Automatically Autonomous Automation

noelward

Well-known member
By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

So you go home at night, leaving the lights on because they turn off automatically.

Your autonomous car drives you home and closes the garage door behind you.

Back at the shop the 49 jobs in the queue run under full automation. Since no one is there you check in later using your phone and see that everything is rolling along. The jobs are ready to ship or deliver in the morning. That’s what your business will be like in what, another 5 years? Maybe 10?

How about today?

Although the autonomous car is not quite ready, a lights out print operation is something you can do right now if you have a comprehensive Print MIS (Management Information System). The advantages can put money on your bottom line. So what’s your next step?

Your production schedule is not like dry cleaning
At every print show I attend, there are companies offering up varying levels of automation for print production. Most focus on specific capabilities, such as streamlining job intake, speeding up prepress, or controlling elements of production. This is good, but such tools are often one-trick ponies or require manual intervention to move jobs physically or electronically to the next step. In dynamic print environments with a mix of job sizes and requirements, such backing and filling is not enough now and will definitely be inadequate in just a few years. Already, customers are expecting 24- to 48-hour turnarounds, and some insist on dry-cleaner-like in-by-9, out-by-5 delivery. Unless you have excess press capacity and a few extra people it is difficult to maintain this pace very long.

End-to-end automation
Handling every job that comes in—whether the lights are on or off—requires an MIS designed to integrate print production from job intake through shipping and billing. Although an MIS is obviously software, it is not a replacement for many existing tools that come with a press. Instead, it leverages those you already have so you can get the most out of them. This means your Print MIS should not be limited to whatever software arrived with your Prinoxdigon VPC 8900. While the software used to run the press is good stuff, it typically only handles discrete parts of a fully integrated workflow, such as basic levels of job tracking, preflighting, calibration, placing a job in the print queue, and printing it as is detailed on an electronic job ticket. The “gotcha” is that it may only work well for equipment and software bearing the same corporate logo. So if all your boxes come from the same vendor you may be okay, but this by no means assured. Many MIS options require manual intervention, which puts the brakes on lights-out operations.

In practice most shops have presses from more than one vendor. There are also various flavors of software on Macs and PCs. The upshot is that you need a single MIS that can work with multiple presses and operating systems, or if nothing else, can integrate the steps of your workflow so all the jobs coming in the door can run more easily. So you need a MIS that can do everything.

The Theory of Everything
Because putting ink or toner on a page has become so complex, getting all the moving parts to work together is a bit like figuring out how the universe works. It’s a big task, but the tools are out there. One of the Print MIS systems I looked into recently is Avanti Slingshot, which, according to some printing execs who have put it into their shops, delivers results that increase efficiency, foster growth, and helps make better use of financial resources.

One of these is PMI, Printing and Marketing Inc., a two-decade old print provider in Union City and San Diego, California that uses both digital and offset presses. For PMI the big challenge was the amount of manual entry needed to put incoming jobs into play, especially those coming in through the firm’s online storefronts. PMI sought to reduce and eventually eliminate the breaks in its workflow—keystrokes, copying and pasting, and accessing spreadsheets that ate away at productivity and profitability. “We could get 50 orders a day across our three storefronts, and see 1,000 to 1,500 orders a month,” relates COO Armando Pena. This proved too much for PMI’s existing MIS.

But as they looked for other options, the key requirements were communication and integration with its various W2P storefronts and the flexibility to adapt to new software in the years ahead. “It was paramount that the solution be able to grow with whatever comes next,” explains Pena. He found Avanti Slingshot integrated well with other software and was a good fit for the PMI’s ‘whatever it takes’ approach.

Three months after Avanti Slingshot went live at PMI the company was already reducing order input errors, with order entry and shipping showing the biggest time savings. Pena and his colleagues are expecting to save as much as eight hours a day across order input, tracking, and managerial tasks alone. As COO, Pena expects to be able to focus on building business instead of simply getting more jobs out the door.

Find the Money
One of the key challenges in many print operations is keeping as much money as possible on the table. One way to do this is by streamlining the bidding and quoting processes. But that is not always possible. This was the issue for Impulse Graphic and Display Solutions, a large- and grand-format signage provider in MIssissauga, Ontario.

The company had a minimal understanding of accurate job costing and business profitability. As they studied their challenges, Impulse GDS president Alex Cachia and his team realized they were both underbidding and overbidding, sometimes providing different quotes to the same account, and that mistakes and reprints were weakening their bottom line. Like many companies, their spreadsheets were reference points. Manually created job tickets, while flexible, provided little consistency and gave rise to inefficient estimating and job-ticketing that leaked profitability out of the business.

“Our spreadsheet method was so flexible that there was no consistency in our estimating,” says Cachia.

Every quote was developed based on values from a centrally-maintained spreadsheet and the knowledge of the person preparing the quote.

“We needed a way to get more control and understanding of our business processes without sacrificing delivery times or creating pushback from our staff,” says Alex.

This was especially important for Impulse GDS because the company possessed a ‘do-whatever-it-takes’ culture. Implementation of the automation inherent in Avanti Slingshot presented a significant cultural change for the company.

Enter the Templates
Some of the most significant results show up in the acceptance of the Avanti Slingshot by the Impulse GDS staff. Estimators have realized the benefits of using work templates containing all the job attributes, materials, and production steps required to get specific types of jobs done. Quotes now reach customers more quickly, a capability that lets Cachia speak with customer when needed. For instance, when a recent customer told him Impact’s quote was double the competition, Cachia used Avanti Slingshot to examine alternatives and drop the estimate from $1,400 to $800, making the bid more competitive.

“That would’ve been difficult to notice on a spreadsheet,” notes Cachia, “but Avanti made it easy to see the opportunity by visualizing the process.”

Today, Cachia is using an evolutionary approach to implementing his system. He is scheduling much of his shop floor and will be streamlining his bindery and can see where Quality Control and Avanti Slingshot can be tied together.

Still, he feels his most significant challenges are cultural rather than technological. His people continue doing whatever it takes to get jobs out, and Slingshot’s work templates help them meet tight deadlines while using consistent procedures that deliver long-term benefits.

I’ve looked at many MIS products over the years and while the geek sometimes runs strong in me, I believe life’s too short for systems that are hard to use. At both PCI and Impact GDS, Avanti Slingshot shows how an open, browser-based MIS fits into multiple print environments and brings practical benefits throughout an operation, and helps put good numbers at the bottom of a balance sheet.
 

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