The automation dilemma

Why are so few Print Service Providers (PSPs) automated?


The print revolution

It is no surprise to anybody in the print industry that print is going through a revolution. On one side we have seen over the past few years that run-lengths in commercial print are decreasing, whilst at the same time digital volumes, especially colour, are increasing (over 10% CAGR for colour1 ). Meanwhile, in the transaction area, where digital printing has been a primary vehicle for decades, the integration with online has become seamless, but decreasing volumes may be driving the search for new revenue streams. And in both environments, the pressure to decrease both turnaround time and cost simultaneously goes without saying. 

But that is only half the story. New trends in the industry are driving business to offer their customers new communication platforms or programs, often across multiple channels, that are more timely and more personalised, such as programmatic print. If we continue to manage print like we have for decades, not only will we not be able to meet the demands for our existing services profitably, we will also not have the opportunity to benefit fully from new trends. 

We could think of two extremes in managing digital workflows: manual and automated. A job shop mentality is typical for a manual workflow. Each job is manually received into the shop, processed step-by-step by and finally delivered. In contrast, in a fully automated (‘lights-out’) workflow, the job is entered into the system (often directly by the customer) and proceeds through the processes without any manual intervention. These are two extremes and virtually every print service provider is somewhere in between.

Why don't we automate more?

It may seem obvious that the more automated a shop is, the more efficiently it will run. Thus, delivering faster turnaround time and lower cost. But, according to InfoTrends, only about 13% of print service providers have fully or mostly automated workflows2.

Why are so few PSPs automated? The number one reason cited is flexibility. But, do you really need to give up flexibility to increase automation? The answer does not need to be so black-and-white. If we take a closer look at workflows, there are many steps in the process and each one can be automated to some degree depending on the types of jobs that need to be processed.

For simplicity, let’s break this into five steps. Each step has it’s own opportunities for automation. Consider which options make the most sense for your workflow.

Operator working with PRISMA workflow solutions

Order management

How are the orders arriving? Can processes be streamlined through the use of an online web portal. Some service providers not only allow customers to send files electronically, but also have interactive web sites that allow customers to create and submit new content via templates. Don’t forget about automated payment systems, especially for international transactions with different currencies. For B2B operations, encrypted secure file transfers and EDI ordering can also be considered.

Checking and preparation of content

Once the data is in house, how is the data prepared for production? If it is a standard order from existing data, the process can be very easy. But, new data must be checked for integrity and accuracy. This starts with standard pre-press functions such as verifying all resources are available (fonts, high-resolution images, etc.) and can include data verification to insure all records have been correctly received and, in the case of negotiable documents, that all financial sums balance before printing. Many of these functions have been available and proven in the industry for years. Taking advantage of this can be a “quick win” to improve automation.

Flexible production capacity

For documents destined for print, the next step is to start the production. For some shops, there could be quite a range of options from toner to inkjet to offset with both sheet-fed and web-fed formats. Once the documents are printed, are they finished inline or offline or offsite? These decisions do not have to be manually made each time. Automated decisions can be made (using low level AI) based on run lengths, turnaround time, paper, end format and other criteria. Jobs can even be split among devices to insure maximum utilization and minimum turnaround time. Every step where you can eliminate a human touch, reduces time and the chance for errors. Look at each touch point and decide whether it is really necessary.

Timely distribution

Once the documents are finished and packed, how quickly can they get into the logistics supply chain? Consider linking your workflow systems into the logistic and transport systems to provide real-time updates and tracking. Not only does this optimize outbound traffic, but you can also provide real-time tracking results to customers. The more efficient this linkage is, the more you can squeeze the turnaround time and offer premium shipping services. Extra services, such as premium shipping, may not require much additional effort on your part, but can generate additional revenue.

Accurate reporting across the supply chain

Once the order is completed and delivered to the customer, the process does not end. In order to know whether things are improving, you need to measure the results. Are the right analytics being captured throughout the process to know whether the automation efforts are paying off? Today, there are a variety of options for dashboarding. Dashboards can make the mountain of collected data understandable and actionable. Armed with this knowledge, you can then make better decisions about which areas could use additional improvements and where you may have an opportunity for further expansion.

Take it step by step

Complete automation may not make sense for your operation. But, optimising what you can could deliver not only efficiencies, but also savings. Freeing up capacity can give you the opportunity to take on new jobs and offer new services to existing customers. In the end, this means improving your business.

Ready for the next step in automation?

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1 InfoTrends Western Europe Print On Demand 2017-2022 Market Forecast
2 European Production Software Investment Outlook, InfoTrends 2018