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Managing the Business of Big Print

Seamless Workflow from End to End

By Gretchen A. Peck

In the past, if large format print shop owners wanted to adopt a company-wide, integrated business management solution, they were forced to adopt a solution better suited to commercial print. That’s all changed.

The volume of data jobs passing through large format shops creates a workflow challenge. Managing everything from job and customer data to materials and waste without software support may be costing you money. A comprehensive management information system (MIS) enables large format shop owners to measure their productivity and profitability, and in some cases, even refine their business models.

For many years, large format printers found the business management software space rife with solutions better suited for the commercial segment of the industry. That’s no longer a problem as developers introduce applications specifically designed for big-print operations—or create enough flexibility in already existing programs.

Take for example Pace Systems Group, Jacksonville, FL, the developer of ePace Print Management and E-Commerce System, which is used by hundreds of print and graphic arts operations—including large format suppliers like National Print Group, Chattanooga, TN, and Today’s Graphics, Philadelphia, PA.

As the wide format production manager for Today’s Graphics, Dan Long is charged with keeping work seamlessly flowing through the company’s wide-format operations—which represents approximately 30 percent of its revenues. The balance is derived from digital offset printing.

"We got into wide format very early on, around the mid to late ’80s," Long recalls. The company has since provided large format services to corporations as far north as New York City, and south, to Wilmington, Delaware—especially for the booming pharmaceutical industries.

"[ePace] is a closed-loop system for us, it does everything from prospecting to payroll," Long explains. "Recently, we purchased the CRM program. Our sales staff uses it to record their prospects and schedule appointments. We use the estimating module, too, which is very important for us because it’s a cost-based system, rather than a price-list system, which you often find out there.

"What the systems allows us to do is record all of our costs in producing a job, so we can be confident that when we send that price out, it’s accurate," Long adds. "We’re not just pulling numbers out of a hat."

ePace also manages job ticketing, production planning and data collection—which is very important, according to Long, who says, "Data collection allows us to record inventory used on a job and the time spent on a job."

"In many ways, choosing a business management system is a lot like choosing a spouse," quips Scott St. Cyr, founder, Cyrious Software. "You’re going to spend the majority of your day with this software, and if you’ve made a poor decision, it’s going to be really bad news. You really need to put in the time, thoroughly research the field, and talk to people who are using the technologies."

Investing in an MIS is risky business, Long warns. Choose unwisely and the business will suffer. Choose wisely, and watch it grow.

"We have seen our profit margin and billable sales increase over the past five years," Long confides. "One of the features we’re able to exploit in the ePace system is the ability to find out what types of jobs we make the most money on. We analyze that in the reporting module, and we convey information to the sales team. So, our strategy has gone from ‘let’s take any job we can get’ to ‘let’s take the work that we can do well and that’s smart for the company.’"

"That’s really enabled us to refine our business and focus on sectors that are profitable. The value in that alone tells us that the system is paying for itself," Long concludes.

"You’ll find that most of the systems available today are appropriate for virtually any type of print business," suggests Tom Dodge, marketing director, Pace Systems Group. "And there’s a lot of overlap in the market today. You’ve commercial print shops that are bringing in wide format printers, and conversely, you’ve got a lot of wide format shops now bringing in narrow-format digital printers. So, there’s a tremendous amount of crossover."

As with most software, the cost of an MIS can run the gamut—from a few thousand dollars to well into the six-figure range. In fact, it’s difficult to nail down precise figures because so many variables impact the level of investment. These include whether the solution needs to be integrated with other business—or workflow—management solutions; the size of the company—users, sites, locations; what features and modules may be added to a core system; and the level of support and training required.

"We have found that our data supports other industry studies [that] say that printers should expect to spend between one and two percent of annualized revenues for an integrated MIS," Dodge suggests.

Implementing MIS like a Pro
With three locations its primary headquarters are based in Seattle and additional facilities are located in San Francisco, CA and Portland, OR.

