By Cassandra Balentine
The ability to effectively manage production workflow is essential to profitability, especially in the digital print space where jobs are complex, runs are short, and profit margins are low. Print management information systems (MIS) help streamline operations by automating or eliminating mundane or repetitive tasks.
Functions include—but are not limited to—estimating and pricing, inventory management, order entry, job tracking, shipping, and invoicing. Print MIS enable transparency in production workflow, giving users and operators a better view of jobs in production, inventory management, and cost analysis.
Estimating and Integration
Many print providers utilize print MIS for estimating and job ticketing. However, the functionalities don’t typically end there.
A quick estimating process is attractive; enabling jobs to get into production as fast as possible. “The best systems completely interact between estimating and job ticketing that is delivered to the shop floor. Integration is key here. As the job ticket is supplied, all job information should be transferred to the digital front end for production use,” explains Jack J. Lafler, VP of sales, marketing, and technical services, HiFlow Solutions.
Integration is perhaps one of the most powerful features of MIS. It is a primary objective for many digital print environments to streamline their workflows to improve speed and decrease the time and cost involved in administrative chores.
Marcus Smith, customer success manager, Tharstern, says it is now common for print providers to be tech savvy and invest in integration solutions rather doing everything manually.
“Most companies have read articles about the value of automation and adapting digital specific workflows. Our customers’ experience has shown a 92 percent reduction of time from order entry to shipping using automation in the production process for multi-version jobs. The bottom line is that you can’t spend hours on order entry when the average sale is getting smaller. You can drive efficiencies through web to print (W2P) on the front end; interface with other prepress software in the production phase; and get quick, accurate feedback for management at completion. It allows you to be more agile in the age of quick turnaround,” shares Dorothy Runge Asboth, North American sales manager, LabelTraxx.
Mike Agness, EVP for the Americas, Hybrid Software, stresses the importance of integrating MIS tightly with production to get the most out of the print MIS. “If it ends up as a job ticket and is not integrated on a job-by-job basis, why have it?” he asks. He also suggests talking with financial advisors about cost analysis and how to best utilize an MIS to get a clear diagnosis of how well the company is doing.
Smith says it is rare for an MIS or standalone software solution to offer all of the functionality that a print provider needs, so the ability to integrate is important.
Usman Ali, principal, Ordant, points out that integration and scalability is important as print shops already using programs like Salesforce are less likely to use CRM features available in print MIS.
Upping the Ante
While many print providers rely on some form of production workflow or print MIS, there may be untapped features that could lead to increased efficiency and profitability if implemented correctly.
By utilizing more features of a print MIS, print providers increase fluidity and efficiency in the workflow. “Workflows become more automated and job tracking and planning allow print providers to deliver a better customer experience as all members of the team have visibility of where the job is in the workflow,” comments Smith.
Approvals, inventory management, and shop floor data tracking are lesser used features. Some shops don’t think they’re big enough to use these features and believe they are too busy to set them up. If they were used, the print providers could better understand their costs, states Trent Foreman, director, product management, Aleyant.
Many print providers tend to think of print MIS only as a method or system to get orders into production. “They often overlook the MIS as a database and a source of answers for common business questions, such as how do I best organize my jobs? How can I maximize my equipment use and reduce waste? Which employees are the most productive? How much money did I make on the job? One of the most valuable assets of a complete MIS is that it gives a print provider visibility—real time visibility to business-critical information, a detailed overview of all aspects of the business available to anyone, anytime. Information that provides insight into your business’ historical data, as well as visibility into all the work that your shop will be taking on in the short term to help you plan more effectively,” offers Kevin Shaw, head of marketing, product and customer experience group, Avanti Customer Experience.
Shawn Brown, business development, Print MIS, suggests that tapping into the lesser used functions allow printing companies to have a more accurate picture of where they are and what they’re wasting. “If the management doesn’t have a true account of the business, they can’t make the right choices going forward.”
Asboth says the most widely demanded features are not often fully implemented, including shop floor data collection, inventory control, scheduling, W2P, and managerial dashboards. While these features are demanded, there is a lot of internal reluctance in implementation. “These tools give management more information to effectively run the business. Because digital printers generally run shorter jobs but larger amounts of jobs, it is hard to have the discipline to gather data from the shop floor,” she states. Software providers like LabelTraxx offer tools designed to simplify the collection of data, including wheel sensors to direct feedback to presses through web services. “The goal is to provide clean data with reduced human intervention.”
Mick Rowan, product director, PrintIQ, admits that many businesses are in survival mode and don’t have the time to look forward and plan out their future. “If they did, they may notice features that could help them move to the next level—from automation and integration through to strategic outsourcing partners, third-party application, and forming the overall print ecosystem.”
Data Collection & Reporting
Shop floor data collection and reporting features of a print MIS help print providers better understand operations and costs.
