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Transforming and Automating Workflows: Web to Print or getting work into the plant

David looks at how you get the work from your customer into your plant. What does web to print mean to you; and is it the answer to getting work into your plant, or are there multiple answers?

By David Zwang
Published: November 15, 2013

In my last article, we looked at Cross Media Campaign Production solutions that help drive print production. While it created a lot of discussion, for the most part it was not about the value of the solutions. The general sense of the comments were about the confusion in the categorization of the type of solutions discussed. Were we speaking about Marketing Campaign solutions or Cross Media Campaign Production solutions? Of course, at some level it is a semantic issue since the end result was to reach an audience with a message across different channels. However, this is not the only time we have found ourselves in this similar position with the confusion of a solution defined by a marketing term that can have different meanings to different vendors and print service providers.

In the mid 1990’s the term Workflow was initially used by CTP solution vendors and then became widely used in many if not most vendor promotions for a wide range of products and solutions. So at that point we not only had confusion between the individual CTP solution offerings, but also other offerings like the early web to print offerings. So when you say workflow or more specifically web-to-print workflow, what are you really speaking about?

Some of the earliest entries into the web-to-print marketing category were ‘constrained design’ template-based solutions that offered a print service provider a way to streamline the ordering of personalized business cards. These solutions grew from offering a variety of business cards to offering larger catalogs of products, which could include brochures, mailers, etc. Vistaprint was and still is the poster child for, and one of the larger successes in, this space. So is a constrained design solution, or a catalog of customized product offerings web to print? What if your company has a website where a customer can upload a job for production; is that web to print, or is it just a portal? I have asked this question of many different companies around the world during my consultative travels, and I get many different answers.

Actually, the more important question should be: is your incoming work based on a catalog of customizable constrained design product? Or perhaps we can take it a bit further; if some of your work falls into that category, does all of your work? And if not, what do you do with the balance? In an era where digital print technology has removed or automated many of the ‘prepress’ steps in the process, for many, the bottleneck has moved from the prepress area to the order entry process. Of course, this bottleneck is exacerbated by the increased volume of short run jobs. For many of these jobs, not only can the entry process can take more time than the actual printing, it can also account for a larger part of the project expense. So what can you do to address this increasingly significant problem?

There probably isn’t a one-box solution that can satisfy all of your requirements. However, there are still many ways to solve this problem. The more successful companies have multiple order entry points to address the specific needs of their work and customer base. These can include a constrained design application (or even multiples) for creating customized products, a catalog application that manages customer product fulfillment, an FTP drop point, a customer-specific integrated XML order feed process, and many more. While there are many available options, this can be a blessing or a curse. As we have previously discussed, having disparate solutions can lead to production silos and actually increase effort and cost. The key to successfully implementing a workflow with disparate solutions, whether they are for order entry or feeding a production plant, is to include a normalization step as far upstream as possible.

This normalization should be combined with a data segregation path to separate the production files from the order entry data. Capturing the order entry data is a critical step if you are integrating with an MIS/ERP system, since you want to capture this metadata to automate the initiation of a job order. However, it is equally as important in the absence of an MIS/ERP system to notify a CSR when a job has made it into the plant. Interestingly, in many cases the production files can be processed straight through to the press without any intervention. Of course this is dependent on the type of work you do in your plant, but rules based workflow systems are increasingly able handle a wide variety of the pre-print processing of jobs without manual intervention.

Without getting too techie, the real takeaway here is that it is more important to focus on your plant work product, infrastructure, and equipment rather than to get hung up on solution marketing terms. Look at your various order input streams and find or build the best ‘solution(s)’ that support your plant requirements. There are some very good ways to streamline the order entry process to help maximize your equipment utilization, and enhance customer service.

In the next article, we will look at some examples of boxed, homegrown, and hybrid solutions that get jobs into a plant for production.

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!

For more detail on some ways to automate and transform your workflows, download an informative whitepaper, "Automating and Optimizing a Book Production Workflow"

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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