By Jeff Weldon
If we start with the bottom line, digital production workflow is all about getting the most out of your digital production equipment. It’s as simple as that. There are many steps that go into a particular workflow, but in the end, the objective is to get information onto paper and off to a consumer. This might be a transactional workflow where the objective is to get statements printed and mailed within very tight service level agreements and budgets, or it could be about getting brochures or enrollment kits to a client to drive new business. In either case, the printers and finishing equipment are at a standstill until the digital production workflow is executed for each job. Several recent advances in workflow technologies can help improve the end-to-end process of getting print jobs out the door efficiently.
Up until recently, if you wanted to create a multi-step workflow it would involve some level of programming in the workflow engine and around each of the tools you wanted to incorporate into the workflow. Software vendors offered system integration solutions to help you integrate all of the components into your workflow and then worked with you once again when your requirements changed, often resulting in a costly process.
Today, there is a change in thinking that allows business users—rather than IT programmers—to define and implement a workflow using standard building blocks, and software suppliers are responding to this trend. For example, Ricoh Process Director is one tool that meets these current requirements. The latest version has a graphic user interface that allows the user to drag-and-drop workflow steps into the correct order. There are pre-defined modules to wait for some other activity to complete, branch based on multiple inputs, and alert when an activity—such as receiving a file—has or hasn’t occurred.
Sefas has been modernizing its offerings based on its experience with existing customers. One such advancement is its “utility application” that enables its customers to rapidly onboard large numbers of legacy applications in a short time period. The company has also reviewed the common processing requirements of successful deployments, and created a prepackaged workflow that meets the needs of a range of customers, reducing the cost and time to implement a successful workflow system. Today, Sefas customers are offered a set of preexisting functions and plug-ins that enable the platform to integrate with their existing infrastructure. These preexisting functions are available as standard modules that can be further customized to meet the specific needs of the site.
Solimar Systems is another company with an interesting approach to workflow management. Solimar markets its Chemistry platform as a dashboard to provide visibility into the steps within a workflow. At Chemistry’s core is a workflow engine designed to integrate with a range of software systems. It provides an overarching umbrella to monitor, control, and report metrics from each step in a workflow. Chemistry approaches the workflow problem as one of control and provides the means to collect and report on a full range of metrics about each step in the process. This level of detailed analytics provides the information that allows shop floor management teams to identify bottlenecks in their workflows and make changes as appropriate.
With their approach to simplifying the process of designing and implementing production workflows, Ricoh and Sefas are part of a sea of change in modern application development. Increasingly, software companies are building software products that require less programming and provide more business user enablement. The goal is to allow IT to define a framework in which business users can operate, but doesn’t require constant intervention by IT developers to operate and maintain the solution.
What Can I Do In an Automated Workflow Today?
As software applications have evolved, their builders have added ways for them to be controlled by external applications. Whether through a proprietary API, a generic API (e.g. ODBC), or another mechanism, it is increasingly possible to send commands to control the actions of another program. This has improved the ability to incorporate components from multiple companies into the end-to-end workflow.
With the objective being to get output in the hands of a consumer as efficiently as possible, a number of processes can be incorporated into the workflow that help achieve that goal.
One major slowdown in the print and insertion area is job changeovers. The process of changing paper stocks, adjusting inserter feeds and folders, and changing out inserts is a labor-intensive process that chews up a considerable amount of time. Short job lengths is one of the main culprits in requiring frequent job changes. Tools that can help minimize the number of changes have a significant impact on a shop’s daily output capacity and overall cost. As a simple way of thinking about the cost and output impact of a roll change on a continuous feed printer, consider this—at 450 feet per minute a two-up job generates approximately 980 sheets of output per minute, a ten-minute change is 9,800 sheets of lost capacity. If those are one-page letters, the result may represent up to an hour of lost production opportunity on an inserter too. Most shops have accounted for these capacity losses in their facilities planning, but imagine how much additional capacity is gained if the job flow is streamlined.
Moving to a white paper workflow is a way to create larger job runs. Longer runs require minimizing preprinted paper stocks. This can be done with a number of tools that allow the matching of stored background images with various page types within a document. So where you might have had multiple paper stocks in a job before, you can now print the background on each page on the fly, allowing a virtually unlimited amount of customization on each page.
However, just eliminating preprinted paper isn’t going to allow you to combine a group of jobs into a single one. You also have to think about address and barcode locations so that you can gain efficiency on the insertion side of the house. Fortunately, the tools that allow you to “flash” the page backgrounds also support document reengineering functions that support adjusting address locations so they will all fit in a common envelope design. And any existing barcode symbologies can be removed and replaced with a single barcode for the entire run of multiple merged jobs.
A large file containing similar jobs offers an opportunity to save significant money on postage. Once the files are combined, running a postal sort over the resulting file may result in higher zip code density than would have been achievable from the separate files. This step may also minimize the amount of output that needs to go to a mechanical presort vendor in order to qualify for a discount.
Providing piece-level tracking and accountability becomes more difficult when you combine multiple print runs into a single file, but the workflow engine providers have already addressed that concern. They can keep track of what jobs rolled into what print files and can reconcile when a piece was inserted, using data from the inserters and camera systems. This also allows the workflow system to create a reprint file if needed.
An additional workflow improvement can be found in switching from physical inserts to onsert pages. The same post-composition tools that can combine files can also replace calls for physical inserts by printing the information inline on an additional sheet in the mailpiece.
Ten years ago, if you wanted an end-to-end production workflow system you needed to cobble together a number of products from different vendors and then build your own control system on top of them. With the tools available today, you can put standard off-the-shelf solutions to work for you and gain a significant number of features over earlier commercial and homegrown systems. Any company currently seeking a production workflow system should be looking for tools that allow the use of existing technology while bringing new and more robust capabilities to the table. dps
Jeff Weldon, CDIA+, is a senior analyst with Madison Advisors, an analyst and consulting firm specializing in customer communication technologies including enterprise output management, content management, customer relationship management, e-billing, and infrastructure technology.
Aug2016, DPS Magazine