Things get worse before they get better

Flowing and Growing

Thank you everyone for joining me on the 4th installment of this ten part series.  I got a lot of feedback from people about how rudimentary Hot Folders were and how there were better ways to build a workflow after my last installment.  Let me start by saying, I couldn't agree more.  However, this series isn't just about the best way to build workflow.  This series is meant to address all companies at all different skill levels and to speak to what they can do to increase their level of automation.  I can't stress enough that, as an industry, if we only focus on the "best way" to do things, and don't focus on attainable stepping stones to get there, many companies will be left behind or worse: companies will find the mountain so daunting that they never start the climb in the first place.

This doesn't just count for getting into workflow, but also applies as much to the workflow itself.  One of my developers came up to me this week and asked about whether it was worthwhile to invest time and effort into making an interim solution to bridge the gap in processes between the old and the new, knowing that this development would be "throw away" effort when we got to the new process.  I personally am a big "RIP THE BANDAID OFF!" kind of guy, and I think that's true of many of us entrepreneurial types.  We want the world to move as fast as our vision can see it.  That however isn't reality, and most people don't like having their worlds shaken on a daily basis whether for good or bad.  Uncertainty drives inefficiency.  Things that were rote now have to be learned, experts become trainees, and that can push morale down if not managed appropriately.  So yes, as a business, boldly stare the logical answer down and build phases and transitions into your plans for modernization.  Know that you will have "throw away" development and phases, but that is an investment in your employees and the long term success of bringing your business into industry 4.0 and beyond.  Your systems are only as good as how much they are used and without buy-in and transitions, people will find ways to do what is comfortable and familiar and will bypass your new systems.  I know I keep beating this drum, but I can't stress enough how many times I've seen modernization projects fall apart due to missing this step.

Weaving The Spider Web

As is the title of this fourth piece, we're going to follow the path most shops follow after introducing Hot Folders to their workflow...


Yes, once the Hot Folder bug bites, it tends to bite hard.  Say your first Hot Folder was for imposition.  Here you impose jobs by dropping them in the Hot Folder.  Your next Hot Folder was for the DFE to get files to the RIP.  A wonderful time saving idea dawns in your head:  The output of one Hot Folder could be the input for the other.  Viola!  A Hot Folder just became a workflow!  This addictive process will lead to Hot Folder chains springing up for every task imaginable.  One person configuring the Hot Folders can now enable entire departmental tasks to be done in one step and enable people at the beginning of the stream to get files all the way to the end without needing to know how each step in the chain works.  By using common tools like Enfocus Pitstop Actions in Hot Folders and Photoshop Automation and Droplets, you can build cascading Hot Folder chains that take in files, resize them, apply profiles, fix spot colors, remove layers, add FPOs, impose, and then rip to specific ticket templates, building out your print flow from initially getting the file all the way to press with one single drop in a Hot Folder.  So, that sounds good right?  Why would you title this piece "THINGS GET WORSE BEFORE THEY GET BETTER"?

As we all know there is a shortage of young talent in the printing industry.  The few schools that still have Graphic Arts programs focused on print are mostly training designers.  Technical prepress operators are difficult to find, and that's where these workflow tools come in handy.  Prepress can become a bottleneck if you can't find the staff to grow it, but if you can empower your staff to build these Hot Folder chains, then you can grow and scale your business without growing and scaling your staff.  So again, how is this bad?  We have to go back to the first articles where I stated your guide for automation would be the word "Always".  Some segments of the industry will have it easier than others, but for now I will focus on our core general commercial printer.  Answer these questions:

  • How many sizes do you print?
  • How many substrates do you print on?
  • How many devices do you have?

If you found yourself stumbling over answering the first question, then you're not going to be able to stop at this article and you'll want to read the next six to come.  You're probably asking yourself "What do you mean how many sizes do I print?".  Are you just a form printer and only print 8.5x11s (or A4's my european friends).  Do you also print business cards, post cards, posters, brochures, booklets, etc...  The point of this is that in this basic Hot Folder method all of those are different Hot Folders depending on the task at hand.  Multiply that by the number of substrates and again by the number of devices.  This my friends is why this stage of automation development is one of the most painful ones to be in.  All those Hot Folders need maintenance, and when one thing changes it may mean changing a setting now on hundreds of Hot Folders.  What felt exciting linking your processes from one to the other has now become a tangled, and fragile mess.  Listen closely to your end users.  What may feel like progress "just because you can" may be settings that are easily changed by the user in the UI (User Interface) and it may be faster to have a user change these setting manually then to have more workflows built out for each changeable setting.  Weigh time and rework into this.  Just because a user says that it's easy to change these settings and it shouldn't be automated, look at the number of reworks due to incorrectly changed settings and balance out the cost.

Part of building this kind of spider-web of a workflow successfully is going to based around good documentation and firm and consistent naming conventions.  Anyone in your organization should be able to see a Hot Folder and by it's name know what it does.  Organizing these in Parent folders that organize what the process is, or who the group that uses it is, is a critical part of success.  If you have teams of people making these Hot Folders, perform audits to make sure that all naming conventions are adhered to and correct them when they are not.  

Note in my example above of Hot Folders run amok that 12K-C has "12K-C_CGOrange" and "12K-C_CG-Orange".  When in this stage of workflow development, things like this can feel tolerable, sure it's not right, but we all know "It's the Orange Hot Folder for 12K-C CG" whats the big deal?  Today, you can get away with that, but if you ever want to leave this messy spider web stage of automation you will want to correct this.  It will be important in the articles to come that will spell out a cleaner future.

Low Cost of Entry

The industry professionals that read these articles are probably cringing.  "Hundreds of cascading Hot Folders? WHY WOULD ANYONE SUGGEST THIS!!!!"  If you bought Enfocus Pitstop Server, or Automation licenses for your RIP (Prinergy, Fiery, XMF, Freeflow Core), your investment so far is likely sub $5000.  Also the skill sets required are no more than standard Prepress skills with a bit of vision towards whole shop process.  For the thousands of print shops world wide stuck under the $10 million USD in revenue range, even making a $5000 investment can feel like a lot, especially if you have been in the commodity side of the business, and profits narrow and cashflow has been squeezed by competition and expanding wages and receivable terms.  These cascading Hot Folders, through an enormous amount of effort and complexity, can carry your business forward into some of the deepest ranges of automation.  This automation can be what allows you to crack that ceiling by empowering your current staff to do more and reducing steps.  The next articles will detail out better ways to get there, but as the intelligence behind our workflow increases so will the cost of both software and talent.