by Cassandra Balentine
Workflow automation is increasingly important for the productivity, efficiency, and profitability of print environments across all segments, particularly those in the digital space.
Part one of this series on workflow automation discusses common tools that enable integration and automation in print environments and what drives the demand for these solutions.
In part two looked at how technology is evolving to support new demands, along with challenges and bottlenecks causing adoption hurdles.
The series concludes by defining highly automated environments.
On the High End
Highly automated environments are able to adjust to the ebbs and flows of the business. “They allow print providers to get more work completed with fewer people. This results in greater profits for the print provider. Plus, in the current labor shortage environment, this helps print shops grow without adding staff,” shares David Lunardi, VP of sales, OneVision.
“Ideally, every possible area of the workflow should be automated. However, business owners normally automate a single area at a time, which results in a patchwork automation environment. Automating every area of a business requires a lot of effort and money, so each business automates the area that will benefit it the most. If you have a large fleet of machinery, the ERP system will bring more value to your business. If you work with B2C clients, then investing in web to print (W2P) is the sensible choice. If you work in a competitive market, estimating and inventory management automation might be the key to your success. It’s difficult to tell exactly which areas are the most and least automated—it really comes down to the business segment,” notes Alex Kozyavkin, director of marketing, Aurigma.
Some print environments take automation to the max, and enjoy the benefits of doing so. “Simply put, high automation equals audited, decreased risk of errors and efficiency,” states Bob Tilling, VP global sales, Kallik.
Graham Blanks, director of business operations, North America, DALIM Software, believes that the goal of any company is to become fully automated, but it is the type of work that determines how to go about it. “What triggers a job—a sales rep, the customer, or a CSR? The terms of the job defines the process.”
Mike Agness, EVP, Americas, HYBRID Software, says it’s the ability to integrate everything together that makes a highly automated workflow. “This means W2P, CRM, MIS, and production systems. Those who are not doing this are markedly less efficient.”
John Henze, VP of sales and marketing, EFI Fiery, points out that in a highly automated environment, sales per employee will increase. Machine down time, idle time, and production errors that cause excessive waste can be virtually eliminated. “For less complex work, and even for some more complex jobs, automated operations approach near lights out, with online job submission, automatic preflighting, hot folder driven imposition, monitored color management, and automatic setup of inline or nearline finishing. As finished product is moved into shipping, workers there should be able to print shipping documents with minimal intervention based on information provided to the shipping software on the job ticket, even when a job shipment is split among multiple addresses and using multiple carriers,” he explains.
While automation may be the holy grail, it requires commitments across the board—from management to the client. “The most highly automated print environment is a ‘lights out’ one—but it needs the cooperation of the customer,” comments Blanks. “If a printer has a strong relationship with a client, they can arrange for the customer to upload files that will automatically go through the appropriate workflow. The client is notified that the files were received, preflighted, and need approval. The only waiting period is the manual step for the client approval. Done correctly, not a single individual has to look at the customer files. What is approved gets printed.”
“A highly automated print environment would lend itself to very little manual touches,” shares Carissa Smith, marketing director, Tilia Labs. She says in this type of environment, a customer would enter an order online and upload a file. This would lead to the creation of a work order at the printer. There may be a manual touch at this time to review the file for accuracy and resolution. With the click of a button, a printed proof would be sent for approval. Upon approval, the system would automatically create an optimized layout for printing, and scheduling would occur based on due dates and material. The file would be automatically pushed to press for printing.
Trent Foreman, North America business consultant, OnPrintShop, believes that in a highly automated environment, touch points as well as data entry errors are minimized due to the human factor. “Therefore, we can reduce costs and increase capacity for orders and it will allow you to scale up easily to keep with demand.”
Tomas Van Rossom, GM, Enfocus, says highly automated print environments are driven by data. And this is not only in the preparation process, which can start from the sales process. “The most straightforward environment that can be automated from beginning to end is ecommerce business, as we have a lot of linear products. The advantage is that the customer predefines the product, and when an order is placed, the production file is uploaded, and two levels of information are available. The production file and the metadata describe the product at a very detailed level for example, the size, amount of pages, and paper type. This information can be used to check the file, generate the imposition, and forward it to the correct production process.”
