05 February 2018 xBusiness

Automation offers customer interaction as well as factory floor benefits

Many printers have automated prepress workflows, have automated their presses, but remain committed to traditional ways of interacting with their clients. But as the number of jobs explodes, printers need to think how they manage customer interactions.

It is a commonly accepted truth that a printer in search of a job will have to present an estimate. In the good old days this might mean producing on average three estimates for every job won: well within the capability of a trained estimator and a competent MIS. If there was a slight error, the job would be large enough and the margin sufficient to cover the mistake.

The good old days are over, never to return. At one extreme today, buyers are comparing prices online for straightforward jobs, leaflets, banners and the like, quickly comparing one against the other to find the best combination of price and speed of service.

The prices are fixed and while there might be a loyalty discount for regular customers, this is generally in the form of a percentage discount against the published price. Some websites might try to shake this up a little by offering a weight or style of paper that is unusual, which makes a head to head comparison difficult.

This works for relatively simple jobs where a number can be ganged on a sheet and where finishing processes are simple. And if the customer has to buy 5,000 A4 flyers instead of the 3,750 he really wants, the additional cost is almost negligible.

It has to work this way, for the sake of the buyer’s convenience and because quoting individual jobs is simply impossible, given the hundreds if not thousands of orders that might arrive each day.

However, not every job can (yet) be defined online, nor is there direct competition for every job. The estimating step is still necessary for most work that the majority of printers will handle. Some will operate a kind of arbitrary break point: below a certain number or value, there is a price matrix or list to follow, while bespoke jobs carrying a four-figure price tag will still require a formal quotation.

The problem arises now when the value of each job falls, but the complexity does not. And when the number of jobs that a printer has to handle increases. Alon Bar-Shany, general manager of HP’s Indigo division, told his audience at Labelexpo that where today they may be handling dozens of jobs each day, they will shortly be handling hundreds of jobs a day.

For many label and packaging jobs, each job is a repeat of a previous job. The artwork remains the same but the quantities and delivery dates will change. In this case prices have been agreed ahead of time and are part of a contract price scheme. This can apply to the needs of commercial print customers where exact quantities of banners, leaflets, posters, forms or brochures are not known ahead of time.

The printer seeking to win the tender will need either to spend hundreds of hours running sample estimates to cover every permutation that may be considered, or else produce a limited number of properly worked out prices and then use these as a framework for other jobs, acknowledging that on some jobs the client will win and on others the printer will gain.

This cannot apply to the adhoc job arriving almost on spec from a brand or agency where the printer is on the roster. It is axiomatic that the business that returns the quotation the fastest wins the job. Ideally, the agency has access to a pricing system that allows them to work out the costs and to make adjustments, say for a different grade of paper, format or quantity.

Web interfaces enable this, either through a hosted web to print solution or via a VPN between agency and printer. And MIS is working towards this position. “The trouble is the majority of printers that I come across don’t use their existing MIS particularly well,” says lean consultant Matthew Peacock. “Many companies tend to think that the next MIS release will solve all their problems, but what they should do first is a root and branch appraisal of the basic processes.”

This means introducing automation where possible and changing the relationship between a sales team and the customer. From a lean point of view, the phone calls and emails between the two can be considered a waste. It rarely adds more value from a customer perspective.

The print industry is highly conservative in how it works with customers, unwilling to disrupt this interaction even when it is clear that the new generation of buyers is comfortable working on screen rather than the landline.

It means that printers can prefer to spend money on an administrative person than on software that can pay for itself over a couple of years. The salary will go on forever. “Software will always show a return compared to the cost of employing someone,” says VPress managing director Tim Cox.

This order taking approach is also anathema to building stronger partnerships between customer and printer. Orders are sent in by email, with little if any structure to them. These need to be rekeyed to raise a job bag, become a source of errors and are a huge waste of time. The secret to running a capital intensive business like print, says Peacock, is to “avoid producing rubbish” by eliminating clerical errors.

Often the customer will have some kind of business system that can be configured to deliver the specification in a structured way that can be accepted by the printer’s MIS. This can add value from a customer’s perspective as information will be structured for his business system.

“Printers should work out what they want and streamline their underlying processes,” says Peacock. Any decision on a new MIS should then involve those directly charged with operating it rather than just be the choice of a director possibly swept away by a strong sales pitch.

