By Diego Diaz
You’re an expert printer, you can map out signatures in your head, explain dot gain and even eyeball an ink mix to build a PMS with great accuracy, you are a master of your trade. Likely being the print master you are, you are probably not an expert in programming or architecting software solutions (if you are this strange unicorn, I’m always accepting applications!). So where to start, you either need to hire this talent on or find partners that have it and can have your best interests in mind.
Now, I’ll try to earn my keep by not keeping this vague and by actually naming names over the course of this series. So, let me add this disclaimer early. All opinions here are strictly my opinions and are based on my experience and the experiences of everyone from Fortune 50 companies to Mom and Pop print shops I have consulted with in the past. My experience is mostly based in small format digital equipment but also extends far into large format and offset, but not to the same extent. Contrary to what Morten kindly titled me as, I can’t claim to be the monarch of Workflow, but I have been in more than 100 print shops and I am blessed to have been surrounded by some very smart people over the years that have shared their cumulative wisdom with me. I apologize for any great companies I leave out, and I invite anyone I don’t put in a favorable enough light, to give me a different experience. That said, these specifics I’ll talk about are the kind of thing that I wished that someone had talked to me about when I started.
Something to keep in mind in the Print specific workflow world (companies like Enfocus, DALiM, CHILI publish, Solimar, etc…) is that most of these companies aren’t any bigger than you are. Due to this don’t think about dealing with them like you would an Apple or a Microsoft, or even an HP or Xerox. Most of these software only companies cannot afford to have large sales organizations or even large technical support or installation organizations. Most of them sell through regional resellers. Unless you are already very proficient in the software you are buying, these resellers are going to be VERY important to you. They are your integrators, they are your support and professional services. Although they are somewhat regional you generally have some latitude to pick the integrator that feels the best fit for you. I strongly recommend contacting several and interviewing them. This is a commission sale based on the long term structure of recurring maintenance fees so switching integrators in the future is generally frowned upon by the manufacturer so feel them out first before committing.
Now there are the big players too, Kodak, Heidelberg, Fuji, Xerox, Ricoh, Oce (Canon), EFI, etc... These guys have some serious resources as large companies but even their workflow teams tend to be just a small division of a much larger company. And with the large portfolios these companies have your local resources may not be experts or have much hands on experience with setting up these solutions. Make sure to interview your local solutions support and even regional and national solutions support teams before jumping in. Unless you have your own very talented staff the support and integration help you get and their access to R&D will mean more than the software platform itself in many cases.
Do you smell something burning? It must be the bridges I’ve made with all the major OEMs I’ve worked with over the years. I’m going make the suggestion of not instantly linking your workflow to your press vendor without some serious thought. A press is generally the most expensive thing you own as a printer and at that price point most if not all of your press vendors have a connection to a workflow solution they’ve built. The reason they all have that is stickiness. They want to hook you for life and workflow is the best avenue. The difficult thing for you is you know you need workflow automation, and workflow automation is expensive. You can likely get them to discount the press and get automation rolled in. Or get your bank to cover this large software purchase when tied to a machine in a way they never would for software alone. It is tempting… and in all honesty it is also often the only feasible way for a small shop to get large software packages. I’m still going to urge you not to, at least not without some serious research and consideration.
For as big a deal as spending all those zeros on your new shiny press is, presses come and go. Especially if you’re in the digital market. You’ll never make it to the end of your lease before something else is flipped in there and even offset presses with some of the new pay as you use models are headed that direction too. The workflow you put in though will shape your business and be much more difficult to change every few years. The output of a press is print. For as much as we are all trying to make the best print, the truth about output is we are actually all trying to make the “same” print. Quality that is flawless and color that matches an international standard. The output of a workflow however is unique. It’s the fingerprint of your business. It’s your competitive advantage and how your teams and systems work together. The limitations of your workflow will determine how you have to order, track and produce work, and that is an area you don’t want to look just like your competitors. Now don’t get me wrong, when you put all your eggs in one basket and you do everything using one vendor’s tools you are now the poster child for their platform. They should be heavily invested in your success, and have a pretty defined road map of how to achieve that success. This is a significant advantage over going the route I am suggesting and takes significantly less resources and knowledge because you’re leveraging all of that company’s resources and expertise. So why would I suggest against it? If some new industry changing technology comes on the market you may find you can’t adopt it because it doesn’t fit in your workflow. And the second and larger reason, is the very shape of the workflow running your business is something you now have limited control over.
The workflow systems created and distributed by the smaller “software only” companies are usually more standards based. They are rarely a full package and thus are incentivized to work with as many MIS/CRM or other intake systems and also to work with as many RIP/DFE output systems possible as well. Although this creates a patchwork of systems you will find that through APIs and hotfolders for the most part this system you build will be an invisible backend to the company and the number of components and complexity that make it up will only be known to those working directly in it and not felt by the business units it supports. In accepting this it allows you to always use the best tool for the job and not make compromises. This means you can use the best Color Management engines you can find, the best imposition engines, the best preflight engines, the best VDP engines. All of these categories I just listed are yet again another subset of our print workflow industry full of rich expertise and focused value. For a company to exist only as a print color management company, or only as a print imposition company is no small feat. These companies exist because they are VERY good at what they do and often hold patents to what make them special. Although an "All in one" workflow package may seem easier to use and implement you may be locking yourself out of what these small specialized companies can bring to your business.
If you do go the complex route I am suggesting you will need someone to tie the pieces together. This is going to mean either a permanent hire to be the architect and owner of your workflow, or a consultant or reseller that has significant knowledge of all the components you’re using. Again I would argue that this person should be a full time staffer at all costs. Would you let a vendor determine the layout of your production floor? Determine your marketing or sales plans that give you your competitive edge? No, then why would you let anyone else architect your digital layout either. That said there is much experience to be gained by a consultant/integrator with many customers, you’ll leverage their experience and the knowledge they’ve gained from mistakes with other customers, that you don’t have to pay for. You can let their more aggressive customers try that “new version of software” or that “new patch” and have them tell you when it’s safe and stable. Whoever you hire for this should have vision and should always be sampling and testing whats out in the market, no different than you do with shop equipment. Just as equipment never sits still so does the software side only it changes much faster. If you’re expecting to ever be “done” with this workflow project change your thoughts now. It will never be done anymore than the thought that whatever piece of equipment you just bought will be your last. Over the years I have found myself at many a table at tradeshows discussing workflow solutions. I've heard many business owners grumble at the small software only workflow companies, "Yeah, I bought Switch, hasn't done anything for us yet." and through conversation it comes out that no internal "owner" was identified, and that no money was set out for reseller implementation. Realize in ALL workflow the implementation will almost always be the larger cost versus the software itself. Prepare both budget and time and know your landscape of integrators and where your support will come from and you will succeed.