Metadata also describes the administrative data, the quantity, delivery date, delivery method, delivery address, price, and invoice address. “This information can also generate and announce the shipment to the shipping courier automatically. The invoice can be automatically created and emailed to the customer,” adds Van Rossom.
It seems that the more you automate, the deeper you can go. Jack J. Lafler, VP of sales and technology, HiFlow Solutions, points out that when a company is utilizing a comprehensive MIS system, further automation comes from MES systems that gather real time data from machines.
“This helps management utilize lean manufacturing to handle unusual and unique jobs, and the normal workflows are handled by automated systems and no longer need hands on management.”
Tools like automated artwork management systems lower costs, reduce mistakes, improve collaboration, and speed time to market. “New advancements in automated workflows streamline artwork projects and enable task control for cross-functional teams responsible for new product development, product lifecycle management, and artwork approval activities. Automation has enabled artwork management solutions to track every critical step from initial project creation through to final approvals in one easy-to-use platform,” says Gemma Wood, product manager, Loftware.
A highly automated print environment is integrated, safe, and reliable. It is also well defined, manageable, and covers every business unit. It reflects the existing business processes and evolves where necessary, shares Kozyavkin. However, he says the number one quality is cost-effectiveness. The value of automating business functions should exceed the cost of integration for it to be feasible. From that standpoint, medium or even low automation might fit certain businesses better than a highly automated environment.
Steve Metcalf, chief IoT officer, Baldwin Technology, Amp, believes that in the future we’ll see companies who have information at their fingertips about every aspect of their production, both live and historical data. “They’ll have advance information to automatically notify their teams and operators of impending waste or machine stops so they can intervene and prevent them. They’ll have data to help improve operator performance, as well as new customized visual tools to aid in the operation of the machines. They’ll have better data on where time is spent, and greater visibility to job flow and actual performance within their facilities. Scheduling, and reacting to schedule changes will become easier. Generating quality and conformance data for customers will become trivial to capture and automatically share. The roles of most plant personnel will evolve to that of ‘casual data scientists’ as web-based data platforms and IoT capabilities enter the production environment. There will be a divergence between those who run data-driven operations and those who don’t, but the good news is that the bar for entry to this future is becoming more accessible to everyone.”
Automation in Action
So what does a highly automated environment look like from day to day?
Elisha Kasinskas, marketing director, Rochester Software Associates, suggests that first, W2P orders are submitted online. The online submission process captures the customer and ticketing information so that the job won’t need a person to review it before it’s printed. The submission process checks and embeds the fonts, imposes it, and shows the customer what the order will look like and the cost in a preview prior to ordering. The order is received in the print center.
What happens next depends on the specifics of the order and the automation rules that are in place. Once printed, the output is optimized for whatever post-printing steps need to happen. Like items are produced together to reduce how many times setup for different processing needs to be done. When physically possible, different parts of the job are printed together so manual assembly can be minimized or avoided all together. Items that need to be in certain order print that way, eliminating the need to sort the paper output. After the job is printed and shipped, the customer can receive a notification email that their job has shipped with a tracking link provided.
The print center has full tracking and statistics throughout the ordering process, has a dashboard to monitor what is happening in the print center, and can create and analyze monthly reports such as the most popular items ordered, how often jobs are touched in production, the average turnaround time, and who the largest customers.
Lafler agrees, noting that once the provider receives orders automatically from a W2P system, it is directed to all kinds of digital print engines without any human touches. Prepress is also automated, which delivers the job to the MIS. Customer service and production processes are automated. Jobs are delivered to the DFEs, which then can be routed to the proper machine to be processed at the proper time. “Every process uses rules-based automation,” he shares.
Similarly, Adam Homsi, founder, InkCloud, points out that highly automated environments are able to automate everything, from when the customer submits an order through to where a press operator is simply acknowledging a job and it prints.
Marc Levine, director of business development, GMG, likens a highly automated process to something you might see at an automobile plant. “Cars move through on a conveyor and technicians use tools that are hard-wired to the central system that both motorizes the process and simultaneously checks many points throughout the process, ensuring that the result meets the manufacturing specification. Print is not so different. As content travels through a printing system, it undergoes different processes at different checkpoints. A highly automated system can unify a series of technologies so that print can be manufactured and checked automatically and seamlessly.”
