The Magic of Automation (Episode 1)


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Begin at the beginning: Estimating and order entry

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Before a new job arrives in your shop your team should be making sure it will fit your schedule and move smoothly through your system. Back in the old days, like 20 years ago, you didn’t always know about incoming jobs until someone walked in the door with a disc or thumb drive (or if you go back another ten years, a “mechanical”). The person at the front desk—now usually called a Customer Service Rep or CSR—would manually write down all the job specs so you could crunch the numbers and get back to the customer with a quote. This still happens in many shops. Other times you’d have the luxury of preparing a quote in advance. The job would come in a few days later and your team would go to work. The pace was slower, the work got done, life was good.

Then customers began expecting jobs faster, sometimes even the same day. Old work processes—like re-entering job ticket information and shuffling paper around—were eating up too much time and you realized you needed a bit more capability than the “digital storefront” offered by the RIP for your digital press. That “more” turns out to be a Print MIS and an end-to-end workflow that begins when a customer pulls up your website on their computer or tablet or phone, keys in the specs for a new job, and uploads some files to your server so it is waiting the next time you or your CSR log in. The steps go all the way through shipping or delivery. Some jobs may be all but invisible until pages begin streaming off your press.

Avoiding Pain Points
“The point of an automated workflow is to reduce and even eliminate the pain points that come with old-school or manual processes,” says Josh Perkins, Solutions Architect & Product Manager at Avanti Systems in North York, Ontario. “The first step is avoiding re-entry of information. Not only does this eliminate redundant effort and the chance of errors, it speeds a job into production.”

Of course, not all jobs arrive electronically. Some come in FedEx or UPS packages and customers are still known to walk through the front door. But the more thorough and rigorous the capturing of job ticket information, the easier it is for a job to move from the CSR to pre-press to production to finishing and to shipping.

In doing this, all the information from the age of manual forms is still in play. But now quantities, colors, templates, finishing requirements, shipping instructions, and more are captured all at once, reducing accidental errors. Not a bad thing. I remember a project I ran back in the bad old days where we printed a couple webs of paper on each press run, always with the same print provider. It was always a one-color job in PMS 280 blue. But somewhere in the job ticketing process someone put PMS 283 (a much lighter hue) on the job ticket—which went unnoticed until both webs were printed. It worked out okay (after the yelling died down) but it was the kind of error that would have been much less likely in an automated system because job specs would have been previously locked down as part of the standard order.

Detailed communications
More than a few jobs these days come with SLAs (Service Level Agreements), such as ‘this job must ship to three locations, via overnight FedEx, within five days of submission.’ While this kind of detail can be overlooked when re-entering information during a manual job ticketing process, it can easily and automatically be part of an electronic job ticket so recurring jobs are produced and shipped on schedule. Depending on the requirements of the SLA, the job ticketing may even accommodate changes in production planning, so the delivery time occurs within the specified five-day window. For example, an automated workflow that begins when a job arrives can adjust production schedules to meet deadlines and maintain efficiency.

It can also be simpler. An automated workflow can schedule jobs that will use the same type of paper to run in succession, eliminating the need for some paper changes. Or a rush job can be automatically inserted into the workflow to meet an unexpected deadline. An automated workflow can also notify a press operator that a scheduled job has not yet arrived, leaving extra—but still committed—space in the print queue. Print shops have adjusted schedules for decades, but with an automated workflow the moving parts are much more visible and easier to change. Think of it as the 21st century version of the big white board that once occupied a wall in your production department, except that now it’s on computer screens and adjusts production on its own to make your operation more efficient.

Too Much Can be More Than Enough
Whether an estimator sees a job or not, the classic information such as quantities, covering/binding/finishing requirements, paper weight, type and sizes, and color needs (i.e., CMYK and spot colors), bleeds, layouts, possibly press preferences, and shipping instructions should always be included. Once the estimate is complete and provided to the customer, any final details can be worked out and the job can begin. The collected information will drive the job through to completion and shipping. It is the starting point of a fully automated workflow that seamlessly passes jobs between departments where staff and equipment are all guided by one consistent job ticket that holds all the necessary information to see a job through to completion and delivery

Still, not everyone needs to know everything about every job. In busy operations an automated workflow can easily provide individual team members with more information than they need. The advantage with Print MIS workflows such as Avanti Slingshot is adaptability. For example, the pre-press person needs to know about the paper type, spot colors, the four-edged bleed and the deadline, but maybe not that the job has to go out via UPS on Thursday to three specific addresses. The guy in shipping probably doesn’t know what spot colors are or what a four-edge bleed is, let alone that the job he’s boxing up has them. But he must know precisely where the job is going and which carrier to use. An automated workflow can be configured so people only see what is needed to do their job. This reduces the chance of confusion or misinterpreting information that could result in an error. Yet, all information can be available when needed to help make your operation more efficient and profitable.

