Commentary & Analysis
Transforming and Automating Workflows: Cloud Based Workflow Management Systems
In this article, David looks at cloud-based production management systems, a relatively new concept and product category, what they look like and how they compare to the more conventional workflow management offerings.
By David Zwang
Published: August 16, 2013
Throughout this series, I have presented both concepts and solutions that can be used to transform and automate your business and production workflows. We covered MIS/ERP business systems, packaged and customized production management systems, and some of the component architecture that forms the base of a good system infrastructure. In the last article, we looked at some solutions for managing and bridging disparate production systems and devices, which is the key to addressing many, if not most, print provider environments. However, the solutions we have looked at to date have all been server-based on-site solutions, or better described, solutions that sit on hardware located in your premises, inside your firewall.
With the cloud becoming such a key influencing technology in all of our business and personal lives, it wasn’t long before we could expect to see business and production management solutions that reside in the cloud. While there were a lot of early entrants during the internet boom of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, many of those were very narrow in scope and didn’t survive. Some of the survivors included a variety of cloud-based solutions to support portal functions and web to print; but for the most part, their reach is still fairly narrow when considering the scope of an entire plant’s production. Please understand, I don’t want to minimize their importance. They do address an extremely important part of any service provider’s infrastructure: the way in which work enters the plant. We will be covering web-to-print solutions in much greater detail in a future article. However, once you get the work into the plant, then what?
There has been some ‘bridging’ of web-to-print and/or order- entry portals to server based MIS systems and/or production workflows, but only recently have we really seen hosted solutions that are designed to reside in the cloud and integrate with both web-to-print systems as well as your plant production processes. In this article, I will highlight three of these cloud-based MIS solutions that extend beyond just being a web-to-print solution or web portal. There were going to be four, but as a result of the recent departure of HP Hiflex from the market, a system which I described in a past article, that left three.
Before I introduce the solutions, let’s look at the differences between cloud-based multi-tenant solutions and onsite server-side solutions. The multi-tenant concept is what you see used in most of the other cloud-based solutions many of you probably use every day, like Salesforce, Google Mail, etc. In essence, you are sharing the basic software system infrastructure, but your business and client data is firewalled from that of other entities. Many web-to-print and web portal solutions do the same thing, allowing you to offer each of your clients their own secure web interface yet operate on the same system with other clients. There is another reasons some have concerns over cloud solutions, the potential for interruptions in connectivity. However, while the system is not on your premises, the reliability of these connections has improved dramatically as more and more companies rely on cloud based solutions of various types, especially email in their business operations. Additionally, many of these cloud based solutions have implemented local backup and interruption functionality.
There can be significant cost advantages in using cloud-based solutions. There is usually no up-front capital or long-term software or hardware maintenance expense for the user, although some of the solutions do have a one-time setup fee. Otherwise, each of them works on a pay-as-you-go model. Of the three solutions highlighted below, two have a fixed monthly charge for the service, independent of volume, although there can be supplemental costs depending on what services you choose to use. One of the solutions, PixtaFlow, charges per seat, per volume, per feature. So if you have more terminals in the plant, or if you want more features, you pay more. OneFlowCloud, however, charges by transaction, which is a fairly unique and interesting approach. Their transaction fees are volume dependent; as your volume increases, your fees per transaction decrease. As you can see, the cost of using any one of these cloud based solutions could be much less expensive than an installed on-site solution. Each of them may tell you that you can just discontinue their service if you don’t like in the future without any real penalty, although setting up your individual cost and pricing tables is still a big job, regardless of whether you do it on a local MIS server or in the cloud, so there are no easy outs. Most importantly the availability of cloud based MIS solutions put this important functionality within the reach of many small to medium sized print service providers.
However, there are also some downsides to the cloud solutions. This is specifically in respect to how they integrate (or not) with on-site production and other systems. Each of the reviewed system has developed API’s to try to improve that, but in the end you have no control over what is accessible ‘under the hood ‘in these SaaS systems. In the case of many of the on-site server-based systems, in the absence of a needed API, you can usually access the internal database directly if required. There is also a potential for business interruption should the network or cloud-based system itself be interrupted. However, these types of interruptions have been proven to be less of an issue of late. That being said, each of these cloud based solutions have created ways to integrate varying amounts of operational business information both in and out.
