By Cassandra Balentine
The shift to the cloud is popular for software of all types in nearly every industry. In the print world, cloud-based management information systems (MIS) are increasingly implemented.
Cloud-based workflow solutions present ease of access, implementation, and reduced maintenance and operating costs.
Above: Tharstern offers a print MIS that works as a complete management system for a printing company it is used to automate tasks, speed up the estimate and job lifecycle, and digitize business processes.
Making the Move
Several driving factors make the cloud appealing for print MIS, including improved accessibility and reduced maintenance/IT.
Piet DePauw, head of marketing, Enfocus, points out that print service providers are looking for software solutions that are dynamic and scalable. They want updates, maintenance, back up, and security within their systems. They are also looking for solutions that do not require a large upfront or future investment in hardware, maintenance, and administration.
Therese McGady, marketing manager, Aleyant, says the number one reason print providers are looking for cloud-based workflow solutions is because there are no initial infrastructure and maintenance costs. “Today more than ever, the pandemic has shown the need for this ability to work from anywhere.”
“We’ve found that each company has different priorities, but perceived lower costs, remote access, and device responsiveness top most lists,” comments Lee Ward, chief business development officer, Tharstern.
Mick Rowan, product director, printIQ, says the biggest benefit of a cloud-based MIS is having access to your business at any time, from any place—on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone.
“The number one reason print providers look for cloud-based solutions is to enable the staff to work from anywhere—without having to be tied down to an office desk,” agrees Ehsan Elahi, senior consultant, Print Management Information Systems.
The cloud also helps printers and mailers reduce maintenance and operating costs. “The entire company’s IT infrastructure can be serviced online without someone present on-site to conduct repairs, fixes, and updates,” explains Michael Wemhoff, marketing graphic designer, PrintReach. “Software is updated online without the need for USB sticks or CDs, or having to update each computer individually. Large server racks are no longer taking up an entire room, but are safely stored in large, well-maintained data centers.”
Gerald Clement, partner, Computer Productivity Services Inc., adds that few people want to deal with the installation, maintenance, and responsibility for updating integrations, tax, and regulatory requirements.
“The leading reason print providers usually have for adopting a cloud-based workflow is removing the burden on IT capabilities,” admits Renee Hesseling, product manager, EFI Productivity Software. While many workflow customers are mid-sized businesses that may have a dedicated IT director or CIO, they have many other pressing IT needs related to networked equipment and office computers. “Adding an MIS/ERP platform to a network, something that may require connecting to and collecting data from every piece of the plant’s manufacturing operations, can create an undue burden. By contrast, a cloud implementation can be much simpler for print businesses.”
Several elements common in print MIS are priorities for cloud functionality.
Estimating, job management and tracking, invoicing, and reporting are such functions. “With cloud-based estimating, sales teams are able to give clients quotes on the go. For job submission and tracking, invoicing, and reporting, cloud-based strategies enable businesses to track orders in production even while outside of the office,” says Elahi.
Security is one area of concern, but cloud-based systems are able to stay up to date on the latest threats.
“Continuously receiving security patches to strengthen the safety of the software significantly helps a company avoid data leaks, hacks, and various other malicious activity from happening,” offers Wemhoff. “While nothing is water-tight, security patches help in a world where all devices can be interconnected. Product updates are another significant part of the cloud. As hardware evolves, so must software, and through these free updates, the software will remain operational and functionable. Updates may also bring free new additions and features to the software, allowing the company to accelerate their workflow and combine/integrate systems more tightly together to be able to do more with less.”
This also comes into play when dealing with file submissions and attachments from outside of the company.
“Emails with attachments are a source of computer viruses, malware, trade secret theft, ransomware, check payment fraud, and other types of system attacks. Ideally these attachments and links are kept separated from core MIS,” says Clement.
Field-based sales functions also benefit from a cloud-based strategy.
“It’s been critical for field-based sales functions to be carried out remotely for quite some time now. MIS providers meet this need with add-on web and mobile applications (apps). But now that more people are working from home this demand has shifted downstream into the CSR teams who create the quotes and administer the jobs. It’s the functions that are typically carried out in the ‘carpeted area’ of a business that are now being carried out remotely and this is where remote access is most critical,” suggests Ward.
