Bottom-Line Automation

noelward

Well-known member
Bottom-Line Automation

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

You’ve doubtless noticed that just about everything that can be automated is being automated. This is a good thing for organizations where repetitive manual tasks are business as usual. After all, inspecting, counting, handling, and moving things around takes time, increases the likelihood of errors, and costs money. You can probably do without all of these, especially the latter.

Modern print production has more than a few places where automation solves a lot of problems. It can be more complex than is readily apparent and some trouble spots have a way of trickling down to the bottom line. Of course every software and equipment vendor claims their solution is the best on the market. I get this, and to be fair there are a lot of good products out there. Yet sometime the integration of equipment and software from different companies creates a synergy for delivering the automation print providers need to meet customers’ demands while keeping those print businesses profitable.

I become a fan of automation and the software that makes the machinery do its thing. Big complex machines and processes are far more interesting when some elegant software is making processes faster, more efficient, and more cost-effective. In this context, hardware does the heavy lifting while software makes it all possible without people crowding around the machines.

Better together
To see what is out there and what works and what doesn’t, I talk with print providers and equipment and software vendors. My recent investigations took me to Ricoh, which makes some powerful inkjet presses that are usually run using Ricoh ProcessDirector™ (RPD) software and Avanti Slingshot® from Avanti Computer Systems, a Ricoh company. I’ve written about Avanti Slingshot before, after finding it to be a comprehensive tool for showing the business side of print production—basically tracking where the money goes. I was less familiar with the nuances of RPD, though I’ve visited and spoken with owners of several transactional and direct mail shops who have been using it to manage and produce high volumes of business-critical work on their Ricoh inkjet presses. Given that Avanti Slingshot addresses the business aspects of high-volume production, I was interested in how it is integrated with Ricoh ProcessDirector and found the two architectures to be better together than either on its own. This does not always happen, so it is encouraging to see both companies delivering different levels of value to print providers in what is essentially one product. To learn more, I called Ricoh and Avanti.

I expected to hear that Avanti Slingshot was a module added to RPD but instead the entire product is tightly integrated into ProcessDirector for sharing time and materials data about the document production process. The integration requires purchasing “connectors” that enable the two products to communicate, ensuring information about supply and material levels is available to Avanti Slingshot. The integration should be smooth for individuals familiar with either product. In my opinion, this kind of intelligence has long been a missing part of production printing.

Added Value
“Such capabilities didn’t exist when RPD was originally developed,” acknowledges Linda Liebelt, Global Product Marketing for Ricoh ProcessDirector at Ricoh in Boulder, Colorado. “Back then print providers used a lot of costly pre-printed forms. Now it’s all white-paper-in with color and variable data making many documents much more complex than they once were. RPD was always a full-featured print-and-mail tool for high volume environments. It would handle datastreams, postal sort order, and all the moving parts of the print-and-mail process.”

But RPD did not do the business side, an area representing a lot of value for print providers. After all, they need to know when they are—or are not—making money. So while RPD has the information to handle the production aspects of a job, Avanti Slingshot makes sure the job is produced on time, shipped, and billed based on the actual amount of time and materials required. This way, when a customer inquires about the status of a job the information is immediately available, including things like inventory levels, anticipated labor and materials costs and for the print provider, profitability.

“This is where Avanti Slingshot comes in,” affirms Josh Perkins, Slingshot Product Manager at Avanti Computer Systems in Toronto, Ontario. “Everything a printer needs to track: inventory, job costs, and even profitability is automatically collected, including transfer of job details to RPD for production without re-entry, saving labor and reducing the chance for errors.”

For example, Avanti Slingshot will know that a particular job used 25,349 sheets of 20-pound paper (and the rate charged for those pages) so the print shop can bill a customer promptly and correctly. Avanti Slingshot also tells print providers about material levels, job specifications, shipping dates and requirements, and more.

The system also accounts for running changes. Suppose, for instance, that due to lack of available supplies, a customer agrees to use 10,297 prepaid postcards in place of a single sheet of paper and a prepaid business reply envelope. The costs are obviously different, so Avanti Slingshot can automatically tally and account for the difference, which would be available on the final summary pages for the job. No guesses or estimating time involved.

What makes this interesting is the automation. All this information is being collected while the job is running so when it is completed the system can provide a production manager or business owner the final details of each job. And, if supplies of any item are running low, Avanti Slingshot can automatically order the needed materials based on preset business rules or because it “knows” three upcoming jobs will require more materials than are presently available. Having one place in Avanti Slingshot where users can see both production status and usage amounts being sent back from Ricoh ProcessDirector along with business workflow status —scheduling, staging, shipping, and billing—helps close the information loop so production managers and business owners know more about each job.

“Without Avanti Slingshot there is a lot of manual entry, time spent tracking inventory, plus the costs of non-print actions, such as shipping and warehousing, that can be hard to track and account for,” says Perkins.

In todays’ hyper-critical markets where everything is minutely examined being able to accurately account for all aspects of a job is essential. For example, tracking profitability at the job level is obviously important, but so is the comparison of the initial estimated cost from Avanti Slingshot versus actual costs based on real-time data from Ricoh ProcessDirector. One of the hallmarks of software for print production systems is integration that minimizes places in a workflow where human intervention must occur. The gaps still exist with many offerings, but the tight integration of Ricoh ProcessDirector and Avanti Slingshot combines production management, material usage and business information that are all critical when making decisions about how you can accurately estimate and charge for future work.
 
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michaelejahn

Well-known member
"The integration requires purchasing “connectors” that enable the two products to communicate, ensuring information about supply and material levels is available to Avanti Slingshot."

Are these connectors applications that run on a separate computer on a network, or is this JMF based ?
 

noelward

Well-known member
Hi Michael,
Hope you are well, and thanks for reading my words.

I'm not sure, but I think they are JMF-based. AFAIK, both Slingshot and RPD run on the computer or server that runs the Ricoh digital press, so the connectors would be there, too. Although because Slingshot can operate independently of RPD (and does for for Avanti customers) the option may be there to have the connectors run on a separate computer, should that customer migrate to RPD and a Ricoh press. I have sent a note to the product managers to find out. I am traveling and not in my office until mid-next week, but someone at Ricoh or Avanti will probably have an answer and get back to me in a couple of days.
 

noelward

Well-known member
Hi Michael,

Here you go. JMF as I thought.

From Avanti:
It is JMF based. The “connectors” are licensed pieces of code (“add-ons”) that are part of the installations of Avanti Slingshot and RPD.

From Ricoh
RPD has a feature called Avanti Slingshot Connect. It plugs into RPD to “turn on” the parts of RPD that communicate with Slingshot.

Avanti has a feature called RPD Connect (or something like that) that enables Slingshot to receive jobs and status from RPD.

Each “connector” comes from the manufacturer, not a third party.
 

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