The Full Web-to-Print Picture
Nothing says that an in-plant has to have Web-to-print (W2P) capabilities, but it’s getting difficult to justify doing business without them. W2P-enabled e-commerce may have been a novelty once, but it’s a core competency now — an amenity that customers expect and a sales-generating asset that smart printers can use to keep those customers satisfied and loyal.
That’s part of the reason why the printers interviewed for this story have embraced it. The other benefit lies in being able to channel incoming orders from W2P systems directly into production workflows. The integration, say the printers, boosts profit margins by removing touch points and the costs associated with them. The takeaway: any printing business not operating in this way is at a clear disadvantage to those that do.
“Automation is the single most important element in keeping a print provider operating in the black today,” says Cathy Skoglund, director of the Print & Imaging Lab, a teaching and in-plant printing facility at Arizona State University. She has automated the in-plant’s workflow with the help of two recently integrated pieces of software: the Avanti SlingShot Print MIS and the Catfish W2P platform from Infigo Software Ltd.
The integration lets the lab’s customers submit or compose files using the Catfish Web interface, which passes them through to Slingshot for estimating, imposition and other production steps in a single, touch-free sequence. Integrating W2P and MIS tools in this way “has multiplied the benefit they provide to ASU,” says Skoglund.
W2P-enabled automation and integration are also the driving forces for the in-plant at Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan., where the WebCRD solution from Rochester Software Associates has been in use for about eight years. Paul Ackerman, Printing Services coordinator, says the throughput is now so efficient that 70% of the jobs the shop produces aren’t touched by anyone until it’s time to unload them from the machines.
This is the principal benefit of WebCRD’s AutoFlow automation technology, which Ackerman credits with enabling the in-plant to stay ahead of volume that “grows, grows, grows every year” without adding staff. This has happened as school district personnel increasingly opt to send their work to the in-plant through the WebCRD interface instead of lining up at MFPs for time consuming, do-it-yourself copying.
Handling from 800 to 900 orders per day, the shop currently enjoys a next-day delivery rate of 78% — a turnaround that Ackerman is convinced wouldn’t be possible without the end-to-end automation that AutoFlow provides.
“It’s the fire hose, but it’s also what lit the fire in the first place,” he says.
From Messengers to Modems
No one knows exactly when the term “Web-to-print” became part of industry jargon, but its technical roots go back to the days when dial-up modems began competing with bicycle messengers as solutions for delivering job materials to printers and trade shops.
Cliff Hollingsworth, now the general manager at TruColor, remembers using off-the-shelf software to cobble together a W2P system for Consolidated Graphics around 2000. He says that when he saw EFI’s Digital StoreFront product for the first time in 2006, he told himself that if he were ever in a position to pick and implement a W2P solution, EFI’s would be the one.
After he joined TruColor in 2013, Hollingsworth got his chance. Digital StoreFront has been in use there under his supervision for about a year, replacing a “super clunky” system that wasn’t getting the job done.
Andrew Hrywnak, president of Print Three, a network of digital and commercial printing service centers across Canada, has deployed W2P software from Racad Tech at all 50 of his franchise locations. His initial experience with W2P wasn’t auspicious.
He says that one solution he tried was “horrible.” The vendor of another went bankrupt just as he was about to sign the contract. The Racad Tech software, Web to Print Cloud, happily contrasts with these failures by giving Print Three franchisees the features and flexibility they need to keep up with their customers’ e-commerce requirements.
A printing business needn’t be big or far-flung to leverage the benefits of W2P. A case in point is Millennium Press, which has an exceptionally sophisticated W2P capability for a shop employing just 18 people.
Jim Sullivan, president, uses Prinect software from Heidelberg to create an e-commerce portal that meshes with other Prinect modules for prepress, proofing, MIS and production management. The results, he says, include a 50% reduction of touch points in jobs submitted via W2P, fewer errors and an easing of the workload for his small staff.
A Quick and Comfortable Fit
Although, as Hollingsworth observes, there’s rarely anything seamless about implementing a new technology, he and the others found that W2P made a quick and comfortable fit with their existing operations.
