Posts Tagged ‘Zwang’

  • Workflow takes to the cloud – David L. Zwang

    Software of all sorts is taking to the proverbial cloud, and printing industry software is no different, with print management workflow systems also making the great leap into cyberspace. North American print industry expert, David L. Zwang, reviews some of the top players in this new field and how they compare to the traditional offering.

    Throughout this series, I have presented both concepts and solutions that can be used to transform and automate your business and production workflows. We covered MIS/ERP business systems, packaged and customised production management systems, and some of the component architecture that forms the base of a good system infrastructure.

    In the last article, we looked at some solutions for managing and bridging disparate production systems and devices, which is the key to addressing many, if not most, print provider environments. However, the solutions we have looked at to date have all been server-based on-site solutions, or better described, solutions that sit on hardware located in your premises, inside your firewall.

    With the cloud becoming such a key influencing technology in all of our business and personal lives, it wasn’t long before we could expect to see business and production management solutions that reside in the cloud. While there were a lot of early entrants during the internet boom of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, many of those were very narrow in scope and didn’t survive.

    Some of the survivors included a variety of cloud-based solutions to support portal functions and web to print; but for the most part, their reach is still fairly narrow when considering the scope of an entire plant’s production. Please understand, I don’t want to minimise their importance. They do address an extremely important part of any service provider’s infrastructure: the way in which work enters the plant. We will be covering web-to-print solutions in much greater detail in a future article. However, once you get the work into the plant, then what?

    There has been some ‘bridging’ of web-to-print and/or order- entry portals to server based MIS systems and/or production workflows, but only recently have we really seen hosted solutions that are designed to reside in the cloud and integrate with both web-to-print systems as well as your plant production processes. In this article, I will highlight three of these cloud-based MIS solutions that extend beyond just being a web-to-print solution or web portal. There were going to be four, but as a result of the recent departure of HP Hiflex from the market, a system which I described in a past article, that left three.

    Before I introduce the solutions, let’s look at the differences between cloud-based multi-tenant solutions and onsite server-side solutions. The multi-tenant concept is what you see used in most of the other cloud-based solutions many of you probably use every day, like Salesforce, Google Mail, etc. In essence, you are sharing the basic software system infrastructure, but your business and client data is firewalled from that of other entities.

    Many web-to-print and web portal solutions do the same thing, allowing you to offer each of your clients their own secure web interface yet operate on the same system with other clients. There is another reasons some have concerns over cloud solutions, the potential for interruptions in connectivity. However, while the system is not on your premises, the reliability of these connections has improved dramatically as more and more companies rely on cloud based solutions of various types, especially email in their business operations. Additionally, many of these cloud based solutions have implemented local backup and interruption functionality.

    There can be significant cost advantages in using cloud-based solutions. There is usually no up-front capital or long-term software or hardware maintenance expense for the user, although some of the solutions do have a one-time setup fee. Otherwise, each of them works on a pay-as-you-go model. Of the three solutions highlighted below, two have a fixed monthly charge for the service, independent of volume, although there can be supplemental costs depending on what services you choose to use. One of the solutions, PixtaFlow, charges per seat, per volume, per feature. So if you have more terminals in the plant, or if you want more features, you pay more. OneFlowCloud, however, charges by transaction, which is a fairly unique and interesting approach.

    Their transaction fees are volume dependent; as your volume increases, your fees per transaction decrease. As you can see, the cost of using any one of these cloud based solutions could be much less expensive than an installed on-site solution. Each of them may tell you that you can just discontinue their service if you don’t like in the future without any real penalty, although setting up your individual cost and pricing tables is still a big job, regardless of whether you do it on a local MIS server or in the cloud, so there are no easy outs. Most importantly the availability of cloud based MIS solutions put this important functionality within the reach of many small to medium sized print service providers.

    However, there are also some downsides to the cloud solutions. This is specifically in respect to how they integrate (or not) with on-site production and other systems. Each of the reviewed system has developed API’s to try to improve that, but in the end you have no control over what is accessible ‘under the hood ‘in these SaaS systems.

    In the case of many of the on-site server-based systems, in the absence of a needed API, you can usually access the internal database directly if required. There is also a potential for business interruption should the network or cloud-based system itself be interrupted. However, these types of interruptions have been proven to be less of an issue of late. That being said, each of these cloud based solutions have created ways to integrate varying amounts of operational business information both in and out.

    As is the case with the on-site server-based MIS solutions, each one of these was initially developed to meet the requirements of a specific client, and then expanded to reach a broader set of audience requirements. With that in mind, you need to use the same caution to ensure fit when shopping for these cloud-based systems as you would the server-based systems. All of the systems support estimating to varying degrees.

    Some do it using a product catalog like many of the web-to-print solutions, and some of these offer classic activity-based cost accounting as seen in typical MIS systems. All of the systems reviewed also support direct integration with many, if not most of the shipping platforms, like UPS, FedEx, etc. This allows them to include shipping cost in any estimate as well as provide labels and shipping communications directly.

    Since all of the cloud-based solutions tend to focus on order entry, at a minimum, the following three solutions are discussed in order of their level of integration into the production processes.

