Graph Expo Must See ‘ems Panel Provides Sage Advice

Along with many other Graph Expo attendees, I look forward each year to the Must See ‘ems awards. The process is shepherded by PrintCom’s Bill Lamparter, who works with a panel of experts to identify unique products and solutions that visitors to the show should take the time to see. And it is exciting to see what the suppliers to our industry have been up to, and the new and innovative solutions they have on display. There are some terrific winners again this year, and I will be writing about some of them in more detail as part of WhatTheyThink’s show coverage.

There is another part of the Must See ‘ems process that gets less attention, and that is the identification of critical survival technologies. In my opinion, this is even more important than the identification of specific products.

This year, MIS was selected for the third consecutive year as the most critical technology for printers to employ in a changing print market. The panel further defined this as a fully implemented Management Information Systems (MIS) used in daily production and business operations. According to Lamparter, “What we really mean is a branded MIS solution, as opposed to a homegrown one. The reason we have defined it that way is that so many of the systems that people have ginned up at home are in fact nothing more than a spreadsheet, and they are basically used for estimating. All too often, they are horribly out of date.” Lamparter talks about visiting a number of printing operations who claimed to have an MIS, but when he asked if he could speak with the person that developed the production standards, he was told they don’t remember, or that the person isn’t with the company anymore, or that it is done by a part-time person, and the system isn’t up to date anymore.

If that describes your situation, you know who you are …

According to a study Lamparter conducted in 2007, 50% of commercial sheetfed printers have a qualifying MIS system, but only about 30% of those are fully implemented (for modules purchased) with up-to-date estimating and other standards, utilizing shop floor data for costing on a job basis and providing information that print plant or general management uses in making operational decisions and in managing the business. Heat-set web shops do a little better, with 75% having a qualifying MIS; non-heat-set web, including narrow web, fare less well, at about 40%. If you do the math, only 15% of commercial sheetfed businesses are leveraging what is considered to be the most critical technology for printers to employ in a changing print market. And this is not new news! The panel has been telling us this for three years!

A print MIS solution, implemented correctly, is really the heartbeat of the business. Unlike almost any other investment you make, when properly deployed, a print MIS system is used by nearly every employee every single day. And most have management dashboards that allow owners and managers to see what’s happening in the business in real-time, and to make fact-based business decisions just as quickly, instead of waiting weeks or months to correct problems that have only grown larger and drained more profits during that time. If you are in the 85% of commercial sheetfed operations that either hasn’t implemented a print MIS solution, or hasn’t fully and properly implemented it, correcting that situation should be at the very top of your to-do list.

All the players are here at the show, and Graph Expo is a terrific venue to get a hands-on look at all or some of them, to better position yourself to make a decision—or, God forbid, to actually buy a system!

Most of these solutions also integrate with other modules from the same or different vendors; almost all are JDF-compliant or have a plan to get there. For example, Avanti has its own web-to-print storefront, but also integrates with PageFlex Storefront, and the company announced last week that its core product has been JDF certified.

EFI’s Digital StoreFront is the web-to-print solution of choice for its family of MIS systems, including newly acquired PACE. At the show, EFI is showing the newversion of Digital StoreFront, which includes advanced VDP capabilities with integration to XMPie and FusionPro, integrated fulfillment functionality and optimized superwide file handling. EFI is also showing Auto-Count, a shop floor data collection solution that seamlessly integrates with EFI print MIS solutions, providing real-time production intelligence. Auto-Count eliminates overruns and underruns, minimizing waste, improving capacity and increasing profitability. With its acquisition of PACE this summer, EFI streamlined its MIS portfolio, with PrintSmith as the entry level solution, PACE as the mid-range solution and the Monarch suite (including Hagen) at the high end. Both Monarch and PACE are making their debut in the EFI booth. EFI’s Marc Olin points out, “Many PSI and Logic clients have invested in Auto-Count, PrintFlow dynamic scheduling, and Digital StoreFront as part of a complete digital workflow. If they move to one of our other platforms, PACE or Monarch, they just plug into the new systems. When your shop floor data collection, scheduling and web-to-print solutions stay the same, that can help make the transition to a new MIS much easier.”

Prism, which has an installed base of about 500 companies globally, the majority outside the United States, is showing QTMS, which started as a shop floor data collection system, according to Prism’s Filip Buyse. “In the production environment, you have paper coming in and finished product going out,” he says. “Today, most people do not, cannot, or do not know how to track that effectively. If you talk to printers today, they say they know the paper that comes in, they have a good idea what comes of web presses and to some degree off sheetfed presses, but in bindery and cutting, all they know is that about 3% to 10% of the paper disappears. They know they used it, they are just not sure exactly how. We are talking about getting control of all of that.” Buyse explains that QTMS can track materials on web and sheetfed presses, but it can also track bindery equipment, cutters, work in progress and pallets.

Many of these systems are fairly open with good application programming interfaces that allow relatively easy integration with other software, from the same vendor or from other vendors.

And that brings us to the second technology that Lamparter’s panel of experts identified as critical for survival in 2009—developing an IT competency. He says, “Software, networks, and the accompanying computer hardware have permeated print production, mailing and fulfillment, other auxiliary services, variable data printing, database management and new diversified lines of business, making it important for printers to have a core IT capability. While useful in the full implementation of MIS, IT competence is needed to use the data that can be MIS generated.” But it goes even further than that. Lamparter continues, “How do you do all of this and have zero IT competence? You can’t do it.”

Our business has changed dramatically over the past few years. Some companies have changed with it, and stayed ahead of the curve—most of those probably fall in the 15% with fully deployed MIS systems. But many struggle to get their arms around what needs to be done to stay competitive and profitable. The challenge can seem overwhelming.

It really isn’t, though. Walking the Graph Expo show floor highlights the wide array of solutions, suppliers and support that are ready and waiting to help us through this difficult time of economic change, extreme competition, disarray and disruptive technology. These days, most solutions, whether MIS, Web-to-Print, or other workflow elements, are modular and scalable. There are solutions that are within reach of businesses of any size. You can choose to make a dramatic change, or you can pick off a few pieces at a time. But the most important thing is to do something. I hope you are here with us at the show … I hope you are giving serious consideration to the recommendations of Lamparter’s panel of experts. The future of your business depends on it. As Will Rogers once said, "Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there."

A few days ago, I spoke with George Platt, President & CEO of Harty Integrated Solutions, located in New Haven, Connecticut. Platt admits to having a homegrown MIS that needs to be upgraded. He decided, however, to start by implementing a web-to-print solution (Presstek PathWay). He knows he needs to upgrade his MIS, and is very close to a decision. Platt commented that he is probably doing this backwards (although web-to-print is Number Six on the list of Survival Technologies). But listen to this: He had barely gotten his first customer up and running on his new online storefront when he received a call from another customer that represents about 20% of his business, telling him that they were being required by national headquarters to use web-enabled purchasing for print. “No problem,” Platt said. By the next day, he had a demo site up and running for the customer. Not only did he retain the business, but he was given a shot at all of the business card and stationery printing nationally!

The point of this story is that Harty is not standing still. And they are certainly not getting run over.