14 November 2011 Print Companies

Precision engineering: how Precision Printing Company is making its mark with digital

Managing director Gary Peeling has been carefully watching the progress of digital printing over a decade and has built it into his commercial printer in a very exacting way, to the point. And so successfully that even his digital press supplier use the company to print its brochures.

Five years ago Precision Printing was one of any number of B2 sheetfed litho printers with a steady customer base, appreciative of its quality and services. Operating from East London, it was close to the City and especially Docklands to serve financial clients and close enough to the centre of the capital to work with agencies and charities.

This had brought it some recognition for quality and service and continues to generate £6 million of sales a year, an increase of around £1 million over the five years. While not disappointing, it is a rate of growth that is not going to set the pulse racing. And Precision has had to invest to reach this point buying a ten-unit XL75 at Drupa and installing it in an extension to its Dagenham factory just as the recession began to bite.

However, in 2005 managing director Gary Peeling had bought Precision’s first digital press, an HP Indigo 5000. “Up until then Precision had been a general commercial printer since being established in 1966, offering marketing and operational collateral to a range of clients,” he says.

Today there are now six HP Indigos which have driven sales to £12 million for the company at a growth rate of 20% per year. “We would expect digital sales to be close to £8 million by the close of 2011,” Peeling adds, taking the company to £14 million in revenue. The average order value, £496 in 2005 has not shifted greatly for litho work, but the average order value on digital is £2.30. That according to Peeling is going to open up vast opportunities in the future.

It is a story of opportunities taken, of taking control of its own destiny and has taken the company places it would never have anticipated a decade ago.

Back in 2005, Peeling had been watching the development of digital print for the best part of a decade, feeling that quality kept falling short of what customers would accept.

“It was always a question of matching brand identity colours for us and in 2005 the Indigo 5000 was the first press we felt could deliver that quality,” he says. “I had almost bought a Turbostream, but there was always the difficulty of going to customers to explain the limitations on paper choice, on brand identity and in the shiny finish delivered by digital.”

Today he says that any limitation associated with digital print quality is no longer the issue it was and several machines can deliver to the level required. But Precision has made its bed with HP and it will be a tumultuous change should it move now.

If Peeling intended the Indigo to produce shorter run and bespoke jobs which were otherwise similar to litho, he has long since changed his mind. That would have led to expansion, but not to the spectacular growth the company is continuing to enjoy.

Part of the reason, he explains, comes from being open minded. “One of the keys to our success has been listening and to the support that we get from our suppliers. HP was talking about variable data printing, about publishing on demand and about web to print. We have tried a little of all of them and have had some success.”

It has a tie up with Italian company Pixart, producing next day delivery jobs that are problematic to source from Venice, and there are discussions about providing a similar service for US companies looking to serve customers in Europe.

Precision provides marketing collateral on demand for BMW/Mini car dealerships; it creates complex direct mail shots, using geomapping to manage the mailings and contact details to recipients within the target area of the campaign. Not everyone does this as they should, Peeling explains, “even though it’s relatively straightforward to do”.

And it creates the marketing collateral on demand for HP itself, a move which has saved the supplier a huge amount from over-ordered brochures which had to be stored and then thrown out each year. If this print on demand model is one that HP Indigo preaches as effective, it has the proof from eating its own dinner.

These channels rely on web storefronts for customers to select and edit marketing materials that Precision will then print. “However, almost all web to print is web to nowhere: there are lots of small orders that you need to process,” he explains.

As Peeling was pondering this puzzle, he says the company was approached by a photo client who was struggling to keep up with demand during the peak period running up to Christmas and looking to outsource some work to Precision. Precision could take the work on, but the customer was reluctant to part with its automated workflow system.

It was the spur that the company needed to create its own automated workflow that would link the web ordering process through to the presses and to the finishing and dispatch areas. It has been called OneFlow, now in Version 3 ready for this year’s peak season. “We needed to come up with something quickly for the 2009 season and we have been developing it ever since,” he says. “We needed to do it for one particular client, but designed it to link into any number of other clients operating other legacy systems.”

At that point Precision had just one person writing the software. There is now a team of six with two data processing analysts based inside Precision’s own geek room. The key tools have been XML data structures to collect relevant data from the online ordering system that the customer has and which is needed for production. All data is formatted in the same way regardless of its origin. Because XML is a straightforward format, Precision reckons it can connect any new customer in a couple of weeks, rather than the several months that might otherwise be necessary. It also ensures that the data Precision is working with is clean and suited to the requirements of its production process.

The experience makes him wonder why others have not followed a similar course. Precision, like others, had had a mixed experience with MIS vendors “because they have to produce a system that suits everyone” he says, but this is not the best way to develop in future: “As an industry we have relied on contractors to provide us with MIS solutions that are not always suitable for our needs. The software system should match the business, not the other way around. Even employing a single member of staff with data processing knowledge and the ability to write scripts and create apps will release huge potential in your business. And it’s easier to find these people than you might imagine and they will cost less than you might think.”

