Every printer wants to reduce the number of “touches” in their workflow. I titled this article print production workflow automation because that’s where the focus has been for years - on the production floor. Print production workflow starts at the initial order inquiry and ends with a paid invoice - extending way in front of your production floor and way behind it, into the accounting departments of both you and your customers. A colleague of mine used to refer to the parts of a print shop outside the production floor as the “carpeted area”. The people working in the carpeted area are generally some of your best paid people (sales, estimators, accountants), their input on a job-by-job basis needs to be taken into account in order to truly assess costs and the impacts of automation.

Another colleague of mine, pointed out that a printer they worked for often found themselves automating in one area and unknowingly moving the work to another area of the business. Ironically when you only focus on parts of your workflow, you can make changes to workflows that move labor from less expensive labor areas to more expensive labor areas. I have seen pre-press create labor savings for themselves that generated an extra ten minutes in accounting PER JOB. That is a great example of automation efforts that end up costing money rather than saving it or as my father would often say, “stepping over dollars to pick up pennies."

Now more than ever workflows are being analyzed primarily because we are in a transition from long-run static offset to short-run personalized digital which is making our complex, labor intensive workflows look downright silly when they are asked to process a $200 job due in two hours. Our current reality is defined by more orders, lower order value, shorter turnaround times, more digital, more customer order entry, and less margin to play with to get the job in and out the door.

Let’s think about our print manufacturing business like a subway system. We have the tracks (those are the routes jobs travel through the system). I have seen printers who still have one route they process ALL orders through, meaning every job follows the same path, no matter the value, the turnaround time, the run length. I was sitting with a print sales representative and someone dropped a proof on their desk, she picked it up and I blurted out without hesitating, “you do hard copy proof of business card re-orders?” Yes, they were following one workflow, everything gets the same treatment even when it makes no sense!

The jobs are the passengers on your subway. They have a variety of ways to get on the system (entry points), they could come in a fully automated fashion through an EDI or other data feed from your customer’s systems, they could be ordered via web-to-print, they could come in through a collaboration/proofing site like Kodak’s InSite, and of course they can come in manually via a CSR creating a job in your Print MIS.

The subway analogy summary:

  1. We have tracks (the routes or workflows jobs travel).
  2. We have passengers (the jobs that travel through your business)
  3. We have entry points (the different ways jobs get into your business)
  4. We have “stops” (the touch points staffed by humans that jobs encounter along the way)

If you think through this analogy, the most profitable print businesses are creating routes for jobs based on the needs of that job type. The routes are optimized for automation. Their subway map has both local and express trains and supports many different routes depending on job type. Let’s take the most “automate-able” job type; a static item that you hold in inventory that gets re-ordered via an EDI feed from your customer. This job gets auto-created, auto-entered into your Print MIS, invoicing could also travel the same EDI path back to your customer. The only touchpoint in this job is done by fulfillment and shipping staff. This job skips the following departments (or subway stops) in your company: sales, estimating, CSR, planning, pre-press, proofing, production, and accounting.

On the other extreme, consider the first run of a high-value, highly complex, perfect bound book in high-volume. This job touches every single department in your business and each touch is warranted because the value of the job is congruent with the efforts and presumably you built in these costs in the pricing of the job. The job comes in through a collaboration with the sales team, gets a formal estimate that goes through several iterations, gets assigned a CSR, goes through planning, pre-press, production, finishing, shipping, and accounting.

We have two extremes described above. Most printers have no challenges with either extreme. They have addressed the low hanging fruit of obvious fulfillment jobs and the complex jobs have always been a focus (we are very good at applying labor to big jobs). The challenge really lies in the spectrum of jobs that fall in between these two extremes. Jobs that are more complicated than an exact re-order pulled from a shelf and less complicated than a first run complicated book. The majority of print jobs fall into this spectrum which creates the need for different paths through your business that apply automation where it is suited and leave human touch where it is still necessary.

How do you go about identifying the routes you need to create? This is a tricky question because our first instincts are to break things down by what printing process is involved, “all digital jobs do this”. Or to try to create workflows based on order entry methods “all web-to-print orders follow this route.” We all know these ideas don’t work because neither of these factors is enough information about a job to apply one route to, it requires a more strategic approach.

I will be covering this approach extensively in my upcoming presentation at Dscoop 2016 San Antonio, Friday, April 15, 2016 at 4pm: Your Print Business in the Information Age: Print Software as Infrastructure, Mobile, & Cybersecurity. We will walk you through how to classify your jobs, by assessing the key factors that make jobs more or less “automate-able". This process will help you determine where to apply your automation efforts by creating new routes for certain job types. Some job factors that drive automation are; known characteristics of a job (what do you know about this job before its ordered? artwork variability/quality, order frequency, order value, number of potential people who place the orders, and finally the potential for customer involvement in order entry. When you look at your job flow through the lens of these factors it becomes easy to decide where you should focus your automation efforts.

In a previous article titled Every Print Job Doesn’t Deserve an Estimate, I shared some of these same ideas. We need to look at our current business and make sure our workflows are being adapted to the changing nature of the print industry. The reality is clear; the lifecycle of a printed piece is shrinking to keep up with the “always editable” nature of its digital competitors. This means shorter runs, more personalization, more orders, at lower volumes. These changes warrant changes in the way jobs flow through your business in order to maintain profitability and software is your main tool to drive automation.