Businesses often look for web to print (W2P)/ecommerce functions, which the cloud is well-adept at providing.
“Along with W2P, cloud capabilities are essential for customer relationship management (CRM) functions,” shares Hesseling. “With the eCRM capability in the cloud, field sales personnel, for example, can easily and quickly submit and receive quotes for new jobs as well as see work in process to determine plant capabilities when looking to secure new work.”
Single sign-on is another crucial feature to employ, as it helps to simplify usage significantly. “Every MIS provider will attest that integration capabilities are essential, so MIS/ERP systems can connect with other technologies,” says Hesseling. Fully featured API capabilities extend the integration possibilities even further.
Overall, a cloud-based solution needs to provide all of the functions an on-premise solution offers. “Access, security, and uptime are critical for any cloud system,” offers Vince Tutino, product management director, Rochester Software Associates (RSA).
The Right Approach
There are a variety of ways to approach workflow. One thing is for certain, integration capabilities and cloud access are increasingly important, whether it is an ad hoc or end-to-end solution.
Wemhoff believes that the most powerful MIS systems are cloud-based, meaning the majority—if not all—major features of the MIS or W2P software incorporate the cloud in one shape or the other. “From looking up client addresses/information to writing invoices and sending mails, a lot of data is being stored, accessed, and maintained. The cloud offers virtually unlimited storage without having the company worry about data loss or investing in new hard drives. MIS and W2P systems can integrate seamlessly with one another through the cloud, making it easier for printers or mailers to upgrade or change their systems,” he shares.
Systems can also be built to use a hybrid approach, where some features are available only when connected to the internet and other features run locally and sync to the cloud when it is available. “Many systems are probably not using this approach because it is more costly to build and maintain, but it is possible. If you can’t access the internet for a day or so without a severe impact to your production or business, you should discuss this with your software provider and explore options to mitigate the risks of this happening and consider alternatives,” explains Tutino.
Hesseling points out that some businesses may take a hybrid approach if they have legacy systems to integrate with the workflow or security-related print applications that companies must store locally.
“You could say that some portions of a complete MIS solution are primarily internal while others are more external,” offers Clement. “Externally focused applications may be better suited to be hosted in the cloud while core internally focused MIS might be more secure if maintained in house.”
“It’s entirely possible for print providers to adopt a hybrid approach and utilize the cloud for some areas of MIS or their workflow. The key here is connectivity and what the capabilities are of your technology stack,” says Ward. “We do this in a variety of ways dependent on the company’s needs, including the use of our new Remote Access Portal, which is a browser-based add-on tool that utilizes our software’s API to access their on-premise MIS. We also have many customers who have used the API to develop their own solutions for remote access. The desktop solution normally sits on-premise alongside the production workflow as the core brain or engine, if you will, and they custom develop their own cloud-based add-ons that interface with that.”
“With printIQ we offer a Management Workflow System (MWS) that is more than just an MIS,” points out Rowan. “This essentially means we handle more than just the management information. In our world we integrate both upstream and downstream enabling integration with the key suppliers that can further enhance the entire print ecosystem. For example, we might have an ecosystem that has printIQ as the central point integrated with Infigo, Switch, and Phoenix (by Tilia Labs). In this type of environment there would be a combination of cloud and local storage as the image work would most likely reside at a local level,” he comments.
Ward says it would be impossible for a printing company to adopt an all-or-nothing approach. “Print providers always need a physical presence, their production equipment and the software that runs them will need to be on-site, you can’t put those in the cloud. And if you want the integrated workflow that is becoming the norm these days, then any cloud workflow solutions you have will need to be able to integrate with on-premise applications too. It’s the nature of any manufacturing industry.”
DePauw argues that a disjointed front end will lead to frustration and ultimately errors. “Unless it is a transitional situation, printers should keep all of their eggs in one basket as far as MIS is concerned.”
“From the very beginning we built PressWise as a complete, end-to-end, cloud-based MIS and workflow solution because we believe it is the best model for building long-term partnerships with our customers,” shares Tony Tarpey, COO, Presswise by SmartSoft. “From quoting to web storefronts, to job management, workflow automation, through to shipping and out to billing, everything takes place in the cloud through PressWise.”
