By Cassandra Balentine
Workflow is an all-encompassing term that incorporates different facets of a print provider’s operations. From web to print (W2P) to digital front ends (DFEs) and color management tools, a variety of software make up a complete workflow strategy.
Depending on the size and volume a print environment delivers, obtaining the right mix of workflow solutions—including both business- and production-focused options—improves efficiency, productivity, and profitability. These should be evaluated regularly and often.
Above: Xerox workflows are defined as intelligent automation using rules-based logic in which one file can be used for varying outputs.
Types of Workflow
A range of workflow tools are available to print providers today, many of them with overlapping features. However, the term is so broad it covers a myriad of definitions and strategies.
Elisha Kasinskas, marketing director, Rochester Software Associates, says different types of workflow include data center, legacy data stream transformation, prepress, output management, W2P, and print management information systems (MIS). “These software types encompass all of the workflow from beginning to the end and beyond, with reporting and shop management based on information collected in the software.”
“Workflow is one of those concepts that if you ask 100 people what it is, you may get 100 different responses,” admits Ernie Crawford, president/CEO, Crawford Technologies. He says the general concept of workflow may include print file transformation software, document reengineering, postal optimization processes, as well as service level agreement (SLA) monitoring and reporting. All of these have a place in the overall workflow.
Shaundra Toy, PMP, sales engineer, high-speed inkjet, Screen Americas, suggests workflow tools generally fall into three categories—production, composition, and integrative. Production workflows enact traditional prepress page handling to feed the device; while composition workflows handle the composition of massive data files with many records that require indexing, organization or resources, and manipulation; and integrative workflows reach beyond a single system to communicate upstream and downstream with other systems like MIS or the intranet/internet to automate or provide business analytics. “Depending on your environment, you may need one or all of these workflow solution types.”
Scott Scheidenhelm, senior channel manager, software and solutions, Commercial and Industrial Printing Business Group, Ricoh USA, Inc., thinks of workflow software as fitting into one of two buckets—software that is part of the workflow and software that is the workflow. “Software that is part of the workflow includes W2P solutions, imposition engines, and the like. These are individual steps or tasks en route to job completion. Software that is the workflow engine serves as the connective tissue, shepherding jobs between tasks, step-to-step, end-to-end—eliminating manual steps in the workflow process,” he explains.
Paul Goldberg, VP of product strategy, Loftware, breaks workflow into production and business, stressing that both are vitally important. “Printers tend to focus on production workflow as it’s what matters to them and is required to drive the digital presses. Customers on the other hand focus on business process workflow. As many customers now use procurement departments for buying print, they often see print as a commodity item and focus on price. Business process workflow adds real value for the customer and helps differentiate one print provider from another. “The result is those who focus on helping customers manage their business processes become more valuable and allow procurement to consider the bigger picture rather than just the cost.”
Jeffrey Piestrak, product manager, Xitron, also breaks workflow software into two categories—software that comes with a particular output device and aftermarket, or production software designed to be central processing points. The latter are known as DFEs that can drive multiple machines.
The types of workflow software used by print providers differ by the processes, says Dmitry Sevostyanov, CEO, Customer’s Canvas by Aurima, Inc. One type may be a comprehensive solution that includes prepress, the printing process, ecommerce, and post press. Another type automates specific areas of the workflow with its own module and integrates it with other modules. For some companies, an off-the-shelf solution is enough. However, other businesses develop their own modules for some aspects of the workflow or buy them from software vendors and combine them into a custom solution.
Jane Nerf, senior marketing specialist, Canon Solutions America, groups workflow for digital print providers into one of nine categories—data input, transforms, variable data printing, W2P, prepress and imposition, color management, output management, workflow automation, and security. Solutions run the gambit from pay-as-you-go cloud-based options to robust, client-based solutions. “Many of the lower- or entry-level solutions are out-of-the-box whereas others are fully customized and designed to the specific requirements of the customer in question.”
Erik Holdo, VP, graphic communications and industrial print line of business, Konica Minolta Business Solutions U.S.A., Inc., points out that both on premise and cloud-based workflow software exist. “From a few thousand dollars to support a smaller operation to larger investments driving a complete, multi-faceted environment, automation is available at all levels. SLA management tools help you stay on track with mission-critical jobs.”
