Automating for profit

 Automation may be well and good, but smaller SMEs need to ask some hard questions of their business – and do their homework thoroughly – before committing significant capex to hands-free, or even lights-out operations.

There are so many questions. At what point does it become viable, does it work out with just one cutsheet digital printer or do you need a fleet of presses to make it pay? Do you need different setups for offset and digital? Where does the much vaunted Job Definition Format (JDF) fit in, if at all? And how do you integrate management information systems (MIS) and web-to-print (W2P), and is it even worth investing in workflow automation if you do not have these two elements?

 

Making it simple for customers

Bruce Peddlesden, former managing director of Melbourne digital commercial business On Demand, said before the printer's collapse in October that 60 per cent of jobs are now lodged digitally through the company’s custom-developed W2P systems, linked to a PageFlex Variable Data Print (VDP) system – and he predicts that the W2P component will rise to 80 per cent within the next two years.

On Demand is also developing cross-media workflows, including web-integrated print campaigns that involve Personal URLs (PURLs), or landing pages – campaigns he estimates to have relatively high yields of up to 20 per cent of the targeted market.

Workflow automation “obviously cuts a lot of labour out of the process – the cost of having to log in jobs and create a job ticket,” says Peddlesden.

“My aim has always been to automate so that the client orders online. That work is then taken directly to the appropriate device in a hot folder.”

The company, around 30 years old and with some 100 staff, located in Southbank, has been a pioneer in the industry in automating its print workflows, with its first systems installed around 10 years ago.

On Demand’s policy has been to develop several W2P systems in order to be as compatible as possible with clients’ systems, says Peddlesden. “I don’t believe you should expect a customer to do it just one particular way in order to deal with your business,” he says.

“We have several systems so we can mix and match, see what the client needs, and find the easiest way for that to happen, meeting their needs more than ours.”

Job orders are monitored by an On Demand staff member who creates an A4 single-page paper job ticket for the press operator. Orders are processed on either the company’s HP Indigos (two 7000 sheetfed machines and a 7200 webfed), or its Océ Colorstream 3700 inkjet for longer runs – and all machines run VDP work.

“The file is already on the press – our automated systems do that. The job ticket simply describes that file and what is to be done with it – such as single or double sided, stock choice, and so on,” he says.

Jobs, while fully digital, are colour managed to Process Standard Offset on the AS/ISO 12647-2 standard, says Peddlesden.

Finishing is per the paper job ticket but is not automated, as that does not suit On Demand’s work, which he sees as constantly reducing impressions and constantly rising variability per job.

Peddlesden says the company still finds paper job tickets to be more practical for the time being, although these workflows could easily be achieved with electronic job tickets.

That workflow suits On Demand’s typical output in a range of 50-500 impressions per job – for books, advertising collateral and training manuals, to name some. About 25 per cent of work is now VDP and he sees that growing in the future.

Some customers still prefer to lodge their job files via CD and see a hardcopy proof, but the ratio increasingly favours W2P.

“There are two aspects – our ability to cut costs but also the ease with which the customer can interact with us,” he reflects.

Peddlesden believes W2P and general workflow automation are not linked to a company’s scale and that smaller enterprises can still benefit from automating.

 

What vendors say

Down to what scale is workflow automation viable for SMEs? It is suited to any print company that has clients working around the clock. That’s the view of Wayne Steer, from applications support for graphic systems at Fujifilm Australia.

“It gives the client the ability to submit and receive rendered artwork for approval within a short timeframe without prepress operator intervention,” he says.

“This is one way we like to automate our XMF workflow. Press dependence is irrelevant. Getting client approval to get the job out the door is the important factor. So with automation, it can be beneficial to magazine printers who may be receiving artwork in different batches of page numbers, but it also benefits the printer who doesn’t run a 24 hour shop but wants to give clients access to a system where their job can be fast-tracked and approved, ready for printing when the morning shift arrives.”

Agfa managing director Mark Brindley says automation can begin in small ways. “At any point within a print business, large or small, automation becomes viable to streamline print processes and optimise growth opportunities,” he says.