Implementation & Deployment
Print providers must take many steps to ensure a seamless transition to a cloud-based print MIS.
DePauw says it is important for cloud-based print MIS consumers to be prepared. “They need to assess nearly ever nook and cranny of their business. There is a great deal of exporting to spreadsheets, scrubbing the database, and subsequent importing of the scrubbed data.”
In addition, DePauw stresses the importance of data accuracy to a successful MIS integration. “Replicating local inaccuracies should be avoided so the time investment has to be made to analyze inventory, substrates, press specifications, finishing operations, production costs, etc. A full, top-down look at the business flow needs to take place to be ready to migrate off site.”
Clement suggests that if your existing solution has the capability to be installed on premises or in the cloud it may not be too difficult, but if you are transitioning to an all new solution, expect a lot of work.
Do your homework and be prepared for what implementation is going to email. “Speak to other businesses that have dealt with the MIS provider to see how the transition went,” offers Elahi. Also, it is a good idea to ask your provider to give you a solid implementation plan with delivery timelines and then pick the one that does it the fastest, whilst ensuring there is minimal burden on your shoulders.
It is recommended to take advantage of any and all training provided by the software company. “Some companies have dedicated implementation specialists. Their primary focus and responsibility is to help customers throughout the training and setup phase. This is extremely valuable as they can help guide you every step of the way and answer any questions that may arise,” comments Wemhoff.
Rowan admits that implementing a MWS, or even a less feature-rich solution, is a big task. However, the utilization of a printIQ cloud-based environment allows for the data to be entered and verified from any location. “This allows for offsite support from the printIQ team to assist in setting up and configuring the system.”
Ward believes that print providers should approach any transition to a cloud-based print MIS in the same way they would a non-cloud-based transition. “It’s a bit of a misconception that transitioning to a cloud product is easier. The same set up and testing tasks will apply,” he offers.
“To ensure a successful transition to a cloud-based solution, a print provider should work with their software provider and engage their internal IT group to fully understand the internal IT requirements and ensure support and resources for the project,” adds Tutino.
Compared to legacy systems, a cloud approach often also has a varying cost structure. Overall, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison as there are many factors to consider.
Tutino points out that the cost of cloud-based systems is often higher. This is because the software providers include the server infrastructure and management for the customer and reduce the customer’s IT burden.
However, because they are often a SaaS model, the good news is the upfront costs are lower or eliminated. “The cloud-based solutions tend to be SaaS based, which means no upfront costs and a standard monthly subscription payment instead. Although that’s not always the case—most desktop-based solutions will offer the same subscription option these days,” says Ward.
PressWise is offered as SaaS, with a monthly subscription. “Upfront costs are much lower with a SaaS model and we never charge upgrade fees when a new version is released, so customers always have access to the latest tools and features. They also prefer the freedom of not being locked into an expensive system should they decide that it isn’t right for them,” says Tarpey.
EFI Midmarket Print Suite and Pace, and EFI Quick Print Suite and PrintSmith Vision, are both fully cloud/browser-based solutions. According to Hesseling, Print businesses can save money on implementing these cloud-based solutions compared with the labor, time, and hardware needed to establish a locally hosted solution.
Entry-level MIS and generic applications such as payroll, Shopify ecommerce, and Office 365 with Outlook in the cloud have attractive monthly per user pricing. “On the other hand the cost to buy, ease of management, and local support for powerful in-house computer servers have also dropped a lot. Traditional MIS is typically expensive initially but have very low ongoing operating costs,” notes Clement.
A well automated, mid-market MIS solution has a lot of moving parts such as core accounting, banking, inventory, human resource/payroll with direct deposit health insurance, production, electronic document, and workflow management.
“Ultimately, you have to run the numbers over five to ten years on a case-by-case basis to really see,” offers Clement.
Take it to the Cloud
There are many benefits of a cloud-based MIS solution. Either as a comprehensive strategy or a hybrid approach, print providers benefit from the access and maintenance advantages of features presented on a cloud-based print MIS. dps
Mar2021, DPS Magazine