    The first one I looked at was Presswise from SmartSoftUSA. Presswise was developed in 2006 for a digital printer in Southern California and has expanded its services over time. SmartSoft currently has about 150 companies using its solution, and is growing at a fairly consistent rate. As is the case with many, but not all, of these cloud services, Presswise tends to focus on printing companies in excess of about $1.5 million in annual revenue.

    It has input API’s to help integrate with web-to-print solutions, although SmartSoftUSA has already built in support for many of the more widely used systems. Additionally, Presswise includes a utility to support mapping of XML input from client systems to support more seamless order entry. It also has an API to support export of information to company accounting systems. Presswise currently offers no shop floor integration. Its pricing is based on a flat monthly charge, although there are limited feature options offered for a fee if required. Of the three, Presswise has the largest ongoing client base.

    PixtaFlow was initially designed for a large format printer in San Mateo, California. The developer is in Marin County, California, where the company is, for the time being, targeting the large format printing community. The developer of the software was a senior engineer in the electronic game industry. The company has been in business for just under ten years. Its first solution was a browser-based secure file transfer solution named PixtaSynapse.

    The core technology from this solution is now at the core of PixtaFlow. The version I reviewed was a ‘technology preview,’ expected to be released later in the year. PixtaFlow offers most of the same functionality I have previously discussed, although it also brings a Virtual Job Ticket to the shop floor. PixtaFlow has also focused a lot of effort on client plant communication, something that is critical in custom print manufacturing. It has an “email to job ticket” function that ensures that all client correspondence is traceable and highlighted in the ‘to do’ list for action. Scheduling was in the last release, but due to a major change in the core technology, it was taken out for this release. It is expected to be added back in a future release.

    OneFlowCloud was developed in the UK, initially for Precision Printing, an old line offset printer that moved to digital in 2006. The development was spurred by the realisation that orders were coming in with shorter runs and faster turn times than they had ever seen before. The developer of this cloud-based MIS solution, which has been running for more than five years, had prior experience developing a cloud-based solution outside of the print industry.

    This solution had the most user-friendly graphical UI of the three solutions highlighted. It has an API for easy integration with electronic order source input, as well as a very simple and quick button-selectable interface if the order is entered by a CSR. While it addresses all of the features previously mentioned, of the three solutions reviewed this one has much deeper integration into the production process.

    It uses a rule-based automation system at its core. After bringing the order in house, it automatically checks and batches orders, sorts for outsourcing or load balancing, and prioritizes the schedule. The imposed files are sent by the solution to the appropriate DFE, and the schedules are sent to generic tablet displays at each production work area.

    The operator checks in and out of the job enabling the system to assign costing, and as a result it allows the plant, job status and financial reporting to be monitored through a dashboard. It handles orders with or without barcodes from entry through bin collection, assembly, shipping and invoicing. Rule-based customer communication is also supported.

    OneFlowCloud will be entering beta sites in the UK beyond Precision Printing later this year, and expect to enter the US in 2014.

    In the next article, we will look at some of the new and updated workflow solutions that will be shown at Print 13 in Chicago.

    Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know!

    To see some informative ways to automate and transform your workflows, download an informative whitepaper on “Automating and Optimizing a Book Production Workflow”

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their operational productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

  • Bridging the workflow gulf – David L. Zwang

    For printers who, like most of the service providers out there, are managing their own legacy production workflow systems in addition to all of the other workflow suites that came with purchased equipment, there are dedicated bridging applications available that can take the pain out of integration. North American industry expert, David L. Zwang, investigates the options.

    In the last article, I looked at some of the packaged production workflow systems that have evolved from original plant-centric CTP solutions, as well as those that ship with and drive many of the digital print devices that are sold in today’s market. But in your company, if you are like most of the other service providers out there, you probably have to manage your own legacy production workflow and all of the other workflows that came with purchased equipment.

    And, what about your workflow beyond these production systems to other non-production-specific processes, or your customer workflows? As a refresher, early in the series I looked at the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow Reference Model as an example of what your business infrastructure and processes should look like to support business and process requirements today and in the future. You should continue to reference that to ensure that you maintain a ‘bigger picture’ focus as you plan.

    Beyond the packaged workflow systems that are available with your hardware purchases, there are alternatives that offer additional flexibility. Many of these ‘non-aligned’ (to vendor specific equipment) systems offer similar workflow mechanisms like ‘pipeline workflows’ (flexible task connectivity), or API (Application Programming Interface) integration, but are specifically designed to bridge disparate systems and processes into a cohesive solution.

    I have selected three examples of bridging applications to highlight, based on my positive experiences with each of them. Each one offers a differing approach and focus. As I have constantly tried to reinforce throughout this series, the term ‘workflow’ can be very misleading. Until you really dig into the offerings, you really can’t see what problems or solutions are addressed, or more importantly, how they can help you transform your unique production workflow.

    In my experience, the most flexible of these would be Enfocus Switch. This is an automated, rules based pipeline solution that connects various production, business and communication processes. It is a scalable server-based application that easily integrates with other systems through a number of built-in features. Switch has support for inbound and outbound transmission of production files, customer communication, and metadata. It is supplied with built-in tools that connect processes, and coordinate file and job handling and internal and external communications. It supports the use of ‘configurators,’ which are API-driven integrators for an increasing number of third party applications.