As the name implies, ProlabWest, Inc. was originally founded as a photo lab, but in 2004, the company completely transformed itself, refocusing its business model entirely on large format graphics.

They provide signage and other large format display graphics to a wide range of corporations with as many as 500 locations. "Retail POP graphics is our primary market focus," says Dave Richman, CTO, ProlabWest, Inc.

"We saw that large format was the growth market," Richman recalls. "Photography was dying pretty rapidly." Tapping into the new market proved quite challenging, as it not only required an incredible investment in prepress, print, and finishing systems, but also a commitment to completely transform the way business was conducted."

"We knew we needed a time and materials solution in order to manage this new business. It was no longer as simple as processing film and making prints," Richman recalls. "We had a custom, proprietary system that handled everything from quotes to purchasing, from jobs to accounting. But it grew old and antiquated, and ran on a SKU system, which was no longer applicable."

"So, we went in search of a system that would help us manage this new business more efficiently," Richman continues. "One of our primary requirements was that it empower our sales people—or enable the sales team—to remotely input information about job specifications, using online tools—and then have that information flow all the way through the system."

ProlabWest selected EFI’s Logic to do the job. A fully integrated system, EFI Logic streamlines communications and helps print companies to harness, control, and capitalize on data by managing such disparate yet related processes as estimating, billing, shipping, purchasing, and inventory control. According to the developer, EFI Logic is well suited for medium to large print operations running anything from sheetfed and web offset presses to large format shops—even for a hybrid mix of the two.

"Implementation can be very daunting," Richman remarks. "Luckily for us, the decision to bring in EFI Logic was top-down. We were already making drastic changes to our business, so it made perfect sense from a timing perspective."

"We started by creating an implementation team that comprised members from a number of departments—our CFO represented accounting, our production managers, and of course, myself, as the implementation lead. From the start, I knew we had the power and the motivation to make it succeed. We weren’t trying to push anything uphill," Richman confides. "We purchased the system in the spring of that year, and within three months, we went live."

ProlabWest currently runs a wide variety of digital print engines—a Durst Lamda, an Océ LightJet, and two VUTEk engines. "Not long after we purchased EFI Logic, we learned that EFI acquired VUTEk, and were thrilled that there would be some good synergy between the software and our equipment."

MIS Implementation: A Tough Nut to Crack
It was 2004 when Steve Gillispie acquired Richmond, VA-based Acorn Sign Graphics, a shop that began manufacturing signs in the early ’80s. Today, Acorn caters to a customer base of more than 3,000 businesses that need everything from architectural and environmental signage to trade show graphics and simple vinyl banners, courtesy of two digital inkjets—a Mimaki flatbed and a roll-fed Mimaki JV3.

"When I bought the company, all of the ordering and job tracking was done on a paper system, with handwritten orders," Gillispie recalls. "Surprisingly, it was a fairly efficient system; still, there were problems with inconsistencies in how customer and job information was captured, how quotes were written up, and how production information was written. And then there was the challenge of job tracking and getting up-to-the-minute status reports if we—or the customer—needed to know where, or how far along, a job was."

Gillispie began to envision a better way of managing the print business and mentally constructed the ideal MIS for Acorn Sign Graphics.

"If a new software system can mimic the way people are already working, the more acceptance and compliance you’ll get from the staff," Gillispie confides. "So that was very important to us.

"We also needed an efficient way to capture customer information, so that the job could be invoiced properly and sent to the right stages of production and a really effective customer database married to a production system," he explains.

After significant research into what the marketplace was offering, Acorn Sign Graphics chose Cyrious Control, developed by Cyrious Software.

St. Cyr developed Cyrious Control to suit the business management needs of a sign-making business he previously co-owned with his brother, Steve. His brother continues to operate Vivid Ink in Baton Rouge, but Scott now focuses entirely on the software company.

