HP has embraced Cloud working to a greater extent than any other supplier to the industry. It may be that its heritage as part of the IT giant means it has greater insight into what lies around the corner. It may be that this gives it a wider experience it can call upon.
It may be that the practical considerations led logically to the conclusion that it would have to embrace the Cloud. Whichever the real explanation, ahead of Drupa last year, HP announced PrintOS, its Cloud environment, initially for the Indigo range and then to include the Scitex flatbed inkjet machines, PageWide T series web presses and perhaps other printers at some point.
“Pre Drupa we had 30 customers connected and experimenting with the applications,” says PrintOS business manager Gershon Alon. “By the time we reached Drupa there were 100 involved and we signed a further 200 during the show. Today we have 1,900 machines connected.
“This amounts to 750 daily users from an installed base of 4,300 use accounts. There are about 1,500 who are connected weekly and 2,500 machines connect each month. Overall we are happy with the rate of growth and usage.”
There are perceptions to overcome: the reliability for one, when any problems are magnified in the general media. “There was an issue with Amazon Web Services in North America which resulted in two ten-minute outages a few months ago,” he says. “But just because you own a server does not make you immune from problems. It doesn’t always work and if there is a problem it will take more than ten minutes to put right.
“We think that the Cloud is a better solution to IT issues and that it will eventually win. There is no question about that. Our vision is that all prepress and job preparation will be done in the Cloud, but we not there yet.”
The challenge is to persuade a customer that by using PrintOS there will be tangible benefits for the business. One of the main promises is that by connecting to the system, HP will be able to monitor individual presses and provide feedback as to performance, which can lead to efficiency improvements. This is PrintBeat which, says Alon, shows the main KPIs as a dash- board from the raw data that the machine has provided. “We take it as unstructured data and return it in a form that is useful,” he says.
This might include the amount of time the machine is running, number of stops, the chosen set ups. This can then be interpreted, he adds to provide “almost personal advice. We might say ‘Have you noticed that you are stopping the press to load paper? This means that you lost one- and-a-half hours of production time last week when you can load paper while the machine is running’.
“Or we can remind the user that by batching proofs at certain points in the day, productivity will go up, or perhaps that the number of proofs created is higher than the average for our users. It is information that is relevant to that particular user.”
The barrier is that the more advanced Indigo users, those that are most likely to sign up for PrintOS, most probably have a better grip on their production than most and will be monitoring for these sorts of KPIs in any case.
A second key benefit for Alon is the Media Locator, a repository of profiles and information about Indigo certified media. This automates a necessary task and will bring gains to a networked print job as, provided the machines are connected to PrintOS, they will be guaranteed to be running the same profiles for the customer’s chosen media, allowing a job to be spread across presses and locations.
PrintOs takes some of the workflow tasks into the Cloud, again alleviating problems that printers can face and doing so without them needing to invest in stand-alone applications to integrate to Indigo. So far there are the first bricks in what will surely become a complete workflow.
The low hanging fruit so to speak includes PrintOS Box, a tool which automates the handling of incoming files. Those arriving as email attachments are separated and sent to the production worflow as soon as they arrive. The file is preflighted and notifications sent to the file’s originator.
When most jobs are still arriving as email attachments, which have to be found and manually separated, checked and responded to, Box is a clear step towards greater efficiency. There should be no opportunity for files to be lost, or for the file to sit in the database for a week until it is due on press only to then discover that fonts are missing.
Siteflow is the tool originally developed by Precision Printing to enable it to cope with single orders and orders that might comprise a number of elements: a greetings card, calendar, photoalbum, each needing to be sent to the same address in the same package. It is a part of the market that is both expanding and lucrative if handled without touch points. “The goal is to enable printers to cope with hundreds or thousands of small jobs per day and to remain in control.
As more and more jobs come in through a web to print system or a dedicated web portal there is a real need to automate how they are handled,” he explains.
As a Cloud application, SiteFlow can flex according to the volume of jobs passing through something that would entail huge expense if a printer needed to procure the servers to do this on site. “It is an inexpensive and low risk application,” Alon notes.
“It also enables a printer to respond rapidly to a customer. In the US one company was able to produce a recipe book product by letting consumers select from a choice of favourite recipes, add their own page and have it sent as a gift.
“The printer geared up to handle the 4,000 orders he was told to expect, but then the offer hit Facebook and in two days he had to cope with 120,000 orders. This becomes the new marketing collateral for a brand and the printers need to cope. Brands are promoting themselves on line, via apps and social media and print is a tangible outcome.”
The Cloud based application was able to cope because in theory at least there is infinite processing power to hand. It needs to be easy to activate when required.
As PrintOS matures,more and more applications will be added. Some will be commercially developed web to print applications like Infigo for example which is already developed in the Software as a Service model, some will be applications that other users have created to solve their own issues and which can be shared by other users. It develops into an Apple Store for print.
That is a way off for now. HP is continuing to learn from its now year-long experience. “We are learning how important is to be very, very fast to market,” Alon says. It is learning too to use the infrastructure for its own and customer benefits.
Distribution of software upgrades has been a painful process. A major upgrade every year or so would need engineers to visit customers to deploy the upgrade, something taking several months and numerous engineers to do. It would mean taking a press out of production and inevitably the new tools would be behind the curve of current problems.
“We were installing features that were first discussed two years previously,” he says. “And we found some customers were reluctant to take the upgrade for fear of the disruption it might cause.
“Now by sending software upgrades through the Cloud, we can deploy a new version every three months and we can release small upgrades every week if we need to. We can check that customers are using the new features and collect that feed- back automatically rather than having to call a user and go through a series of questions probably at a less than convenient time.
“Now we can see if people are using the new feature or if they find it confusing and can quietly remove it. We can trial upgrades with selected customers and we can fix bugs very very fast. It means that we will be less hesitant about offering new stuff because we can get much more information.
“The Cloud allows us to work in a completely different way.”