Speed, integration and customization will be key as printers diversify
In most companies today, MIS (management information systems) control the hardware and software systems used for business-critical decision making. But did you know that the MIS department originally comprised the entirety of so-called information technology (IT)? From the 1960s to the early 1980s, firms and business schools referred to MIS, not today’s IT. In those early days, enterprise computing’s main role was to help the CEO and CFO with information systems management for a few key tasks – such as order entry, accounting and budgeting. Programmers slowly and painstakingly wrote computer code to carry out these functions, usually on a mainframe. These systems were business-critical, meaning that a company would likely fail if it had to revert to manual methods. In those days, the CFO oversaw MIS, ensuring the developers and administrators delivered what accounting needed.
In the 1980s, with the advent of personal computers that ran spreadsheets, the scope of computing’s responsibilities began to change. Personal spreadsheets took business-critical processes out of the domain of upper management. MIS serviced a wider range of users by deploying external as well as internal software programs. The name of departments changed to reflect this new set of internal customers, becoming information systems (IS). The MIS department became a key vital part of the overall IS department. Now while a lot has changed since then, the underlying principle of MIS has not. The aim has always been to automate labour-intensive tasks to improve efficiency, reduce touchpoints, free up more time for sales initiatives, and in the end, boost profits.
Looking after your print MIS today
According to print MIS experts, if commercial printers treated their MIS like they treat their expensive offset presses and digital printers, then they’d be much more efficient and profitable. Many printers, they say, purchase an MIS, leave it to do its work, but then don’t bother with necessary upgrades or customizations. As a result, their systems don’t evolve with technological advances and with their business as it grows and possibly diversifies.
“The real danger is that shop owners get complacent with their print MIS, are currently happy with what it does, and leave it as is,” said Ross Edwards, business development manager at print MIS specialist Tharstern (Kennesaw, Georgia). Tharstern’s MIS software solutions are currently deployed in over 700 sites and have over 7,000 users worldwide. “Instead, printers should be asking ‘How much more could I use the MIS for, and how could I use it better?’ ” One factor that baffles print MIS vendors is that this complacency isn’t normally due to a lack of money – most upgrades are free as part of annual license charges. Also, MIS vendors are now able to upgrade a system much faster. Previously, an upgrade would close a shop for a few hours. Today, everything can be done remotely and downtime can be as little as 30 minutes. There’s also much more help available for comprehensive staff training.
So what do printers need to consider when implementing a new print MIS? Well, it depends on how much you intend to diversify. “In the past few years,” said Edwards, “the printing industry has seen an increasing number of shops venture into new markets and take on different types of print. Those who initially specialized in one sector are moving into others. Commercial printers are diversifying with wide-format, and large-format offset printers are adding small-format digital. So, it’s more important than ever that they have a versatile print MIS that supports these different disciplines.” To take advantage of the automation opportunities out there, Edwards said that printers should consider choosing software solutions that have an API (a tool that allows developers to interact with the software application) to request information from it, and ask it to carry out actions on its behalf. MIS solutions that have this capability make automation and integration much easier, he added, while providing the agility needed to succeed.
Another trend Edwards sees is the added importance of the customer experience. “Having specific modules such as CRM (customer relations management) to help you target your communications, and Job Tracking to help you deliver real-time order updates, are also keys to success,” he said. “Customers today want to be kept up to date with the progress of their order without having to ‘chase’ the company or be passed from one person to another. Printers must be aware of this dynamic when choosing a new print MIS. In some ways they must predict future issues, then decide on a print MIS that isn’t going to restrict them in the years to come.” (Editor’s note: Toronto’s Messagepoint and Crawford Technologies are two leading Canadian companies in the CRM space, if you’d like to really fine-tune your customer communications).
Here’s a brief look at four successful print MIS leaders, three of them Canadian, and how they’re meeting today’s challenges. There are dozens more out there well worth investigating. In fact, the PIA (Printing Industries of America) has a comprehensive, 340-page report that details providers of 44 different print MIS software programs. (See last paragraph).
One of the most successful print MIS companies in Canada is Toronto-based Avanti, who, in 1984, began by providing an estimating tool to traditional offset printers who struggled to accurately quote jobs and understand their costs. “Our customers have told us that it’s a multi-vendor world out there and what they care about most is working with a company that not only gives them excellent support (including access to upper management), but a true partner who’s willing to help them tackle the integration challenges of the their key applications and equipment,” said Patrick Bolan, Avanti president and CEO. “We really focused our efforts throughout 2018 on integration and automation.”
Avanti recently returned from Print 18 with five Red Hot Technology awards, including one of only nine Vanguard Awards for its BCC software integration. The others were for its closed-loop integration into HP PrintOS Site Flow, Mobile Fulfillment, XMpie StoreFlow and Enfocus Switch. “Avanti continues to be seen as the most open system and most integrated print MIS platform on the market – and that translates into excellent ROI for our customers,” Bolan added. For example, its flagship product, Avanti Slingshot, helps to drive down the business costs, run a print shop with fewer resources, drive additional print volume without adding staff, get paid faster through streamlined billing, and improve customer satisfaction via faster job turnarounds. Boland is optimistic about the future of print MIS.