After installation too many companies fail to train staff how to use the new technology or refuse to invest more time to ensure that it is ingrained in the business.

All MIS suppliers complain that customers are often reluctant to commit to the level of training they feel is needed. “And then the installation doesn’t work and the operators are blamed for not being willing to embrace the new technology,” Peacock explains.

The full implementation should also include feedback from the shopfloor plus the means to take in the changes to the job specification that are perhaps less frequent than they used to be, but which will still occur after a price has been accepted, but may not be recorded. But that is for consideration later in this series on automation.

The problem that all printers must cope with is handling that explosion in job volumes. Channelling as many jobs as possible through a web portal will impose a structure on the job information and will ensure that as much detail as is needed is provided, avoiding a hurried email asking for a mundane item of information that someone failed to spot was missing. Most web to print vendors have completed interfaces between their technology and the MIS using standard APIs.

Optimus is working on a deeper integration with Xerox as the output engine from an XMPie uStore web portal. It is just one example of how the UK company is working on prospects to promote automation. “We have had an awful lot of conversations about integration and automation with customers over the last six months to a year,” says managing director Nicola Bisset.

While most of this relates to production automation and the flow of jobs around digital, large format and litho workflows, there are also links out to the customers feeding work to their print suppliers. Bisset explains that some of the largest customers are providing direct access to the MIS via a web interface and can then price up their own jobs and submit them directly into Optimus.

“Everyone is becoming very open to integration projects. We are dealing with a lot more mixed houses as large format and digital print becomes mature. Customers are asking if we have an API or would we develop one for them.

“With integrations that link the customer to the printer, the customer can get real time prices from Optimus. Web to print is good, but for this type of implementation we can provide a web interface directly to the system.”

For the majority of printers and customers, web to print would be adequate or a first step to something deeper.

Tharstern chief executive Keith McMurtrie says: “Using our open API, Infigo Software has created an integration that gives the end user access to the estimating engine within the Tharstern MIS, so they can create quotes based on their requirements. They then explore all options with materials and quantities etc to get the price they want, and then order it within their storefront portal.

“This won’t be possible for all jobs. We’ll always need the human touch for the more complex items, but it certainly frees up some time for estimators to concentrate on the more interesting jobs.”

Tharstern also has Estimate Pro as a rapid, screen by screen, way to generate an estimate and to calculate the optimal way to produce the job.

It requires an account executive to operate, but not necessarily a highly trained estimator with deep knowledge of all possible production routes across litho and digital. The technology presents choices at the appropriate moment.

McMurtrie says the technology is preparing for the time when even this engagement is removed. It is already possible for ‘run of one’ print which, thanks to the rise in personalised greetings cards, photo products or story books, is on the increase.

“We think there will be increased interest in the short run personalised, digital products that get ordered online,” says McMurtrie. “These are the photobook type orders or personalised storybooks: the variable one-off jobs where the customer does all the work and where the job is processed lights out, landing on the press without any involvement up to that point.

“We’ve come across more and more printers that want the ability to process these personalised print on demand products hands-free, so we think that this trend will continue.”

And it will spread from run of one to run of ten and run of 500 print. The key is to move the decision making and data entry to the customer. The software should be able to then calculate the best way to produce each job.

The emphasis at Imprint MIS is on using what it calls estimating routes to load jobs into standard impositions as fast as possible. The estimator who takes the call needs only to locate the job type via an on screen image and enter information about the numbers needed. Everything else is worked out automatically returning a quote in seconds. This can be loaded and sent as an email to the client just as quickly.

The Essex company introduced its concept of Expert Estimating some years ago and has developed it along with the main MIS ever since. It is designed for non skilled staff to be able to build an estimate in as trouble-free way as possible.

“It leaves the highly skilled estimator free to concentrate on the complex tasks using the classic estimating tasks. You do not need to use an estimator’s skills for all jobs and Expert Estimating is for times where people do not have the skill levels,” says Chris Weston.

The skills are put to use building the routes for the software to follow, allocating a two colour letterhead to a two-colour GTO rather than a four-colour digital press for example. The changing cost of materials and allocation of production resources is always taken into account. Consequently each quote, however rapidly it is returned, is unique to that request. The software is not referring to a matrix of costs or table of prices, for example.

