Follow the Money with an Automated Workflow

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large, PrintPlanet.com


What is time worth?

This means your time or that of your CSRs, prepress technicians, press and finishing equipment operators, and even the people in shipping. What is their time worth, and how do you translate those hours into payroll, the dollars you keep in your operating account, and profitability?

Mounting competitive pressures and customer expectations for fast turnarounds and competitive prices rising have made productivity business critical for every print services company. The old school approach of getting your team to “work smarter,” is recognized as code for “work harder by doing more in less time.” You may even expect this to happen without increasing head count while meeting the common industry turnaround time of five days. (If you have enough gray hair, you may remember when this was seven or even ten days.)

But suppose you really could work smarter and be able to handle not only the 15–30 jobs you take in on a typical day but 50, 60, or more while offering same day or next day turnaround and having some of your team adding capabilities that bring in new revenue. This is where automation comes in.

“People tell me they want to reduce production costs and increase efficiency in flowing jobs to print operations,” says Joe Rouhana, Vice President of the Software Business Group at Xerox. The only way to do this is with automation.”

Eliminate the touches
The promise of digital printing is that jobs can be produced in low quantities and turned around very quickly. But the irony in fulfilling this promise is a workflow reality that harkens back to the days before digital printing became a mainstream technology: manual processing is (and always will be) a bottleneck.

As a practical matter, it’s very difficult to ask any of your team to work faster. And even if they are able to do so, what is the real gain? Maybe it pushes a few more jobs out the door in a given day, but this is not going to help expand your business because each and every job is still being handled, or “touched,” too many times. Each touch costs time and money and the only way to change the game is to eliminate the touches. Adding more people—even if you can find, hire and train them in today’s tight job market—is not the answer.

“When you are talking about growing volume you must have processes and software in place to move your jobs forward at much faster speeds,” affirms Marco Poli, Managing Director of PremCom, a leading multichannel print management company in Peterborough, England. “You really can’t tell someone ‘you’re not dragging those files around fast enough or clicking the mouse as fast as we’d like’.”

Mr. Poli’s team was in the time-consuming practice of manually examining customers’ PDF files and preparing them for printing on the company’s Xerox print engines. Beginning when a file arrived, whether it came attached to an email, sent over the internet or was delivered on a thumb drive, it was opened, checked and adjusted manually, placed in a hot folder and sent on to the next step in the production process, where it was opened again. These touches created a bottleneck that limited production and the amount of business that could be done in a day, a shift or a week.

Open Platform and Printer Agnostic
“Today we are completely automated,” says Mr. Poli, “from preflight checks and imposition, automation has enabled us to process as many as 2,000 orders a day. That’s an increase of 60 to 70 percent. It would be impossible to do all that manually on a daily basis.”

That astonishing change came with the adoption of FreeFlow Core, a powerful workflow automation system. Although it comes from Xerox, FreeFlow Core is an open platform tool that is printer agnostic, meaning it can help drive automation, efficiency and productivity regardless of the presses being used. This makes it ideal for supporting an automated workflow on the mix of print engines common in modern print shops. Its single, automated workflow can be used no matter which press a job is planned for, and even more important, a job can easily be routed to a different device based on production capacity and press availability.

This versatility provides benefits any print provider will appreciate. Consider a document previously prepared for offset printing but now headed to a digital press, such as a Xerox iGen or a press from another company. Rather than having a designer spend an hour or more reworking the job for a specific device, FreeFlow Core can convert the job file from offset to digital in a matter of minutes.

Other common time-sinks can also be easily handled. Most jobs these days arrive as PDFs, but we all know PDFs are not created equal. Moreover, preflighting a seemingly straightforward job such as a four-page 8.5 x 11-inch brochure might reveal it contains more than 30 layers that would drive RIP time up to 45 minutes, other PDFs may reveal several thousand layers. But by automatically flattening those layers and converting the PDF to an X-1a format—a two-minute process—RIP time drops to less than a minute.

Similarly, a set of individual pages—for a brochure or newsletter for example—can be automatically assembled in printers’ spreads and readied for production on the correct size paper. Similar time savings on many common jobs drastically shorten production cycles, letting more jobs be produced in a given period.

Direct Benefits
Sometimes the value of automation is one a customer experiences very directly. Chris Bradshaw, General Manager at Alphagraphics in Layton, Utah recalls a customer who turned to his shop to produce her art prints, which came in a several sizes. Because there was no standardized process for producing the prints, they came off presses in a variety of sizes, which led to the artist using the company's trimmers—that were set up in the front of the store—to trim each work individually. After adopting FreeFlow Core, Mr. Bradshaw suggested that the artist provide her trim specifications when submitting her orders so each piece could be trimmed precisely as she requested. It was easier, smarter and faster for both the customer and for Alphagraphics and delivered consistent, predictable results.

“I created a web-to-print website for her so she could upload her art. It would go through FreeFlow Core and match a template that is already in the slitter,” recounts Mr. Bradshaw. “It’s now very simple. The files come in, we press print, and when it’s done we put it in the slitter where it is trimmed based on the template. Then she comes and picks up the work. It saves us time in processing and she doesn’t have to spend time cutting and trimming.”

At PremCom, Mr. Poli says jobs are now being processed in hours rather than days. This goes beyond production efficiencies by imbuing customer confidence, because they can place more business with PremCom, knowing it will be processed faster and delivered more quickly with a higher level of service than was the case without automation

Automation is one of the last steps to building an efficient production operation. “It is the fastest way of taking an order form a customer and going into production,” says Xerox’s Mr. Rouhana. “An automation platform is no longer a nice to have. It is a must have.”

For more on how workflow automation is helping PremCom save time and money while achieving consistent results, click here.
 

  • Impressive. The next step will be to automate the processing as far as it makes economic sense. A good example of this is Allied Printing, where the product flow is excellently controlled. Click here for the video:

 
Thanks for the link. You're right, processing is the next step, and some of it is already happening, as your link shows. There's a lot of book production and direct mail are already heavily automated from job in to ship and mail.

Automation is going to be more and more important is printing, just as it is in other types of manufacturing. It is still a big (and potentially costly) transition for most businesses and will probably not be truly easy for some time. One thing I think is interesting is that the forward-looking companies are making the leap--some of that on faith--while others keep on with business as usual. The ones that don't automate will eventually go away. Some of them will be replaced by new companies that will be automated from the get-go, which will further accelerate change.

In printing, anyway, it comes down to this: What does it cost to automate versus the cost of having a business that is worth less every year? Nowadays, if one is looking to sell a business (or merge), the multiple on sales/gross earnings is ever-more closely tied to automation. And if sales are declining due to lack of automation the business is not going to be the big sale an owner was hoping for.
 
It look like Allied Printing has committed serious investment dollars to provide impressive capabilities. Our product, DataManager provides all the automation to connect these system to build automated workflows, connecting a large selection of MIS and Prepress systems together using Layout JDF data to drive it all. It's the next step in the process as this article reflects
 

De-Inking

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Sustainable Printing Goes Far Beyond Using FSC Certified or Recycled Paper
This informative paper on deinking: demand, principles, problems and solutions also explains why printing technologies are not all equally compatible with paper recycling systems; and why just a small fraction of printed material in the paper can cause difficulties.
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