“Automation allows printers to stay competitive, reduce human error and to increase speed and productivity. It will allow for increased volume and client user interaction with the print product utilising the W2P solutions.” A streamlined process of invoicing and costing is also a prime area for automation, he says.

Tony Harvey, director of strategic business development at Kodak Australasia, says workflow automation can create value in a business of any size, as it touches a number of key production areas from reduction in manual labour, reduced costs, faster turnaround time and better billing and invoicing. “These are issues that any size printers or service provider has, which is why Kodak is working with large and small printers to help automate their processes,” he says.

Do you need different setups for offset and digital? Says Fujifilm’s Wayne Steer: “The short answer is yes. While a workflow can use the same job ticket or template, there are always going to be device-specific differences. Usually digital devices will accept the imposed and colour profiled information sent to them, whereas offset will need screen ruling, angle, linearisation curves and so on.

“Most customers are more comfortable to keep job tickets between digital and offset separate, though the more savvy operators like to use the one job ticket where they can make last-minute adjustments to the device they want to print to.”

Says Agfa’s Mark Brindley: “In most cases, whether a job is processed through an offset or digital production route is pretty well known up-front when the job is contracted, depending on the requirements, such as is VDP required, lead-time, media usage, and so on. This determines the appropriate production flow and dedicated tools.

“In essence PDF generation and pre-flight remain the same for that of digital or offset processing. At the point of imposition, the file lanes change to their designated process flow.

“A hybrid process flow can be complimentary with both digital and offset printing used to produce the final print product. Hybrid workflows facilitate the use of a digital press as a validation proofing device, and create dummies or mock-ups, that is, a complete book, brochure or other product.

“A balanced hybrid workflow can also allow for complimentary product count to be added to a finished product, using a digital process with the bulk of the product printed via offset, matching colour and quality between the two process flows.”

Kodak’s Tony Harvey believes job preparation for a digital or offset workflow is the same, with Kodak seeing an increase in hybrid print production. “The new version of Prinergy workflow expands hybrid content production to make it easy for the operator to control and direct the job content to any output device when required,” he says.

JDF has been discussed extensively in the print industry for more than a decade now. Steer of Fujifilm explains: “JDF in XMF is used for both input and output information. JDF input information usually comes from the MIS or third-party imposition information, where JDF output information is what we use for some digital print devices. A JDF file is much quicker to send to a JDF-capable printer than sending the full PDF file.

“This way the JDF (basically a command file) will source pages from the network and process the information on the digital printer, allowing the workflow operator to get on with their next job.

“CIP3 and CIP4 are both integrated into Fujifilm’s XMF workflow. CIP3 can simply be used for helping the press operator to lower the startup print run, whereas CIP4 can send other information, such as bindery and cutting data, to online equipment. Again, these are important features in achieving an automated workflow.”

Brindley of Agfa sees CIP3 and CIP4 as the means to carry a print job from design to delivery of the final product. The language describes all processes from content creation, prepress, press, post press and delivery – facilitating ‘hands free’ production and automation.

“Workflow automation allows for optimisation of process flows irrespective of the equipment used and modular solutions installed,” he says.

“JDF/JMF allows the integration of W2P and MIS with the prepress workflow negotiating communication and production of the final product. W2P interaction via JDF/JMF is the key ingredient to successful W2P hosting.”

Tony Harvey of Kodak sees JDF integration helping Kodak and third-party systems interact, and helps communicate a job’s specifications which reduces touchpoints. The JDF ‘intent’ tool, for example, can be used with Prinergy Rules- Based Automation Software to automatically interpret job instructions.

“JDF intent can be provided by an upstream application such as the Kodak InSite Storefront System, and provides data on a job’s quantity, due date, ship date and print date,” he says.

“Prinergy Rules-Based Automation Software and JDF intent are a powerful combination for automated job control and tracking.”

Should a business add W2P to its MIS and what is the best way to do it? Says Steer: “Both MIS and W2P complement a workflow. They are not a must-have; automation is still effective without them. While they do streamline the process, it is not something most SMEs have.”

Agfa brings its Apogee products into this space. Brindley describes Apogee StoreFront as a cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) W2P solution. “It enables a printer to create online stores in which print buyers can browse through a catalogue of print products,” he says.

