MIS: the nerve centre for print

MIS has come a very long way in a relatively short space of time.

The Management Information System was developed as a way to help printers generate estimates and compare these against the actual cost of doing a job. A management report each month could tell a director if a business was making or losing money. 

Gradually MIS has evolved to take in scheduling and through shop floor data collection, to provide real time information about production. That is no longer enough in an industry that is changing as fast as print, nor enough in an industry that is as competitive as print. Falling print runs and an explosion in the number of jobs means that it is no longer feasible to raise an estimate for each job. For many printers standard pricing for standard items purchased through a website has been a way around this dilemma, but even this does not solve the problem entirely.

This pressure has led to demand for end-to-end integration of workflows, from inquiry to delivery and at the heart of this is the MIS. It has become part of the brain of a business, collecting data through a nervous system which feels what is happening in a business to enable the management team to take decisions based on facts not instincts, just as one part of the human brain says I am thirsty and the higher functioning brain decides what to do about that.

EFI senior director, portfolio product management Nick Benkovich says: “People have come away from just MIS. And from web to print what had been a ten finger integration and was perhaps more accurately described as a web to order system we have moved to automation of the complete eco system. This extends from data collection, creating job tickets, preflighting and is in effect web to delivery. MIS is the hub for all this.”

Nobody would disagree. The transition from strictly litho print to the one stop shop where printers offer digital printing, large format printing, a fulfilment service and more, is putting additional pressure on the IT infrastructure. And the suppliers have risen to the challenge.

For EFI it has meant packaging the MIS offerings into productivity suites for different types of printer, selecting from the best features of the various MIS systems it has acquired over the years. There has been some simplification too, with the different web to print styles reduced to two, one for the more complex requirements and DSF for the more straightforward.

With Optimus the response to market trends has meant development of Dash as a new style of MIS, product rather than process focused. And this has also meant integration with third party software suppliers. 

“We can provide full integration with XMPie,” says managing director Nicola Bisset, “and into Xerox Freeflow workflow. We showed integration with HP’s labels and packaging workflows at drupa. There is huge interest in a full integration.”

As well as in-depth discussions with all the digital press suppliers, Optimus enjoys privileged status with KBA, integrating with its Logotronic press management software. “Everyone today is looking to optimise their workflow with or without JDF.”

JDF was at one time touted as the perfect connector between disparate systems, but while there are implementations linking MIS to prepress workflows, few have implemented more sophisticated workflows. Each linkage requires development time and that costs. 

Accura managing director Trevor Cocks explains that the Accura MIS has a full integration from end to end, but that this does not depend on JDF. Its focus is on the SME of the industry where budgets are tight. “We pitch the MIS at the right level,” he says. “We want to be within the reach of all printers.”

This does not mean the technology lags. Acura has its own fully integrated online ordering system. This is now mobile ready and can be used by printers to add products to their online store without knowledge of HTML let alone JDF. The integration between the MIS and the CRM database means that users need only make one set of changes to prices in the CRM for these to be applied to the MIS so that the invoice tallies precisely with the price agreed in 

There are links to Xero as the preferred accounting application. A full API based integration is underway says Cocks. “We are able to export XML which goes to Enfocus Switch to move into preflighting and further workflows,” he says.

Switch is the practical way that developers are using to connect MIS to the wider workflow world. As each new provider signs up, the value of Switch increases. 

PrintIQ, the leading home grown MIS following EFI’s acquisition of Prism, is another that uses Switch. The company was once considered an entry level provider says director Mick Rowan, “That has changed. We are converting tenders at a phenomenal rate, delivering to all parts of the market.”

There are eight core modules he explains with a further 15 to cope with the requirements of different market sectors. There is an integration with XMPie for its uStore web to print and variable data, and with Chili for online editing. Rowan, however, says that PrintIQ has its own implementations of web to print. Each point of outside integration means compromises Rowan explains.

The MIS will manage the flow of a job from submission via a web portal, through the approval process and into the full workflow, splitting off the job ticket from the job file itself. The first time an operator need touch the job is moving a plate from the processor to the press, or in loading paper to a digital press.

The company scores in another area: it reckons to be able to timetable an implementation so that each will take 12 weeks, even though each can be very different. Rowan explains that the customer will need to be as enthusiastic “but we can time table  this installation with milestones at each point that we both need to meet.

“We are replacing older legacy systems, though some people can be scared to change.”

This is potentially a problem for printers that have built their own in-house MIS based on older technologies, supported by an extensive customer database and CRM system. However, as those that used Windows XP have found, they can be at the mercy of the likes of Microsoft and decisions to end support for the operating system. Cloud systems and perhaps tools that are paid for by usage are the more modern way to progress.  It also enables the MIS to scale more easily. PrintIQ has sold to one man band operations at one end and to companies with 14 production sites and 54 sales offices at the other, says Rowan.

Tharstern will not claim to install a system as rapidly. This is because, says Tresta Keegan, the company is meeting more sophisticated needs. “Printers are looking for suppliers that they can work in partnership with, that they can rely on.

“As a consequence we are building systems together, creating fully integrated systems that connect to workflows, that work with digital print and commerce sites. It is not a one size fits all approach, but something that can take 18 months to implement fully. We can only succeed by adding real value.”

With the sharp increase in lower value jobs, printers have to eliminate touch points because touch points introduce costs. No printer is willing to add staff to cope with this rise, so automation is essential. “Unfortunately many printers continue to behave as they did ten years ago,” says Benkovich. “This is not a problem if the job is worth $6000, but if the job is only worth $200, automation is essential.”

Analytics is also necessary. Benkovich recalls one customer that was on the point of throwing out its digital press which was only in use for five hours a day and keeping its two B1 machines. But drilling down into the date showed that the digital press alone generated 70 per cent of the profits for the business because the litho presses, under margin pressure, were not making money. Five years later the litho presses have gone and the business has five digital machines instead.

It makes sense to measure the performance of different machines, different shifts and different crews to reveal which styles of work best suit the P&L. “The company can then make proper forecasts rather than relying on gut instinct,” he says. “The company can see which customers are delivering a profit, which are the ones worth concentrating on. We are seeing a real change towards this way of working.” 

That applies across the board. There is no reason why smaller printers cannot apply the same lessons. The data exists within the MIS, and more visual interfaces and dashboards are able to deliver this data to the required department.

At PrintIQ Rowan explains that what each operator sees can be tailored to what is relevant to that department, enabling users to focus on what they need to know. That can be very different in a carton printer to a direct mail house for example. The developer has been willing to spend time with specialists in each sector to understand the different terminology and the specialist knowledge needed. 

That can now be applied to a wider audience. Indeed PrintIQ is planning to build its presence in the US, interviewing for its first employees. It has more than 100 users across Australia and New Zealand and thinks it can export this success in MIS to North America. But fundamentally this is no longer about MIS as it has been for a generation. “We don’t think of ourselves as MIS,” says Rowan. “We prefer to think of ourselves as suppliers of MWS – Management Workflow Systems. There’s definitely a real need for what we do.”

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