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Digital job tickets as the basis for print automation

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Press release from the issuing company

It may be commonplace to claim that it is unimportant where you work, but it is not unimportant to us. We have our roots in a region which, for many, is a holiday paradise. Innsbruck, Austria offers everything we need at the quality we need it. Our central location, where major European traffic corridors and different cultures intersect, offers a fantastic combination of urban life with a calming closeness to nature.

Browsing the Internet presence of Austrian printer Alpina Druck is as refreshing as touring their physical location. There are no empty promises demanding that you "Test our guarantee" and no ramblings about ultramodern machinery, on-time delivery, or high print quality. "After all, the customer should be able to expect these things," explains Alpina's assistant director Mario Moser. "You need more substantial ideas. If you want to offer your customers added value, you must first have all of your own processes under control."

Export ratio of 40%
The close relationship that Alpina has with their local region is certainly not an expression of a provincial approach to business. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. Alpina Druck has an export ratio of 40%, which is actually rather unusual for a medium-sized sheetfed offset printer. Alpina has even been able to continuously expand its export volume over the years. The "good old postcard" has contributed significantly to this success, and often serves as a door-opener to additional orders. Two of the most important export markets are Germany and Switzerland, though the words "Printed by Alpina Druck" can also to be found on postcards as far away as Brazil.

"It's true that postcards remain as much a key product as they have always been, but we are also extremely active in the general commercial print market," Moser says. Elaborate calendars, illustrated books, posters and high-quality advertising materials are other focuses of day to day production. Postcards may appear to be relatively straightforward printed products at first sight, but a sheet-based production process, as Moser points out, demands a critical mass of orders and well-planned logistics. At Alpina Druck, the critical mass is achieved with the multitude of individual orders handled each day, while the supporting logistics also benefit all other types of orders and keeps production running smoothly. That is clearly appreciated by the customers -- 2009 was yet another successful year for the company, despite the economic decline.

Quality offensive
A number of big ideas have laid the foundations for change at Alpina Druck. A few years ago, they began a "quality offensive" - proactively seeking to improve the quality of their printing and work processes. Following the installation of a five-color Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105 with additional aqueous coater, which tends to the most diverse production options including coatings with matte/gloss effects, attention was turned to the departments upstream of the print shop.

Mario Moser, who has been the assistant director at Alpina Druck since the end of 2007, took on the responsibility of process and quality management, a task which included the optimization of all internal and external procedures and the implementation of a quality assurance system.

In connection with PSO implementation, the prepress department was also optimized and restructured. Among other measures, data creation and receipt were standardized with the introduction of PDF/X-ready and the Kodak CtP system was improved accordingly. At the same time, prepress activities were integrated more directly into the production sequence; prepress data is now used for process control on the presses. The workflow management system Prinergy is shortly to be upgraded to version 5.1. By establishing the prerequisites for fully integrated networking, this seems certain to lend an extra boost to the company's productivity.

Fully integrated database
It can be surmised from this comprehensive background, that nothing is left to chance at Alpina Druck. Decisions are not made rashly and organizational and technical changes are pursued systematically and methodically. The first step of the plan was to introduce the HIFLEX cost estimate and digital job ticket modules. "We left ourselves plenty of time for the implementation and worked according to professional project management principles. Most importantly, the employees were deeply involved in the transformation process." As a result the entire workforce was already trained and prepared when the HIFLEX cost estimating functionality went live on January 5th 2009, followed a few weeks later by the digital job tickets.

One particular challenge was the broad product range offered by Alpina, with its endless scope of details. "The job tickets needed to cover all of the content which we had been handling to date," expressed Moser, "but in a more manageable form, as a prerequisite for greater automation and reliability in production." A number of special criteria had to be met by the new digital job tickets at Alpina Druck, among which were the requirement for special query functions alongside the usual job-specific data, as well as a complaints management section and an archive. The latter plays a major role for Alpina Druck, given its very unique job structure. Mario Moser cannot resist a smile when he adds: "We just about exhausted the available data fields in the HIFLEX system."

The decision in favor of the HIFLEX system was a result, firstly, of the flexibility to integrate other databases via an XML/SOAP interface, and secondly the ability to merge this access with a Web-based job ticket.

"It was important for us that the solution would not be a one-way street and that we would be able to implement a bi-directional exchange. The employees can enter feedback on the course of the production, and the information lands in the fully integrated database of the HIFLEX system, rather than just getting lost somewhere in the office." This feedback can take the form of comments on particular aspects of the individual job, for example whether the paper was difficult to print or handle under certain conditions, and all manner of similar information which is able to enhance process reliability for repeat orders. "Consequently, the digital job ticket has become a quality assurance and information management platform," Moser explains.

Enormous savings potential
"From this vantage, the cost estimate module and the digital job tickets cover all the variables and fields we need to ensure reliable production: From initial order processing, via prepress, print and finishing, through to delivery logistics, and then back again to cost accounting and the archive," says Moser. "We are fortunate in that we are able to rely on our many repeat and follow-up orders where our time savings are enormous."

Generally speaking, according to Moser, the savings potential in order processing is significantly greater than in the finishing department. Overall, the savings in terms of data input, physical setup and turnaround times amount to a good 15%. "The decisive point, however, is that the system keeps all the information permanently and reliably up-to-date, for use whenever and however we need," Moser continues. This is considered especially important, as there are almost always production-relevant changes between the issuing of a quotation and the actual realization of a job. "The fact that we can run status queries is a valuable aid for the production scheduling office."

Next step: Networking
Mario Moser and his team are hoping to accomplish the next step later this year: Completely networking the entire print company. "The digital job tickets are a good starting point for further automation, which will be fundamentally based on JDF technology," he remarks. A bi-directional data exchange is already practiced today - albeit without the tools of the JDF and JMF formats.

The first phase began in this year with the networking of the Kodak prepress. One important task for the HIFLEX system will be the communication of the stripping parameters to the imposition software. In this way, certain elements of the imposition process can be shifted out to the production planning office and automated with the aid of the HIFLEX functionalities. Moser has no illusions: There are going to be quite a few organizational changes - not only in duty assignments, but also in connection with the associated competencies and responsibilities.

HIFLEX - A dynamic partner
"Change management" is the magic phrase, says Moser, who knows that employees must be involved directly when such extensive developments are to be implemented in a company. "Our employees are able, and actually encouraged to voice their own ideas and reservations," he says. "It must also be taken into account that the aforementioned changes are to be managed parallel to our daily business." Moser is full of praise for his colleagues, as the introduction of the new system has temporarily placed additional burdens on all shoulders. "We can rely on a highly motivated team and a very positive atmosphere within the company." It is not without pride that he recalls that the size of the Alpina Druck workforce has remained practically identical for four years, discrediting all assumptions that automation is necessarily a job killer. The closely integrated production enables the company to meet the growing demands of the market when it comes to efficiency and quality. This actually safeguards jobs, promotes further organizational development, and helps to ensure optimum satisfaction of the customer's needs.

"HIFLEX enabled the automatic creation and modification of job tickets and provides for fast and accurate order processing," Mario Moser concludes. There is no denying his appreciation for the software developers. "The implementation of our demands has shown that HIFLEX is a dynamic partner, and that is the kind of partner you need in these turbulent times. The time we have spent improving our workflow processes with HIFLEX has actually been very enjoyable."




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