Every manufacturing or production process has associated costs, materials, and people. In the printing and digital communications delivery space, the production processes, or workflows, range from simple to quite complex. In fact, in the last 15 years, I have seen print service providers (PSPs) and in-plant printing centers within an organization supporting hundreds of defined workflows to produce their different bodies of work. This work could be jobs they accept or jobs that they create. Ultimately, all jobs are produced and delivered using a variety of methods, both physical and digital. In the production environment, there are always a few constants:
- Costs need to go down.
- Productivity needs to go up.
- Processes need to be manageable and long-term.
These requirements generally hold in all organizations that print or electronically deliver created and produced communications. Where there is efficiency, there should be profitability and sustainable business. But let’s take a step back for a moment — what does efficiency mean?
Consulting an old favorite, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (in business since 1828!), let’s begin by defining efficient:
Definition of efficient:
1: productive of desired effects
especially : capable of producing desired results with little or no waste (as of time or materials)
The key is getting the results you want with little to no waste. Taking that forward to the idea of efficiency:
Definition of efficiency
1: the quality or degree of being efficient
2: a: efficient operation
b: effective operation as measured by a comparison of production with cost (as in energy, time, and money)
The net of efficiency is achieving desired results with as little waste as possible and measuring the process as compared to one that takes more energy, money, and time. For most production environments and their operations managers, the comparison will be with the current processes instead of the new, more efficient workflows.
Return on investment, commonly called ROI, is critical in any business. It often guides the justification for process change within an organization. Now that we have defined why efficiency plays a crucial role in the success of a business, and likely drives key performance indicators (KPIs), we need to link to improvements your team can realize. Here are the five ROI boosts linked to highly efficient print and digital creation and their delivery production workflows:
1. Reallocation of labor
2. Reduction of information technology (IT) costs
3. Decreased project turnaround (or delivery) time
4. Increased volumes of jobs from increased sales
5. Improved customer satisfaction
Where should you look for costs in your production workflows so that you can define needed change, put a plan in place, and grab that ROI boost? Experience with print and digital content producers points to three key areas where cost leaks grow in their production environment. Those three starting places are:
1. Manual processes and exception processes
2. Time-consuming steps
3. Custom or homegrown solutions
There are defined sets of steps comprising a standard approach to completing a task or job. These are the workflows and they save us a bunch of words. When these workflows contain manual processes, there is the potential for elevated costs. The answer to manual processes is technology, specifically software and robotics solutions that enable automation and accelerate the steps within a workflow. Technology solutions also reduce errors while adding a high degree of repeatability and longevity. We still see customers in the printing industry maintaining technology and their resulting workflows from the ‘80s and ‘90s. An AS/400 mainframe to create printed materials and then send them to a print device is a typical example.
The starting point to spot manual processes is to see if your processes, those hundreds of workflows, are captured either on paper or digitally in diagrams or other documentation. Don’t reinvent the wheel to do a little bit of discovery. Starting with what is known gives you the ability to match that information with what you will see happening over time. It won’t take long to spot the inefficiencies.
The next step is to walk your workflow. Follow the composition process. How many steps are there? How many are manual? When a process is manual, could it be automated? You can do this for your composition, onboarding, pre-flight and make ready, production management, real-time post-composition production changes, finishing, and delivery areas. Pay special attention to your exception processes. Why does work flow into an exception process? If you can reduce the number of exceptions through technology, not only will your production workflows be more efficient, they will enjoy reduced costs.
Where there is a manual process — and human intervention — there will be errors and waste. It is just part of the people equation. To improve that, leverage software and other technology solutions like robotics to improve efficiency and deliver ROI.
This is the low-hanging fruit bucket. A simple and easy way to pinpoint costs — especially in relative terms of reducing capacity, extending job turnaround times, and reducing the run rate of your equipment — is processes that take hours and days, not minutes and seconds. As an example, I worked with a company that had been losing 3,000 minutes — 50 hours — a day to their production and postal optimization processes. Many people were necessary to complete the entire production and delivery process, and it took people and time that, especially today, needed reallocation back to essential tasks that require employees’ expertise and skill. Multiply 50 times an average worker’s hourly rate and then extrapolate that over the average 260 workdays each year. It adds up quickly!
Another easy-to-spot cost area is the jobs that take hours to process. Perhaps they are overnight jobs set to run when the staff leave the building, in the hopes that the jobs have been completed without error the next day. Talk about a cost risk; that is one you will want to tackle as a priority. As an example, I had a customer who explained that they had a job that was taking four hours to process before the print device could actually start printing it. The problem was a misalignment of the job file type from the customer and the file type the printer would accept with all the inline finishing and paper type requirements. In this case, workflow technology and improved hardware capabilities delivered efficiency and ROI. The return can, and should, pay for the investment in the process change. The continued ROI after that is a positive benefit to the business.
The takeaway is to hold your vendor partners accountable. Ask them for a review. Or find a consultant with bona fide experience with the types of business you do today and want to do tomorrow.
Custom and homegrown solutions
These are also referred to as “roll your own” solutions. For those newer to the industry or starting their first operations management position, the “build it” versus “buy it” debate is alive and well in the print and digital content creation, production, and delivery spaces. There is a good reason, but that is a whole different article on the history of how technology has advanced since the invention of digital printing and computer technology.
There is another lens to consider, which is the custom solution. Custom solutions, even when supplied by a provider or vendor, are still custom, which indicates they aren’t repeatable. The bottom line for in-house built and custom solutions: they have risk and costs associated with them that could be reduced through productized or commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software solutions.
Why do we look here for costs?
Even before the pandemic of 2020, we knew that custom and homegrown solutions had risks. There were applications where COTS hadn’t been developed yet or weren’t proven and widely known. Labor was an option, and, for a long time, labor rates meant you could throw more people at a problem without impacting your ROI calculations. COVID shifted that perspective.
Cutting to the chase, labor is more expensive than ever and hard to find. That added cost and lack of knowledge is a tipping point to looking at software that is configurable, maintained, secure, and repeatable. When it comes to homegrown or custom solutions, there are challenges with levels of documentation, the passing of knowledge to new people, the long-term maintenance costs, and the flexibility to answer the needs of the future.
All of the above spells out costs. The good news is that improved composition software, workflow software (also known as post-composition), new print hardware technology (including provided DFEs/RIPs), and the ability to integrate everything through connections like APIs has the potential to make a significant impact on your production processes and provide repeatable ROI. Start a journey this quarter to walk your workflow and realize the full potential of increased efficiency.
Jonathan Malone-McGrew has built a reputation for helping companies in the communications, printing, and software industries define and execute the outward communication of their global unique market value. As the Senior Director of Engagement at Solimar Systems, using his M.S. in Marketing, Jonathan brings his knowledge of the customer experience, partner and channel enablement, customer service, brand image, and message consistency to a collaborative team that supports a superior brand experience for Solimar clients, and in turn, their customers. He is recognized by Xplor International as an Electronic Document Professional (edp), where he follows in his family’s footsteps participating in technology that facilitates print and digital communications; a family history that spans over 40 years. He is also a CMP and G7 Pro through Idealliance.