    It also supports the use of hot folders for use when applications and processes don’t have configurators. For more complex needs, it includes scripting support (JavaScript, Visual Basic, and AppleScript) for further workflow customization.

    Switch also interacts very nicely with the other Enfocus products like PitStop Server to offer even more intelligent task handling and the newly-announced Connect ALL to enhance file submission accuracy and customer communication. There really isn’t anything else like this in the market with this scope and at its affordable price point, and it is highly regarded.

    Another set of process bridging applications is available from Hybrid Software. Its approach uses a ‘suite’ of applications that can be interconnected and integrated with your existing systems. As I mentioned in previous articles, MIS integration really isn’t plug and play, so one of the areas Hybrid has focused on is integration with MIS/ERP systems. In addition to MIS integration, Hybrid has also created a middle-ground suite of applications that can supplant many of the functions of an MIS system.

    It now offers Frontdesk OLM, which can actually acts as a portal for your plant with some order entry functionality; and Fileforce, which addresses job ticketing, file management and time tracking functionality that is found in most MIS systems. All of this and more can be automated using its Pipeline application. Hybrid’s roots are in prepress and packaging, so rounding out its offerings are Proofscope, an online softproofing application, and ProofscopeLive, a very interesting browser-based PDF editor.

    A different approach comes from MetaCommunications. MetaCommunications started offering its very flexible Virtual Ticket, a standalone project management application, in the late 1990s. It created a virtual job ticket that would allow for a replacement of the existing paper-based job tickets and included the added value of automation of many scheduling and management tasks.

    Since then, MetaCommunications has added Digital Storage Manager, a DAM application; Approval Manager, a soft proofing application; and Job Manager, an estimating and cost accounting application. More recently, the company combined its standalone applications into Workgroups DaVinci, which offers a more complete project management and automation solution. It has been designed to allow flexibility in workflow design and integration.

    While each of these systems offer the tools to build a workflow, these same tools can also help you build efficient or inefficient solutions. In the end, you still need to understand what you want to accomplish and find the most effective way to achieve it. These systems are only tools that can be used to ‘help’ you transform and automate your production workflows. Ultimately, you need an effective plan to start with, or you wind up automating an inefficient workflow and gaining very little. Ideally, working with experienced ‘change agents’ and taking cues from best of breed operations is the best way to proceed.

    So what are you to do? You can continue to have multiple detached workflow silos, that cost more to operate and make it more difficult to train staff to manage, or you can implement alternatives that allow you to build custom bridges among all of your disparate workflows.

    As I discussed in the last article, many of the existing packaged workflows supplied with your equipment offer ways to bridge through the use of hot folders, but that is a fairly limited option. Some bridging can occur with the integration of compatible MIS/ERP systems, especially those with strong planning and scheduling functions, although getting this to work in a disparate process environment is no small challenge, if even possible.

    However, after many years of addressing process efficiency in plants around the globe, I believe that in the absence of a single all-encompassing workflow solution that can automate all of your disparate equipment and processes, the answer is that you need to find the best way to bridge the individual best-of-breed pieces into a more flexible and complete best-of-breed solution that specifically addresses your environment.

    In the next article, I will look at some of the other workflow components that can add efficiency and added value to your production workflows, and talk about how you can begin to look at connecting them all together.

    Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know.

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their operational productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

  • Packaged workflow systems wrapped up – David L. Zwang

    North American print expert, David L. Zwang, investigates the packaged workflow systems that are now being offered in the global marketplace, either with hardware products or as standalone solutions, and how they work in the context of a broader plant workflow.

    In the last article, I looked at the evolution of workflow systems from their origins as plant-centric CTP front ends to the device-centric DFEs of today. While software solutions in our industry are always in a state of evolution, many of these workflow software systems are currently going through significant changes to address the many new market requirements.

    In addition to the need to support many new service offerings, these requirements include the need for managing a complete plant workflow of disparate equipment from many vendors, and also include the need for much quicker turnarounds, better bi-directional client communication, remote access, cloud services integration, and tools to address increasing cost pressures.

    In the market today, you will find three general classes of workflow systems: those that started as plant centric CTF/CTP front ends and ‘may’ have been enhanced to support other devices; those that were developed specifically for a print output device (not CTP); and finally, hybrid component systems that can be built from an assortment of best fit, best of breed solutions including packaged systems and can address a wide range of disparate output devices and process requirements.

    Additionally, there are individual solutions that support specific applications that will be examined in future articles.

    In the first class of packaged workflow systems offerings include Agfa :Apogee, DALiM Twist, Esko Automation Engine, Fujifilm XMF, Heidelberg Prinect Prepress, Kodak Prinergy, and Screen Equios. These workflow systems have many things in common. At the core, they all have an Interpreter that processes incoming page description files into pixels for imaging on a device, as well most of the other functions we discussed in the previous DFE article.

    In addition to those functions, most of them offer preflight normalization, varied levels of trapping and imposition, and some offer PDF editing capabilities. Most of them have a modular design that allows for the addition of new workflow components as desired or offered. Early examples would include the addition of the now ubiquitous InSite portal module for Kodak Prinergy which enables a client workflow bridge, and more recently the addition of Heidelberg Prinect Smart Automation to the Heidelberg Prinect Prepress system, adding workflow automation.

