In Workflow Development
Maybe it just feels good to write those words right now, but for those of you reading this in the future let me give you some context. It's early May 2020 and we're in the depths of having our normal world challenged by the Corona Virus and the resulting economic shut downs. I've fallen behind in writing this series while I transition my highly automated printing company into a much more manual Personal Protective Equipment manufacturer. The high demand for labor on PPE manufacturing has only strengthened the need for Automation and reliability on the print side, so fewer people can do more, and still turn out premium quality at maximum efficiency. One of the great things about Automation is it doesn't get stressed out. It doesn't lose sleep and make mistakes. It's the consistent reliable partner that has your back every day and all day.
One thing this situation helps illustrate is that sometimes a business needs to pivot and it needs to do so rapidly and with no error. This is a place where if you are living in the spider-web of Hot Folders I described in Article 4 you will not only find it difficult to quickly change even small things within your business, but you will also find yourself at high risk for mistakes. You may need to change a setting (perhaps you discovered that a 200 LPI screen works better than a 250 LPI screen on your RIP), now you are changing that setting on every Hot Folder you have, perhaps doing this task 100+ times and you will always have to ask yourself, "did I miss one?" If you did, your color might not be the same, or it could be other settings like if a job runs face up for face down. One mistake could mean now a large job run over night needs to be hand collated back in the morning. Mistakes in Automation are worse than the limited production jobs they may have effected. Mistakes in Automation mean a loss of faith in the system. It means the people that felt threatened by automation, now have a reason to sow dissent and undermine it. This is important to not take lightly and to make sure that the people leading your workflow teams have strong soft skills and sales ability. If you want your business to have both high quality and high scale-ability you will need your artisans and craftsman to believe in workflow and to trust it as an extension of their skill.
Getting out of the reliance on Hot Folders isn't easy, so before talking about how to get around them, lets talk about how to manage them. Enter Switch, Twist and many of the other workflow platforms in the industry. Like other articles I am not paid by Enfocus or writing this on their behalf, but I will write mostly about Switch as it is the platform I have the most knowledge in, and in my opinion has the highest value to cost ratio. As I write and use the word Switch, know that many other vendor's could put there software's name in it's place and my descriptions would still be largely accurate. I'll talk about some differences a little later on and what make some key differentiators in these software platforms.
Switch is a wonderful gateway drug into workflow. I know, right now you're saying "Into workflow? what do you mean, I have my giant spiderweb of Hot Folders I'm doing workflow now!" By the time you get to where we're going, you'll agree that your workflow only truly became a workflow at THIS stage we are about to begin. Switch will allow you to continue with the familiar and you won't have to be a developer to use it. Switch allows you to make workflows based on Hot Folders, only now where your workflows were previously a series of folders, and lots of white board drawings now you have a visual GUI representation of your flows end to end.
In the image above you can now see a flow that is built to apply Pitstop Actions to a file and then Impose the file Nup using Quite, rename the file and then put the file in the output. Through Switch, you can add comments and colors so your workflow can not only be orderly but also simple to understand so that anyone can look at your workflow and know what it does and how it works. Most workflow departments start out with one or two people and it's easy for those people to forget that they need to provide documentation, after all "They know what they've done". But any successful company, and these workflows will make you more successful, will grow and need to add more people. If the person running workflow reports to you make sure they are documenting their flows. If this person is you, trust me you are entering a type of workflow that will be stable and will become the cornerstone of your business. Some of these flows you won't touch for years. Even if you were to remain the only workflow person, there will come a time where you don't remember what you have done. Documenting your flows is priceless and worth every cent of time invested.
I've had many people ask me, "So what does Switch do?, Does Switch normalize my PDF?" No, Pitstop does that. "Does Switch impose my artwork?" No, Impostrip does that. "Does Switch process my variable data?" No, SmartStream does that. "So what good is it! what does it actually do?!?!? To put it simply, it connects the dots. One of the great things about automation tools like Switch is that you can now add automation to processes that don't have it built in. Through things like CLIs (Command Line Interfaces) switch is able to add automation to common software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Indesign, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel and many others. And don't worry, if visions of DOS screens haunt your memories this is all baked into to Switch's interface and configuring the software can be done through user friendly drag and drops and drop down menus. This ability to add automation to virtually any software and keep it all in one system with one interface is what makes your workflow engine so powerful.
Although Switch has an extensive library of partners, one of the other many benefits is that any Hotfolder, Input or Output from another system can be represented in switch whether that Company has partnered with Enfocus or not. Note the Application step in the flow below. That Application represents a non-integrated system in Switch.
The only downside is that without an official integration all configuration will have to take place in that program rather than your workflow. If you have systems like this you should encourage your provider to make a Switch Configurator. They are not too difficult to make and being that switch has many users there is likely a benefit to the company to do so outside of serving your needs, so the development is usually worth it without charging you. Just having your Configurator in the switch market place is a good way to get business. I've made long term software purchases worth thousands per month based on finding companies in the marketplace.
Even without a Configurator there are still benefits to including these programs in your Switch workflow. By making sure that every step of every event is represented Switch can be leveraged to show error states in it's logs, to highlight bottlenecks graphically and to give proactive reporting including, with some scripting, transit times through the workflow itself. With these metrics you can find problems and bottlenecks, accurately and easily make hardware and software decisions and set realistic expectations for your users. See below that active flows show the number of files in each folder. Generally files will move from Hot Folder to Hot Folder within fractions of a second, but when you see a large number piling up in one then you typically know you have a problem and you know where the bottleneck or failed process is.
Also see below what error reporting looks like in the logs. The logs can be accessed via a web interface so problems can be seen without having complete access to the workflow. These logs can be quickly and easily filtered and with additional scripting these error conditions can be put in your tool of choice, email, chat, your MIS or virtually any other form of communication you may want.
So this whole article probably felt like a love letter to switch. It's not (even though I do love it), there are alot of great tools out there and most of them have the basic feature set I showed. You'll see below in the screenshots of many of these workflow products how similar they are on the surface. The same way aerodynamics have forced car design into one similar shape, so has ease of use and visualization forced most workflows into a common UI. Don't be fooled by their similar look, the power of the workflow tool is in each node.
Xerox Freeflow Core
These systems are all the next step of your workflow development regardless of which one you choose. So, Which one do you choose? If you haven't already go back and read my 2nd Article in this series about choosing vendors. Beyond the topics I covered there of Cost, Expertise and finding a vendor thats a good cultural fit for you aligned with your needs, there are also technical considerations to factor into the equation. What does scalability look like on each platform. What scripting languages does each platform support and how often are they updated? What does licensing look like as you scale? Are you buying more workers or buying more servers? As you scale do you have to purchase all the complimentary component software again (adobe, impositions, etc...)? These are all things you need to ask your workflow vendor and things I will cover more based on my experiences in the next articles.