The world of print is changing - and it is happening rapidly. Jobs are getting more complex, more personal, with more unique components that stretch the limits of a printer’s creativity and technology. Turnaround times are getting ever shorter, and printers are finding themselves being asked to expand their offerings, becoming “one-stop shops” for their customers. Printers are also being called on to serve as marketing partners, rather than just printing vendors, adding even more layers of complexity to the equation.
For many shops, figuring out how to manage all these moving parts is more than half of the challenge in today’s business environment. And the cornerstone to success is both deceptively simple and headache-inducingly complicated at the same time: workflow.
“Workflow is the core differentiator between competitive print providers; as digital production printers become more commonplace, the competitive differentiation that used to exist in terms of artisan skill in optimizing quality on offset presses (i.e., ink/water balance, etc.) start to disappear,” notes Marco Boer, VP, IT Strategies.
The Shifting Expectations of Automation
One of the buzzwords of recent years around workflow has been “automation.” It is the idea that, in order to remain efficient and continue to improve quality while reducing turnaround times, shops increasingly need to remove the touchpoints from their workflow.
This is especially true as the industry convergence continues to take place; shops don’t just have a single, unified workflow anymore. Rather, many shops have multiple workflows for different types of print work - ranging from offset, to variable data printing, to packaging, to wide-format work. Each type carries its own equipment, software and best practices in terms of moving a job through the shop effectively.
With so many moving parts, it makes sense that removing as many potential spots for human error or slowdowns to occur just makes sense. However, while most printers agree that automation improves business, the adoption rate has been slow.
“We have just completed our North American Software Investment Study for 2018. The trends are interesting,” points out Pat McGrew, director, Keypoint Intelligence, InfoTrends Production Workflow Service. “We know that PSPs [print services providers] in North America should be assessing their workflows and working toward elimination of manual touchpoints, supplicative software tools and bottlenecks, but it’s going slowly.
“Larger PSPs are doing a better job of integrating new tools than their smaller PSP counterparts but, as a whole, there is a lot of opportunity to become more efficient and automated.”
The holdup seems to lie less with printers not understanding that automation is the future of their business, and more with just not knowing where to start.
“Do I start afresh, or do I try to integrate into existing workflow? Who do I turn to for integrating into my existing workflow? A software provider? A hardware supplier? Should I self-develop?” Boer asks.
Just trying to figure out where to start can be especially challenging for shops that have been in business for many years, as they are working not only with legacy software, processes and equipment, but also with a staff who have developed their own ways of getting things done, which can be hard to break out of.
“The problem exists whether we talk to transaction PSPs, commercial printers or companies serving digital packaging or digital textile,” McGrew notes. “Capturing the job specifications in a common, organized and consistent manner confounds most print organizations. In some, each salesperson has their own methods. In others, there are multiple digital storefronts and Web-to-print solutions in use, each of which works differently, leaving gaps in the information needed to get the job into production.”
The solution, contends Mark Bohan, director, Prinect & CtP, at Heidelberg USA, is to take a step back and approach the problem one piece at a time.
“Look at it from the big picture - the whole of the workflow - and then try to take things in a step-by-step process,” he says. “You can start with the low hanging fruit and get the easy-to-address issues, then grow from there. Don’t try to solve everything all at once.”
For most shops, according to Bohan, the best approach is to first take a hard look at the entire workflow and determine the path that most jobs need to take to be the most efficient. Design the workflow to fit the majority of the jobs and worry about the exceptions later. “It’s not about adapting workflow to how you want to operate; it’s looking at how you’re operating and leveraging the workflow to match,” he adds.
Another major consideration is whether the shop has - or should have - one unified workflow across all of the technologies it offers. Offset and digital printing, for example, have very different requirements when it comes to how the files need to move through the process. Packaging requires a different set of parameters to follow, and wide-format yet another.
For some shops, it might make sense to build an automated workflow that can route jobs to the correct equipment. For others, it might make more sense to have separate workflows that all funnel back to a single back-office management system. Every operation will be different, which is where it comes back to taking the time to truly understand the shop’s needs before starting to invest in new workflow solutions.
“All commercial printers will require sophisticated workflow software to thrive financially,” Boer notes. “The question that arises is whether you try to integrate digital print workflow into offset workflow, or do you keep them separate? It’s a custom decision for every operation, there isn’t a single right/wrong answer.”
However, Bohan notes, printers need to stop thinking of workflow automation as a “human vs. technology” issue. Rather, it is about integration.
“You should be looking at standard jobs and automating those,” he says. “Automate repetitive tasks as much as possible.”
That is especially true as more printers add new technologies and verticals to their lineup.
“Often, specialties (such as wide-format output) have high margins, but relatively low volumes,” notes Boer. “Entering low-volume jobs into workflow software is often viewed as a time-wasting chore, as the entry time can be longer than the actual printing time. That may be true today but over time, as the volumes of the specialty grows, it will become more challenging to integrate it into the overall shop workflow.”
It’s About Data, Too
An efficient workflow brings myriad benefits to a shop, but one most printers might not have considered is the wealth of data that it makes much easier to access. Data that, according to Bohan, feeds right back into the business decisions the shop makes on a daily basis. He notes that a solid workflow foundation makes it possible to identify not just which jobs met or exceeded the expected costs, but which customers are routinely being given estimates too far below the costs to be profitable, or which salespeople tend to have higher margin work coming in.
Other data that an automated and efficient workflow can help to clarify are things like which substrates are doing well in the shop, and which ones are creating problems on the machines? Where are slow-downs happening, and can the shop address those with better training programs, especially as more skilled press operators retire, and more inexperienced workers enter the business to replace them?
In short, a solid workflow allows printers to do more than just move jobs through more quickly; it allows them to make informed business decisions based on hard numbers, rather than just “gut feelings.”
“The overarching thing with workflow is that it really all comes down to data,” Bohan stresses. “Workflow is about creating the smart print shop, passing the data seamlessly through each of the steps in the process, but then also collecting the data back from both production and business so you end up with information you can easily access and analyze intuitively.”
Workflow is the backbone of a print shop - no matter the type, size, specialty or industry segment. Creating an automated process that can handle every task, collect every piece of data, and move every job through from beginning to end without issue, is the ultimate goal, that will lead to success.