By Cassandra Balentine
Workflow is an umbrella term that is hard to define and differentiate within print. It becomes more complex as integration and connectivity drive efficiency and automation in a production environment, ideally from end to end.
“Wide format print is vast and so the term workflow can mean different things to different people in different geographical areas,” admits Dr. Jonathan Rogers, marketing lead, Onyx Graphics, Inc. “For us, workflow as it pertains to print production is a series of connected steps that can be automated to save valuable production time while at the same time reducing manual error.”
Those that run print-to-cut operations benefit from specific workflow features. “In terms of a print-and-cut workflow, that could mean automatically recognizing cut paths from the design file, automatically applying them to the print job, while also adding the required marks to the job for cutting. Doing so reduces the amount of time taken to adjust the file between design, print, and cut,” explains Rogers.
Above: Caldera’s new PrimeCenter product includes features like the ability to create ready-to-produce print-and-cut files.
Throughout the industry, workflow automation is increasingly important. Print-and-cut environments are no exception.
Businesses must automate to adapt in today’s market. “By automating with workflow tools you take away the tedious tasks in wide format file preparation like adding grommet marks, splitting up files in slices for ink-based machines, shape nesting, adding bleed around cut paths, and so on. This is time that an operator can use to provide value-added services to print buyers,” offers Piet De Pauw, head of marketing, Enfocus, an Esko company.
Removing these touch points from the workflow is increasingly critical for print shops. “As manual processes slow down workflow, printers must seek automated solutions to remain efficient and improve quality while reducing turnaround times,” offers Debra Roussouw, marketing manager, PrintFactory.
Sebastien Hanssens, VP marketing and operations, Caldera, agrees, noting that customers are looking to automate repetitive and tedious tasks to save time and avoid mistakes. “Workflow tools enable customers to set up more efficient processes in their print-and-cut production,” he states.
Automation also helps with shorter print runs and lead times, as you can get jobs onto the press faster and deliver more flexibility to customers. “You can also enjoy the agility to adapt more easily to SKU changes, which is vital in today’s warp-speed world,” shares De Pauw.
Finding a Place
Many points of print production benefit from software automation.
Leland Morgan, business unit manager, North America, Durst Software & Solutions, suggests starting at the beginning, where you may see an MIS/ERP system passing a file with preflight instructions to a prepress system. “That automated piece of the workflow can check the print file in, perform a preflight check to make sure the desired outcome is met, it can make modifications for production, add bleed, and create a cut path or other edge finishing. If it passes it could create the proof and send a notice to the customer or CSR, if it fails possibly notify someone in prepress that manual intervention is needed.”
Working with compliant files is part of the process. Prepress software helps eliminate mistakes by preflighting files including images, colors, and fonts to ensure the desired settings, formats, and resolutions are met, says Mary Gay Marchese, public relations, Markzware Inc.
Approval is another area where automation comes in. “On a customer’s approval a job can be further modified with specific printer instructions, possibly hold all orders that have been approved, and when a certain time or volume of work is accumulated automatically nest those jobs, create a cut path, RIP as one page, and send to the printer. The cutting file is then sent to the correct cutter,” explains Morgan.
It is important to consider that tasks vary depending on the type of jobs performed, therefore, workflows should be designed with the resources of a particular environment, including the printer, software, media, and operator time. “Having the right software implemented is the secret ingredient and is often the most overlooked,” shares Marchese.
“In fully automated digital environments, preset tools of color and image quality bring more reliability and speed to a print process. Automation drastically reduces errors and turnaround times, which in turn helps to retain loyal customers and gain new clients,” suggest Nathan Armata, director of workflow development, Significans Automation.
Moving to Automation
A consistent trend towards automation in the print industry is clear, which is amplified by labor shortages, inflation, supply chain challenges, demand for more custom work, smaller run lengths, shorter lead times, and cultural changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rising costs lead to lower profit margins. “All costs are rising and margins have never been more under pressure than they are today. The cost of labor is one issue—assuming you can find skilled staff in the first place. Logistics difficulties also drive up prices of materials and machinery, and the cost of powering that machinery is higher than ever. Something has to change and automation is the only way forward to keep your print business afloat,” comments De Pauw.
“The three biggest cost drivers for wide format printing are labor, ink, and substrates. Coincidentally these are also the areas where the industry is least efficient in managing these scarce resources,” points out Roussouw.
Rogers sees two leading drivers for automation capabilities within workflow software, a downward pressure on profitability to remain competitive and customer expectations on turnaround time. “Combined with the impact of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, print businesses need the ability to manage costs while meeting customer expectations.”
Marchese points out that many pre-pandemic workflows were based on manual processes and there wasn’t a lot of fully automated workflows. “The rise of web to print (W2P), shorter runs, faster turnaround times, and labor shortages established a growing demand in automation. Eliminating waste reduction and streamlining workflow production processes are becoming important priorities.”
Customer demands are another part of the puzzle, they are used to ordering online and receiving goods quickly. Therese McGady, marketing manager, Aleyant, feels that print shops must be able to process jobs in less time, meaning print and proof faster and respond to inquiries right away.
“Customers are looking to be more productive and ensure device uptime,” agrees Hanssens.