Few outside contractors would have been able to come up with the Oneflow application that now runs Precision’s production process. The trigger to start the process is the delivery date when the job has to be sorted and leave the building. As different jobs have different turnaround times, depending on the service level agreement signed with the customer or variations within that for faster or slower delivery, the scheduling is highly complex and success depends on clear communication throughout.

Greetings cards, for example, will need to be sent out within three hours of receipt and with a daily cut off of 2pm to achieve next day delivery. Photobooks and calendars may work on a 48-hour turnaround.

As orders are coming in constantly the schedule is constantly changing, the more so when a job needs to be reprinted because it has been damaged or slipped below quality thresholds. Then this becomes the most important current job.

Work is automatically batched to suit machines and papers with each job receiving a work to list of the process steps that need to be undertaken. Precision uses Metrix to manage the ganging element of imposition to maximise efficiency of throughput for each job. Nevertheless instructions remain distinct for each job processed, rather than the sheet which might contain several jobs. The worklist is printed along with a barcode reference as an A4 sheet for each job.

At each process step the job is scanned to log its progress with the central system to allow it to be identified and tracked. Each operation has its own computer link to the central OneFlow server so that a job cannot drop off the radar. Where equipment is JDF enabled, such as the presses and now the Polar guillotines, all the settings are loaded automatically. Where JDF has not extended, settings are called up through the barcode for each job.

A further complication is that the order for a customer might cover several elements, a calendar and a photobook for example, or photobook and several greetings cards. The final delivery address is used to manage this element and the items stored in a matrix of pigeon holes until the consignment is complete and it can be packaged and dropped in the appropriate delivery sack. Information that becomes relevant only at the delivery stage, a customer request for a pre-noon delivery for example, is added at this stage.

“The workflow has to be this dynamic because it is open to multiple input feeds from multiple clients who operate to different SLAs. It means that the schedule will be constantly changing and therefore it is impossible to delegate this to a production manager, however experienced, because no person can keep track of what might be 10,000 live orders in the system,” says Peeling.

Operators will see what job is coming next, and like some kind of airport landing board, it is constantly flicking over as jobs enter their airspace. The traffic system is also feeding back to the client for order tracking purposes. At the fulfillment end of the building, the total number of jobs to be handled that day and a running total for the next is updated in real time. As each order is also automatically assigned to the delivery company that handles that client’s work, there is another factor of complication. Sacks lined up bear the names of the major delivery businesses across Europe, for while much of the end product stays in the UK, jobs are sent across the continent and to the US. The details of the packages that are sent out are recorded and provided to client to allow them to manage their postal costs.

If the number of jobs per day is going to climb steeply between now and Christmas, so too is the number of people needed to do the physical moving of paper and folding into delivery boxes, which is just about the only part of the process that has not been automated.

It is something that Peeling will be looking at for next year, he says. This year the company has installed the latest Renz Inline 500 automated calendar binding unit, which has scrubbed out two stages on the process from last year. There are also thoughts about how to link the HP presses with some kind of inline finishing. HP has shown that this is possible with its web presses and has linked a die cutting platen to a sheetfed press, so the supplier’s thinking is aligned with Peeling’s. For the moment it is a case of watch this space.

“One of the longer strategic visions is that finishing technology which is completely digitally driven and that therefore the concept of production lines for printing is becoming reality. But for feeding real time data for that will be key to exploiting that technology. In these cases, the operators cannot be left searching for data to input.”

For most of the year Precision runs with 120 staff. During the peak weeks this doubles as the factory runs flat out 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From mid summer on the temporary workers are being trained to understand the system and their role in it as the system builds to handle something like 35,000 orders in a day.

Version 3 of OneFlow has been rewritten to allow it to expand more easily using Microsoft’s Dotnet environment. It needs to as Peeling looks to further expansion in this part of the market. There is also the potential from selling the software to print managers or others that are looking for a solution to handle ultra short run print on demand. “We are approaching outside companies about applications for our technology,” he says.

It is, he believes, a game changer, because by removing the costs of administration and set up on press and with digital finishing in that aspect too, the price to the customer will comes down. “Cost per unit has been a barrier. Until now the end unit price of print on demand has been too high. If that price is £23 it will not work; but if it’s £2.30 it becomes an exciting proposition. Remove that price barrier and we believe we can tap into pent up demand,” he explains. “We can remove the cost of administration, and if we can remove the cost of setting up finishing what is left is a cost per page according to the style of finishing chosen, the quantity and the number of pages in a product.”

It paves the way for taking the consumer photobook into business to business applications. And Peeling believes will spark more creativity from the agencies as they exploit the freedom that the removal of price barriers brings, saying: “I’m a great believer that the road block has been cost and that now we will be able to deliver products more creatively.” And there is the immediate environmental benefit of only printing ultra short batches.

Add in the potential of Precision acting as the delivery partner for any number of new web businesses that are offering photo products and cards using images that have been crowd sourced rather than editing those curated by the likes of Moonpig, and there is plenty of scope for Precision to exploit the investments it has made in the last five years.

It will not be digital all the way. Peeling reckons that nothing can match litho in areas where litho is strong. “There will still be litho,” he says. And Precision is sticking to its roots. “We are a specialist general printer.”

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