    Another area of development for many of these systems has been the addition of functionality that supports disparate output devices. While most of them have been able to process files and then output TIFF files to disparate CTP devices, many are now adding varied support for digital printers from a variety of vendors. This has ben proven to be more of a challenge for them, and the level of support for digital printers from these workflow systems is spotty at best, due to the many differences among printing devices.

    Part of the problem is that there is no standard way to ‘register’ a new device with the system in order to enable newly connected device features. However, most offer the ability to export normalized or processed PDF or rendered files that can be dropped into an incoming hot folder for consumption by the digital press DFE. In a future article, we will explore how you can use this method as a way to harmonize all of your print output for offset and digital presses.

    The second class of system, which is designed specifically for digital printers, adds device-specific or process-specific functionality on top of the functionality offered by the previously discussed systems. Since this class can include many different types of print devices from sheetfed up to high volume continuous feed, there are many potential applications for them, and a wide range of corresponding workflow functions to support them.

    These systems include EFI Fiery Workflow Suite, HP SmartStream, Océ Prisma, Ricoh Total Flow, and Xerox FreeFlow. Since many of these are readying new releases for Print 13, I will cover them in more detail after the event.

    If we look at the types of added functionality these support, it includes varied web-to-print functions, multiple print engines, finishing devices, variable data processing, packaging and label support, and more. In many cases, this class of system has also been designed to work with third-party solutions including products from Esko, GMC, RSA, Solimar, XMPie and others that address specific application process requirements.

    However, reaching the same level of integration when adding a third-party manufacturer’s solutions is not always easy or as fully featured as adding one of their own solutions is likely to be. Connecting application specific solutions within and between the packaged workflow systems and the same manufacturer’s hardware and software allows them to create enhanced task and process communication. However, if a third-party developer offers a similar solution, the use of the third-party solution isn’t always as tightly integrated in to the packaged system. So in some cases there can be some trade-offs, and they need to be evaluated as you face them.

    While there has been a great deal of development in all of these systems in both classes, the most recent efforts have been focused on workflow automation to enable service providers to maximize their equipment utilization, and to reduce costs and turnaround time. Each of these systems has always had a basic level of automation through the use of a configurable print queue, but that only addresses a small segment of the plant workflow process.

    Some of these systems support APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for interconnectivity with other solutions, but this is not necessarily a desirable approach for the mainstream service provider. End users typically need something more visual that doesn’t require programming skills for general task automation. Thus, many workflow developers have started to implement a variety of ‘visual’ plant workflow automation support models, either as a part of the basic packaged system or as a separate add-on module.

    These system automation implementations take different forms. However most of them are primarily focused on automating the workflow around their own tasks, modules and products, and have been focused on the systems I identified as Class I above, although there has been a lot of recent activity in the Class II systems as well.

    Most of the automation solutions in these classes of products offer, or are starting to offer, task connection and automation. In these cases, a specific workflow task can be connected to another task based on predetermined rules to create a desired action. These can be chained together in a variety of configurations to support different process requirements.

    In Kodak Prinergy, one of the earlier workflow automation entrants with its RBA (Rules Based Automation), there is support for automation of almost all of the core objects of the Prinergy application as well as extending to some of their other modules such as InSite. In some of the others, just the broader tasks are connected.

    So as you can see, more complete workflow functionality and automation are starting to become a standard offering in many of these packaged workflow systems, but what about connecting disparate systems, or extending your workflow beyond these systems to other processes, or to your customer? In the next article we will look at the third class of workflow system, the hybrid system and discuss whether this type of solution address these issues.

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their operational productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

  • How to grow with workflow – David L. Zwang

    North American print expert, David Zwang, investigates workflow systems, what they encompass, and what you need to pay attention to as you review them – all of this done with an eye toward building a flexible platform upon which to grow.

    In the last article, we looked at how many of the equipment manufacturers have designed their DFE offerings, and some of the included components. But if DFEs are designed to control a specific device, how do we manage and control the overall workflow that can include many DFEs and the associated devices from disparate manufacturers? And more importantly, how do you do this in a way that allows you to optimize your plant manufacturing capabilities, while ensuring that you have the flexibility to continue to change as future requirements change?

    I guess the first question is; what is a workflow? Back in the mid 1990s when CTP started to proliferate, vendors started to market ‘workflow systems.’ Unfortunately, each one of them had a different view on what a workflow system really was. At that time, out of frustration and curiosity, I decided to create a base model of all of the potential tasks that a CTP workflow could include.

    Subsequently, in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we reviewed and compared most of the workflow systems available at that time against the base model and published the results in the Seybold Report. It was an important step since it provided each of the solution developers a way to begin to focus and measure their products. This model, in many respects the predecessor to the PRIMIR Transformational Workflow model highlighted earlier in the series, is broken into three sections.

     

    • Production Tasks, which include the granular production operations;
    • Production Management Tasks, which comprises the necessary operations to manage and control the Production Tasks; and
    • Business Management Tasks, which include the operations that are needed to bridge the business requirements with the production requirements.

     

    Trying to include many if not most of these tasks in a solution became the goal of many of the manufacturers, and you can see some of this in the DFE and workflow offerings available today.  In many respects, they mimic the earlier CTP workflow systems. However, while this may have made sense when CTP was the core of a prepress plant workflow, today with the addition of many disparate digital print, cross-media, and other output production requirements, there is a need for a new look at how this model or a new model should be applied to product offerings and plant implementations. Ultimately the workflow needs to be the hub, not the device.