The process can include customer or job type specific margins, adding in the effects of these calculations. Yet the price is returned within a few seconds. “We are seeing more demand because of shorter print runs and a reduction in the number of people and the spread of tasks so that less skilled people are expected to provide a quote,” he says.

There is an API which will allow access to the MIS via a properly configured web interface. This would allow a printer to create a web page with images of the popular products that can be ordered online. Provided a table behind the web page is set up correctly, the job specifications are loaded directly into the MIS and in return the price is sent back to the browser. “We run the quotes and feed the information back to the clients,” Weston says.

The same set up can apply to closed networks between customer and contracted printer for much of any day to day print requirements. Artwork can be held on the database to enable the customer to specify and order repeat jobs, to edit existing jobs and to build new artwork using sanctioned images, ending up with a quote without any involvement from the printer.

Once the price is accepted, the MIS pulls full details about delivery dates and address, names and invoice details and other information that leads to the job bag. The production workflow is then in position to allow the customer to approve artwork online and process the job for the optimal route through the business.

The scenario also relies on web driven applications and MIS working hand in hand and that if one is updated, it does not create problems across the integration. Some MIS providers are reluctant to encourage integration because of this. EFI has always wanted to create an ecosystem around its applications optimising them for various industry sectors. Accura MIS also takes the walled garden approach.

Accura managing director Trevor Cocks explains: “The choice of web to print solutions is vast. However, successfully implementing, integrating and rolling out to customers (who actually will use it) remains a challenge for many printers.

“In many cases third-party web solutions were originally designed as standalone products in an MIS. Integration only came later.

“The task of connecting two disparate systems written in different programming languages and independent databases is not easy. Thus they offer a ‘DIY’ API toolkit which the printer can use to link the product with his MIS, or pay the vendor, and/or third-party integrator. This can result in a poorly integrated solution that is clunky and unworkable for large volumes of traffic and becomes a resource drain to setup and maintain across two databases.”

Thus the company has developed Accura Online, its own web to print application and continues to develop it while other vendors have decided to concentrate on integration with best of breed suppliers. Cocks says that this development is therefore focused on what the users want rather than in the interests of continuing revenue for the web application developer.

The danger is that, like printers creating bespoke MIS solutions, Accura fails to keep pace with the latest developments in coding and interfaces.

To date this has not been an issue and the software provides a seamless integration for most purposes that a printer/ customer relationship would want. It goes well beyond submitting an RFQ, and into stock management, viewing current and historical jobs, access to online assets and so on.

All this saves on admin time when the printer has to search for the information and return it to the client. At the output end, Accura generates an XML file to feed directly into a prepress production workflow. For other developers the world is moving towards open interfaces, transparency and simpler ways to interface one system to another. Suppliers such as VPress among others are integrating on the one hand with business enterprise systems like SAP and Oracle and on the other with MIS and production workflow systems from across print, with warehouse systems and invoicing if these are not part of the MIS.

The information captured is not always rich enough to feed directly to the MIS. However, there are add on packages which are designed to ensure that product specific information is captured upfront for more niche applications, large format, cartons and so on.

The trend is strongly towards integration with some highly complex implementations of the Core Print product in the US, some not traditional users of print. Here these third-party add ons expand the potential for printers to increase their footprint with a customer, led by the convenience of being able to interact online and the speed that comes with this.

These do not attempt any estimating or scheduling actions, but act as a conduit to and from the MIS which performs these functions via the API.

Many printers do not measure the ‘carry’ costs of handling a job and data from a first contact to a delivery. This could mean that they do not understand their true costs. They do not realise that a job has involved four emails and 90 minutes of the CSR’s time and they have not charged for this. This is something that printers will have to start to consider.

It is inevitable. There is simply not the time nor the resource to cope with the ever rising number of short run and fast turnaround jobs that a printer has to handle. The consequence is that unless the front end is automated, an increasing volume of jobs will lead to increasing margin sapping costs. And there is no way to stop the shrinkage in run lengths.

Automation offers a way to cope. Many printers understand the benefits on the factory floor.

They need to realise that the benefits in customer interaction are just as, if not more, important than changing a press or folder in less than three minutes.

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“We think there will be increased interest in the short run personalised products that are ordered online,” says Tharstern.

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