Should you be looking at cloud-based workflows and at becoming a lights out operation? Printfactory founder and CEO Erik Strik argues the point
Imagine the ability to run a total lights-out operation, 24/7. This is where cloud-based workflow automation can take large-format printing but, while technology has moved on significantly, mindsets invariably have not. Perhaps yours is one of the majority of large-format PSPs that still relies on traditional workflows.
Automating or partially automating workflows has long been known to significantly boost efficiency, productivity and profitability. Yet the development of cloud-based software and services marks a significant step-change in how print businesses can leverage the benefits of automation and transition to even smarter ways of working.
So how can OEMs, technology vendors and the reseller community better support the wide-format inkjet sector in embracing a different way of doing things?
Simply put, typical workflows for LFP are inefficient and expensive. You know it. Relying on canned colour profiles, multiple Rips with differing colour and a mix of pre-press tools, and colour management platforms - occasionally even ICC profiling using a photo spectrometer - comes at a significant cost, representing lost and essentially unbillable time.
With a traditional workflow, an average of 35% of time per job is spent getting ‘print ready’ and 20% on colour management, all while the machine is laid idle with pre-press eating away at potential profit and reducing overall capacity.
Then of course, if a job does not print perfectly due to device calibration errors or inaccurate colour profiles and whathave-you, you must go through the troubleshooting process and reprint, adding more unbillable time to the job cycle as well as wasting valuable ink and media.
Furthermore, without a joined up network of software and hardware, it becomes extremely difficult for operators to receive reliable data to assist in identifying where wastage and production bottlenecks occur.
Through the power of the cloud, automation can address these workflow dead zones, slashing time taken in pre-press, doubling throughput while using the same resource. Easy to say, but how exactly does the cloud support this?
The power of the cloud is such that it offers print organisations full control over all facets of the production process through a single interface, regardless of location. As well as synchronising monitoring and management of every printer across all sites, it is set up and maintained entirely by the software provider and can back-up profiles and settings from every device on the network, ensuring recovery of vital data should any network disruption occur.
As cloud-based technology is set up and maintained entirely by the software provider, it also removes the need for an internal IT department within a PSP, providing peace of mind that the technology driving their business is consistently up-to-date.
Thought about SaaS? As trust in the security of the cloud grows, an increasing number of companies are beginning to employ cloudbased software-as-a-service (SaaS) delivery models to implement automated workflows. This ‘on-demand’ software model is built on providing fully accessible services via a web browser through monthly payments, removing the need for costly upfront investment.
The model provides powerful scalability and reliability, enabling companies of any size to leverage features from single to multiple sites. It also means that the software can be automatically patched and updated via the cloud, rather than requiring an operator to maintain the software or install any updates.
Connecting the dots between MIS, ERP and RIPS
Where there has been limited uptake of cloud-based automation solutions, print set-ups tend to ‘cherry pick’ the work streams they entrust to the cloud. They may invest in management information systems (MIS) or enterprise resource planning (ERP) modules - automating procedures for estimating, booking in and production - but as these don’t always sit seamlessly alongside workflow technology, they can actually cause greater inefficiencies and disjointed file processing and delivery.
As the most sophisticated systems now offer powerful linking tools to the cloud, MIS, ERPs and Rips can now be integrated into the workflow system with JDF or XML, which then enables the software to provide end to end file processing and delivery of production data to the MIS or ERP to ensure maximum efficiency from MIS to print.
Data-driven insights from cloud-based reporting
The cloud also delivers powerful device and job reporting capabilities through a browser-based dashboard that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. As the latest workflow software enables data from connected devices to be delivered to the cloud, businesses can monitor any aspect of the production process across their device network in real time.
As the cloud is fully-scalable, it can collect data from any number of devices. Drawing from this pool of data offers businesses informed insights on every aspect of their operations. As well as enabling operators to track and trace the status of any job instantly, cloud-based dashboards can offer cost calculations and reporting of ink and media usage, enabling companies to manage their consumables usage more accurately than ever before.
Going a step further, dynamic nesting enables companies to create dynamically scaling nesting workflows, providing true automation through cloud-based processing of jobs with local delivery to Rips and printers for maximum efficiency.
Working backwards from the delivery deadline, the function allows PSPs to plan job allocation using just-in-time scheduling techniques. As jobs are submitted to the cloud, they are automatically categorised by output criteria, such as media optimisation and/or deadline.
The system works by committing jobs to buckets allocated with these different criteria, which can then be combined into nesting groups according to output conditions. Each bucket draws on a wide pool of network data delivered to the cloud to dynamically test multiple combinations and find the most efficient outcomes. Once it does, it then delivers the jobs to the Rip to output.
With job scheduling and nesting managed centrally in the cloud, the Rip is then free to process an unlimited number of jobs on demand driving multiple printers while delivering consistent colour output across devices (this is dependent on the capabilities of the supporting network and combined hardware). Last minute scheduling changes can also be dealt with efficiently, as the jobs are re-queued in the cloud instantly and only delivered to the Rip for processing at the point of output, ensuring more efficient ripping and less reprocessing.
A huge benefit is that jobs no longer need to be committed to a specific output device until the very last minute, so if a device goes offline, the nest of jobs can be instantly diverted to another machine. If priorities change, the technology can accommodate the scheduling of more urgent runs to print quicker, or if orders are cancelled these can be easily removed from the nesting schedule and replaced with a different job.
As the power of the cloud frees up expensive local storage and processing, the technology can efficiently manage the workload no matter how many jobs need to be printed - allowing the potential for full, lights out automation.
Trends dictating the extent and pace of change
As a data-driven activity, print is prime for cloud-based automation. The McKinsey Global Institute’s ‘A Future That Works’ report, published in January 2016, identifies the five most important factors influencing the pace and extent of adopting automation as:
- Technical feasibility
- Cost of developing and deploying solutions
- Labour market dynamics
- Economic benefits
- Regulatory and social acceptance
When considering automation via a cloud-based approach, we can agree that at least four of these conditions have been satisfied. Automation software has already been invented, integrated and adopted by the large-format print sector, and the LFP sector also understands that automating helps to cut costs by reducing time spent per job, human error as well as ink and media wastage.
The growth of cloud-computing giants such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft and Google has also supported the boom of cloud-based solutions across sectors. Each of these platforms provide consumers and businesses alike with accessible, scalable and importantly, inexpensive, means to offer software via the cloud. Furthermore, government investment in data centres and introduction of a ‘Cloud First’ policy to drive adoption of cloud-based technology in the public sector indicates regulatory and political acceptance of the cloud.
In terms of labour market dynamics, the McKinsey Global Institute predicts that rather than human capability being displaced by technology, man and machine will need to work side-by-side to realise the true productivity potential of automation. Additionally, researchers have theorised that automation will help offset the impact of a declining share of the working-age population in many countries including the UK.
With most of these factors checked off, we come to the final hurdle: social acceptance.
While print technologies have moved on at a rapid rate, both the workflow process itself and mindsets towards it have remained pretty much unchanged for years. Committing to the cloud is committing to the unknown for most large-format PSPs and for many the intangibility of it is disconcerting. The perceived cost and complexity of replacing legacy systems - not to mention the potential disruption in transitioning - are obvious challenges that keep print companies from switching from a manual to a cloudbased, automated approach.
The wide-format print world is undeniably complex, and the reality is that with change comes some degree of uncertainty. The only way the industry can support the transition to cloud-based automated workflows is through education, and a meeting of minds with a desire for change with the right platform to enable change.