By Carro Ford October 6, 2003 -- In the '90s, companies looked inwardly for process improvement opportunities, and the results included automated document factories and enterprise-wide information management. Now some experts say the next “big thing” is streamlining interaction with customers. “Streamlining cross-company processes is the next great frontier for reducing costs, enhancing quality, and speeding operations. It's where this decade's productivity wars will be fought.” So says noted efficiency expert Michael Hammer in the Harvard Business Review . Linking vendor and customer workflow is a natural for many of the processes associated with commercial digital printing. Companies can realize time-saving convenience, simplify supply chains, and relocate work to those best suited to perform it. No Shortage of Ideas The commercial printing industry is full of examples of companies that are tearing down the walls between internal and external workflow. The Internet is encouraging this trend, and online procurement, design and collaboration, proofing, job status viewing, and inventory management can increase client satisfaction. With so much to be gained, there is no shortage of ideas to help companies leverage the Internet for more integrated, super-efficient processes. A&R Sawyer ( www.arsawyer.com ), a Salem, NH print distributor, has developed ePrint 2020, a Web-based print procurement system for customers. ePrint 2020 provides Internet print management for computer-to-plate production of variable data, digital documentation, mailings, promotional items and commercial printing applications. A front-end web site is customized for the printing needs of each customer, and individual departments or branch offices can do their own ordering and data entry. “This custom e-procurement solution provides one-stop ordering for multiple locations and real-time visibility into production status through a web browser. Data entry errors are eliminated, and faster processing time reduces costs,” explains A&R Sawyer President, Remi Sawyer. Online Makes it Easier for Customers Print shops can make it easier for clients by leveraging the Web's convenience and speed for improved job design, proofing and submission. Both commercial printers and their customers benefit from the seamless ease and reduced cost of moving a document from procurement to design and proofing to production via the Web. Jobs can go from design to print from the client's desktop. Software is available to let users compose, make changes, and track the production of their documents quickly and easily via the Internet. Remote users simply log on to upload data files, proof with live data, and submit a file ready for production. StorageTek ( www.storagetek.com ) puts procurement online. Customers order jobs by browsing through an online catalog on the company intranet. From there, orders are entered into a job tracking system that follows the work through pre-press, printing and bindery. This level of control would be impossible without the conversion of print operations from offset to digital output (Xerox digital solutions, in the case of StorageTek), making it possible to capture and communicate the electronic workflow data. Put the Work Where It Belongs “As service bureaus and commercial printers seek ways to improve service and increase margins, it helps to put document owners closer to their documents, so they can make changes and prepare them for production faster,” said Rene Mueller, CEO of GMC Software Technology (www.gmc.net). GMC offers PrintNet WebProof and Web2Print tools for web-based proofing and print job submission. When customers can perform their own document design, proofing and job submission on line, commercial printers save time and increase margins. Service bureaus are relieved of the burden and cost of maintaining expensive in-house design staff to provide a subjective, time-consuming, low-margin service. Commercial printers and outside customers or remote locations improve productivity when they share and proof documents online. Web-based proofing can eliminate overnight courier charges to send hardcopy proofs, and remove the time delays even overnight delivery service entails. Nothing's Perfect, So Ask Good Questions There are still some flaws in Internet-based, collaborative workflow, especially when it comes to variable applications. Online proofing of variable documents presents challenges not encountered with static output. Many proofing tools are based on PDF formats, which are adequate for short, static documents, but not for the volume or variety of variable data jobs. Some web-enabled design and composition tools limit changes and manipulation of variable data on a page. There may also be problems with receiving and converting documents created by customers working in other environments. There are other questions to consider when evaluating tools for cross-company Web-based workflow. Can jobs be displayed via an Internet browser without requiring certain software at the reviewer's location? Does the software render an online proof in exactly the same way it will be presented by the actual production engine? Does the tool allow job monitoring across all users -- internal and external -- who might work on a document, both? Can built-in email notification alert the appropriate reviewer when the job is ready for release to next level? If these capabilities are in place, busy commercial printers have a good tool to help them better manage client relations and take advantage of Web-based cross-company workflow.