Perpetual change, commercial chaos and shifts in the media landscape are part of the daily reality for successful printing companies. But the digital technologies that have provoked the mayhem, continue unrelentingly to drive change, writes Laurel Brunner
Over the last few years prepress has become a series of distributed, interlinked software applications, rather than a collection of discrete digitised tasks. The scope of digital systems for print constantly expands mostly via the internet and digital printing innovations. We are seeing amazing functionality in prepress, web to print, workflow technologies and of course MIS.
Actually MIS isn’t really the best of acronyms. It belongs to a time with management information systems were about job estimates and making sure that the address in the customer database was the same as the one for the job in production. These days MIS technologies provide vital business information that is important not only to management. Everyone in a printing company has an interest in knowing, or at least being aware, of who clients are, the type of work they generally do and perhaps even the overhead of supporting the client and producing their jobs. MIS helps to manage supply chains effectively, using technology to help operators get the most out of their efforts and to save them time. Pretty much anything can be called an MIS, from accounting systems to personnel records, as long as it provides the data the business needs.
There are numerous MIS solutions designed specifically for graphic arts applications. Companies such as Optimus, Shuttleworth, Quote & Print, DIMS and HiFlex, now owned by HP, have all developed dedicated systems for print related applications. These include web services either through their own technologies or through partnerships, of which there are many in our industry. EFI, the company with the highest number of MIS technologies installed worldwide, and an international partnership supremo, has achieved its position of dominance through acquisitions and continued development of MIS for all levels.
EFI’s business automation and workflow tools range from the entry level PrintSmith technology through to PACE Print and the Monarch Enterprise software, which starts at around A$200,000 for a fifty user system. The EFI Digital Storefront web to print system can be configured for any level of system.
These technologies along with those of EFI’s competitors provide the foundation for integrated data processing. The reports coming out of an MIS and related automation tools can help business owners to plan their growth strategies and put into place the resources necessary to achieve them.
MIS technologies support general administration and customer service functions. They include tools for defining and specifying jobs. They can assist with forward planning, ensuring that whatever is required to deliver the job, such as substrates and spot colour inks, is available when and where required. An MIS can also control system access, compare actual costs with estimated costs, measure and report operator and equipment performance over time, as well as report KPIs (key performance indicators) by department or machine.
The digitalisation of the printing industry means that process automation will keep extending into new areas of a business. Print business owners should be aware of their automation options and invest in tools that provide relevant and accurate business data. Of course the temptation to automate just for the sake of it should be strenuously resisted. Success in any enterprise is all about balance, and about keeping as close to the coalface of the business as possible.
MIS Driving Print?
In the graphic arts MIS technology has automated generic information management such as customer record management, and sector specific needs: job estimates, job ticketing and management, invoicing and so on. The almost constant development of internet technologies provides tools for robust and secure distributed data management.
Technologies such as XML (eXtensible Meta Language) are helping to push process automation into all areas of media production. Tasks that used to be considered dedicated prepress functions are moving upstream to a user’s desktop. Tools such as print-to-PDF create a digital master of a print file, and the print button in Apple’s iPhoto application could as well send output to a digital press as to a desktop printer. Prepress is no longer the exclusive preserve of the professional.
And process automation is also reaching downstream out of prepress to the press with tools such as Alwan’s Ink Optimisation software. Alwan has a suite of tools to make CYMK reproduction more accurate and cost effective. Its Ink Optimisation utility essentially applies an optimised level of GCR to colour data in order to reduce the amount of CMY inks used. It provides feedback to the production system, which can also be accessed by the MIS.
In between these extremes are thousands of tools, utilities and enhancements for prepress or printing professionals. The industry benefits from an army of keen developers, most of whom work to provide further integration. The competition has brought down the cost of print and given media buyers much greater flexibility in how they create, produce and use media.
But it has also created a much more complex market, one where competitive advantage can be hard to come by. Printers have a couple of choices: to expand their businesses via the internet and digital processes, or to focus on specialised services such as wide format printing or document production. The security of operating in a specialised niche needs to be balanced with the risk of gradual obsolescence as new technologies overtake older processes.
The Expanding Web
The internet has helped to fuel this explosion of tools for print media production. It has also created a new highly competitive commercial and technological environment for media. The web should not be viewed as a separate part of a printing business however, because it is a means of extending digital workflows.