“Apogee StoreFront contains features such as a built-in online editor to personalise documents.”

According to Kodak’s Harvey: “You don’t need MIS and W2P to significantly increase production efficiencies with Kodak Prinergy, the efficiencies are within the software itself. That is why we are seeing an increase in SMEs purchasing Prinergy 6, as many of these printers don’t have a MIS or W2P solution. Web-based tools are becoming critical in improving efficiencies, customer service and strengthening client relationships. Kodak offers Online Print Solutions (OPS) and Kodak Storefront as part of its web-to-print portfolio.”

The Currie Group offers two significant workflow brands, says managing director Bernie Robinson. ECRM WorkMates is an automated PDF-based solution for SMEs. Five production tools allow printers to impose, rip, proof and print PDF files. The programme also facilitates task automation, accelerates productivity and allows compatibility with desired file formats. Workmates is expandable, inexpensive and user-friendly, he says, allowing for fast implementation.

Express WorkFlow from developer Compose combines functionality with ease of use, ensuring smooth data delivery between all processes in a prepress workflow. It has been expanded to provide JDF support at every stage of production such as ripping preference, imposition method and ink key value.

 

Managing multiple workflows

Sydney commercial outfit SOS Print & Media is a confluence of so many output technologies that multiple workflows are needed to sustain them, but the aim is always to streamline these into a dynamic whole that is productive and flexible, says director Michael Schulz.

On the offset side of the ledger are a Heidelberg Speedmaster SM105 and a GTO-Z, as well as an Akiyama Jprint 10 colour with five-over-five perfecting. The presses take plates from a Fujifilm Luxel platesetter, part of the vendor’s XMF workflow with imposition and CIP3/4 data transfer. On the digital side, there’s inkjet (a Fuji Xerox 2800 and a Kodak Prosper 1000 XL), in laser/toner there’s a Xeikon 5000 digital colour press with coater, three Ricoh Pros and a Fuji Xerox Nuvera 288 digital production publisher with Saddle Stitcher and two Océ 6250s – and there’s also an HP Indigo 7500.

Add to that Serendipity Black Magic colour management, Metrix production planning and Enfocus preflighting, and you have a philharmonic orchestra of prepress and output technologies that needs a deft baton.

“We don’t have just one workflow solution from just one vendor that drives everything,” Schulz tells ProPrint. “We kind of had to make our own workflow.”

The 37-year-old Sydney company, located at Alexandria, has developed a custom inhouse MIS, linked to its own XMF-based imposition system, and has what Schulz describes as printer agnostic hot-folder based automation that can be piped to all output devices.

“Metrix works with XMF. There’s still no real automation there. It’s Metrix production planning, then imposing in XMF. But it is so easy that our printers can run their own plates. That was important for us, a system so easy it doesn’t require a fulltime operator,” he says.

Adding JDF is on the horizon and would be an asset in terms of ink set-up on the litho presses, but Schulz says the Akiyama sets up so rapidly that having JDF would not make that much difference to makeready times.

As to W2P, SOS custom configures its systems to individual clients. Schulz says, “We have some systems where clients can change artwork and a lot of systems where they can order and it goes straight to production. We interface with our clients’ procurement systems, so from some customers we get nightly order files that go directly to production – with pricing and specifications all automatic.”

SOS has standardised its file set-up in order to defer the decision to print offset or digitally to the latest possible stage in prepress – either imposition or colour separation.

Says Schulz: “We’re leaving all files as one-up. At the moment, we’re still working in CMYK. In our prepress, we’re making sure our files are imposed, proofed ready files so they can go offset or digital. We often swap between the two, or we might need a couple of hundred now on digital and then run the big part of the job on offset.”

With a $29m a year turnover and some 120 staff, SOS Print & Media is a medium-scale outfit in Australian printing, but would Schulz recommend this level of automation for smaller print providers? “Absolutely. It’s going to become more and more important because you’re going to want to take advantage of higher colour gamuts in RGB or you might have other presses to plug in. You don’t want to have to rely on one vendor’s system.

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