"There were really no other systems for the large format space," St. Cyr recalls. "Several developers created systems for the commercial printer, but those were designed around fixed-sheet-size operations. These don’t apply to the average sign business because just about every job that comes through the door is unique. It’s not as though sign makers are able to concentrate on making brochures all day, tens of thousands at a time."

"This business changes so quickly," Gillispie qualifies. "Products change, machines change, workflow changes. And the more static a software solution is, the more difficult it is to modify, the harder it is for your business to adapt and grow. It becomes a scenario where you’re working for the system and the system should be working for you."

Representing all company disciplines—sales, estimating, production, and general business management—six members of the staff were among the first users.

"Immediately, our staff took to it, finding it superior to the previous manual processes that they were hungry for us to add new modules," Gillispie recalls. "We were completely off paper within three or four months."

"We’ve always seen our tool as a way to drive sales. Production management is important, too, because you want to drive profitability—of which there are two components," explains St. Cyr. "First, there’s the cost. Production management is always about knowing your costs, being able to control your costs, and using the right production tool to minimize costs."

"The second part is sales," St. Cyr continues. "Profitable companies tend to be those that are focused on a high level of customer service. So, you need the tools that will allow you to do things like give pricing information quickly and manage the total customer relationship."

Room to Grow
"Our product line runs the gamut—interior and POP displays, vehicle and building wraps, signs, banners, and fine-art reproduction," explains Jay Boatright, general manager, Digitech Graphics Group, Lakeland, FL.

Boatright joined the company in early 2004, following a period of time when the company experienced serious growth, which prompted management to rethink its current business management systems.

"The system we had in place in 2004 had no production management tools at all," Boatright recalls. "With the new system, we had a specific price range in mind, obviously, but it was much more important to find a solution that provided some form of production tracking."

"As a team, [we] have some programming experience," he continues. "We pieced together a band-aid system to manage and track production, but it was very cumbersome and not very effective for a shop of our size—and most definitely not for the shop we wanted to become."

Starting in 2004, Digitech set out on a quest for an MIS, which would span nearly three years. Boatright started the journey with a bulleted list of criteria most important to the company. This included production tracking and business management tools and a shorter training cycle for new order-entry personnel. Also needed were streamlined pricing procedures, with better visibility of real costs, customer CRM tools, price point, and room to grow.

By 2007, the company discovered and implemented Cyrious Control.

"[It] is a huge time saver, and a real boost in employee productivity," Boatright confides. "Digitech grew from a three-employee shop in a 1,400-square-foot facility with only an Encad and a hot-shoe laminator, to a 14-employee operation occupying a 21,000-square-foot space, with three aqueous printers, two solvent devices, and a flatbed machine—with various supporting [technologies], including laminators, routers, plotters, etc."

Share your Findings
Once the system in place, the hard work doesn’t stop there, according to Richman, who—after implementing EFI Logic—volunteered to lead the EFI Logic User’s Group. Since 2006, members of the Logic User’s Group (LUG) have helped fellow users by answering questions about EFI’s Logic MIS application.

"I’m a strong believer in being involved and giving back," he asserts. "When you run a business where the culture is proprietary, you’re doing your business a disservice. You’re locking yourself up inside a box. And it’s impossible to grow. The only way to really progress in this industry is to open yourself up, to collaborate with others. I think a lot of people in large format print are realizing that there really aren’t that many secrets in this business. There are simply different ways of doing things, and both parties get value when you collaborate and share your experiences with others."

Both large format and traditional commercial printers collaborate over business management solutions thanks to systems designed for a range of users. Companies such as Cyrious Software, EFI, and Pace Systems Group, are developing solutions targeted specifically toward large format print shop owners or revamping existing solutions to meet large format needs. Managing a business is complicated and implementing an MIS helps eliminate some of those complications. And thankfully, large format print shops now have the opportunity to do just that.

Mar2008, Digital Output

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