Print management professionals use shop floor data to understand how critical it is for the team to have the most current, accurate information available. “This tool can help the team, but also management by tracking labor, materials, productivity, equipment utilization, spoils, and production rates,” says Shaw.
Capturing data is important as it is an added level of transparency for businesses to compare estimated versus actuals, identify chargeable extras, and track production milestones, shares Smith.
Further, reporting capabilities enable businesses to better track and watch processes for trends.
“The ability to create or view reports that identify the products that are doing well and not doing well help provide market direction for the print provider,” shares Joseph Lehn, director of product management, PressWise by Smartsoft.
Agness says many reporting statistics, including inventory control and estimate versus actual production data can be a goldmine for companies. “They just need the right oversight from accounting/finance. In my opinion, people often pay 200 percent more than they need, but utilize only 20 percent of it.”
Triggers and alerts are also useful. “Relaxing after hours is not easy when you are in the print business because anything can go wrong in a moment’s notice,” admits Shaw. Solutions like Avanti’s Triggers and Alerts module automatically notify managers of important events.
Scheduling and Planning
Scheduling capabilities are commonly underutilized. The investment in time and resources may be worth the consideration for some.
Scheduling is one area that Foreman believes doesn’t always get the use it deserves. “Tapping into scheduling would help print providers better manage their orders and make their day and output more efficient.”
Ali adds that smaller or older print businesses that aren’t yet committed to fully automating their production workflow might not see the immediate value of features like dynamic scheduling.
Shaw says being on time is one of the most important promises your business delivers. Paired with other modules, setting up and tracking planned completion dates and times becomes easier. “It is a quick and simple way to load your departments and/or machines.”
Since it is common for digital print jobs to be small and quick, Smith says digital print providers can be under the impression that scheduling/planning is a waste of time. “In the past, they have spent more time planning a job than actually printing a job. But this has changed. Planning can be done inside the MIS very quickly,” he points out.
Smith adds that planning modules are reliant on direct feedback from the shop floor, which requires human intervention. “Collecting shop floor data used to be time and resource consuming, but it can now be done in seconds with the use of job tracking barcode terminals instead of manual input.”
Each print environment is unique. Therefore, MIS requirements are not one size fits all. MIS vendors understand this and often present scalable, modular solutions that adapt as necessary.
Whether you’re a full digital shop or just starting to expand into the digital space, Rowan says it is essential that your software support the environment you’re competing in. “With shorter runs, faster turnarounds, and tighter margins, your business needs to run efficiently with a hands-off approach.”
Different print environments look for varying features. In-plants want shop floor data for cost justification, while multi-site commercial settings benefit from a central platform to hold all of their data in one place for better job management across all locations. Meanwhile, quick printers require fast and easy pricing and a simple entry point to their MIS. “All printers want their MIS to drive their W2P system to avoid data duplication,” shares Foreman.
While Smith feels most features are adaptable to the needs of different providers, there are certain features more useful in specific environments. For example, multi-site commercial printers should take advantage of the scheduling/planning and job tracking features so their operations can stay aligned. “The visibility with these features greatly improves customer experience as well as giving internal teams the ability to compare estimates versus actuals.”
For marketing service providers and commercial printers, customers ask for more jobs in less time. “Many shops add to their service offerings, such as providing marketing services to stay competitive. These are transitions we see with our customers, and each result in more equipment, more processes, and very different workflows. Shops expect to provide diverse and comprehensive campaigns that integrate an ever-changing landscape of service offerings. Which, ultimately, affects business processes from estimation through to reporting,” says Shaw.
In plants often serve a targeted market with a specific line of products, so the print MIS may benefit from a narrower range of products to set up—compared with a general commercial print shop, but the accounting needs are quite different, says Lehn. In-plants generally need the ability to track orders by department, division, or program. “A feature that allows the designation of the department, fund, program, or organization that placed the order becomes critical,” he notes, adding that the traditional accounting and reporting system is replaced with reporting on the categorization of orders that allow for proper bookkeeping.
Vincent Tutino, senior product manager, Rochester Software Associates, Inc., says for in-plant centers, the most widely used print MIS features and functions include order entry, pricing and estimating, managing production workflow, direct ticketing, and releasing jobs to all production printers, data collection, reporting, and invoicing. “Because most in-plants don’t operate on a pure profit and loss model and handle sales and accounting differently than print service providers, they don’t typically need some of the MIS functionality that commercial printers use, like capturing all costs, sales quoting, CRM, and handling accounting and receivables.”
For packaging, viewing the complete job workflow is important, meaning all work processes need to be visible from estimating through production to shipping. Lafler comments that the ability to track all tools and dies as well as the nesting of the layouts to quality control each process is also crucial.
