By Cassandra Balentine
As cloud-based technologies continue to gain acceptance, wide format print service providers (PSPs) are among those that benefit from collaboration, automation, and accessibility offered by hosted software.
The demand for cloud-based workflow tools accelerates as web-based solutions become commonplace in both personal and professional roles. However, there are still adoption challenges to overcome, in particular security and accessibility concerns. Pricing and culture change are additional considerations.
Acceptance and Demand
The demand for cloud-based solutions is notable across many verticals, and print environments are no exception.
Mark Gallucci, manager, technology and marketing, commercial software, Agfa Graphics, notices increased interest for cloud solutions in the past year or so, both from large and multi-site companies seeking the advantages of a shared cloud platform, and from small firms that wish to minimize infrastructure and technical requirements.
“People want to concentrate on printing and spend less time managing technology,” says Eva Rosen, co-founder/chief of marketing and finance, arifiQ Development. Additionally, workflow developments are being implemented rapidly and cloud-based applications allow users to take advantage of updates immediately if they choose.
Julien Walther, product manager, Caldera, points out that a couple of years ago people were afraid of putting their data somewhere they couldn’t touch. “It is the same revolution we had 30 years ago when people starting putting all the data into a computer without hardcopy prints.”
Initial skepticism of the cloud was gradually replaced by acceptance. “The Software as a Service (SaaS) model has been around for many years, but there were few applications in this particular market. I think that confusion over cloud-enabled local applications, SaaS, and infrastructure as a service concepts made it difficult to get by in in the past,” comments Gallucci.
Cloud-based tools are part of everyday life for many, not just print providers. “The days of installing software on a local machine or server is coming to an end or at least nearly every bit of software will have a part of its functionality in the cloud,” says Ellen Faith Hurwitch, VP, director of operations, the Americas, RedTie, Inc.
Dean Derhak, product director, SA International, also notices a shift in attitude toward cloud-based tools. “Initially, cloud-based software was met with skepticism because it was quite novel and wide format print providers were uncertain of what to expect. Once companies began to witness the business benefits afforded by such software solutions—including web-based customer artwork approval and cloud-based licensing—the industry started to embrace it more enthusiastically.”
For most, the cloud is no longer part of the thought process during the software evaluation. “They don’t think in terms of locally installed or cloud-based software. It is just software, if it works, they are not concerned,” comments Hurwitch.
Derhak agrees, noting that customers tend to focus more on the business benefits that these solutions bring to wide format printers, such as the capability to secure new online business, quote on the road, and obtain rapid artwork approval to help enhance production throughput.
Benefits and Experience
Cloud functionality brings many positives. Automation, collaboration, accessibility, and reduced reliance of IT are all benefits of a cloud-based production workflow.
“Cloud-based solutions have intrinsic benefits that make them attractive to print providers of all sizes,” comments Alex Ravari, VP of operations, PrintMatics. Among these are open accessibility and availability on different devices.
Erik Strik, CEO/founder, Aurelon, notes that as a data-driven activity, print is in a prime position to benefit from the use of cloud-based workflow tools. While the sector is starting to invest in its abilities, adoption is largely fragmented.
Additionally, Walther points out that it reduces the need for IT knowledge and the latest version is always running.
Tony Tarpey, COO, PressWise by SmartSoft, says the cloud allows software manufacturers to deploy updates and enhancements organically and with greater efficiency to its customers. “Response times to feature and enhancement requests are shorter as well,” he offers.
Bryan Manwaring, director of product marketing, Onyx Graphics, Inc., shares that the aspects of workflow solutions most quickly migrating to the cloud are those involving customer interactions such as proofing and online ordering.
“Cloud-based artwork approval tools allow PSPs to sharpen their customer approval 50 percent faster than traditional methods,” admits Derhak. Previously, PSPs would need to email artwork over to their customers for approval, which was more troublesome and less likely to get immediate action from print buyers.
Strik adds that both the automated delivery of jobs and feedback on the results optimize the print process by increasing efficiency and reducing errors. “Without the feedback delivered through cloud-based reporting, it is not possible to calculate the costing of an individual job and therefore not possible to make informed business decisions.”
“Cloud solutions minimize the requirements for on-premise servers and IT services, and software and hardware upgrades,” comments Gallucci.
Ravari says for many smaller companies, it is difficult to maintain the expertise and staff needed to run networks and servers properly. In larger companies, the tendency is to employ an entire IT department, which is expensive and a derailment from the company’s main focus.
Hurwitch says the biggest positive is the ability to spend more time doing what is best for the business and less time maintaining software and hardware. “It has lowered the cost of entry to getting software too,” she states.
Strik believes the next challenge is to deepen integration to all aspects of the print workflow, incorporating automation into the process. “This is the stage that will really revolutionize wide format print forever—and for the better.”
Challenges and Concerns
While cloud acceptance has improved, many are still hesitant. This makes company culture one of the biggest challenges for a cloud-based production workflow. Security, storage, and accessibility are additional concerns.
Committing to the cloud is committing to the unknown for most wide format PSPs. Strik says the primary objections can mainly be found on the shop floors. “Staff can often be reluctant to fully embrace new systems, which hinders the effectiveness of more advanced systems,” he explains. “Part of the problem is that although technology has progressed hugely within the last two decades, mindsets invariably have not—or at least print shop owners still need to be convinced of the benefits of cloud-based technology. Moving forward will rely more upon a meeting of minds with a desire for change and the right platform to enable this change.”