    As I alluded to in the last article on DFEs, perhaps it has to start with a reevaluation of what a DFE needs to support in the context of the broader workflow with today’s new requirements. If we were to extract the relevant operational tasks from the above model, the DFE could be something simple like this basic RIP.

    But this really isn’t completely adequate to address all of the needs of a DFE. What about inter-process communication, and device-dependent operations like color management, preflight, trapping, imposition, VDP, etc. So perhaps it should look more like this?

    Of course, since a DFE is by its nature a device dependent solution, some of these operations may be unnecessary, and it’s ultimate construction can and should vary based on the specific device requirements. The key here is not to include more than is necessary. Once the operations in the DFE start to expand beyond the device requirement workflow and move into the territory of the plant workflow, you could wind up with operational feature redundancy which can add cost, confusion, create production silos and inconsistencies in output from different devices, etc.

    The specific designation of operations and roles between the DFE and the plant workflow are increasingly the key to successful process automation and greater plant flexibility. It’s not that you can’t create an efficient automated plant workflow with bulked up DFE systems or even some of the tightly controlled device vendor based workflow systems; it just adds an unnecessary level of waste or complexity to the final solution.

    Since a workflow is really about building touch points for a series of operations, we need to look at the primary clients of those operations. There are two separate parallel, but sometimes interconnected, data streams in a production workflow: production data, and production files. There can also be a third if there is variable data involved. To achieve maximum success in building a forward- facing automated workflow, you need to have a solution that will support each of these data streams and provide for the interaction of the results with the other data streams as needed. This requires an open workflow with good inter-application communication capabilities and good, open, applications to process the data streams.

    These ideal workflow and application candidates can come bundled in a comprehensive solution, or can come as separate components that you can select and build to meet your individual plant and process requirements. In the next article we will look at some representative samples of the currently available comprehensive workflow systems and some of their features.

    Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover during the balance of this series, please let us know!

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

  • How to grow with the RIP – David L. Zwang

    North American print expert, David Zwang, looks at the current state of the Digital Front Ends in the market, covering Digital Print DFEs as well as computer-to-plate DFEs, and the beginning of the plant production workflow, all with an eye toward building a flexible platform upon which to grow.

    In the last article, we looked at the basic structure and evolution of the DFE. Since it is functionally the controller for each piece of your print production equipment from proofers all the way up to production inkjet presses, it plays a critical role.

    However, the importance of that role is not just in how it controls the device and manages and prepares the incoming data, it is also critical in how it works with other DFEs in a plant production workflow. 

    Each device is shipped with a DFE from the device manufacturer. In some cases, like the Canon Océ PrismaSync, HP SmartStream, Kodak NexPress and Kodak 700, or the Xerox FreeFlow Print Servers, it is a DFE the manufacturer developed from the ground up and is used exclusively in their device product portfolio. In other cases, like the EFI Fiery Digital Print Server or the CREO Color Server, it is a universal DFE, and is customized to support each disparate manufacturer’s device features and requirements.

    As we discussed, at the heart of every DFE is an interpreter. All of the products listed above, except the HP SmartStream, are built on Adobe technology. The HP SmartStream is built on Global Graphics Harlequin technology, except for the HP Labels and Packaging Print Server which uses Esko FlexRip technology.

    The Harlequin RIP technology has been around since the late 1980’s. For many, it offered a competitive differentiation to the Adobe CPSI technology. Being a smaller company than Adobe, Global Graphics is able to react very quickly; in fact, usually faster than Adobe to changes in PostScript and PDF file format changes, even though Adobe created those file formats and the applications that created the files.

    According to the Global Graphics site, “The Harlequin RIP has processed PostScript files natively since 1988 and PDF files natively since 1997, including rendering of live PDF transparency since 2002.” The Harlequin RIP technology is not only capable of processing the same files as the Adobe technology, but in a recent test performed by RIT, it was found to be currently the fastest RIP technology on the market.

    Adobe OEMs, depending on the specific RIP, either use Adobe CPSI (Configurable PostScript Software Interpreter) only, APPE (Adobe PDF Print Engine) only, or a combination of both. As a refresher, CPSI is the primary software RIP that Adobe has been licensing since the early 1980’s. In fact, one of the first implementations was Scitex VIP (Visionary Interpreter for PostScript).

    This software is licensed in a SDK (Software Development Kit) that is composed of a lot of pieces of functionality that are assembled, integrated and configured differently by each OEM. Over the years, the OEMs have become very creative and have developed many value-added features to each of their implementations.

    Now, when PDF files are processed in a CPSI RIP they are first converted to a PostScript file stream, which can introduce some issues and variability, depending on the structure of the PDF file. In addition to the variability in implementations which can lead to differences in output of the same input file, many of the features found in PDF files are not natively supported. Image transparency is a perfect example of one of those features.

    The chances are, if you have a CPSI based DFE, you have probably already run into some problems with image transparency. Although some of the OEMs have developed significant workarounds to try to address some of those issues with their CPSI implementations.

