Software and Gasoline


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Software and Gasoline
Episode 5: When it comes to production, it’s not about the press

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

“When the press is running, I’m making money,” The timeworn statement I’ve heard too many times is no longer accurate. The money comes from printing, finishing, shipping and billing. The press is only part of the job, and the whole enchilada is controlled by a few software tools that don’t always play well together.

Here’s the thing: Few shops these days rely on digital presses from a single vendor. The single-vendor strategy was pretty common 20 or so years ago but most successful shops these days have digital presses from multiple vendors, offset presses from one or two more, and another vendor’s logo on a large format machine. Press vendors say their production software is designed to manage jobs running on their presses (well, let’s hope so!). To be fair, digital press vendors do a great job partnering with software developers and creating software that works well. Part of their objective is to foster “stickier” customer relationships because new equipment is usually compatible with workflow software already in use. In the dreamscape of equipment vendors, this may all lead a customer to become a single-brand shop again. However, it’s not uncommon that only a portion of the promised functionality works consistently across different makes of press and types of jobs. I know I’m oversimplifying but it’s a bit like finding your Lexus won’t run quite right when using gas for a Chevy, even though gas is supposed to be universal. Because your profit comes from what gets shipped and billed, efficient processes demand platform-agnostic workflow software that works from job receipt to billing, every time.

Mind the gap
In the real world this means having an end-to-end workflow and MIS (Management Information System). Tools and formats like JDF (Job Definition Format) certainly help, but some parts of jobs are invariably left on the shop floor and hopefully to be picked up through manual efforts that could be avoided. This gap is where end-to-end solutions show their value.

One example I’ve been looking at of late is Slingshot MIS from Avanti. With Slingshot, the production data collected through the Shop Floor Data Collection via manual entry is combined with the production data collected automatically through JDF integrations. This fills in some gaps. I’ve talked with enough business owners to have a sense that juggling two or three or five different software tools that coordinate workflow can cause employees and business owners alike to wonder if there might be a better approach. Employees just want to get their job done and leave at the end of their shift. Business owners need to know where every dollar goes because there is no need to bleed money in a tight-margin business.

Take the production department for example. Digital press makers have terrific software that ensures their presses run every job in the queue. But that production software doesn’t always connect as well as promised with order entry and receipt, inventory or purchasing. It can also have a weak pass-off to fulfillment and shipping and may have no acquaintance at all with the financial sides of a business. In contrast, a full-featured MIS can help business owners follow the money.

You Want it When?
Production planning always comes down to the due date. The planning for this should start when an order is created, not when the job shows up in production. Josh Perkins, Slingshot Product Manager at Avanti Systems says, “Scheduling should begin when an order enters the system and can include multiple devices and multiple steps.”

A job might, for example, include a 2x3-foot poster destined for large format printer, a saddle-stitched monochrome booklet on a black and white printer, and a 11 x 17-inch version of the poster in full-color on an inkjet or toner-based digital press. The production manager and the production teams all need to know this, and the job has to land in the print queues for the three presses at the appropriate times so all the pieces come together when it’s time to ship.

“This is one of the things Slingshot does,” explains Perkins. “All jobs can be ranked in importance and load balanced against other jobs so the various elements of each job are all done on time. And it can be completely automatic, so purchasing staff, press operators, production managers and more all know when a job that came in last week will be printing on three presses, moving through finishing, or in shipping.”

Because Slingshot is also “aware” of inventory levels and purchasing activity related to each job, the system can delay a job if needed materials aren’t available. For instance, if the needed paper hasn’t arrived the production schedule can be moved to accommodate the delivery schedule and another job moved into the place of the one that is being delayed. This keeps your production schedule full and avoids expensive downtime. “The logic in the system is based on the ship date so work can be moved around to accommodate changes without affecting delivery,” says Perkins. If a delay in arrival of, say, a certain paper will impact delivery, the system automatically alerts the production manager so the customer can be notified and a change can be made in the job.

Where’s my Job?
This is one of the calls or emails from a customer you probably dread, so having the most current, accurate information available is as essential as good coffee. A Slingshot module called Shop Floor Data Collection can provide your team with access to the info they need so they can easily and confidently answer that question.

Shop Floor Data Collection helps both you and your team by tracking labor, time and materials, productivity, equipment utilization, spoils, and production rates. With this information in hand, you can take steps to reduce waste and increase profits. Accurate costing will also roll up into key metrics such as profitability at the customer, sales rep and product line levels so you can fully understand the costs for every job.

There is a lot more that Slingshot brings to the table, and the more I’ve learned about it, and look at it in the context of what shops I’ve been in need, the better I understand what the Avanti team has been working on. Slingshot was clearly designed with input from printing professionals to be help print professionals fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of their operations. There are a couple more modules still to come: shipping and fulfillment, and financial, all of it based on the needs of active, working shops that want to take control of their operations. Stay tuned for more.
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