Sharing data between production and MIS is especially vital to packaging print environments, particularly where digital is concerned. “Short-run packaging, just like commercial print, is comprised of many jobs of smaller quantities. The only way to make it work is to assure that data can be communicated back and forth quickly. Many of these short-run jobs also rely on W2P systems, whether easily integrated or built into the MIS,” states Agness.
Asboth adds that software should reflect the ordering pattern of customers. For example, repeat orders and the necessity to consistently reproduce a SKU is important. “Software that does not retain the detail needed will only complicate the production process, opening you up to errors and additional time in order entry. The proliferation of versions in industries like craft beer and foods adds another dimension for version control. In contrast, a company specializing in promotion items would not need these details.”
Expanding on MIS
Many of today’s print MIS solutions are modular and scalable to grow with a company’s evolving demands. It is important to reevaluate your needs and software regularly to determine if it is time to upgrade. Even if you stay with your existing MIS provider, educate yourself on the features and functions you may not be currently utilizing.
Businesses should regularly review the capabilities of their MIS and compare them to their business requirements. “Things change over time, so this is not as silly as it sounds, something that is irrelevant and forgotten about today might be important in a few weeks’ time,” suggests Lee Eyre, technical director, Complisoft Limited.
When implementing software, companies have a tendency to focus on basic workflow before they move on to more complex tools. “This is a logical plan given the time and resources that software change involves. The problem is that once the basics are in place, taking the next step is not a priority. Management then must encourage an atmosphere of continual learning and a timeline to accomplish the next steps to get all the expected benefits that drove the software change,” cautions Asboth.
It is important to remember that change is not usually welcome, so preparation and communication are critical upfront.
Mark L. Myers, CEO, Estimator Corp., says the basic problem is that almost all estimating MIS require extensive training and have numerous windows—sometimes as many as 15 to do an estimate. A smart system that utilizes artificial intelligence can eliminate some of the learning curve.
Foreman suggests print providers take time to use a new MIS and implement lesser used features and additional modules. “Designate someone as a champion to implement and maintain your MIS. Take the time to do the training with your MIS,” he offers.
Rowan agrees, adding that choosing the right staff is vital when implementing any MIS. Staff should have an existing depth of knowledge of your production systems along with a high level of technical skill and be allowed to dedicate the time required to the project. “A well-built system eliminates the pain points in your production workflow and have current staff excited about expanding their use of the system as they can see the value immediately.”
“Learning new software and processes isn’t easy and humans can be naturally resistant to doing so when they barely have enough time to do their jobs in the first place,” admits Lehn. In addition to vendor onsite or online training sessions, management can help ensure the successful use of an MIS by giving employees focused, hands-on time to learn the software and make those employees accountable by providing goals and following up on them. “Too many well-meaning print shops fail to successfully implement their MIS because they didn’t provide clear and actionable goals for employee adoption,” he warns.
Eyre also notes the importance of having someone in house that understands the print MIS and the business thoroughly. “Many companies make the mistake of trying to design a system, see how it fits with what their MIS provides, and then fill in the gaps with manual labor-intensive operations. Often, a good business analyst will be able to review the requirements and with an in-depth understanding of the MIS capabilities, be able to provide a solution that works with far less effort and possibly better than expected. After all, technology is there to improve efficiencies, so you need to understand the capabilities to make the most of them,” he adds.
A Little Help from Friends
Education is another critical element for success. Print providers should maintain an open dialogue with their MIS vendors, check in with industry peers, and read about the latest technology trends.
“The print industry is constantly evolving and it’s important that print providers keep up with the latest trends, technologies, and functionality so they don’t get left behind. It’s a competitive market but a lot of print providers are happy to lead the way and educate others,” comments Smith.
“Contact your MIS provider and ask them to show you newly released features and how they’ll benefit you,” suggests Brown. “When we develop a new feature, we work on those that will save you time—whether it’s by reducing a click from your life or even completely eliminating the need for you to perform repetitive tasks,” he adds.
Continuous communication with your MIS provider is a must, agrees Asboth.
Lafler adds that many print providers never look into the consulting services that MIS providers offer—often for little or no cost. “Print providers can expand their knowledge of MIS by having an open and honest discussion with an MIS solutions provider about how their workflow is running now, as well as how they expect it to run. Working together, they can find out how effective their current solution is at saving them money—and how much it’s actually costing them,” he says.
Shaw says the key is to keep learning. “Research what is out there. Ask for referrals at conferences and in peer groups. There are a number of ways to keep up with what’s happening in the industry and with specific software vendors, including attending user group conferences.”
Digital print providers are tasked with constantly creating complex, short-run work. Print MIS and end-to-end workflow tools enable them to get a handle on costs, implement automation, and improve processes based on data collected on the shop floor. While primary functions like estimating, ticketing, and invoicing are popular, lesser used features like scheduling and reporting can make an impact on the bottom line when implemented correctly.
Mar2020, DPS Magazine