The workflow that begins with job intake is ultimately a Print MIS—Management Information System—that provides the details of how every job comes together and answers key questions: Is the pricing from the estimates correct and in line with customer needs and expectations? Are you accounting for all costs correctly? When folded into your monthly budget do the numbers all work when they reach the bottom line? Are there places where adjustment is needed? With a Print MIS all this information and much more is just a few clicks away from you and your management team. Be prepared to take advantage of the depth of new information that will be at your fingertips. Define in advance what is most important and build out from there.

Estimating is More Than a Formula
I first started paying attention to automation when working with a couple of quick print franchises that sought more automation for their shops. The digital storefronts that came with the newer RIPs were pretty good, but there were (and still are) shortcomings that make them less of a fit for larger operations. Many print businesses find them sufficient for basic job ticketing and moving jobs into prepress and even on to production, but lacking in the heavier lifting required for finishing, job scheduling and shipping. That’s all right, because these products do much of what the smaller shops need. Even so, many users I’ve talked with use only the more basic functions, such as providing fast online estimates for relatively standard jobs.

For instance, the digital storefront job and order entry process can seem more akin to a Survey Monkey questionnaire than a real work order. This can work well for operations with limited volumes, making them a better fit for quick printers and small in-plants than those of mid-size or larger commercial shops. They can provide basic workflow automation and commodity-based pricing, but as jobs become more complex their shortcomings—and the need for human intervention—become more apparent.

Unlike a digital storefront, Avanti Slingshot does not offer up a default catalog of forms and documents but gathers information that an estimator—an actual human—can use to provide a quote. “A catalogue or template format can be provided for simpler or less demanding jobs to be submitted and quoted at any time and still support a lights-out printing environment,” explains Kevin Shaw, Deputy General Manager at Avanti, “but most Avanti customers need capabilities that can span their entire operation, handle complex jobs, and still provide lights-out operations.”

Moreover, there are always things that need to be to be fine-tuned. “Anything can be automated but it is more difficult for certain jobs,” notes Avanti’s Perkins. “For instance, on large format presses there can be significant differences in job cost depending on how many images are put on a sheet and how a sheet is cut. It is much more efficient (and often less costly) when an estimator highlights the differences and discusses them with a customer when determining the best solution.”

Always keep in mind that job submission is the foundation for a fully automated lights-out operation. And it can all begin before a job file even comes into your facility.

How to pick an automated workflow system: Part 1
Some print providers have likened changing their Print MIS system and adopting a new workflow to getting married, buying a house, moving in, and having a first child—all on the same day.

There’s no doubt that changing a Print MIS system can be a challenging undertaking but it does not have to be overwhelming or intimidating. The key is to talk with everyone on your staff who will be involved: CSRs, estimators, prepress, press and finishing equipment operators, people in the warehouse and shipping. Find out their pain points. Pay special attention to your financial team—the CFO and people in accounts payable and receivable to make sure they will be able to get the information they need. Be sure your sales and marketing people are looped in because they are on the front line of customer and prospect questioning. Then, bring the system online, one part at a time, a process that can take a few months, keep asking about what works and what doesn’t so you can identify the places that need attention. Getting it all to work for everyone involved is the key to success implementation.

Over the next few months we’ll get into all of this in more detail, but here at the beginning…
  • Be sure any Print MIS and workflow system is the correct match for your business. Simple needs dictate a simple system. But if you have complex jobs, SLAs that put the pressure on reliable and timely delivery or exceptional accuracy, make sure the Print MIS you invest in will do what you need—including telling you whether or not you are making a profit on each job.
  • Work with all your estimators and everyone downstream so any questions and uncertainties are addressed as soon as possible.
  • Talk with your customers to find out how the process could be made better for them. The idea is to add value for everyone involved.
  • Watch out for the unexpected and be ready to adapt on the fly.
  • Keep your supplier close and let them know what works right and what needs attention. Listen to their advice!
Next time we get into inventory management and how a Print MIS can make sure you always have what you need to succeed.
So much responsibility for making sure all the info is there placed on the Estimator.
Having worked for on of the largest companies it was always a fight to get all the needed
information to produce an accurate estimate in the first place. (and I want it now!!!)
As for: “The first step is avoiding re-entry of information. Not only does this eliminate redundant effort and the chance of errors, it speeds a job into production.”
This step is a vital first check that all the information provided is accurate warding off potential of major failure to get the work done correctly.
I have used numerous software systems the and have found them to be lacking in one way or another requiring what i called exceptions to be created in order
to be of any use. I could go on but those who know what i am talking about will get it and those who don't will keep promoting this crap.


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