22 November 2018 Business

Time to talk about MIS

There is more to MIS than selecting the software provider. Printers need also to think about who will be using it and where, whether an in-house server approach is better, or a hosted approach in the cloud.

Suddenly everyone is interested in MIS, if not actually committing to an investment. Pressure on margin, on coping with a growing number of jobs, and on automation is why a new MIS is moving up the shopping list. At one time few would contemplate moving to a new MIS, much as customers stayed loyal to their bank unless compelled to move. Now printers are prepared to suffer the pain of shifting databases and calculating a new set of costs if the current system has become a backwater in technical terms.

The MIS has to be simple to operate because account handlers and others are expected to know how to generate a quote and track a job through production. It has to be built around the latest operating systems, preferably cloud computing if that is what a customer wants, but certainly something that is built on open systems for ease of maintenance. It has to spread from creating an accurate estimate, stock control and raising an invoice, into an overlap with prepress workflow and online job flows.

And it needs to be able to flex as the user grows and develops new areas of business, perhaps interfacing with other third party applications as what is a Management Information System becomes a Business Information System. This means support for open interfaces, through a published API, support for cloud computing and support for remote working. This evolution should of course be a lot easier than when MIS transitioned from MS-DOS operating systems into Windows of some type.

And alongside the technology targeted at commercial printers there are specialist MIS for labels, for cartons, for large format and for corrugated. Now there are new providers coming to the UK. Crispy Mountain is the German developer with an entirely cloud based system that launched at the Print Show. And New Zealand is on the act with PrintIQ heading to the UK having established a user base in Australia and the US. This too is a modular system built around the cloud and developed to be fast to implement modular system that cuts the time to get up and running.

These are not the first. Optimus Dash was a complete rethink of the MIS that had served well in the commercial printing industry (and still does). It was developed to suit businesses that were non traditional in their products and diverse in their experience and skill levels. It is icon led to allow a non expert to build a quote and hosted in the cloud to ease the installation and support requirements.

The decision whether to run a cloud based MIS or one with a server is says sales director Steve Richardson largely cultural. “We have clients that are mindful of data integrity want a box on their premises; others that insist the MIS is hosted in the cloud. The decision is based very much around the available bandwidth,” he says.

For a secure system there may need to be multiple entry points for a WiFi connections, though as 5G technologies roll out this may become less important. This is no different from ensuring that the server based MIS is backed up securely. And with live connectivity to the internet, data and cyber security increases in importance. “It sounds great, but there is a wider business consideration as to what is offered and to ensure that the MIS is only accessed by the right people,” he says.

The wider availability of the MIS is one of the key drivers for cloud computing. With cloud hosting, access will be to anyone with a web browser and the necessary passwords and privileges. A manager on the road, or on the proverbial beach in Corfu, will be able to generate an estimate or communicate via the MIS with customers.

This is how Dean Anderson, technical director of Imprint MIS pictures some customers behaving. Imprint has been working on cloud versions of its software for the last couple of years he says, creating the API that allows others to integrate with the MIS. All the recently developed functionality and features are available in versions for the cloud. “Everything from now on will run in the Microsoft Azure Web Services platform, hosted behind a firewall,” he says. This is arguably more secure than an installation including a server.

One of the advantages of the cloud is that life becomes easier for the software provider because version control is more secure and the company moves away from regular upgrades to almost invisible changes that can happen without causing disruption. It is not failsafe. Imprint MIS uses TeamViewer to support customers to guide users and to take control remotely. “TeamViewer is good for us,” says Anderson. “But not long ago everybody was offline for a day while TeamView underwent a complete upgrade.”

There are he says some cultural issues to overcome, the production manager is freed from a study of spreadsheets used to manage the business and schedule production. Worse still is the position of IT manager who may fear emasculation if the server is removed and replaced with something he can’t tinker with.

The MIS then is accessible to all with a laptop or tablet computer, enabling someone to go on a beach holiday without losing contact with the office. This may or may not be a benefit, but it is coming Anderson reckons. “The API has already allowed us to improve functionality and we are putting a lot of work in to bring applications and modules across.”

It will also lead to a series of Apps to enable users to interact with the system. Imprint is working with an App developer to apply an Imprint green logo on the home screen or a smart phone or tablet computer.

Tharstern also makes the MIS accessible through a mobile device and the cloud. “Users can access it where they want to access it. There is a final server, it just happens to be in the cloud rather than something that you have in a dedicated room,” says business development manager Ross Edwards. “The actual cost may end as more, but it’s worth any extra cost because you do not have to manage and look after the server.

The hosted server approach is ideal for a business running across a number of locations. Everyone is working with the same set of data. There may not be a great call for this in the UK, but “now that we are in the US, rather than maintaining lots of computers you have one server that links everyone is running on the same platform. There is a lot of interest in this.”

This is not surprising. More and more equipment suppliers, from Heidelberg down, are collecting data on the cloud. The mass of data will be useful to identify trends between companies, to interrogate machines to uncover any training and maintenance needs for example. And there is the ability to compare the performance of the same machine in different locations from around the world.

The cloud provides an easier way to apply new capacity than adding an extra server as the number of jobs multiples in coming years. Along with familiarity from other applications that are hosted in the cloud, this more than anything will direct users to the easier to upgrade approach. In theory companies will be able to flex the capacity they use, adding capacity during busy periods and removing it when the industry is quiet.

The biggest of the industry’s MIS providers is EFI thanks to pulling together different MIS companies either for the technology they had developed or for a customer base in a particular sector or country. In those days the company was very US centric and anyone using one of the conquered softwares was expected to convert to one of the core platforms that EFI had developed.

Even before the new CEO Bill Muir gets to work, the attitude is softening. If EFI wants to expand it realises it has to pay attention to regional tastes and ways of working. “Now we are using local know-how, expertise and knowledge,” says Paul Cooper. And this is having an impact. EFI’s software business is growing “and we are performing better than we did before,” he adds.

The opportunity is there. The market is reckoned to be growing 6% in Europe, 4.5% in the US, driven by the new pressures that printers face. “We still have MIS applications for every type of printer,” says Dave Wigfield. But the opportunity for EFI is with the larger companies and more sophisticated demand. It will not be able to match the price of a localised MIS supplier with a limited number of customers.

“And we are seeing consolidation among those smaller customers, especially in the publication space across Europe.” This is bringing EFI up against the BIS platforms from the likes of SAP, Oracle and so on. These are more general business systems that have grafted on a print management module without necessarily understanding the intricacies of the print industry.

EFI wants to head in the opposite direction. It starts with the print industry knowledge and wants to be the specialist element of a procurement and planning system that starts with the enterprise software providers and feeds to print. It will be an organic expansion says Cooper, “something of a first for EFI where we have grown by acquisition until now.

“We know there’s a demand that we haven’t provided solutions for them. This is a huge opportunity going forwards.”

And in line with the approach that BIS technology is headed, the cloud will be a key element of a future focused approach to managing a print business. It is an inevitability. Not only does it suit the MIS developers, managed services is a key focus for those providing computer hardware, whether IBM, HP, Microsoft or Amazon.

But there will no immediate switch to the cloud. The industry is simply too conservative for that. Richardson at Optimus comments: “There are still printers that cannot pull themselves away from T card production planning. Others will trust the data and they want more automation. It is always down to the human aspect.”

Gareth Ward

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