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What the Scribes & successful printers learned about automating

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  • What the Scribes & successful printers learned about automating

    By Richard Romano, Industry Analyst

    Students of printing history likely know the name Johannes Trithemius. He was a German abbot in the 1490s, about 40 years after the invention of the printing press. By Trithemius’ heyday, the printing revolution was in full swing, automating the process of reproducing documents and replacing the earlier method that involved hand-copying by scribes, monks cloistered and copying documents in scriptoria. After the printing press, demand for scribes plummeted, and monks began looking for other things to do. However, some decided to mount a resistance. Trithemius begged monks not to give up the art of manuscript copying, and wrote a famous treatise on the subject called In Praise of Scribes. He had a problem, though: he needed to quickly produce a large number of copies of his treatise. In one of the great ironies of history, he had a treatise called In Praise of Scribes printed on a printing press. Saved by automation!

    The fear of automation has only increased over the centuries, and especially today, the fear that the robots are coming for our jobs strikes terror in the heart of people in just about any line of work. But many of these fears are unfounded, and especially in today’s modern printing workflows, automation is a must-have element. Indeed, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that automating the shop floor keeps these print businesses in business. So shifting some employees to other parts of the business is better than putting them out of work because the business went under!

    The drivers of the need to automate production are not exactly surprises: faster turnaround and fewer mistakes (software can do things like preflighting, job planning, and imposition much faster and accurately than humans can). At the same time, automation keeps all the information and data associated with a job with that job file throughout all the stages of production, eliminating the mistakes that can creep in when job ticket information is re-entered multiple times throughout the lifecycle of a job. Besides eliminating mistakes, automation saves time. After all, the faster you are, the more profitable you are.

    Let’s back up a few steps and define what it is we mean by “automation.” Automation today is synonymous with the new buzz phrase “reduced touches” which essentially means that a job moves through the shop from file submission all the way through to finishing with as few human hands touching it as possible. The system can automatically add barcodes or other information that gets printed on the job. At each stage after printing—finishing, fulfillment, etc.—those codes can be scanned, which then automatically indicates and sets up the next stage of the workflow, identifying what other elements may be required. If you’re printing books, is there a cover that was printed elsewhere that needs to be added, and if so, where is it? If kitting is required, what else goes in the kit? The same data can also be used to schedule pickup with UPS, FedEx, or other carrier. Indeed, jobs can be scheduled as far back as the pre-prepress stage to determine which jobs needs to be given priority based on when a given carrier—like UPS—typically makes pickups.

    The table below identifies the various “silos” in a printing plant, how certain tasks were performed “yesterday and today” and how they can be automated “today and tomorrow.”
    Yesterday and Today Today and Tomorrow
    Customer called/walked in with job specs and RFQ. Estimator would use "secret sauce" recipes to generate quotes. Online database can quickly give customers quotes automatically through an online storefront or via any company employee who has access to the database.
    Customer walks in with artwork/file on disk. Customer submits file through online uploader/web-to-print system.
    Job ticket information was re-entered as job was sent to prepress. All the job ticket information that was submitted with the file remains with the job throughout production.
    Prepress staff manually preflighted each file. All files submitted automatically get preflighted before being sent on to the RIP queue.
    Prepress operators manually imposed and scheduled each job. Automatic imposition and ganging systems can automatically group and schedule like jobs.
    Accounting staff would manually re-enter job information to the businesses' MIS to generate invoices. The workflow system can feed information from the job ticket as well as production status back into other systems within the business. Invoicing can be instantaneous, even electronic via mobile devices.
    Finishing staff manually set up each piece of finishing equipment. Scanned bar codes or other means can automatically set up finishing equipment parameters.
    Customer would call, looking for job status. Sales rep would check and call back. Customer can automatically get job status info through website, or any print shop employee can quickly get status, even from a mobile device.
    Fulfillment personnel pack up jobs and schedule with FedEx/UPS. Scanned bar codes or other means can automatically schedule pickups with third-party carriers, even based on destination.
    One of the most daunting aspects of automation for those new to it is the fear that all of the elements in the table above need to be implemented in one fell swoop. Virtually every automation expert recommends a modular approach to automation; install one or two of those elements at a time, and only automate what makes sense to automate. Where to start? Determine what your most pressing need is—where is the biggest bottleneck?—and start there. Maybe customers are clamoring for automatic job tracking. Or maybe estimating is the bottleneck. Does it take hours or even overnight to generate a quote? Today, that is unacceptably long. Is accounting itching to get data into QuickBooks for quicker invoicing? Remember, if you don’t invoice, you don’t get paid. (Not that one inevitably leads to the other...) Pick your biggest pain point and start there.

    The challenge to the modular approach is that you can end up with a kind of Frankenstein’s monster of a workflow, kludged together from parts provided by an assortment of vendors. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s important that the pieces all communicate with each other, otherwise effective automation will fail.

    Therefore, it’s important to choose automation partners who can either offer all the pieces of the automation puzzle, or who offer some of the pieces that can easily integrate and communicate with the others, regardless of vendor. Aleyant offers four major pieces of the automation puzzle: online design (eDoc Builder), web-to-print (Pressero), estimating and production management (Print Job Manager), and automated prepress (tFlow).

    alleyant-flow.gif

    These four general components can be used together or in combination with more than 750 third-party applications, including QuickBooks, SalesForce, and prepress systems from the major hardware vendors including HP, Canon Solutions America, Fujifilm, and others.

    Adding automation doesn’t need to be an arcane, mystical art or an expensive proposition. In the past, a full automation solution could have the price tag of anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000, whereas Aleyant’s top-of-the-line, soup-to-nuts automation solution can be purchased for a fraction of this cost. ROI can be optimized if you take a piecemeal approach, and add automation components gradually.

    Automating some or all of your enterprise is about more than just increasing productivity and profitability. It also allows you to expand your business, and take on new applications you may not have considered before, a necessity in a highly dynamic print marketplace. It’s also about future-proofing your business, as today’s automation solutions can change as your business changes—and can improve your business valuation should you decide to sell your print business.
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