Bryan Hughes, product marketing manager, Fujifilm North America Corporation, Graphics Systems Division, adds that multiple business software solutions may be deployed that manage accounts, customer relationship management, inventory, estimating, job ticket creation, scheduling, tracking, shipping, invoicing, and job cost evaluation. The key questions he asks are, do they, can they, and how do they need to cross communicate?
The complexity of print workflows and the growing number of W2P solutions have lead many shops to acquire multiple products. Tony Tarpey, COO, PressWise by SmartSoft, says this may include W2P storefronts, impositioning software, preflighting tools, and job tracking software. “This multi-product approach traditionally results in increased costs and puts additional stress upon a shop’s infrastructure.”
Re-Evaluating Workflow Needs
Many variables affect the efficiency of a print environment. Workflow needs should be regularly re-evaluated anytime there is a major change or shift in the company.
Nerf recommends that shops look into their workflow annually. “It is especially important to align workflow as future strategic initiatives are designed. As changes within various business departments occur, there should always be a check to see if the existing workflow is still being optimized.”
Scheidenhelm agrees, noting that if you’re not looking at least once a year, you’re probably not in tune with your business’ current state or its practical path to growth going forward. “If your workflow solutions aren’t as robust, integrated, or streamlined as they could be, you’re missing out on productivity gains, faster turnaround times, and reduced errors.”
Tarpey points out that the business environment for printers has changed over the past decade. “A combination of internal and external factors force print providers to re-evaluate the way they run their business,” he says. These include greater demand for short-run jobs and faster turnaround; customer expectations for easy-to-use custom storefronts for ordering, visibility into order history, job status tracking, and invoices; and increased competition from print providers already offering these services. “To survive, printers need to re-evaluate and make changes to the way they do business—procrastination can be even more costly.”
Another time to re-consider workflow is when adding new services. “Make sure the foundation of your house is built solidly before you add the stress and load of new product offerings to the environment,” suggests Holdo.
Any change to current operations requires a reexamination of the workflow, such as a new printer purchase, new software, a major new client, or plans to switch offerings—such as cutsheet to continuous feed or toner to inkjet. “To neglect this and never evolve tool sets means failure to keep up with customer demands,” cautions Joseph Rouhana, VP/GM, Software Business Group, Xerox Corporation.
Kevin Shaw, director of marketing, product management, and customer experience, Avanti, says workflow should also be a thought when a shop can’t keep up, looses too many jobs, invoices aren’t getting out, raw materials and finished goods inventories can’t be managed, and it can’t answer questions like how much money was made on a job. It can also be used to replace people when finding qualified staff is difficult.
“If you feel you’ve reached a point of maximum scheduling of your equipment but you should be able to push more volume with your existing equipment, that’s a good time to look at your workflow,” recommends Holdo.
Hughes suggests another reason to re-evaluate would be if the number of jobs has increased but the total time to produce the job remains the same.
Piestrak adds that external factors, like new file types that are incompatible with older workflows also cause printers to reexamine their workflow.
Digital print providers should first research and understand how much time goes into each step of their processes. Greg Salzman, president, Aleyant, says from there, they can begin to pinpoint bottlenecks and understand what is not working.
New equipment, new market niches, and the launch of new products as others are shuttered are all variables that propel a printing business forward. “Eventually, workflow software that worked well before will need to be upgraded due to one or more of these changes. Updating workflow software is a big job and many printers would rather put it off. However, there will come a day when the losses that a company suffers from using outdated software outweigh the fears and inconveniences of the update. There is no single recipe that works for every printer, but outdated software can significantly hamper the further development of any printing business. Management should stay abreast of current business processes to start re-evaluating the workflow software before it’s too late,” says Sevostyanov.
The digital world is moving fast and new features are becoming available all the time. It makes sense to re-evaluate workflow regularly and to allocate budget for upgrades. “It’s also a good idea to look at features you currently have but aren’t taking advantage of. Some advanced features require an advanced level of know-how in order to really understand how to use them,” suggests Toy.
