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Hands Free from Input to Output

Automated Workflow Powers Profitable Printing

By Thomas Franklin

Anyone with a passing familiarity regarding the success of Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. understands the importance that efficiency brings to a business’ bottom line. By streamlining and automating processes, a business can not only save on labor costs but enjoy better execution. In the print world, offset printers were the first to reap the benefits of a more automated workflow and now, many of the same software solutions that helped them cut costs are migrating into the world of large format digital printing.

 

The transition is gradual as solutions are tailored to meet the unique demands of this specific market, but software vendors see a future where print service providers (PSPs) enjoy a much more standardized workflow process.

 

Software to the Rescue

“Software is the nervous system of any workflow,” says Sebastien Hanssens, VP of marketing, Caldera Graphics.

 

The goal of workflow software is to automate manual processes and to centralize what is currently dispersed. From estimating job costs, order entry, prepress, RIPping, printing, finishing, billing, to customer management, a robust workflow suite empowers PSPs of any size to save.

 

A number of solutions are on the market—some focus on business management and job costing, others on the prepress, RIP, and finishing processes. “Every business, no matter the size, experiences bottlenecks,” explains Kristen Simmons, marketing department, Cyrious Software. “For some it occurs while estimating, taking hours to come up with a price, dealing with scribbled pieces of paper everywhere, and losing follow up information. For others a bottleneck occurs in production—spending time confirming order details with sales, while trying to optimize machine and labor time and avoid errors.”

 

Increasingly, software firms are trying to merge these functions to provide a true end-to-end solution that helps a PSP organize and expedite orders on the one hand and ensure high-quality, color-accurate output on the other.

 

EFI offers a portfolio that Roland Campa, inkjet printing applications, EFI, classifies as solution-oriented. Instead of a PSP implementing different products from different vendors, and seeing if they work together after the fact; EFI’s workflow products are strictly for digital print production.

 

It helps when a solution is modular, or scalable; allowing a PSP to grow. Campa notes that EFI provides entry-level RIPs for social photographers to high-end RIPs for proofing, print-for-pay, and sign and display. In addition, the company’s management information system (MIS) line up ranges from PrintSmith for copy shops to Monarch, a scalable solution for numbers like 5,000 users.

 

Behind the drive to automate is a transforming print market, shares Eric Wold, VP, Datatech SmartSoft, Inc. “Print jobs are getting smaller, and if they’re getting smaller we have to ask; how much smaller can they get and can you be profitable tackling even smaller jobs?” Building a system to wring profits from smaller orders was the driving force behind the company’s PressWise program.

 

“There were a lot of silo solutions for PSPs in the past,” continues Wold. A PSP would have a program for order management, another for preflight, a third for finishing. “We throw those distinctions out the window, why does a printer need five different software platforms to manage these different functions,” he asks. Wold—who in a previous life owned a print shop—notes that the glue tying the different software together was people.

 

PressWise aims, among other things, to slash the amount of labor a PSP requires. The value is simple, if you shed employees during the downturn, you won’t have to re-hire them as volume and business returns. The company believes a PSP can achieve a ten percent workforce reduction if software is implemented properly.

 

The system creates an online tool for customer order entry and then “the only other touches are the strategic points—the press person who scans the job bar code and the person in the bindery who confirms what finishing is required. Any personnel inputs are related to value-add activity,” adds Wold.

 

Workflow software not only controls costs on the labor side, it provides business intelligence. Firms such as Cyrious and Estimator Corp. offer tools to estimate the profitability of a job, so PSPs only accept offers that will contribute to the bottom line. “A consistent, detailed quote is produced in minutes and all of this information automatically appears on work orders and invoices,” explains Simmons. “From the beginning, a business owner knows they’re making a profit, can win more jobs, save time, and reduce errors.”

 

Sometimes there’s resistance in the marketplace to adopting a software solution, she adds. “First, there’s an aversion to the time and effort it will take to get the system up and running. Second, some find it difficult to trust a software program to accurately estimate a job and manage information along the multiple steps in the order process.” However, if a PSP takes the leap, they usually enjoy a full return on investment in six to 12 months.