    In 2006, Adobe introduced APPE to address those issues and more importantly to offer native support for processing PDF files. By using the same basic PDF library technology that is used in the Adobe Creative Suite to process the files, processing reliability increased dramatically. Since that initial introduction, continued APPE development has brought greater adoption, speed and increased feature support, including PDF/VT, which will be discussed later in the series.

    While some of the Adobe OEMs currently use either one of the core technologies or the other, some use a combination of both core processing technologies, as in the Fiery and CREO solutions. In those cases, they use a weighted decision-making system to determine which path the file takes.

    Although APPE is the newer and more ideal processing technology for processing PDF files, there are still cases beyond just PostScript files where CPSI is the preferred path in these systems. These cases include ‘value-added’ features and even some workarounds for a very few PDF transparency and file attribute issues.

    Before there were digital presses, there were CTP devices, and before that imagesetters (filmsetters). CTP devices still exist and probably will for a long time, since they produce plates for non-digital presses including offset, flexo and gravure. While I was previously discussing DFEs for digital print devices, the DFEs that drive CTP devices are very similar and in some cases identical.

    In fact, these were the developmental models for the digital print DFEs that exist today, so you will see many of the same features and even similar user interfaces. However, in the case of a CTP device, it is usually is making plates for many, if not all, of the presses on the floor, depending on the size of the plant.

    As a result, the DFE started to take on a new role as the hub of the plant production workflow for those print technologies. The CTP DFE was developed to support all of the relevant basic required features like file format support, preflight, interpreter, color management, trapping, screening, and device controls.

    When the CTP systems and their digital print offspring started to support digital presses, additional feature support was added to include basic imposition, soft proofing, JDF/JMF, and more recently layer management and VDP (Variable Data Processing), and the list of features keeps growing.

    Solutions like Agfa :Apogee Prepress, Fujifilm XMF, Harlequin (through OEMs), Heidelberg MetaDimension, Kodak Prinergy, and Rampage started to take the new role of CTP production hub more seriously. This expansion into capturing the management of the plant workflow began to present new efficiencies as well as new problems. And while it is nice to have a production management hub, what happens when you start to bring in disparate pieces of equipment from a variety of vendors? Is the feature redundancy of the multiple full featured DFEs a benefit or a does it create problems and workflow silos?

    In the next article we will look at the features, benefits, and issues that are associated with the expanded role of this new class of Workflow DFEs, as well as the entrance of the even newer specifically designed production management software solutions.

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com.

  • Transforming and automating workflows, Pt. 3 – David L. Zwang

    This series of articles by US-based industry commentator, David L. Zwang, focuses on the processes and products that can lead to the transformation of your current workflows and business, to prepare you for the new challenges ahead. This series runs once a month over the course of the year.

    The first article appeared in Print21 on January 2013. Zwang looks at process transformation and automation, and the steps you need to take to be successful. He also looks at some of the current product offerings and how they are being, or could be, used to help you transform your business and strengthen your customer relationships.

    In this article, David continues the discussion of the business infrastructure by looking at some of the packaged MIS and ERP systems, and how they are structured, with an eye toward building a flexible platform with which to grow.

    Transforming and automating workflows, Pt. 3 – It starts with a good business infrastructure

    We see the term ‘workflow’ frequently in articles, product marketing pieces, etc. However, if you ask individual people, even in the same company, ‘what their workflow is,’ you will get different answers. This is important to note, since a workflow is just a series of connected processes. That means that perspective and roles offer a differing view of what constitutes a workflow.

    Each workflow has a specific purpose with specific benefits to your company. The advantage of using the PRIMIR Transformative Workflow model as a reference is that it allows you to see the various workflows broken into a logical hierarchy as well as how they work together within a holistic system. The key here is that they ultimately need to work together in order to give you the maximum flexibility and benefit for growth.

    In the last article, we took a high level look at the overall structure of the MIS (Management Information System) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems as they relate to the PRIMIR model. There is an old saying: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” In todays economy, and when looking at transforming a business, this statement has even more significance.

    While print solution providers rightfully tend to focus on production and the purchase of new and efficient hardware, it is equally important to have a business and information infrastructure that can support your current and future business and production processes. In this article, we look at packaged business management products.

    We will be covering unbundled business solutions and production workflow technologies and products in future articles. That being said, what are the some of the things you need to know about packaged solution options that can support your business infrastructure?

    Packaged Business Management Solutions

    Let’s start by looking at the difference between an ERP system and an MIS system. Outwardly their functionality may look similar, but they are very different in how they operate internally. In the case of an MIS system, the modules usually maintain their own information and it is exchanged directly between the modules as needed.

    An ERP system usually has a centralized database, and the individual module processors are connected to it. So the information is exchanged through the database instead of module to module. Having a centralized database ‘usually’ makes for a more flexible system, but also adds cost to the overall solution. Even in some of the product offerings described below, while the ERP/MIS designation is fairly clear, the implementations may not be as well defined.

    In terms of connectivity with external applications and processes, most of the credible MIS and ERP systems for the print industry include support for JDF/JMF, although you should be aware that not all JDF/JMF support is equal. We will be covering JDF/JMF in more depth in a future article. In addition to JDF/JMF, many also include APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) for varying levels of  external process integration.

    Varying Designs and Functionality

    As I travel around the globe working with companies on transforming, optimizing, and automating processes, I see a wide range of tools and methods being used to manage business processes, ranging from Excel spreadsheets to full-blown ERP systems.

