Dipping a Toe in the Flow

by Diego Diaz


Step one to kicking off your workflow is to establish goals. Remember that the keys to workflow are the words “Always” and “Never”. We’ll start this phase by discussing Manual Workflows.

You might be asking, “Manual Automation? That doesn’t make any sense. That’s like Jumbo Shrimp!” Well, yes it is. And I assure you, it is equally as delicious. Even in the advanced state of Automation I utilize at Smartpress.com, we still use Manual Automation in every facet of the business. Not only is Manual Automation a great starting point, but it is also likely something you will never fully outgrow. Think of Manual Automation as Automating Tasks rather than Processes. Someone is still deciding when to begin and still kicking off the Task, but rather than performing the actual Task themselves, a workflow is doing it for them.

So, where do you begin? One of the nice things about starting out automating Tasks instead of Processes, is that Tasks are bite-sized. And bite-sized is exactly what you want to do when you’re getting started. Starting with a goal that is too large can be daunting, especially if you’ve never done this before. You may not have the experience needed to map it out. Mapping out your goals will be key to making practical milestones where the business can tangibly see and use the benefits of your work. Without these break-points, the project of establishing Automation can go on for months, or even years, and the business can lose perseverance or patience. Thus, killing the project before any benefits are felt.

Large projects can also be frightening for your teams. Remember: these are the teams you need to drive and maintain the automation. If they hear, “The goal is to Automate Prepress,” you may get resistance from people fearing for their jobs rather participating in the success of the initiative. By introducing the skills of tomorrow, you help give teams facing change, the resources and reassurance to address that change. People may surprise you, but only if you give them the preparation, opportunity, and they are properly informed to do so.

On my shop floor, I have Python developers that came from Bindery, Workflow engineers that came from Prepress, Technical Project Managers that came from the shipping line. The right people for the future of your business are often the same people that got you where you are today. The way to get buy-in for implementing Automation, is by breaking it down to the bite-sized Task level, and informing your teams that those “annoying steps” they must “always” do with each file, are the targets of automation. By focusing on their pain, you are mapping the route to making their daily lives simpler and more effective.  In short, where do you start your Automation adventure?  Look for pain points and listen for the word "Always", that will guide you towards your most successful starting point.

Hot Folders

Besides being the best looking folders you’ll ever see, Hot Folders are called so because they are a folder that triggers an action. Hot Folders are the first tip-toe into Workflow. Many of the tools you already use may be capable of the leap from Manual Tool to Hot Folder. Enfocus Pitstop is a common and powerful prepress tool with a very low cost of entry (and no, Enfocus did not ask me to say that; Pitstop is a product I’ve used with wonderful success for the last decade, so I choose to talk about it.) Pitstop is a great example of a tool you can start using manually, and later easily graduate to Pitstop Server incorporating Hot Folders.

A few other common, low cost of entry tools that can start as Manual Tools and graduate to Hot Folder tools are Quite Imposing for imposition, and even most RIP/DFE’s for submitting work to your presses. A word to providers: no offense intended if I did not mention your products! Please be encouraged to link to this article providing the low cost of entry product you offer that can later turn into a Hot Folder option. Now, back to content!

Here are a few ‘for instance’ situations that most press floors deal with on a daily basis. Say the task you were looking to Automate is business card imposition, and the job calls for 24-up on a 13x19 substrate. If resources are scarce, perhaps you’re doing manual imposition in InDesign. If you are a step and repeat ninja, or choose to update the linked PDF art, the process can fairly fast, but don't settle just because it's working. Alternatively, maybe you’re using Quite or another Imposition tool and applying a sequence or using your RIP and applying a template. These steps in and of themselves are not big ones; it’s loading the file, choosing the template and clicking a button. That may only be seconds of energy for a person to do, but those seconds add up. Over years they equate a significant amount of lost time and more importantly a loss of morale. Your highly trained prepress staff don’t want to be button pushers. They have more value than that, simply loading files and clicking a template button is under-utilizing their skill set.

When you change this process to Hot Folders now you will simply drop all business card files into that Hot Folder and you're done.  They come out in another folder done and imposed.  To set this up in the program you are using you will select your input folder (this is the Hot Folder) where you can drop all your files at once. In the program you will also select your output folder.  This is where you will see the finished imposed files when they have processed through the software.  Most Hot Folders have an interval setting in the software that sets how often the software looks to see if there are files in the Hot Folders.  Based on your network speed and file sizes you may need to adjust this setting to make sure that files fully arrive before being picked up by the Hot Folder.  Hot Folders tend to be fairly robust, these reliable automators generally only have the interval and network permissions if your Input or Output folders are on network drives as points of failure.

It Really Does Add Up

If this is a new concept for you start asking all your software vendors about Hot Folder functionality.  Again, this is still Manual Automation, you're not automating a Process yet, just a Task, but each one of these small Tasks will add up and you'll see the savings immediately with every new Hot Folder you build.  Your operators will be able to do more, with less stress and less chance of error.  If you're manually imposing via stepping and repeating, you're often left wondering did you accidentally move something that will now throw off the cut?  If you're imposing via template did the operator always select the right template?  Think of opening up every file, selecting the template and then saving.  With a Hot Folder it's that one Drag and Drop and you're done with as many files at once as you could have selected.  That is tens of minutes of savings per day, hours per week, days per month.  The savings are there. 

When you get to looking around you will find Hot Folders everywhere.  I've been using imposition as an example but it can go far beyond that.  Think of your DFE/RIP.  Your DFE likely has settings from color management, to paper selection, page programming, finishing and likely again imposition.  All of these settings can be tied into Hot Folders that prepress/planning/scheduling can drop the files right into.  This means that the files will arrive at press with all the right instructions preprogrammed into the RIP.  The operator can now just press Print!  This allows the operator to focus on quality and the press health instead of having to worry about setting up jobs.  This reduces another touch point and chance for error, as well as reducing setup and programming time between jobs.  This also cuts down on the amount of information needed on a job ticket.  Before all specs that needed to be programmed or modified had to be written out on the job ticket.  Now you can simply put the Hot Folder names needed and the workflow will take care of the rest.

Next article we'll begin talking about how to take a basic Manually Automated task based workflow and turn it into a full fledged Automated Process using the Hot Folder tools covered in this article.