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Workflows That Work Wonders

January 1998

"What we see from a lot of customers now is the importance of organizing the entire process, and a strong focus on organizing content," reports Tim Bosworth, product manager for DataFlow at Cascade. "Organizing the process and coming up with sophisticated software systems and databases capable of managing a tremendous volume of digital content—-that is the role of the workflow provider."

Directing Workflows
R.R. Donnelley formed an automated, in-house prepress installation at NM Direct that includes DataFlow, a workflow management system from Cascade Systems. DataFlow tracks all the jobs behind the creation of 70 catalogs a year, a total of 4,000 pages, filled with fonts, text and images.

The workflow manager also keeps an ongoing record of all the activity—images scanned, proofs produced—on which R.R. Donnelley bases its billing for the NM Direct work. DataFlow automatically creates a job ticket for every piece of the catalog as the catalog is being produced. How? The system interfaces with the creative department, so that, as graphics are produced, copy is written and pages put out, the status can be checked by any member of the production team at any time.

Lee Webster, prepress product manager in the Merchandise Media Group at R.R. Donnelley, reports the NM Direct prepress operation no longer has to contend with manual tracking of images and text files, or with staying on top of the number of proofs a job required.

"I get the information I need to analyze the production process of any particular job—I can see how many proofs were made on any page sent from any workstation at any time," he explains. "I can take a complete digital tour of the workflow process—that has to be one of the coolest parts of the system."

The second cool part, Webster contends, is DataFlow's ability to archive images and track status in a proactive way, allowing for certain actions to be triggered by other actions within the workflow process.

"It's very flexible. Once an operator finishes an operation—say a page make-up—a soft proof action is triggered, the page is sent to Acrobat Distiller and the workflow goes forward from there. A series of activities that were once manual are now taking place electronically," Webster says. "Automation within the workflow is the key to streamlining any production environment."

What are Webster's impressions of the current array of automated workflow solutions available for prepress environments—and the direction these systems are heading? Webster's answer is in two parts, one of which has a dollar sign attached and the other dependent upon the hands of time.

"Some of today's workflow solutions are very pricey and not very user friendly—both of these issues need to be improved," Webster contends. "Workflows will need to mature, to increase functionality, but not at the expense of user friendly interfaces. The answer might be more prepress vendors coming out with their own comprehensive workflow solutions."

Meanwhile, at Cabela's
At Cabela's, the great outdoors come alive within the pages of a series of seasonal product catalogs, distributing images and information to more than 20 million households annually. Each year, Cabela's catalog department is responsible for producing more than 28 different catalogs, four seasonal giant publications of more than 450 pages each and 24 product- or market-specific variations, which are distributed throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Asia.

To accomplish this feat, Cabela's and its 50-plus-member creative team depend on an elaborate workflow and production system ingeniously managed by Michael Margolies, systems and quality administrator. MediaBank by Archetype, now Bitstream, is the workflow tool in place.

"We're an in-house operation for the most part, except that we outsource our four-color separations and some scanning to several well-known houses," Margolies explains.

All the images, all the archiving—all the tracking and trafficking of more than 82,000-plus stored images in 14 separate databases—and an anticipated addition of some 100,000 images yet to be imported, is the responsibility of Margolies and the Cabela's creative team, which includes 15 electronic page assembly technicians, a number of support personnel, photographers, prepress technicians and managers.

Can you imagine searching for an image before a workflow solution was in place? Margolies and team don't have to imagine. "There was a lot of frustration before a workflow solution was implemented; we were not automated in any way, so locating the images for even one page could easily take an hour or more," he recalls.

Not effective.

Enter MediaBank.

A Smart Solution
"When we choose to archive a file now, Media- Bank remembers where we put it, whether it was written off to tape or to a CD-ROM or whatever—we don't have to keep logs or a tracking database because MediaBank remembers were we store our images," Margolies reports.

"When we want to retrieve an image, MediaBank will assist in locating and reloading the high-res version, while a low-res version is always available and the image's history is there for our use even when the archived file is inactive and off the system."

Sometimes, for whatever reason, the right image is not available and art directors and product specialists at Cabela's need to find alternative images. This requires searching the database for images via content characteristics.

"We can search via SKU, file type, name, storage location and more because the database allows us to customize our own fields, allowing us to search by product manufacturer, type of product or by key words," Margolies reports, noting key words allow the Cabela's team to describe catalog items, like clothing, in terms of color, size, material and more.

Today, Margolies is a strong advocate of automated, intelligent workflow solutions.

"Data management allows us to determine costs at each production stage and per page, so that we can manage and bill our internal departments more effectively and determine where our bottlenecks are impacting our production," he explains. "I cannot imagine a good reason why an operation such as ours would want to continue working without a cohesive, automated workflow process."

— Marie Ranoia Alonso


ASK AN EXPERT

Q: How can I recognize the problem areas in my prepress workflow?

Ask any production operator in your shop what the average number of images per page or layout is and you will more than likely get a higher number than is the case.

Lesson One: In many workflow audits over the years, I've found the tendency is to remember the unusual. The reason, I surmise, is that the unusual causes the most— for lack of a better word—excitement.

Excitement is great for football games but lousy for orderly workflow. However, in scaling a system and its individual stations along a line, we can better consider the abnormal rather than the average.

Having made the mistake of testing a number of randomly chosen page samples and then extrapolating the average time to do the whole job, I am now more aware that actual performance can vary drastically.

Lesson Two: The problem comes in that an unusual page causes more than its share of perturbation to a workflow. For a simple example, the time it takes for your server to pass data for one page over the network, possibly hogging the network, reverberates throughout all stations and can cause more time loss than just the transfer time for the directly affected station.

So how do you plan for this in the first place?

Lesson Three: Slant your sample study more toward the difficult and unusual than the average.

Include only pages or layouts with a high number of images, graphics, and manipulations such as silhouetting. In doing so, be careful not to use only the worst case or you may over-scale the system and stations. The idea is to aim for higher than average, less than maximum, and err to the maximum side.

There are some software packages that can help you, especially if you have some statistical analysis skills. Understanding a specific workflow, exploring options for its enhancement and implementing those software options are smart steps to speedy workflow enhancements and productivity boosts.

—John Werth

John Werth is director of sales/marketing for Shira Computers, makers of the Jet Stream family.
 

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