    It’s good to understand that most MIS and ERP packages in the market were initially developed for ‘a’ specific printer’s requirements and then further extended and developed to support the requirements of a wider audience of printers. Many of the core modules we identified in the last article, are available in some form in all of the available systems; however, the needs of a small ‘quick printer’ are not the same as those of a larger commercial printer, or a packaging printer, etc.

    Although you can usually force fit almost any solution into a company, since many systems are tailored and better suited to a certain set of requirements, you need to identify the best fit to suit your needs.

    It would be a huge task to discuss all of the print business management solutions available in the market today, but I wanted to highlight some of the key differences and issues you may need to consider when reviewing solutions. So I have described, at a very high level, a select number of representative solutions.

    Hiflex has been in the market since 1991. In 2011 HP acquired the German MIS solution provider. Hiflex has been instrumental in the development of the JDF/JMF interactivity specification with CIP4, and as a result, they have been recognized with17 awards to date for their efforts.

    Another long time player in this space is Avanti Systems, founded in 1984 with over 400 installs around the globe. They offer their Avanti Print MIS solution, a very mature and robust product.

    By far, EFI has the largest selection of business management solution packages covering a very wide cross section types and requirements for print service providers. They currently offer PrintSmith Vision, designed for copy centers, print for pay, small commercial shops, etc. Their mid range package is the scalable EFI Pace MIS solution, which is more robust and designed for mid-sized commercial print providers.

    The EFI Monarch ERP solution is their flagship solution that is designed for mid to large sized printers and multi-site printers. EFI has primarily grown market share over the years through the acquisition of many of the market solution providers, migrating them into the existing EFI product line. One of their more recent acquisitions is EFI Radius . This ERP solution is designed for the business management of a packaging converter, with modules that are specifically tailored to those requirements.

    Not all ERP solutions operate the same or have the same levels of flexibility for integration with other systems. Some ERP systems use their own database and platform for development, and some use more standardized and widely used platforms. As an example, there are a number of Print ERP systems that have been developed with Microsoft Dynamics.

    Having MS Dynamics as the core development platform brings many built-in advantages, including integration with other MS business applications, multi language support, etc. However there are two different MS Dynamics implementations: NAV and AX. In the case of MS Dynamics NAV, the applications are developed ‘on top’ of NAV and generally targeted at small to mid-sized businesses.

    A good example of an ERP system built on NAV is NovaVision PrintVis. Those developed ‘inside’ MS Dynamics AX are usually designed for larger multi-site enterprises and offer significant flexibility to develop and integrate against. Of course, that flexibility comes with a higher price tag and increased support and resource requirements. A good example of this type of solution would be uxc eclipse DynamicsPrint.

    Rent, don’t buy

    Software as a service (SaaS) isn’t new, but it is one of the fastest growing solution segments in the print MIS space. The advantages of this type of solution over an on-site installed solution include reduced initial investment and reduced ongoing support costs, amongst other advantages. Most of these solutions usually are comprised of a subset of the same MIS/ERP functionalities that have been discussed in this series.

    Many of these offerings were initially developed to support web-to-print workflows in small to mid-sized print shops, so they may not offer the extensive set of modules in a locally installed system. We will cover web-t- print in depth in a future article. One example of this type of solution is a cloud-ported version of the previously mentioned Hiflex.

    Another popular cloud solution is Presswise, a fairly unique and very graphic offering focused on production automation. And finally, SimpleFlow is a solution that has a strong focus on managing information and processes.

    So as you can see, there are many options in determining the best way for you to implement a good business management infrastructure in your business. Just remember that whatever solution you choose does not, and cannot sit in a silo. It needs to be an integral part of the more complete PRIMIR model to get the most benefit and to provide the best infrastructure upon which to build your present and future.

    In the next article in the series, we move to production workflow technology and solutions and look at DFE’s. At one time, a DFE was just the basic RIP controller in front of your digital press, but increasingly these solutions include more production workflow functionalities. Remember, if you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover, please let us know!

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    You can contact David via email at david@zwang.com

  • Keeping up with the times: transforming and automating Workflows – David L. Zwang

    Automation and workflow technologies are becoming increasingly vital for printing industry players competing in a market with tight margins and stiff competition. In a new monthly series of articles by long-time industry consultant, David L. Zwang, the processes and products that can lead to the positive transformation of a print company’s workflows and business are brought into focus with the aim of preparing printers for the new challenges ahead. 

    In this month’s article, Zwang (pictured) lays out the key steps necessary to prepare for a successful transformation. While it is important to look toward the final destination goal, without a map delineating the best path to achieve that goal, there are many more pitfalls along the way and unseen problems in the future.

    Transforming and Automating Workflows:  Preparation is paramount

    The technologically driven changes in communications and market distribution have placed new demands on print and publishing service providers. These demands include cost and turn time pressures, new vertical integration requirements, and a host of new required services. While the state of the market and some of the newly required tools are starting to find some balance, most service providers have not made the necessary internal changes to adapt. Those who have will prosper, and those who have not will continue to struggle.