 

Flying High

Aside from order entry, estimating, and customer management, other software companies tackle bottlenecks in the preflight and design stages of a workflow.

 

ONYX Graphics, Inc. is seeking to move file preparation upstream so that the client does the manual work and the printer’s processes are automated, shares Danielle Mattiussi, director, product portfolio and business development, ONYX. The company’s current workflow product PrepEdge Pro—which offers file preparation tools, finishing options, and cutting and tiling capabilities—is being revamped. The new iteration incorporates design application-specific tools to enable print-ready file preparation to be done as far upstream as possible. The resulting graphics file could be seamlessly integrated with an ONYX or third-party RIP.

 

PSPs also gain greater intelligence over their business via a centralized dashboard. “The goal is to have a dashboard view of production internally. That dashboard connects to print metrics products, providing an aggregate view of every RIP workstation as well as ink, media, labor, and finishing costs rolled into one,” explains Mattiussi. The system merges costing and production functions to give PSPs greater intelligence into their business.

 

For high-volume print shops already running some form of an MIS, ONYX enables printer data aggregation that can be exported into an existing management information system via a job definition format file.

 

Other solutions tackle more specific bottlenecks. In a typical workflow, a file is created by a designer, usually a customer, and then sent to the print shop where the file needs to be tested. “Usually, whoever is doing preflight tweaks the file before it goes to the RIP—maybe it RIPs successfully and maybe it doesn’t,” notes Bill Hartman, VP of marketing, sign and display solutions, EskoArtwork. His company’s answer is the i-cut Suite, which includes three products, two of which sit before the RIP—i-cut Preflight and i-cut Layout—and a third designed as an operator interface for the Kongsberg cutting table, i-cut Vision.

 

“What we’re advocating is for PSPs to tell their customers to send them a PDF file from the design software application they used to design the graphic,” shares Hartman. “You bring a PDF into i-cut Preflight and it diagnoses the file and provides a report of what you need to do to make it print ready.”

 

The benefit is that a user doesn’t have to go back into the native design program to make any changes, they can be performed in i-cut. i-cut Layout enables PSPs to perform sophisticated print nesting on a substrate with as few empty, wasted spaces on the media as possible. Then it outputs a PDF file to the RIP along with an i-cut Vision file for finishing.

 

There is a certain degree of nervousness around outputting a PDF to a RIP because earlier RIPs couldn’t process them well, acknowledges Hartman. But that’s changed and anyone with a RIP of recent vintage shouldn’t experience a problem with a PDF file.

 

RIPs themselves have become more robust in streamlining a print business, notes Jeffrey Nelson, product marketing manager, inkjet equipment and software, graphic systems division, Fujifilm North America Corporation. With device synchronization in ColorGate, a printer can harmonize output on a variety of different printers for consistent output. Color management is also monitored remotely via Fujifilm’s Taskero Universe system, which allows PSPs to upload their color measurements to a Fujifilm analyst who reviews it against trends to see how a specific printer is performing over time and whether its color is drifting.

 

RIPs have a key role to play in any automated workflow, adds Hanssens. “A print business is not only printing quantities in square feet per hour but also making sure those quantities are printed in the colors that the client and graphic designers expect,” he says.

 

Going forward, Caldera integrated an Adobe PDF print engine into its RIP, which further speeds up workflows. “Adobe PDF Print Engine uses a native PDF imaging model, eliminating the need to convert PDF documents to Postscript for printing.” The company recently announced version 8.01 of its range of RIP products. They now ship with a new, Debian-based, Linux distribution, which replaces Kubuntu 8.04.

 

Educating the Market

As the economy starts to drag itself out from the depths of the recession, few expect a return to business as usual. To sustain a competitive edge, PSPs need to focus attention on cultivating new business and servicing customers. This means seeking the help of an automated workflow solution.

 

Workflow software enables properly estimated jobs, tracks projects as they progress from approval to output, and ensures a high-quality finished product. These solutions provide crucial automation and business intelligence functions to help shops of all sizes sustain themselves against competitors.


Mar2011, Digital Output

 

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