“I think 2019 will be the year of the ‘micro-order’,” he insisted. “The key to success for print shops will be their ability to handle those short-run digital jobs that come in from their multiple web-to-print portals, often in the hundreds per day. All of that needs to be managed properly and efficiently – on-boarded and ticketed, automatically scheduled, released to the press, finished, shipped and billed – with as few human touches as possible. These 24/7 ‘micro-orders’ can pose a real problem for production planning staffers who are constantly trying to manage capacity, inventory and delivery commitments. These orders also need to be interleafed with longer-run offset jobs,” he added.
According to Bolan, visibility is key because management must have a single view of operations across multiple locations and multiple lines of business. This is only possible, he said, with a robust print MIS system. “Unfortunately, for most print shops, both scheduling and shop-floor data collection are under-utilized, making true visibility of a shop’s costs, job status, capacity and bottlenecks very difficult, if not impossible,” he said. “We see that changing over the next 12 to 18 months as printers begin to realize the importance of business intelligence to their success.”
Bard Business Solutions
For over 23 years, Bard Business Solutions (Toronto) has been developing print MIS Solutions. Owner Stephen Bard has seen a lot of changes since that time and has had to adapt to meet those challenges. He also sees more customization on the horizon. “From 1995 to 1999 we developed our first product, Graphics Manager, designed for offset printers. Then in 2003 we developed our Enterprise Manager for large-format printers, sign companies and advertising agencies. Following that came our Digital Print Manager for smaller printers that didn’t have offset presses. When the printing industry evolved, if a print shop was to survive, it had to produce more than one type of product,” Bard pointed out.
“Offset printers started first to do digital printing and then some made their way into large-format. Large-format printers would soon expand their digital printing to include more specialty services. And a good number of these printers would find niche markets such as backlit signs, textile printing and even media printing (DVDs and Blu-Ray). To keep up with the evolving demands from our customers, we re-worked these three products into their current state. Today, Graphics Manager is designed for offset, large-format and digital. Enterprise Manager is designed for large-format, sign companies, specialty printers and digital. And finally, our Digital Print Manager is still designed for digital printing, but with a small amount of large-format tools included.
Our other three products are also being updated to meet new client demands – Graphics Express for print brokers, Magazine Manager for newspaper and magazine publishers, and Publishing Manager for book publishers and sellers. We’re also developing new interfaces to keep with the latest software that the next generation of users is accustomed to seeing and using on most mobile devices, as well as desktops. I believe the future will also see more customized software being created for the very specific needs of some customers.”
London, Ontario-based Docket Manager consolidates all print shop information into a single, easily manageable system. This includes customer, stock, press, and finishing information, job templates (which provide capabilities for quick and easy quoting), production workflow, invoicing, reporting, intelligent estimating, inventory management and time tracking, marketing and security, as well as online ordering. Owner and president Mark Darling is a former commercial printer, so he knows the market inside out. He too, sees more improvements, more integration, and more customization on the horizon.
“In the past couple of years, we’ve expanded our support team, enhanced our training programs, and implemented a regimented assisted set-up because today, time is still the biggest hurdle in an MIS transition,” he said. “Our MIS and web-to-print has been completely redesigned to keep up with the latest user interface and user experience trends. They’re 100% integrated – which means a seamless flow of information. Adding more customization has allowed our customers to be able to run their shops in their own unique way, and truly make their web-to-print sites their own. We listen intently to our customers’ ideas and feedback while promoting the building of a strong community amongst our users. I see more web-to-print integrations in the future for print MIS systems, with the ability to offer storefronts to clients with as little added work as possible. As well, more and more automation will be needed to decrease human error and increase overall efficiency.”
PressWise by SmartSoft
Also designed by a printer—as an alternative to purchasing standalone modules or custom development—PressWise software by SmartSoft (Westlake Village, California) provides a single, SaaS-based (software as a service-based) system that includes print MIS, print estimating, workflow automation, shipping and mail preparation software tools needed to streamline a print operation and grow business. “The print business continues to evolve, with customer demands for shorter-run jobs and faster turnaround times,” said the company. “This, combined with expectations for online ordering and 24/7 account access, is challenging existing business processes and threatening profit margins. The complexity of typical print workflows, and the growing number of web-to-print solutions, have led many shops to acquire or develop multiple systems – which must then be pieced together and maintained, often resulting in increased costs and stress on a shop’s infrastructure.”
Realizing what’s currently happening in the industry, SmartSoft developed a single, browser-based print-management system that integrates easily with third-party systems and automates entire workflows – including online sales orders, custom walk-ins or orders entered by reps in the field. The technology includes fully integrated print MIS, unlimited customer web-to-print storefronts, print estimating for a variety of platforms, instant barcoded job tickets (on-press or on-demand), end-to-end digital workflow automation and more. There’s no IT maintenance required because everything is online and managed by PressWise.
A valuable PIA Print MIS survey
Finally, Printing Industries of America (PIA) released its 2018 Survey of Management Information Systems earlier this year. This in-depth publication is a great resource for companies considering a print MIS investment. Cost for non-members is $250 (USD) and it’s free for PIA members. The publication is based on an extensive questionnaire completed by MIS providers of no less than 44 different software programs currently available! The 340-page electronic document is bookmarked to allow for easy navigation between sections, and to locate MIS software with very specific features. It covers functions such as accounting, estimating, scheduling, job tickets, inventory, fulfillment, mailing and automation. Technical requirements are listed, as are costs, training and software support. For more information about this timely and helpful survey, please contact Dillon Mooney, a PIA technical consultant and the publication’s co-author, at firstname.lastname@example.org.