Talk to anyone about automated workflow and it will not be long before Switch is mentioned. This small piece of software has become the go-to tool when different systems need bringing together, when MIS needs to connect to workflow and especially when incoming files need to be stripped from an email or web to print portal and sent into both MIS and a workflow.
It was not the first application to aim to do this. In the mid 1990s, Aldus, one of the pioneers of desktop publishing, proposed the Open prepress interface which would link the different processes a prepress workflow would need to carry out by automating the passage of a file to output.
It never took off. Nor did Markznet as another tool to build a linked workflow using industry standard protocols and off the shelf software. A few years later Switch was shown at Print 2001, but few then recognised its significance. They do now.
Switch is now part of Enfocus, itself a division of Esko Artwork. Enfocus’ reputation has been built on preflighting with various versions of Pitstop now almost the de facto tool for checking that a PDF has fonts embedded, that images are in the correct resolution, that lines are printable and much more besides.
Pitstop has been integrated in workflows from the major prepress vendors and is available as a standalone product. The server version became a tool for offering some automation of the file checking step.
Switch extends the concept to the creation of a full hands off workflow. It can be used in multiple places in a workflow, automating file submission, communications with the client, the passage though digital or litho process steps. And at all times relaying information to the MIS or account handler as required.
The strength lies in its use of industry standard protocols for linking one process to the next. It does not itself offer imposition, colour management, or flight checking for that matter. But is the tool to integrate these processes.
However, it links these steps using a hot folder system to join the process steps a file needs to go through. This can be constructed on the canvas screen of the interface. Tools are positioned on the left. Switch can access the set up screen of these application so that a user has no need to open each in turn and remember how to operate the interface.
There is enormous control in building workflows, based on particular customers, on product types, output styles and so on. Job files which fail at any stage drop to a folder for intervention by the operator, but the aim is always to prevent incomplete or inaccurate files reaching this point.
Automating file submission is perhaps the most popular task and one where instant benefits can be gained.
Too many customers attach their job files to an email which needs to be opened at the print company, the PDF removed and added to the workflow with details logged into the MIS.
With only a few jobs arriving each day, this is manageable. But as the volume of jobs submitted in this way grows, so too does the problem of misdirected emails, unopened messages and incomplete production details being entered.
Web to print solves the last part of this problem as production information can be required as part of the process, but unless the portal is part of a larger system, so fully integrated with that, integration remains necessary, production data going to the prepress workflow and customer information to the MIS.
“If the customer is, for example, using an Agfa Storefront and Tharstern as the MIS, we can receive the JDF, parse it and send the HTTP request to update the MIS,” says Pat Gilmour from XChange, the longest established Switch integrator in the UK.
“The job may be submitted via FTP or a browser, we can create the job ticket and direct the file to a hot folder for preflighting or a specific workflow,” says Gilmour. “We can also take files from Dropbox or Google.”
XChange can build a workflow from standard applications that share the same open interface approach. And can build the initial workflows a company might need. Further training will equip a company’s staff to create the workflows themselves as automation takes hold.
A typical workflow will also include a customer approval step, sending an online proof to the customer to sign off before further progress. All this can be automated. The return email will be generated without the involvement of the printer’s CSR team though will be branded as if the account handler has sent it.
Switch will add a job number as suffix to the file so it can be tracked by the MIS during production. As it hits the prepress workflow its arrival is flagged to the operator. It may be directed along a customer specific or process specific workflow: some printers can have numerous workflows set up for different formats of machine, litho and digital for example.
If a job is rejected at the preflight point and returned to the client to make corrections, Switch will handle the update to the MIS, suspending the job until it has passed the approval stage. Gilmour adds that there is now a means of assessing and then applying the HP Indigo EPM mode when possible.
There are other connections that have been developed for specific purposes, some of which are available through a Switch app store. Switch product manager Toon Van Rossum says: “We always expected customers would develop their own scripts and that there should be a facility for people to swap these scripts. we started the app store two years ago as a platform where anyone that has written a script can make it available to the rest of the community. In the last year we have added 15-20 scripted apps and we cannot predict what the next app will be.”
It is expanding as demand for automation and integration is growing. “In the last couple of years we have noticed that the use of Switch is increasing in commercial printers, from small businesses building an entire workflow on Switch to large companies needing to run an integration project,” says Van Rossum. “It is ideal for the larger companies because of the way we work with our channel and integration integrators takes a commitment in time and resources to get Switch installed. And it’s mostly the larger ones that have the resources available to the people and the money to invest in it.”
The next version, Switch 18, coming shortly will make it easier to visualise data and how Switch is being used by presenting this information in a dashboard view. “It’s about delivering more transparency to users and making data available.”
He has been on several road trips to find out how people are using the technology and how it is being implemented. This included a UK trip in autumn last year where companies like DG3 and Route 1 have built complex workflows around the functionality of Switch to automate prepress production.
These can call up the appropriate layout template from a template library and are using Switch to route jobs to that template.
Malcolm Mackenzie from Colour Engine, another of the Switch integration partners, says that large companies tend to be looking for integration between a litho workflow and a swiftly growing digital print workflow. “Their existing workflow does not easily travel across,” he says. “They have the resources and the sophistication to run parallel workflows.
“The other customers are the companies that are running litho, label presses or large format with no workflow or automation currently, or perhaps are using Pitstop to check incoming files.
“We have been seeing a huge upswing in interest over the last 18 months from companies that want to do more with their workflows.”
For many companies that call on the services of the integrators, the account handler has become swamped by the volume of files. They will check that the file is correct, but do not extract meta data from the file about production, the customer and delivery to direct to the MIS automatically. Where this can be done, there are immediate benefits.
“But we do not promise the world,” Mackenzie warns. “It takes a while for people to grasp the concepts. Instead we focus on what we can do now to save time and money. And then we move forwards with step by step improvements.”
One of the more satisfactory implementations is at an inner London council where Switch is working in the planning department.
Previously, Mackenzie explains, there was one person tasked with checking the FTP site for online planning submissions and opening emails to extract the form and files. Now that has been almost completely automated and the council no longer has to employ a disinterested clerk for the repetitive task.
“The press used to be the bottleneck for print companies,” says Van Rossum. “That was where automation was about winning time and improving production speed.
“What we see a lot now is that the press is not longer the hold up, improvements can be made up front in your workflow and that printers understand more and more that Switch is perfect for improving performance there.”