Automation is the Future of Print Workflows

By: Toni McQuilken

In modern print shops today, there are often more complex jobs coming in, with faster turn-arounds and smaller print runs. That’s no surprise to anyone involved in the industry. To combat the increase in workload, along with often a decrease in personnel to do the work, automation has become a key factor for many shops.

Workflow automation is, at its heart, working “smarter” instead of “harder,” although there are quite a few ways to approach it. It can be as simple as a system that processes images as they are uploaded to the servers, to as complex as today’s cutting-edge cloud-based systems that automate the entire process from when the files come in the door until the finished product goes out the other side.

One InfoTrends survey of print shops found that reducing manual labor on files and automating both general business and finishing systems are among the top five workflow initiatives for the next year. Another survey from InfoTrends found that proofing and approvals, job estimating, preflighting, job submissions and billing were the top challenges shops are facing today, and all of those are being addressed with workflow solutions from multiple companies across the industry.

Today, roughly 66 percent of printers do no automation at all, in any part of their workflow. By the end of 2014, only 29 percent of those same shops anticipate continuing to manage all of their workflow manually. Cost reduction is another major point the shops hope to improve, since each manual touch point for a file adds to the cost—and those are savings that printers will be able to pass on to their clients, as well. They also anticipate that they will be able to move jobs through their systems faster, and more accurately and with far fewer errors, all of which is good news.

Moving to the cloud
Cloud solutions, in particular, are changing the way shops think about the print workflow. To be sure, while working in the cloud isn’t new, these types of systems are still in their infancy for printers. In the past, network speeds and the specter of losing connectivity made using a cloud-based solution a risky proposition. Printers couldn’t risk having their systems unavailable. But improvements across the board on both fronts, along with many companies offering local backups to reduce downtime, have made the concept much more attractive.

For one thing, the costs of a cloud system are far less than that of a dedicated hardware solution on-site. The costs to invest in the hardware, and then pay someone to maintain it, along with the costs to run those systems 24/7, make them a major part of a shop’s expenses. Cloud solutions, on the other hand, carry none of those costs—someone else carries the burden of running and maintaining the servers and hardware. However, cloud solutions do come with a different cost: while there are a few different pricing structures out there, most use either a flat monthly fee, or charge by the transaction.

The final potential downside of cloud workflow solutions is integration. While many of the solutions out there offer APIs to connect to the most popular options, there is no guarantee that they will work seamlessly, especially right out of the gate. The odds are good that any shop wanting to move in this direction will need months of trial and error to get everything running smoothly across the board.

A Better Experience
Automated workflows—whether they happen in the cloud or on a local server—doesn’t just benefit the printer. Customers, such as newspapers, will see huge benefits as well. One of the biggest is 24/7 access to the system. Files can be uploaded, managed and even changed by the clients themselves, without needing the printer to intervene, right up until the job goes to press. And better automation means better tracking—the system will always know where the job is, what the status is, who has looked at it, and when it is scheduled to go to press. Rather than having to rely on a contact within the shop to keep everyone up-to-date, which can lead to errors or confusion, customers will be able to log in and access their information directly.

On the back-end, better automation means a better experience with billing and invoicing as well. It’s not a glamorous part of the print process, but by making it more efficient with the end-to-end automation systems, it becomes one less headache.

Finally, automated systems make it far easier for the printer to add new services that customers can quickly take advantage of. If the shop adds a new press with advanced capabilities, or new finishing or binding options, an automated system can seamlessly be updated to bring those new options online and integrated into the workflow quickly.

At the end of the day, automation is coming. Printers are looking for better, more efficient ways to move jobs through their shops, and technology has finally matured enough to make true, seamless automation of the often massive files possible. If your printer isn’t automating your jobs today, the odds are good they will be implementing new systems soon to stay competitive— or you’ll be looking for a new printer in a few years.


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