Gallucci feels that success depends at least as much upon how the solution is implemented and used, as it does upon the product itself. If employees won’t use the workflow tools, or customers don’t order from the web store, it won’t be a success. It’s important to have a champion and evangelist to drive adoption,” he admits.
PSPs also have a tendency to only incorporate parts of the workflow process to the cloud. “For example, the may entrust the cloud to take care of the procedures for estimation, booking in and production, but often do not fully connect the dots—specifically, linking in their RIPs to the cloud. This means they are losing out on realizing the full productivity and efficiency benefits,” explains Strik. However, with the most sophisticated systems now offering powerful linking tools to the cloud, all IT support teams need to do is glue the systems together, making the step towards full automation easier to swallow.”
Security concerns are a common barrier of adoption. According to Manwaring, data protection and data sovereignty are two of the biggest challenges from customers looking at cloud-based technologies for their workflow solution.
Derhak says PSPs don’t want competitors to access their data.
Strik believes cloud security concerns are largely unfounded. “In many ways, data entrusted to the cloud is safer and more accessible,” he argues. “For example, in the event of a disaster recovery situation—as data is automatically backed up to the cloud—a print shop with cloud-based storage can get back on its feet much quicker.”
The downside to cloud-based solutions includes the possibility that internet outages make the system inaccessible, which can impact or even stop production.
Gallucci says that availability and uptime are frequent concerns with cloud-based systems, as well as the reliability of the provider. “If an essential workflow or business service is shut off with little or no notice, the effects could be devastating,” he admits.
Derhak agrees, adding that print businesses require good internet connectivity to each workstation accessing the cloud-based tools. “In the past, this would have proved problematic for some, but with greater internet accessibility this issue is now virtually irrelevant,” he insists.
Ravari sees an issue with many cloud-based workflow solutions being restrictive with less sophisticated user interfaces. “This is an important factor in software design that can have an enormous impact on flow, trainability, and proper implementation of necessary tools. Some of today’s software—even though possibly feature rich—are difficult to operate and learn. Because of major limitations of the user interface, every operation requires a jumping around into different tabs and fields and more often than not users are facing tools that are maimed by this fundamental weakness.”
Cloud-based solutions are often advantageous compared with on-premise options in terms of pricing. Depending on the provider and the buyer, pricing options range from monthly to annual, or even per use.
Walther says there are no rules when it comes to pricing. “I would say this is cultural,” adding that different geographies have varying preferences. It is also dependent on the company.
Cloud-based workflows don’t have to be expensive, and the cost savings in time, ink, and media, more than make up for the initial investment, admits Strik.
When moving from traditional, locally installed software to the cloud, the biggest concern is moving from buying software outright to licensing software on a monthly basis. “People often worry about the ongoing costs of cloud-based fees, but not about the ongoing costs of installed software. Installed software needs maintaining and updating and that incurs costs by needing internal resources or an external maintenance cost and often both. You also have to buy outright major version changes if you need the new features. Not to mention that new versions will eventually need new hardware. If people actually compared like for like over the lifetime of using the software, they would see that it is very cost effective to use cloud-based solutions,” he continues.
“PSPs looking to minimize upfront transaction costs and mitigate risk of implementing new technologies may prefer the option of a monthly subscription over yearly or turnkey transactions. We find that trial periods help overcome this obstacle of risk so that PSPs can enjoy the reduced cost of annual subscriptions,” recommends Manwaring.
“The pay-as-you-go model can be particularly appealing to wide format print shops. Companies often opt for this payment model as it offers automatic updates and flexibility to increase or decrease the price they pay according to the needs of their business,” suggests Strik.
Hurwitch says many subscriptions are monthly or quarterly for a minimum term. “The biggest advantage is spreading costs out, which helps with cash flow and more closely matches income with outgoing.” She does see a number of software vendors opting for an annual subscription business model.
Tarpey notes monthly subscriptions are the preferred method of payment for PressWise wide format customers. “Upfront costs are much lower with a SaaS model, and we never charge upgrade fees when a new version is released,” he explains. This means customers always have access to the latest tools and features. “They also prefer the freedom of not being locked into an expensive system should they decide its not right for them.”
Many workflow solutions require significant implementation and training, and in many cases a month-to-month license doesn’t make sense. In these cases, an annual commitment, billed monthly or as a lump sum is a widely accepted model, explains Gallucci.
While there are many advantages to cloud-based workflows, there are also reasons print providers still demand on-premise solutions.
“The cloud is all about connecting things together,” shares Manwaring. “Cloud technologies are naturally suited to integrating and connecting workflow pieces. However, the cloud is not without its challenges. We find customers hesitant or not even allowed by contract to put customer information and artwork in the cloud. While it may provide easy access to those in a shop, we find customers would still prefer to keep their production systems on premise.”
“RIPped jobs for wide and grand format print engines can be enormous, and it generally makes sense to have that part of the workflow on premise. But even for processes that are easily migrated to the cloud, an on-premise solution may be preferred if a company is unable to get reliable internet access, or simply prefers having everything under their roof,” admits Gallucci.
Tarpey says sometimes a customer or prospect requests to self host for greater control over their server. “We can accommodate such a request through the setup of what we call a virtual private cloud within their facility,” he offers. This type of customer is typically larger with access to IT resources—a luxury he says many small- to medium-sized printers do not have.
To the Cloud
Print providers once reluctant to move to a cloud-based production workflow have opted to make the transition in favor of the advantages it provides. While there are still concerns about security and accessibility, apprehension is on the decline as more technologies move to the cloud.
Mar2018, Digital Output