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Transforming and Automating Workflows: Solutions for disparate systems?

In this article, David looks at how the existing solution offerings can be used in disparate workflow systems both inside the plant and bridging client workflow systems

By David Zwang
Published: July 8, 2013

In the last article, we looked at some of the packaged production workflow systems that have evolved from original plant-centric CTP solutions, as well as those that ship with and drive many of the digital print devices that are sold in today’s market. But in your company, if you are like most of the other service providers out there, you probably have to manage your own legacy production workflow and all of the other workflows that came with purchased equipment. And what about your workflow beyond these production systems to other non-production-specific processes, or your customer workflows? As a refresher, early in the series we looked at the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow Reference Model as an example of what your business infrastructure and processes should look like to support business and process requirements today and in the future. You should continue to reference that to ensure that you maintain a ‘bigger picture’ focus as you plan.

Beyond the packaged workflow systems that are available with your hardware purchases, there are alternatives that offer additional flexibility. Many of these ‘non-aligned’ (to vendor specific equipment) systems offer similar workflow mechanisms like ‘pipeline workflows’ (flexible task connectivity), or API (Application Programming Interface) integration, but are specifically designed to bridge disparate systems and processes into a cohesive solution.

I have selected three examples of bridging applications to highlight, based on my positive experiences with each of them. Each one offers a differing approach and focus. As I have constantly tried to reinforce throughout this series, the term ‘workflow’ can be very misleading. Until you really dig into the offerings, you really can’t see what problems or solutions are addressed, or more importantly, how they can help you transform your unique production workflow.

In my experience, the most flexible of these would be Enfocus Switch. This is an automated, rules based pipeline solution that connects various production, business and communication processes. It is a scalable server-based application that easily integrates with other systems through a number of built in features. Switch has support for inbound and outbound transmission of production files, customer communication, and metadata. It is supplied with built-in tools that connect processes, and coordinate file and job handling and internal and external communications. It supports the use of ‘configurators,’ which are API-driven integrators for an increasing number of 3rd party applications. It also supports the use of hot folders for use when applications and processes don’t have configurators. For more complex needs, it includes scripting support (JavaScript, Visual Basic, and AppleScript) for further workflow customization. Switch also interacts very nicely with the other Enfocus products like PitStop Server to offer even more intelligent task handling and the newly-announced Connect ALL to enhance file submission accuracy and customer communication. There really isn’t anything else like this in the market with this scope and at its affordable price point, and it is highly regarded.

Another set of process bridging applications is available from Hybrid Software. Its approach uses a ‘suite’ of applications that can be interconnected and integrated with your existing systems. As I mentioned in previous articles, MIS integration really isn’t plug and play, so one of the areas Hybrid has focused on is integration with MIS/ERP systems. In addition to MIS integration, Hybrid has also created a middle-ground suite of applications that can supplant many of the functions of an MIS system. It now offers Frontdesk OLM, which can actually acts as a portal for your plant with some order entry functionality; and Fileforce, which addresses job ticketing, file management and time tracking functionality that is found in most MIS systems. All of this and more can be automated using its Pipeline application. Hybrid’s roots are in prepress and packaging, so rounding out its offerings are Proofscope, an online softproofing application, and ProofscopeLive, a very interesting browser-based PDF editor.

A different approach comes from MetaCommunications. MetaCommunications started offering its very flexible Virtual Ticket, a standalone project management application, in the late 1990’s. It created a virtual job ticket that would allow for a replacement of the existing paper-based job tickets and included the added value of automation of many scheduling and management tasks. Since then, MetaCommunications has added Digital Storage Manager, a DAM application; Approval Manager, a soft proofing application; and Job Manager, an estimating and cost accounting application. More recently, the company combined its standalone applications into Workgroups DaVinci, which offers a more complete project management and automation solution. It has been designed to allow flexibility in workflow design and integration.

While each of these systems offer the tools to build a workflow, these same tools can also help you build efficient or inefficient solutions. In the end, you still need to understand what you want to accomplish and find the most effective way to achieve it. These systems are only tools that can be used to ‘help’ you transform and automate your production workflows. Ultimately, you need an effective plan to start with, or you wind up automating an inefficient workflow and gaining very little. Ideally, working with experienced ‘change agents’ and taking cues from best of breed operations is the best way to proceed.

So what are you to do? You can continue to have multiple detached workflow silos, that cost more to operate and make it more difficult to train staff to manage, or you can implement alternatives that allow you to build custom bridges among all of your disparate workflows. As we discussed in the last article, many of the existing packaged workflows supplied with your equipment offer ways to bridge through the use of hot folders, but that is a fairly limited option. Some bridging can occur with the integration of compatible MIS/ERP systems, especially those with strong planning and scheduling functions, although getting this to work in a disparate process environment is no small challenge, if even possible.

However, after many years of addressing process efficiency in plants around the globe, I believe that in the absence of a single all-encompassing workflow solution that can automate all of your disparate equipment and processes, the answer is that you need to find the best way to bridge the individual best-of-breed pieces into a more flexible and complete best-of-breed solution that specifically addresses your environment.

In the next article, we will look at some of the other workflow components that can add efficiency and added value to your production workflows, and talk about how you can begin to look at connecting them all together.

Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know!

David Zwang travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. He specializes in production optimization, strategic business planning, market analysis, and related services to companies in the vertical media communications market. Clients have included printers, manufacturers, retailers, publishers, premedia and US Government agencies. He can be reached at david@zwang.com.


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