Media Arts and Technology student Wesley Odell contributed to this article.
Estimating systems are at the core of the Management Information Systems (MIS) that run many printing companies. Although there has been a lot of consolidation through mergers and acquisitions in the print software business in the past ten years, there still seems to be a variety of commercial and home-grown estimating systems in play across the printing industry.
The popularity and efficiency of cloud computing has further expanded technology options and user requirements. As companies look to update, upgrade and replace estimating systems, it is important for users and suppliers alike to understand changing business requirements.
RIT School of Media Sciences led a research study designed to help us to better understand what companies like, don’t like and want to get out of their estimating systems. Owners and operators of printing companies are on the prowl for systems that are easy to use, fast, and cost effective.
The Estimating Process
Estimating in the printing industry is a complex process that involves the gathering and entry of job-specific information in a manner that a suggested selling price can be determined based on underlying cost of materials, labor, and equipment usage for a specific printing operation and print project. It is important to note that each printing operation has a unique set of people, processes, and systems that dramatically influence the production cost of a print project, and the cost/price of print may be quite different from one operation to another. Accurate estimating requires a system that is tuned to the specific production platform and operating characteristics of the individual printing firm. It must deliver a cost and a marked-up price that reflects the total cost associated with the print project and the specific profit margin that the printing company would like to achieve. Inefficiences in the estimating process and lack of automation can affect the accuracy, timeliness and reliability of the resulting quote, creating financial havoc and potential customer loss or dissatisfaction along the way.
The results of this study reflect the requirements of print service providers as it relates to estimating systems, and the typical processes involved in the generation of quotes for customer print jobs. Automating the estimating process is critical to printing businesses who wish to have an efficient job flow in place, since the ability to deliver fast, accurate estimates and quotations is central to their ability to efficiently and profitably secure business.
This study uncovered requirements from print service providers that are important to the timely and accurate generation of customer quotations that should be taken into consideration in both the development (by software providers) and selection (by users) of estimating systems. Another benefit of automating the estimating process is to make the creation of estimates available to a wider variety of printing company employees, placing the generation of estimates and quotations closer to the customer. Most print service providers understand that the faster a request for quotation is responded to, the more likely the company is to win the business. And when the estimating system is integrated into the overall production workflow, it eliminates the need to rekey information as the job moves through the plant.
This project included both primary and secondary research. The secondary research identified and reviewed a variety of estimating systems and their associated websites, while primary research consisted of interviews conducted directly with print service providers either in person or via a web survey. Secondary research enabled the research team to populate a list of potential estimating system features that enabled researchers to more explicitly delve into the value of these features as printing companies were interviewed.
Respondents represent various positions in their respective companies; from estimating and operations, to company leadership. Following the survey, all data was collected and the aggregated data was analysis analyzed to generate results.
Why Estimating Systems Are Important
The survey provided valuable insight into the critical importance of the estimating systems to the operational success of a print service provider.
- Firms feel that there is opportunity for improvement in the ease of use, quotation speed, and efficiency of estimating systems to enable faster quotes. They want estimating systems to be more accessible to all company representatives from anywhere – they also want them as easy to use as possible so new and less skilled employees can easily use the system with minimal training.
- There is also a belief that a certain class of estimates (simple jobs without outsourced components or multiple parts) can be conducted in real time and they want to empower individuals such as sales and customer service staff to provide quotations to customers without the need to involve a professional estimator.
Key Research Findings
Print service providers are constantly looking for opportunities to reduce cost and improve operational efficiency. This is just as true for the estimating and customer quotation process as it is for production tasks. Service providers are interested in fast turnaround on customer quotations with the ability to easily handle any iterations with the customer while the job specifications are being finalized. When service providers take too long to process an estimate or iterate a change to an estimate they run the risk of losing the job to a competitor that can respond more quickly; they are extremely interested in estimating and quotation systems that have the shortest possible cycle time.
Estimating systems should also be optimized for two specific types of quotations: standard job estimates, and complex RFQ’s. Standard print job estimates can be further segmented into simple and complex print jobs. For simple print jobs, estimating systems should be streamlined and simplified such that an individual in the printing firm without extensive estimating experience can easily provide a customer with a quotation in a matter of minutes for a simple print job where all cost exposure is contained within the confines of the single estimate (no no outsourced components). Further optimization can be achieved with the capability for a sales or customer service representative to process a “simple print job” estimate in an untethered fashion via a smartphone or tablet. This mobile capability also needs to include the ability to generate a final formatted customer quote or quote letter from the mobile application as an integrated and fast method for simple print quote generation.
In addition, estimating systems should be able to be expanded to accommodate workflow barriers associated with complex print jobs that include multiple components and components acquired externally. Improvements in the request, management, and integration of third-party estimates that are included in the quotation process is key. Efficiencies in the management and integration of each modular job component as part of a multi-component print project needs to be seamlessly orchestrated. In addition, future estimating systems should be able to provide optimization with a systemized RFQ workflow for the automation of information entry through completion of a detailed RFQ proposal.
Estimating systems also need to be more compliant with industry standards including out-of-the-box compliance for workflow standards like JDF (Job Definition Format). These extended workflow features will ensure that once job estimates are completed, they can easily be converted to production work orders in a manner that requires minimal or no rekeying of information for conversion to a work order in a compliant format for direct use in production by other JDF compliant systems.
About the Companies Interviewed
The companies that participated in the study had varied time in the industry, with a median range between 31 and 50 years.
The average revenue for the companies interviewed was distributed as follows:
11% from Pre-Media
56.4% from Print
20.8% from Finishing
12.8% from other sources.
With respect to markets served, 87.5% of respondents were engaged in promotional printing, 64.3% transactional, 50% in publishing, 42.9% in labels and packaging, and 7.1% served other markets.
The User Experience
- 3 days of training was required for more than 75% of those surveyed.
- 64% of those surveyed reported their systems required mid-level skills or experience to produce a quote.
Ease of use:
- Ease of use was found to be the most important feature of an estimating system.
- Real-time quoting is viewed as an important feature as it can help printers secure jobs from competition.
- Print jobs should be put into two categories: standard job estimates and complex RFQs.
- Standard jobs can be given to less experienced staff members to quickly complete, and complex RFQs can be given to an experienced individual.
- Estimating systems can be expanded to better deal with outsourced work and other third-party estimates.
- Estimating systems should easily create and interact with industry standard job formats such as JDF for efficient workflow