Factors to Consider
When a print provider decides to reassess its workflow, there are many considerations to evaluate. Shaw lists several, including understanding your needs, listing your key objectives and desired results, building an evaluation team with a plan, determining a budget, prioritizing and verifying essential needs, evaluating the implementation process, and selecting a vendor partner that can grow and adapt with changing needs.
Consider the major pain points in production, offers Kasinskas. “What typically holds up getting work out the door?”
Holdo suggests print providers think lean when considering workflow changes. “Look at workflows and try to define what is value added versus non value added. Where is waste occurring? Remember that waste is physical material waste as well as time, movement, inventory, and labor over utilization. A non-value added step is one which essentially doesn’t appear on an invoice line item but is a necessary step based on equipment, personnel, space, or knowledge limitations.”
Goldberg points out that while print providers invest heavily in equipment, they should not overlook the DFEs that drive them. “It’s all about being closer to the customer—they want ease of use, simplicity, and transparency. Having a DFE that delivers this is a key differentiator. Knowing your target market is key—some customers want a degree of control and flexibility over the print and templates, others want less flexibility but instead want to leverage the speed and short-run benefits that digital print offers. How does your current workflow technology facilitate this? Are you able to drive multiple types of digital presses?” he asks. Updating the workflow technology that sits in front of the digital presses can bring a new lease on life and up-selling benefits.
Organizations should determine if their existing workflow is able to process many orders per day without manual intervention, offers Rouhana. Can the workflow handle today and tomorrow’s output? If a printer currently specializes in transactional statements but sees an opportunity to expand business offerings to direct mail, will the current workflow accommodate this growth?
Crawford says one of the first considerations is whether the software provides full end-to-end optimization—handling job receipt through placement in the mail and if there is visibility into the entire operation. “This includes validating if the software can accommodate multi-channel output and still maintain control and work with all the processing components that you currently use so that you do not have to RIP and replace everything—even if the solution supports your printing and finishing hardware technology efficiency.”
Nerf suggests asking yourself if your current solution meets all of your workflow automation needs. Does it provide useful reporting capabilities? Is your current workflow solution a custom solution that is self maintained? Does it allow you to scale as your business grows? “If the answer is no to the above questions, it’s likely time to partake in an in-depth workflow assessment,” she offers.
There are more specific questions related to how the shop’s software is equipped for growth. In this case, print providers should ask themselves what the business objective is this year and five years out. What are your specific market strengths, weaknesses, or threats in the area of the five “Ps”—product, price, people, place, promotion? How are you evaluating your return on investment (ROI) today? Are you experiencing any bottlenecks in your production cycle? “The second set of questions is geared more towards identifying specific areas that workflow may address,” says Nerf. She also suggests considering the current versus future print provider employee skill set. Much of today’s workforce is from a generation that is more hands on, whereas new employees want to work in organizations where there is automation and online tools to produce work more efficiently.
As companies grow and their portfolios expand, they need a platform that can adapt both to the volume of work as well as the breadth of projects. “Once a printer adds digital print capability into its portfolio, all of a sudden the additional challenge of effectively exploiting the unique features that come with it should be preceded by answering the question, is digital for us a mere replacement of conventional capacity or is it adding unique capabilities and therefore a complement to our current portfolio?” asks Jan De Roeck, marketing director, industry relations and strategy, Esko. “The answer to this question brings important considerations for the entire print process and order entry workflow.”
Toy says digital print providers need to start with a thorough requirements gathering effort that involves key people in the organization to ensure everything is captured—from the user experience at the operator level to your organization’s vision of the future and how that applies to your workflow infrastructure and IT requirements.
Scheidenhelm believes an important part of the analysis is having relevant information on hand—both in the sense that data can help you make a more informed decision and that if your workflow software doesn’t do a good job of aggregating data from your operations, it may be time to consider changing things up.
Technology and business trends drive evolution in how workflow is utilized in print environments. Several trends affect print workflows and the way in which they are managed within various shops.
“Most printers are very comfortable buying print equipment, but less comfortable buying software—especially workflow automation systems. For some, calculating an ROI is difficult. They just don’t know where to begin so they don’t know what impact automation could have on their business,” says Shaw. He likens this to increasing sales without adding headcount. There is no single silver bullet to workflow automation; it is a combination of tightly integrated pieces of software.
