Why Ever Would You Want to Automate?

by Noel Ward, Editor@Large

Why ever would you want to automate your operation? After all, it seems far too complex, costs money, involves a lot of your people, will absorb significant time, and you figure you probably don’t need it. And then you run out of excuses.

I used to work with a guy who had some 20-odd years in printing and packaging behind him. He insisted that every shop he went into had a superbly lean and extremely efficient workflow and spectacular MIS. He said each one had automated as much as they possibly could. Yet when I went into the same shops I found that the shop floor team was basically good at moving pallets and rolls around. Jobs were usually going out on time, but it was difficult to know where each job was in production and when it would be ready to ship. Prepress was dependent on paper job jackets and a 15-foot-long white board. The business owners only knew the status of a job if they talked to the production manager or pressroom supervisor who couldn’t always give a straight answer without checking with people further down the food chain. And finally, knowing whether or not a finished job was going to be profitable was a couple weeks away from being clear. This, I thought, is no way to run a business: a good MIS that drove automation could be a game changer. Maybe.

MIS is not what it used to be
To be fair, some of the early MIS products for print operations were little more than glorified calculators. They provided a blurry view of operations and quick glimpses of what was going on, but not the details business owners needed to help run a more efficient operation. In fact, many companies that had invested in such systems wound up using them only in limited ways—or not at all.

Now though, MIS systems can be a very different story. They play a key role in production, estimating, and are required to create accurate CIP4 data (e.g. JDF and JMF) for compatible equipment so you can track jobs from submission through shipping and—most importantly—highlight trouble spots that can be addressed before they become a production roadblock. This lets business owners and managers fully understand the strengths and weaknesses of their shop and take steps to remedy any problems. Having and acting on this knowledge can take costs (and stress) out of your operation. Especially important is that a modern MIS can be part of a full-function, automated system that can deliver a measurable advantage over your competition.

Still, when you begin to think about what’s involved in acquiring and implementing MIS and automation in your plant you can be forgiven for thinking it’s too much to take on. That’s exactly what I thought as I began looking behind the curtain at some of the offerings. So I decided to break it all down by all the production and printing tasks a modern system can handle and see where the actual business benefits were.

Making Automation Work for You
So as I poked at this and talked to people I came to understand six things. They all matter, at least if you care about your business and want it to succeed or be more valuable when you sell it

Thing 1: Drain the time sink
Automation is critical to boosting your administrative capacity. For a job that’s in your place for three days, for instance, this is all those pesky tasks like estimating, job administration, scheduling and prepress that together account for more than half the time a job is in your shop. It’s probably worth getting a handle on those numbers and ways to keep them under control.

Thing 2: Knowing more is good
Being an equipment guy at heart, I knew what I was going to find next: Automation is a must-have if you plan on driving modern equipment. And by the way, this doesn’t mean just your cool new inkjet press. It also means the big 8-color Heidelberg or K&B offset presses in the next room. I was in a shop last summer that had almost every type of print technology imaginable, yet what was actually happening on some machines was invisible to the guys running the company. While not all the devices in the shop could be automated, an MIS system could have shown where each job was. But that was not happening.

Thing 3: Are cost and price related?
You already know this: your competition is no longer across town or in the next zip code. It’s in another state, or even another country. And, if you don’t know exactly what every job you run really costs you can’t price it accurately. When you lose a quote it’s easy to say, ‘you can’t win them all,’ but you also don’t want to be leaving much legal tender on the table or the shop floor. Automation and MIS help ensure you know more about costs, and that helps you do a much better job of setting pricing.

“Cost and price have always been joined at the hip, but they don’t have to be,” says Susan Moore, VP of Sales at Tharstern, a UK-based MIS and automation firm with U.S. offices in Georgia. “MIS’s have always been designed to help printers figure out their costs, and then their price. But in the Tharstern world they are not really related. Your costs are your costs (because they are very defined) and your price is your price, which can be adjusted to meet customer and market needs. But price should not be based on cost.”

This idea can be hard to wrap your head around, but when you fully automate your entire operation you really can separate cost from price, which means you are not always chasing some optimal margin. OK, there will be times when a customer is being, shall we say, unreasonable. And you can still walk away from the job. But if automation has helped you thoroughly control and understand your costs you are in a far better position to negotiate—with a prospect and against a competitor—from a position of knowledge and strength.

Thing 4: Efficiency saves money
Tied to knowing your cost is efficiency. Take your prepress department for example. Automation can make most prepress activities faster and more accurate. But suppose you could cut your prepress staff by a third? Or in half? In some cases this might reduce head count, but it also might let valuable staffers shift from repetitive work to a role where they add more value. But you can’t and won’t know this until the convergence of MIS and automation show opportunities for taking a new approach.

Thing 5: End-of-job delight
Chances are, you want to delight your customers. After all, you want them to come back. That can mean the quality of the work you do, meeting or beating delivery dates, keeping a job on or even under budget; whatever makes them happy. You can do this the hard way: all hands on deck, every day, having everyone put in as much time as possible. Or, you can implement a highly automated, streamlined workflow driven by a world-class MIS that ties together every step of your operation and every printing system in your plant.

Thing 6: This is a strategy, not a quick fix.
Integrating automation and a MIS is not something you’re going to do in a couple of weeks. It is a process that has to be done in stages and can take two to five years to fully reap the benefits. Along the way, it has to be someone’s job to steer this strategy and stay on it: otherwise, it is hard to get there. You simply cannot just ask a vendor to automate your plant. This is a multifaceted strategy that takes planning and plenty of internal conversations that include the vendor, about how to best phase it in.

It’s up to you. We all hear a lot about automation and MIS these days and it can be hard to realize the value until you study it a bit and think in practical terms about the details. But the thing is, printing, while an old technology, is also among the most fertile fields for innovation and developing new ways to work better, faster, smarter, more efficiently, and it is ripe for smart automation.

There’s a great e-book on the whole MIS and automation topic from Tharstern. It is worth downloading and reading, if only to gain a better understanding of how this all fits together. Check it out at https://www.tharstern.com/automation...d-d3288675f2ec


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