TruColor, which prints with a mix of offset, digital and wide-format equipment, uses EFI Fiery front ends as controllers for the digital devices; Hollingsworth says that it took “about a half hour” to get Digital StoreFront to shake hands with the front ends. Sullivan made a similarly smooth connection by obtaining his W2P and production workflow software from the same source.
Hrywnak reports that with the help of some “hand holding” from Racad Tech, Print Three franchisees who were apprehensive about W2P lost their fears and soon learned to rely on it.
However, getting W2P up and running is nobody’s idea of a no-brainer. Failure to implement it correctly, says Hrywnak, is the number one reason behind most complaints that the software isn’t working as it should.
But, the payoff of doing it right can be considerable. Hrywnak says that Print Three was recently chosen from among 27 vendors responding to an RFP because the issuer, a print-buying organization with outlets all over Canada, deemed its W2P capability to be a “night and day” improvement over what the competition had to offer.
The customer-facing part of W2P is more complicated under the hood than printers may realize, according to Sullivan. “A simple-seeming business card,” for example, can flummox the interface when a line of type hyphenates because it’s too long or when the telephone, cell and fax numbers don’t stack up the way the template wants them to.
Problems like these are easily fixed in prepress, but W2P isn’t prepress. It’s a programming environment, says Sullivan, needing preemptive software rules that anticipate errors and head them off before they can spoil the layout and frustrate the customer.
Orderly, Intuitive Interface
In a well-implemented W2P solution, what the customer should see is a clean and orderly space that makes sourcing printed matter intuitive and easy. Ideally, the interface should also have the kind of bespoke appearance that the Racad Tech software gives to portals created for customers of Print Three. Hrywnak says the sites look as if they were running on the end-user’s own intranets.
With Digital StoreFront, Hollingsworth’s customers get branded sites where they can order whatever they want with half the number of clicks required by the W2P system that the EFI product replaced. Digital StoreFront keeps the customer apprised of where the job is in TruColor’s production pipeline and how long it will take to ship.
Drawing print buyers into the workflow also benefits the print service provider. According to Sullivan, the whole point of letting customers design business cards, etc., from templates with an online portal is that it yields a print-ready file faster than creating one from scratch at an internal workstation.
For extra quickness, he supplements the Prinect W2P software with third-party options that streamline input. One is a plug-in for business cards that lets customers pull names from a database of their employees’ personal information instead of having to key in the names manually.
A W2P solution worth its salt must be able to make a smooth handoff of information from external sources to internal production processes — otherwise, it becomes just another silo.
One of the features Hrywnak likes best about his Racad Tech W2P software is that it can talk to all of the various MIS/ERP systems in use at Print Three franchise locations. He says it also harmonizes with Xerox’s XMPie software for variable data production, which Print Three was the first franchised printing operation in Canada to adopt.
Millennium Press’s Prinect W2P solution is in synch with its all-Prinect production workflow. The same kind of commonality exists at TruColor, where Digital StoreFront clicks with the plant’s EFI-provided MIS, PrintSmith Vision, as well as with the Fiery front ends.
Advice to Buyers
Sullivan’s advice to first-time buyers of W2P solutions is to learn whatever needs to be learned “to make the software sing.” Printers shouldn’t look for 100% functionality straight out of the box, because “you’re going to be as successful as the time you invest” in mastering its features.
Hollingsworth recommends appointing someone who is “passionate” about W2P to implement and manage it. He says that a good way to roll it out is to explain the time-, cost- and labor-saving benefits of e-commerce in a business case prepared on behalf of a trusted customer. This model then can be used to start conversations with other customers.
Scrutinize the W2P vendor’s credentials, urges Hrywnak. Look at how long the developer has been in business and how many advancements it has made to the W2P product it is promoting. Since customers’ requirements change all the time, consider also how responsive the vendor will be to requests for modifications.
Above all, says Hrywnak, there’s no need to be fearful of making the leap to W2P, because it certainly doesn’t scare customers. A well designed and carefully implemented W2P solution “brings value to customers, and customers aren’t afraid of paying for that value.”