Ithaca In-plant Speaks on Web-to-Print Panel
A panel discussion during the Workflow and Software segment of the PRINTING United Digital Experience offered three diversified but parallel perspectives on e-commerce-enabled print production – and on what the panelists believe will be an accelerated shift in that direction for printing in general.
The speakers were:
- Glendon Harris, Operations Manager of the Center for Print Production, an in-plant facility serving Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y.;
- Rick Bellamy, CEO of RPI, a white-label provider of personalized digital printing services to brands and businesses around the world;
- Nelson James, president of Signs.com, an online source of custom signs and signage.
All oversee workflows that begin with processing orders received through e-commerce portals. These volumes represent the bulk of their business.
The RPI production network, according to Bellamy, produces up to one million units per day of photobooks and other highly personalized items in runs averaging 1.9 units. Nelson said Signs.com handles 1,000 orders daily, most of them printed and shipped on a 24-hour turnaround. Harris reported that the Ithaca College in-plant now gets up to 80% of the work it does for the campus community through WebCRD, an e-commerce software package from Rochester Software Associates.
The panelists spoke about why they had embraced e-commerce and what advantages they have found in moving to a Web-to-print workflow. James noted that upon joining Signs.com in 2011, he made conducting a competitive analysis of the sign printing market a priority task. As a result, he said, “I found some weaknesses that I felt we could overcome with an online signage portal.”
Creating one made all the difference. Through its website, Nelson said, “Signs.com offers next-business-day production. You order by 5 p.m. Eastern time, and we will produce and ship 95% of our products the next day.” The portal enhances the user experience with online design tools, access to a staff of 25 designers, and what James described as “award winning customer service” that keeps people coming back.
Harris recalled the days when the Ithaca College in-plant “used to hand out a pad full of order forms, and they would come back in an envelope.” This analog routine included sending a delivery driver to distribute the pads and check campus drop boxes for orders.
Now, customers don’t have to wait for the driver any longer “because they can just submit electronically,” Harris said. “The huge advantage is the customer being able to see what the order is going to cost before submitting. We used to get lots of calls, dozens a day, how much will this be, how much will this be. WebCRD has been great for that.”
RPI supports more than 100 customers around the world with its production network of four owned facilities and 25 partner plants. “All of the work that we produce is in direct integration with e-commerce, mobile, or marketing automation systems,” Bellamy said. “In an effort to make that efficient, we have built a printernet distribution platform that directly integrates with nearly any system out there.”
Obtained by RPI as part of its acquisition of ColorCentric in 2019, printernet is a distribute-and-print technology for producing personalized print on demand at multiple locations. “It accepts an order from a customer, analyzes that order, and determines the best place in the world to produce it,” Bellamy said. “Once the order is routed, the files are automatically prepared for the right output device, so the first time that anybody sees that project as a human being is when it’s coming off a press.”
The speakers praised the high efficiency of operating through portals that channel incoming work directly into production, eliminating bottlenecks and delays.
Sending and receiving printed order forms through intra-campus mail was “a huge resource hog” that the WebCRD portal has made a thing of the past, according to Harris. “The workflow is great, too. The job comes into pre-production, and if it needs work, it goes into makeready where I then give it some attention. Then my operators know that it’s ready to go, and they then route it to whatever machine they see fit.”
Prior to this, the nature of production was “all paper, paper, paper,” Harris said. Now, “our operators no longer have to interpret these things, and be mind-readers of a poorly filled out order form. It’s just an overall better workflow, more efficient, less hands on.”
Bellamy said that RPI’s low-touch workflow “helps us to keep our output operators focused on calibration of the machines from a color perspective, as well as an output perspective, and it also allows us to quickly make decisions on routing should there be issues in any of the production facilities creating redundancies.”
“The machine-assisted manufacturing allows us to track the various [job] components throughout the process, and report back to both internal and external stakeholders for any product,” Bellamy added.
Consensus among the panelists was that this type of print manufacturing – portal-based, internally automated, and not tied to in-person contact with customers – is likely to become the norm.
“It’s already that way here,” said Harris of his in-plant’s relationship with its campus clientele. “We take our orders through WebCRD, we produce them, and we take them to the mail center, which is basically a walk-up kiosk. The customer comes in, rings the bell, picks up their order, and everything is basically hands-off.”
Nelson acknowledged, “There will probably always be a place for face-to-face interaction and consultative selling, in projects, for example, where professional installation is required. Those are pretty difficult to manage online, so there’s going to be face-to-face interaction to some extent.”
However, he noted, “companies that know what they’re looking for are purchasing more and more online. It’s fast, it’s incredibly convenient, and we’re all continuing to improve that experience and make it even better than it is right now. So, I do see a pretty dramatic reduction in face-to-face.”
Bellamy observed that the COVID-19 pandemic is reinforcing the idea of transacting business remotely “as we deal with the necessary separation” that the crisis has imposed.
“It accelerates a trend that was already in place in the conversion of digital content into a physical product,” he said. “Today, the digital communication is the primary channel, and the physical communication is secondary.”
“I think absolutely that the face-to-face interactions are going to be because we want to, not because we have to,” Bellamy concluded. “The automation, and the ability to order through your device, certainly outweighs any need to go and spend time.”
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