    As a service business, your company is measured every day by many things. However, ultimately it is measured by your ability to deliver on a set of expectations. At times, that means doing whatever is necessary. As you all know, this can even get a bit ugly at times, but if you deliver on those expectations, and the client doesn’t see what goes on behind the curtain, it all works. However, this approach is a stopgap measure that usually results in slow bleeding and the ultimate weakening of companies that choose to take this path.

    This approach is also not the best way to look at transforming your business. Some companies think that ‘plugging holes’ in workflow by throwing people at it or making a quick hardware or software purchase are good solutions, and even transformational. Of course, this is perceived as the easy way, and if you can afford it, shopping for ‘stuff’ is probably fun as well. However, while these actions may provide some short-term benefit, it isn’t usually the best long-term strategy.  Especially with the direction print and mobile media has been heading, it is time to step back and look at what you have and where you are going. It is time to stop the bleeding and begin to gain the benefits that a truly automated workflow can bring.

    So what are the steps necessary to begin the process of business transformation? While we will look at individual process tasks, requirements, some solutions and success stories throughout this series, there are a few key questions that need to be answered before you can begin a successful transformation process.

    Where are you now?

    This first step is critical, since your goal for the transformation process will be to develop a roadmap of where you need to go and how to get there, and you must start from your current position. It is very important to fully understand where you are and what tools and skills you have to work with before you proceed.

    You must start with a process map. Look at the all of the tasks from your customer-facing processes to order entry through delivery and billing. You should also extend this analysis even further to business development. Usually the best approach is to start by creating two workflow maps. One, map shows production flow and the other map shows the business transaction flow. In an ideal world, there are many intersections between the two, but it is usually easier to draw them separately and then look at where they currently intersect. The following is an example of a very basic flow that shows both production and business transaction. While this diagram is rather simple, each of the task boxes in the diagram can actually have a workflow of its own, which would also need to be detailed. That being said,  it is always good to start simply and then expand on the detail. And don’t forget that throughout the entire process, “the devil is in the details.”.

    What do you want to be when you grow up?

    The next step is to think about where your business is today, and where you would like it to be over the next 5 to 10 years. While it is always good to build new service offerings to support your existing client base, new services and new markets can also offer many great opportunities to acquire new customers as well as to gain more “share of wallet” from existing customers. And some of these new revenue streams can be built off of the strengths of your existing business team. Most businesses think it’s a luxury to spend the time looking ahead, while in fact it’s really a critical step in the ultimate survival and long-term growth of a business. Taking the time to go through this investigative step can provide real benefits in the needed transformation process and in growing your business. The other reason this step is important is that it can have both short- and long-term effects on your ultimate workflow designs and purchasing decisions. It can also earn you some short-term benefits that only require changes in process where you find inefficiencies, and these can often add up to a big impact on your bottom line. Keep in mind that workflow in many businesses evolved over time in a random sort of way. A problem arose, and a change in process was put in place to address that problem.  Over time, this can result in unnecessarily complicated processes and procedures that have a negative impact on both your business and the perception of customers.

    Completion of the first two steps allows you to begin to create a plan of attack.

    What are the missing pieces?

    Once you have addressed the first two questions, you are in a position to identify the missing pieces required to get you to your end-point vision and look at possible solutions. These pieces can include skill sets, infrastructure requirements, software and hardware tools, processes, etc. This step should not be rushed. Too often companies are convinced by vendors that they have the ultimate solution that will address all of the problems now and in the future. However, the reality is that any solution can be force fit to make it workable, but this approach will likely not offer the longer-term flexibility you need in any future process or business changes; they are simply more stopgap measures piled on top of those that might already be in place. Taking the time to investigate, and discussing your thoughts with internal staff, business partners, clients, and outside consulting resources will help you make the right decisions. When looking at solutions, it is also very important to look closely at the company who is selling them. Are they financially stable? Do they have a growth plan of their own, and does it track your needs? Do they have a history of delivering innovative solutions, keeping them up to date and well supported? Are they someone who you can trust to be there and work with you for the long haul, or are they in it for short-term gain?  We will get into this much deeper in future articles, when we start to look at how you can begin to evaluate your choices in each area.

    How can you get from here to there, and still maintain flexibility for the unexpected?

    First of all, it is important to realize that you don’t need to attack the whole plan at one time. That’s why creating future workflow maps similar to the current maps previously discussed are also critical. The process of creating these future workflow maps helps you identify the benefits, visualize the tasks ahead, gauge your progress, and identify the best pieces to attack and in which order. During your investigations, you will undoubtedly find some “low hanging fruit,” things that can be addressed quickly, easily, and with minimal expense. They should be identified and evaluated for immediate action. Even if these do not find their way into the final plan, they are likely to offer some significant short-term gain, or just help show the staff that you are serious about change. In any transformation, the technology and processes are usually fairly easy to implement; getting the staff on board and working with you is always the tougher part. So being sensitive to this, and establishing a top down directive from the beginning, is another key to a successful transformation.

    In the next article in the series, we will look at business and production infrastructures, and some of the products and services that can be used to develop a forward thinking infrastructure. If you have any topics you think are important and would like us to cover, please let us know!

    David Zwang, travels around the globe helping companies increase their productivity, margins and market reach. With over 40 years of industry experience, David specializes in process analysis and strategic development for firms in the fields of publishing, design, premedia, and printing.

    Please contact him at david@zwang.com