Savvy exploitation of web-based prepress and business related technologies can save a company time and money. It can also provide a means of extending and enhancing customer services and strengthening loyalty. Web systems such as EFI’s Digital StoreFront for web to print and e-commerce, provide all manner of web to print options, from simply soliciting for new business, through to cloud based production systems paid for as a monthly service.
Today printers can exploit web technologies and the cloud without making a heavy investment into IT infrastructures or programming expertise. They can work with developers to take advantage of the internet, cutting turnaround times and costs alike. Most important of all they have the flexibility to offer the services their customers need, from data hosting to wide format printing.
Distributed production and web based prepress models create a market for new tools and applications. For instance Screen’s Equios Online is a remote desktop system for linking a customer’s desktop with a printer’s prepress production. Such specialised tools are spreading beyond prepress and print production applications. Technology developments are now reaching beyond the core of web-based digital production applications into business management.
The ability of developers to migrate their tools across applications is in no small part down to data formats and specifications. JDF/JMF (Job Definition Format/Job Messaging Format), XML and XMP (Extensible Metadata Platform) for instance, make sure that different digital tools can cooperate in workflows within and beyond prepress. They make it possible for systems to operate at very high speeds, processing lots of small jobs profitably.
A printer with a fully automated MIS and web to print system can process thousands of jobs daily with average job values of less than A$5 and still be making money. It is all about process efficiency and clever exploitation of the internet and prepress production technologies. Process management requires understanding of how the business operates with accurate performance data and reporting starting with MIS, but adding much more.
Online data management
Many MIS developers are extending their systems to include online data management. For instance Optimus is working on a tool in its Dash system to allow a job’s set-up to be modified, without changing the quote. There are also tools for quality management and to make sure that production is consistent with industry standards such as ISO 12647-2 (process control for sheet-fed offset printing), or ISO 14001 (environmental management). Optimus has also developed its own cloud solution to develop a fully integrated chain of business information that includes data from web to print ordering systems, prepress and print production and administration.
Colour is still the trickiest part of prepress workflow management and is the next logical area of development for MIS technology.
The printing industry and its customers benefit from the flexibility digital technologies provide, even though it has been disruptive. It has eroded traditional boundaries between business sectors and in some applications, such as short run colour, decimated margins. But this creates opportunity as well and the combined strengths of a healthy graphic arts developer community, internet developments and imagination provide the print industry with a new platform. The digital environment is one of opportunities as well as threats. For printing companies willing to embrace new ideas and tools, now is a great time to take a leap out of the traditional box.
Technology migrations: blurring boundaries
There is also a blurring of boundaries between MIS and digital workflow solutions. For instance Enfocus, now a subsidiary of Esko, is one of the best known names in the workflow business. Enfocus is a perfect example of what is happening, having migrated from simple preflight file checking software with Instant PDF, to far more comprehensive technology suites. Pitstop Server 11 for example is an advanced PDF editing and automation system, and Switch 11 is not a workflow system at all. This technology is a set of tools that complements other systems and provides automation in a heterogenous environment. The software suite includes Smart Preflight, which is part of Enfocus’ Pitstop Server 11 system. This tool, a first in the industry, makes it possible to preflight check files automatically but using different variables, so files can be checked for different target outputs such as a digital platesetter for producing offset plates or direct to press.
Variable preflight can operate in more complex production environments working with a range of file formats for a range of target outputs. This technology can also support users working beyond the production department, checking their files so that print readiness can be assured. Direct links to other software such as Microsoft Word mean that even simple word processing files can be checked for compliance with preset requirements. At the other extreme, Switch 11 can link to Esko Graphics’ Automation Engine, a mega powerful production management system widely used in the packaging industry.
Ricoh’s InfoPrint Process Director Express is another interesting example of how prepress workflow technologies are migrating to new sectors. This new Ricoh technology was introduced at drupa and marks an important point of transition for Ricoh. Previously the company had worked exclusively with AFP/IPDS for its Infoprint transaction printing systems.
The move to PDF means that these digital engines will now be able to process PDF files, so they can be used for more applications, particularly those that include high quality colour. The technology automates PDF processing, keeps track of documents as they are output, and controls file quality using Enfocus Pitstop.
Rather as AFP/IPDS does, InfoPrint Process Director Express manages PDF jobs coming from different sources within a cohesive environment, providing an alternative to AFP/IPDS which has only rudimentary colour support.
InfoPrint Process Director Express can also make sure that work complies with specified regulations, with full management reporting. So we have a blurring of boundaries between MIS and production systems.