Morgan adds that a tight labor market makes it hard to fill existing positions or plan for growth.
This is why James Robinson, business analyst, Significans Automation, believes automation in print-to-cut environments is being driven by better employee communications. “By using workflow tools and automation, it becomes easier for employees to communicate and collaborate, which leads to faster decision-making and a more productive and efficient work environment.”
A Need Vs. Want
It is evident that automation in today’s print industry is a must-have as opposed to the nice-to-have it once was. This includes print-to-cut environments.
“Automation and workflow encompasses many different print applications in addition to print-and-cut processes. In today’s environment, print businesses that are not implementing some level of automation to their workflows may be missing out on future opportunities. An automated process, for example, that helps scale production to print more jobs per day has a direct impact on revenue,” says Rogers.
“Having an automated workflow—even if in part—is essential to stay competitive because it is imperative that your printing business is not limited by inefficient workflows,” says Marchese. By investing in workflow automation software, coupled with preflight tools, she feels users will see an exponential increase in production and a significant return on investment. “By automating production workflow across all departments, businesses reduce human error and close gaps. The result of faster and more efficient processes put more jobs on press.”
Morgan agrees, noting that some portion of workflow automation is needed by every print provider. “It can be as small as prepress or as large as lights-out production. The important part is finding a system that you can continue to grow and add automation to,” he recommends.
For print shops with a high volume of jobs, workflow software is crucial to staying in business and growing. “It is imperative to alleviate manual processes that result in costly mistakes, produce waste, and increase time and labor costs on jobs. Having software to proof and fix files allows a shop to get more jobs done, in less time. This in turn helps them grow and succeed in the future,” says McGady.
Automated workflows not only keep staff motivated, but protect profitability and mitigate the risk of human error. “By making your workforce more efficient, you can also save money and invest it elsewhere—in innovation, perhaps, or in training staff to close the skills gap,” shares De Pauw.
Getting into Specifics
The concept of workflow is best visualized with examples. Here, we highlight features of workflow tools that aid in wide format print-and-cut environments.
Aleyant allows users to take attributes from the Pressero W2P solution and transfer them easily to tFLOW prepress automation software to automatically add cut lines, bleed, and ensure accurate sizing. “This allows a print shop to complete 20 to 40 jobs in just three to five minutes, a huge time savings,” says McGady.
Caldera’s newest version of PrimeCenter includes the creation of ready-to-produce print-and-cut files, optimization of media usage with advanced job nesting, creation of a job preparation recipe to help staff achieve accurate and consistent results, automation of production with file name metadata, nesting and ganging to group jobs per customer or project, and file submission using XML file format exchange.
Durst’s Lift ERP customers use the solution with automation to Durst Workflow, which allows artwork to be placed on an order. When the order is released the file and instructions move to prepress and the proof is sent back to the customer for approval, generally 65 to 75 percent of jobs need no human intervention.
“We have over 500 installations of Durst Workflow. Once an order is approved it can make many automated decisions based on company business rules, direct specific types of jobs to a pre-determined press, hold all jobs with certain substrates, nest and release based on time or volume, create the nested cut path, put an identifier on each image, and send the cut file to a specific cutter,” says Morgan.
Enfocus’ PitStop Pro is designed to take menial, time-consuming jobs, like adding a bleed around irregular shapes such as cut paths, separating die lines, finding and fixing errors in PDF files, editing PDF files, adding grommet hole marks, splitting PDFs into slices tailored to the width of your output device, and so on—instantly.
Enfocus Switch combines best-in-class solutions to enable a holistic workflow enabling shape nesting and data transfer from MIS to production with reporting back to the MIS. “It connects anything to anything else, so it’s ideal for the integration of online storefronts into your print workflow,” shares De Pauw.
Marchese says the makeready/preflighting part of a workflow is often an achilles heel. “A PDF check is simply not enough. That’s because there are a variety of file types coming into the shop. It is important to verify that incoming files are correct. The Markzware FlightCheck preflight application incorporates a host of Ground Control or preflight checks. These checks are important to reduce errors. As an example, problems with the file can occur if it contains unsupported PANTONE colors, Type 1 fonts, or if a required color profile is embedded. FlightCheck alerts users of those errors so they can be addressed.”
ONYX traditional RIP software also includes many tools and controls to build and implement automation to the print production workflow. “Quick Sets, for example, allow for common job settings to be applied to any job that may include page size changes, rotation, tiles, cut paths, weed boxes for cut jobs, registration marks, automatic cut-path recognition and generation, bar codes, and job tickets in quick response codes,” explains Rogers.
Michelle Johnson, director of digital marketing, SA International (SAi), adds that one great thing about current RIP software is that there are a lot of functions/features to help streamline workflow and save time and money. “For example, SAi’s Flexi Design and RIP software quickly nests images together in just a few clicks so you can maximize the media that you’re using.”
Workflow for the Win
Adding efficiency and automation throughout a print-and-cut workflow addresses key issues that increasingly challenge modern print environments.
The goal is to streamline and simplify production. “Successful companies have more incoming jobs and not necessarily enough margin to employ new staff,” offers Hanssens.
“The need for speed, an automated proofing process can be achieved in minutes when compared to hours or days without automation,” concludes Morgan.
Mar2023, Digital Output