As is the case with the on-site server-based MIS solutions, each one of these was initially developed to meet the requirements of a specific client, and then expanded to reach a broader set of audience requirements. With that in mind, you need to use the same caution to ensure fit when shopping for these cloud-based systems as you would the server-based systems. All of the systems support estimating to varying degrees. Some do it using a product catalog like many of the web-to-print solutions, and some of these offer classic activity-based cost accounting as seen in typical MIS systems. All of the systems reviewed also support direct integration with many, if not most of the shipping platforms, like UPS, FedEx, etc. This allows them to include shipping cost in any estimate as well as provide labels and shipping communications directly.
Since all of the cloud-based solutions tend to focus on order entry, at a minimum, the following three solutions are discussed in order of their level of integration into the production processes.
The first one I looked at was Presswise from SmartSoftUSA. Presswise was developed in 2006 for a digital printer in Southern California and has expanded its services over time. SmartSoft currently has about 150 companies using its solution, and is growing at a fairly consistent rate. As is the case with many, but not all, of these cloud services, Presswise tends to focus on printing companies in excess of about $1.5 million in annual revenue. It has input API’s to help integrate with web-to-print solutions, although SmartSoftUSA has already built in support for many of the more widely used systems. Additionally, Presswise includes a utility to support mapping of XML input from client systems to support more seamless order entry. It also has an API to support export of information to company accounting systems. Presswise currently offers no shop floor integration. Its pricing is based on a flat monthly charge, although there are limited feature options offered for a fee if required. Of the three, Presswise has the largest ongoing client base.
PixtaFlow was initially designed for a large format printer in San Mateo, California. The developer is in Marin County, California, where the company is, for the time being, targeting the large format printing community. The developer of the software was a senior engineer in the electronic game industry. The company has been in business for just under ten years. Its first solution was a browser-based secure file transfer solution named PixtaSynapse. The core technology from this solution is now at the core of PixtaFlow. The version I reviewed was a ‘technology preview,’ expected to be released later in the year. PixtaFlow offers most of the same functionality I have previously discussed, although it also brings a Virtual Job Ticket to the shop floor. PixtaFlow has also focused a lot of effort on client plant communication, something that is critical in custom print manufacturing. It has an “email to job ticket” function that ensures that all client correspondence is traceable and highlighted in the ‘to do’ list for action. Scheduling was in the last release, but due to a major change in the core technology, it was taken out for this release. It is expected to be added back in a future release.
OneFlowCloud was developed in the UK, initially for Precision Printing, an old line offset printer that moved to digital in 2006. The development was spurred by the realization that orders were coming in with shorter runs and faster turn times than they had ever seen before. The developer of this cloud-based MIS solution, which has been running for more than five years, had prior experience developing a cloud-based solution outside of the print industry. This solution had the most user-friendly graphical UI of the three solutions highlighted. It has an API for easy integration with electronic order source input, as well as a very simple and quick button-selectable interface if the order is entered by a CSR. While it addresses all of the features previously mentioned, of the three solutions reviewed this one has much deeper integration into the production process. It uses a rule-based automation system at its core. After bringing the order in house, it automatically checks and batches orders, sorts for outsourcing or load balancing, and prioritizes the schedule. The imposed files are sent by the solution to the appropriate DFE, and the schedules are sent to generic tablet displays at each production work area. The operator checks in and out of the job enabling the system to assign costing, and as a result it allows the plant, job status and financial reporting to be monitored through a dashboard. It handles orders with or without barcodes from entry through bin collection, assembly, shipping and invoicing. Rule-based customer communication is also supported.
OneFlowCloud will be entering beta sites in the UK beyond Precision Printing later this year, and expect to enter the US in 2014.
In the next article, we will look at some of the new and updated workflow solutions that will be shown at Print 13 in Chicago.
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!
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