How a good workflow system can save you time and money

In the early 1990s, production automation workflow tools were in their infancy. Today, they’ve become dominant in the printing and graphic arts industries. Just about all workflows either start with, or contain, a basic list of tasks. These include preflighting files to check for printability, trapping, imposition, and a wide range of other options that would deal with rotating pages, ‘translating’ or preparing files in many different formats for output, and so on. Many of them offer a RIP, while others prepare a printable file format that could be digitized by a RIP. One significant upgrade was editing capabilities. We all know that clients change content at the last minute – a typo is found, images are replaced, etc. So many workflows added ways to make last-minute type or image changes. Many of these innovations graduated to proofing, offering either different versions of softproofing (for content or for colour), and outputting to digital print devices for hard proofs. They’ve also added colour management – some to assure colour matches across all print processes, and some to also provide new benefits, such as those delivered from extended gamut printing.

Eliminate manual functions. Today’s sophisticated workflow software performs many functions you may currently be doing manually or not doing at all. This software reduces “touchpoints” and will save money, employee hours, resources and other expenses. One U.S. study estimated that employees not using this software can waste up to 25% of their time with tasks not involved in their area of expertise. Today’s workflow systems are complete end-to-end systems that enable you to manage all aspects of your shop in one solution. Most can be customized, come with ongoing tech support, and you don’t need to invest in costly servers. Of course, there are challenges. Staff may resist change, especially if it involves new technology, and so you must ensure 100% compliance. Next, make sure you implement a program that can be adapted quickly as your business evolves – including integration with your equipment’s current workflow.

Workflow jams and how to avoid them. One of the most concise articles I’ve seen on workflow problems comes from writer Bill Michael, eMarketing Manager (Social and Web Marketing) at Xerox. Below are some of the edited highlights from his online post. With growing pressure to deliver more jobs in less time, efficiency is high on the list in print shops. Anything that slows workflow is bad for business, so it pays to identify problems at the earliest possible stage.

 Sluggish prepress. More time wasted in prepress is less time spent generating revenue. The cause, most often, is inefficient manual decision-making. Automate tasks like file inspection, pre-flighting, error checking, imposition and cropping, and you’ll save valuable time. Also, configure hot folders to optimize the most important job types and reduce touch points wherever possible.

 Dispersed variable data. Customers today are putting more variable data into their print and cross-media campaigns. That’s a great opportunity to prove your value as a printer with the skills of a marketing services provider. But it’s also a chance for bottlenecks to appear if your data management isn’t under control. To avoid conflicting information, your Variable Data Printing processes should be designed, executed and measured using a single solution. With the right print server and production suite, variable jobs can be created in minutes instead of hours or days. To ensure transparency, integrate web-to-print with your variable-data system so jobs can be tracked and reported in one place.

 Low visibility. Nothing kills workflows like blind spots. Know precisely where jobs are in their print journey. Have central dashboards that bring all relevant information together for staff to monitor – but keep customers informed throughout. Clients should get regular job-status notifications sent by email or viewed online. Likewise, automatic job ticketing and error notifications keep your staff informed of any workflow issues as they arise.

 Workflow silos. Set up great workflows for individual processes and you’ll save time at each stage. But put all the pieces together, and there’s a good chance you’ll find gaps at the seams. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and an automated workflow loses strength when it relies on human touches to bind it together. Silos can have deep foundations. You may have traditionally covered all your needs with separate workflows for digital monochrome, colour and offset presses, but take a step back and redundancies start to show. The best-automated job in your shop will stop dead if the finishing process isn’t automated and integrated as well.

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Tony Curcio is the editor of Graphic Arts Magazine.