Marc Raad, president, Significans Automation, points to environments that have adopted a lot of the attributes of Industry 4.0 and smart factories, which often include Robotics Process Automation (RPA). “It is important to note that RPA can handle repetitive tasks with accuracy and quality control while robotics can work longer hours. My VP of operations has coined this recently. She says, ‘we need to recognize that automation doesn’t supersede talent… with automation, talent is freed up to succeed.’”
“One of my favorite examples of automation comes from one of our customers dealing with COVID-forced changes,” shares Jonathan Malone-McGrew, CMP, G7 Pro, senior director, engagement, Solimar Systems. At one of the most prestigious healthcare companies in the U.S., the customer is renowned around the world for its services and expertise. As part of its patient management it used to send requests for patient booklets as follow-ups to their visit and care. A form to kicked off a labor-driven kiting workflow. It identified what needed to be assembled into a folder to provide the patient with the required information so when their medial professional called to go over care procedures and follow-up activities they were well informed.
However, When COVID impacted the hospital system and the labor markets, the customer made the decision to leverage PDF workflow technology from Solimar Systems and inkjet printing from Canon Solutions America.
By allowing medical staff to fill out an online form and then submit it to print production, this medical system was able to take the information and action it needed to create a digital brochure with a customized table of contents.
“Now the digital form drives the assembly of the follow-up care booklet digitally. Each booklet goes into a held queue until a certain number of booklets are waiting for production on the rollfed inkjet press,” says Malone-McGrew.
Dynamically, Solimar software also adds a custom table of contents so that when the book is delivered and the nurse is viewing it in the repository, the patient can follow along with the nurse and have an improved customer experience. They repurposed the manual labor that had been doing the kitting work, and improved quality, accuracy, and turnaround times while also improving the overall cost base and value of the final product. It also meant patients received more relevant and easy to understand follow-up materials.
In another example, Yashashree Potdar, workflow solutions analyst, Standard Finishing Systems, says Horizon demonstrated the future of highly automated print environments at its Think Smart Factory event in Japan last year. At the event, Horizon demonstrated fully automated end-to-end solutions with robots performing repetitive, labor-intensive work such as feeding book blocks into binders and offloading output. Horizon also demonstrated multiple inline solutions such as a cutsheet press into a BQ-500 Perfect Binder for seamless book-of-one production. In addition, the whole factory floor was connected with Horizon’s iCE LiNK workflow management system.
“This event demonstrated a production environment that incorporated automation into the very design of the production floor. This sets it apart from medium or low automation environments where automation may only be baked into one specific production line or one specific process. Horizon really demonstrated what the future of automation can be,” shares Potdar.
Ernie Crawford, president/CEO, Crawford Technologies, says highly automated print environments are so wonderful when you see them in action.
“The main difference is staffing. A highly automated print environment can run with a fraction of the number of staff as that of a medium or low automation shop. Automation starts with data receipt and error checking and SLA notifications. These are all completed using software and workflow tools to automate the receipt and processing of the job. It is a wonderful feeling when you watch a data file run through the entire process of receipt, notifications, error handling, postal, and all the way to print creation without a person touching anything,” he explains.
In this environment the file will show up in the print queue for an operator and the operator can only run it on certain machines. An electronic job ticket will tell them when it needs to print and outline any specific requirements. “This nirvana is not achieved without effort—you need to create standards, set SLAs, configure notifications, set up client-facing web portals, and invest in your operation to ensure you do not have to copy each file from an FTP site and run a particular batch file and manually set up postal software each time the same job comes in. Spending the time creating job automation is one of the best things you can do for your organization,” shares Crawford.
While the demand for automation was present prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of lockdowns and reduced labor staff highlighted the importance of these advanced tools.
“Post-pandemic, the need for process automation has become the largest topic of conversation among print providers of all segments and types. Printers are having to do more with less. Having a software platform, or multiple software products that are integrated that can reduce human touch points and allow your order to go directly from the customer’s input to production can and will save valuable time and expense that print shops are desperately needing in today’s environment,” shares Foreman. He feels that by freeing up resources with any type of automation it allows your people to focus on the more “out of spec” or specific tasks that are required to put product out the door into customers’ hands quickly.
For more on automation, check out part one and three of this series as well as our archived webinar on the topic.
Sep2022, DPS Magazine