Let the Print Work Flow
One of the buzzwords of recent years around workflow has been “automation.” It is the idea that, in order to remain efficient and improve quality while reducing turnaround times, shops increasingly need to remove the touchpoints from their workflow.
This is especially true as industry convergence takes place; shops don’t just have a single, unified workflow anymore. Rather, many shops have multiple workflows for different types of print work — ranging from offset, to variable data printing, to wide-format work. Each type carries its own equipment, software and best practices.
With so many moving parts, it makes sense that removing opportunities for human error or slowdowns is crucial. However, while most printers agree that automation improves productivity, the adoption rate has been slow.
“We have just completed our North American Software Investment Study for 2018. The trends are interesting,” points out Pat McGrew, director at Keypoint Intelligence, InfoTrends Production Workflow Service. “We know that PSPs [print services providers] in North America should be assessing their workflows and working toward elimination of manual touchpoints, supplicative software tools and bottlenecks, but it’s going slowly.
“Larger PSPs are doing a better job of integrating new tools than their smaller PSP counterparts but, as a whole, there is a lot of opportunity to become more efficient and automated.”
Where to Start?
The holdup seems to lie less with printers not understanding that automation is the future of their business, and more with just not knowing where to begin.
“Do I start afresh, or do I try to integrate into an existing workflow? Who do I turn to for integrating into my existing workflow? A software provider? A hardware supplier? Should I self-develop?” questions Marco Boer, VP of I.T. Strategies.
Just trying to figure out where to start can be especially challenging for shops that have been in business for many years, as they are working not only with legacy software, processes and equipment, but also with a staff that has developed its own ways of getting things done.
“The problem exists whether we talk to transaction PSPs, commercial printers or companies serving digital packaging or digital textile,” McGrew notes. “Capturing the job specifications in a common, organized and consistent manner confounds most print organizations. In some, each salesperson has their own methods. In others, there are multiple digital storefronts and Web-to-print solutions in use, each of which works differently, leaving gaps in the information needed to get the job into production.”
The solution, contends Mark Bohan, director, Prinect & CtP, at Heidelberg USA, is to take a step back and approach the problem one piece at a time.
“Look at it from the big picture — the whole of the workflow — and then try to take things in a step-by-step process,” he suggests. “You can start with the low-hanging fruit and get the easy-to-address issues, then grow from there. Don’t try to solve everything all at once.”
For most shops, according to Bohan, the best approach is to first take a hard look at the entire workflow and determine the path that most jobs need to take to be efficient. Design the workflow to fit the majority of the jobs and worry about the exceptions later.
“It’s not about adapting workflow to how you want to operate; it’s looking at how you’re operating and leveraging the workflow to match,” he adds.
One Workflow or Many?
Another major consideration is whether the shop has — or should have — one unified workflow across all of the technologies it offers. Offset and digital printing, for example, have very different requirements when it comes to how the files need to move through the process. Wide-format requires a different set of parameters to follow.
For some shops, it might make sense to build an automated workflow that can route jobs to the correct equipment. For others, it might make more sense to have separate workflows that all funnel back to a single back-office management system. Every operation will be different, which is where it comes back to taking the time to truly understand the shop’s needs before starting to invest in new workflow solutions.
“All commercial printers will require sophisticated workflow software to thrive financially,” Boer notes. “The question that arises is whether you try to integrate digital print workflow into offset workflow, or do you keep them separate? It’s a custom decision for every operation; there isn’t a single right/wrong answer.”
However, Bohan points out, printers need to stop thinking of workflow automation as a “human versus technology” issue. Rather, it is about integration.
“You should be looking at standard jobs and automating those,” he says. “Automate repetitive tasks as much
That is especially true as more printers add new technologies and verticals to their lineups.
“Often, specialties [e.g., wide-format output] have high margins, but relatively low volumes,” notes Boer. “Entering low-volume jobs into workflow software is often viewed as a time-wasting chore, as the entry time can be longer than the actual printing time. That may be true today but over time, as the volumes of the specialty grow, it will become more challenging to integrate it into the overall shop workflow.”
It’s About Data, Too
An efficient workflow brings myriad benefits to a shop, but one most printers might not have considered is the wealth of data that it makes much easier to access. Data that, according to Bohan, feeds right back into the daily business decisions the shop makes. He notes that a solid workflow foundation makes it possible to identify not just which jobs met or exceeded the expected costs, but which customers are routinely being given estimates too far below the costs to be profitable, or which salespeople tend to have higher-margin work coming in.
Other data an automated and efficient workflow can help clarify are things such as which substrates are doing well in the shop, and which ones are creating problems on the machines? Where are slowdowns happening, and can the shop address those with better training programs?
In short, a solid workflow allows printers to do more than just move jobs through more quickly; it allows them to make informed business decisions based on hard numbers, rather than just gut feelings.
“The overarching thing with workflow is that it really all comes down to data,” Bohan stresses. “Workflow is about creating the smart print shop, passing the data seamlessly through each of the steps in the process, but then also collecting the data back from both production and business so you end up with information you can easily access and analyze intuitively.”
Workflow is the backbone of a print shop — no matter the type, size, specialty or industry segment. Creating an automated process that can handle every task, collect every piece of data, and move every job through from beginning to end without issue, is the ultimate goal that will lead to success.