By Bill Davison of Presstek November 30, 2005 -- According to Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org), an online global encyclopedia, supply chain is defined as "...a business process that links suppliers, manufacturers, warehousing, logistics, retailers and the end customer in the form of a linear integrated skill and resource pool with the aggregated goal of delivering a product or service. It encompasses all activities and the flow of information both upstream and downstream the chain and is associated with the transformation of a product from raw materials through to a finished product." A Digital Supply Chain is a comprehensive end-to-end solution that addresses the extended network of participants in the delivery of any product or service. Few organizations of a similar size have as complex a supply chain as the small to mid-sized printer. Think about it. From the time a customer expresses a need for a printed product or solution to the time the product is actually delivered, the printer must engage a wide range of internal and external resources, starting from estimating the job. This includes the providers of raw materials, from paper and ink to plates and bindery materials; outsourced services for specialized requirements; the internal prepress, press and postpress operations; and distribution of the final materials either by the printer or using a third party. Add to that the additional complexity of being able to invoice and collect for the job, and to have ready access to all of the information about this and other jobs for both strategic and tactical planning. With all of these dynamics in play, producing and delivering high quality printing, on time and on budget, day after day, week after week, month after month, can be a daunting task indeed. Building an efficient and effective digital supply chain is within reach of printers of any size. Larger printers have been at work for some time on building digital supply chains that remove cycle time, human intervention and probability for error from the process to the greatest possible extent. While these initiatives can deliver big returns, the investments required to implement them have historically been big as well, putting them out of reach of the smaller printer. But as our world becomes increasingly digital, all of that has changed, and the ability to build an efficient and effective digital supply chain is within reach of printers of any size. Presstek is dedicated to bringing efficient and cost-effective products and solutions to small printers to enable them to affordably develop their own digital supply chain. Connecting the Digital Dots Today, there are numerous ways for the small printer to connect the digital dots and build an effective digital supply chain. Here are a few of the components that should be considered. Online Job Submission The simplest approach to implementing a digital supply chain is to enable online submission of print jobs. This ensures that the work starts out as digital, and offers a number of benefits to both the printer and the customer--including anytime/anywhere access, and often including other benefits such as real-time pricing, tracking and reporting; integrated proofing and preflight services; and email notifications to all involved parties to ensure that the job requirements are efficient addressed. Online job submission solutions also frequently generate an electronic job ticket, which is the core of the digital supply chain once the job reaches the shop. Electronic job tickets are the core of the digital supply chain once jobs reach the shop. In addition to providing specifics about the job for production, the job ticket can also contain information that will be helpful in ensuring that the appropriate raw materials are on hand, and that invoicing and shipping are accurate. In the ideal digital supply chain, the job ticket information would be transmitted to a Print MIS solution that is responsible for managing the business side of the process. Automatic Hand-off Once the job is in the shop, priced, preflighted and proofed, with its accompanying electronic job ticket, the next step in the integrated digital supply chain is to automatically hand that job off to a server that can take care of some basic processing steps, including trapping, color management, remapping of spot colors, and RIPping and imposition for the target print output device. Ideally, a single RIP should control this process, whether the file is destined to be printed on a digital toner-based device, a DI press, processed through a CTP solution for printing on an offset press, or even a combination of these technologies. This technology is referred to as ROOM--RIP Once Output Many--and ensures that regardless of where the job is printed, it will be consistent from device to device and run to run. And often, much of the setup information required at the output device can be transmitted digitally, reducing makeready times and the opportunity for error. Linking Finishing Finally, a job isn't finished until it is finished, and linking the bindery into this digital supply chain can be one of the more difficult parts of the process. At a minimum, making the electronic job ticket available on a computer terminal at or near the bindery equipment ensures that the bindery workers have the latest information. The future vision is that bindery equipment will be connected digitally to the rest of the process, through JDF or some other standards-based communication channel, reducing the manual intervention required in the bindery. Linking the bindery into this digital supply chain can be one of the more difficult parts of the process. And working in the real-time data environment envisioned by a totally digital supply chain, invoices can often be shipped with the job, and shipping documents can be automatically created. Better Data Means Better Business While this vision of a digital supply chain may seem a bit futuristic, it is now more achievable and affordable than ever before. While the benefits discussed above can make a dramatic difference in any business, perhaps one of the greatest benefits of the digital supply chain is its ability to collect and present data along the way. By connecting a comprehensive Print MIS solution as the repository for critical business and production data, even the smallest shop can have real-time and historical results available in an actionable fashion that will make both day-to-day operations and planning for the future easier than ever before. Most shops that have implemented a Print MIS will say that it is the most important investment you can make in your business. One of the greatest benefits of the digital supply chain is its ability to collect and present data along the way. Putting the Pieces Together Building a digital supply chain is a goal well worth achieving for even the smallest printing concern. The good news is that--with a clear end-point vision--the pieces can be assembled in a modular fashion, delivering immediate benefits as each element as added, but spreading the investment out over time to optimize available funds. Presstek's experts are available to help you lay out an overall plan, pick a starting point that makes sense for your business, and begin the process. Be sure that you have established appropriate metrics against which you can accurately measure results, including your return on investment. And start taking advantage of the benefits of a digital supply chain to build a better future for your business and a better value proposition for your customers.