Scheidenhelm says the days of impulse buys are gone. “Every expenditure is under careful analysis for how it provides ROI—now and into the future. To address this, many printers look for ways to get the most value out of their investments and communicate that value to decision makers within their organizations,” he shares.
Holdo says one disturbing trend is the use of MIS to move files in an environment, essentially trying to emulate production management solutions. “Look how few MIS systems are fully implemented. Many clients have created home grown systems to manage workflow out of frustration after spending too much on the purchase and startup of an MIS solution.” He hopes a new trend will be to look at workflow as a complete ecosystem, from intake of a job through delivery to the final recipient, taking into account efficiencies that are discerned through a lean assessment process.
Hughes comments that more solutions are providing APIs, which allow the user to connect and integrate with other pieces. This provides powerful opportunities to automate processes and increase efficiency. However, it can increase the complexity of the overall solution.
Crawford says one of the major trends in workflow software as well as in the general software and IT space is that of micro services and web-based APIs. “This has provided integration opportunities that allow organizations to construct best-of-breed solutions by combining the best solutions from different hardware and software vendors.”
Integrative workflow solutions tend to handle system integration, automation, and business analytics. “Adoption of integrative workflow solutions has been slow, mainly due to the need for skilled IT infrastructure for their setup and maintenance. Vendors have generally made inputs and outputs available in their production workflow solutions, but each environment is different—using a different MIS than the previous provider down the street for example, and the way in which those connections are made is a little different too—requiring internal IT departments to pick up the slack in implementing integrative workflow solutions,” says Toy.
For some time now, print runs have been getting shorter. “There is pressure on printers to run their organizations with the efficiency of a Japanese car factory,” offers Goldberg. “Today, printers have to manage hundreds or thousands of smaller print jobs so the whole process from estimating to execution is critical. Margins are small so automation is key and competition is fierce. The workflow system that came as part of the digital press may no longer be suitable for today’s changing world.”
Specific to small to mid-sized businesses, Rouhana says organizations are forced to print by the box and only work within the capabilities of the DFE. “This is often because the same person is responsible for prepress and printing duties. This approach works when the number of jobs is limited, but in order to scale a business, workflow software becomes the only way to manage.” He adds that this trend does not apply to large enterprise printers.
Piestrak says marketing is becoming more targeted and data driven, making variable data more important across all segments of the market. “Variable data introduces a complexity to jobs that older workflows were not well equipped for,” he shares.
Nerf also sees a lot of customers looking for ways to implement targeted and personalized messaging through their workflow. “Documents with targeted messaging have a higher response rate and contribute to a positive customer experience.” She says this is something that print providers can use as a value-add or key selling point to their customers and is accomplished through workflow. “Omni-channel and multi-sensory delivery capabilities enable print providers to migrate to marketing service providers that not only print, but can also be a trusted advisor for increased ROI.”
“We also see print providers looking for software systems that can broaden their portfolios and offer more services to the customer—perhaps wide format or packaging. The digital transformation of the print industry is all about that. It’s the development of more cost-efficient workflow automation to drive press utilization to the maximum,” notes De Roeck.
Consumer expectations are changing. People are looking for faster, cheaper, and better—affecting the increased adoption and use of workflow software in digital print environments. Salzman says customers also want to know their order status, similar to the way Amazon handles it. “These trends force PSPs to increase productivity and do more for less. Workflow software provides massive productivity gains versus handling everything manually,” he offers.
“Clients want a wider range of printed products, which requires more flexibility from the printer to include them in their product portfolio,” agrees Sevostyanov. “Ecommerce platforms like Amazon have changed the ordering process and customers generally expect the same kind of service from print providers in terms of convenience and speed. Only automation software is available to cater to such an ordering workflow.”
Moving with the Trends
Workflow and software needs continuously evolve. Shaw points out that print providers are seeing growth in the volume of micro jobs. “They are taking on more jobs that are smaller and have a shorter turnaround time,” he says.
The move towards high volumes of short-run work means margins of profitability are low, and the need for automated, efficient processes is critical for success.
Jul2019, DPS Magazine