creating unnecessary touch points. Cyrious’ Carter runs through the endless scenarios between departments.

“For example, each sales person might keep their notes on index cards, in their head, or in a copy of ACT. Estimates could be done mentally, on a pad of paper, or in Excel—for the more technically oriented. If a quote needs to be sent to the customer, it’s often done in Word. Methods for scheduling a follow-up call to close the sale varies widely. If the customer decides to go ahead with the purchase, the CSR may enter the order into Quickbooks and then someone creates a work order or job ticket either by hand or in Word or Excel. Production receives the work order, which is often illegible or doesn’t contain all the necessary information. Completing the form by playing phone tag may hold up an order for a day or more.”

Excel, handwritten notes, forms, voicemail, email, and task-oriented software are all various scenarios stumbled upon when workflow solution providers visit shops to strategize on the best possible system for the customer. “One customer made a grid that covered an entire 40-foot wall to organize where every order, quote, and sale was in the process. This sounds extreme, but for a manual solution this is one of the best we’ve encountered. It takes a lot of overhead to maintain, but we still recommend it over most of what is encountered,” recommends Carter.

“It’s not uncommon during a business analysis for us to identify over 50 individual, detached databases in a mid-sized operation. For many businesses, it’s like playing telephone with a string and cup, hoping the right information makes it from the client’s desktop through production and delivery,” admits Walsh.

Even after a system is in place there are still bugs to work out. Digital Arts Imaging recently documented their workflow system from beginning to end through the perspective of a new employee. “It really opened our eyes to the holes and gaps we had and created a boost in our staff’s moral,” explains Robert Vernon, president, Digital Arts Imaging.

Glossing Over Benefits
Automation means efficiency—faster results, allowing a PSP to take on more jobs, generally at a fraction of the cost. “An automated workflow provides an increase in throughput. The less time spent touching the file, the better. It increases the amount of work that a PSP can send through its facilities. Automation also eliminates a lot of the manual, mundane things that operators should not be doing. It allows them to focus on more challenging tasks,” explains Naughton.

Also, with less human touch points, the workflow becomes streamlined—as close to error-free as it can possibly get. Which in turn provides a much higher level of quality output to clients. This builds a trust and allows them to become repeat customers. Carter reiterates, “a well-featured workflow management system makes it easy to provide a higher level of quality, on-time delivery, and service to clients.”

Vernon notes that after his team began using the estimating feature of their Estimator Corp. workflow solution capacity increased and errors diminished.

Currently, Digital Arts Imaging uses other programs for management and invoicing, but hopes to have a fully integrated system in the future. “We don’t view a workflow solution as something you put in and forget about,” admits Vernon.

What to Look For
No two businesses are the same. The workflow solution implemented two streets over may not be the one that is right for you. Understand the needs specific to your company, and find a system that addresses them. Research and educate yourself on what is available.

“Businesses have unique visions and current challenges. Focus on the systems with tools that match up well with the company’s challenges and its vision for the future,” shares Carter.

Implement something for the long run, not a short-term solution. “It’s okay if your strategy focuses on low-hanging fruit, but don’t invest in a solution that only addresses those pain points,” adds Walsh.

Mar2010, Digital Output

 
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