Wed, Jul

MIS: A management report

Increasingly, when it comes to business efficiency, and potential growth, it’s all about the data. So what are MIS suppliers doing to help convince you that they are working on more suitable systems for this sector, where there’s still such reticence to invest?

Data from this year’s Widthwise survey shows that 30.8% of PSPs intending to invest in the next year or two are doing so with the aim of improving efficiencies. Many are looking at workflow as you’d expect, but what about MIS?

Well, of the 195 large-format print companies that took part in the 2021 poll, only five said they’d be spending money on such systems - and it’s doubtful the number is so low because many have all singing, all dancing systems already running. We know the main drawback – that off-the-shelf MIS are oft considered unfit for purpose in this sector. But should you be reinvestigating the options, given what some of the key MIS suppliers have to say about developments?

David Lowe, technical sales specialist at EFI believes MIS has become a bigger focus for PSPs as they grow or look to streamline their operations, with systems becoming “the beating heart of the enterprise, handling everything from estimate enquiry through production and on to dispatch - MIS sits at the centre of the whole workflow with connections to digital equipment now a de facto requirement.”

Lowe says EFI’s largest improvements recently “have been around planning irregular shapes from supplied artwork ready for printing, combining the power of estimating with the reality of production. We have also continued to support hybrid customers who run campaigns with a mixture of work on smaller machines as well as posters and signage through our campaign importation tools. Being able to import multiple shipments for a campaign and monitor them in real time through integration with the parcel network while sending notifications to the end customer is increasingly becoming a requirement for many POS printers as the ‘Amazon generation’ takes over order processing.”

 He acknowledges that there are ‘snagging issues’ in terms of MIS regarding wide-format - for instance, where installation or fabrication works are part of a job, saying: “Generally a print-specific MIS struggles to understand how to make something like a wooden frame, where a non-print-specific ERP struggles to understand printing forms. Our approach to building cost centres allows this degree of flexibility which is really appreciated by the wide-format sector which doesn’t always conform to the traditional model of putting ink on substrate.”

Lowe also highlights issues relating to ganging, pointing out that “being able to do that quickly and automatically with imposition tools embedded within the MIS is essential for the wide-format printer.”

Asked whether he thinks there needs to be more synergy between MIS providers and others (such as printer manufacturers, accounts systems developers etc), Lowe says: “It is essential to look more holistically at a process to determine the best MIS solution. In some places, like in accounts, it might make more sense to integrate with existing solutions. In other areas, like online print shops, the business can have a smoother workflow by having a single system. Equally, being able to link an MIS into a prepress workflow - whether that is simply within the MIS of the customer approving proofs or more complex automation routines with third parties - is the next stage of true touchless order processing and delivering customer satisfaction.

“Software developers working for and enhancing the offering for the printers’ customer are the most valuable asset in the ever-changing world of wide-format print. They can smooth out the bumps in the road between multiple vendor platforms.”

Paul Bromley, head of sales EMEA, at printIQ says a common complaint is that many print management systems have remained unchanged in the face of quite impactful shifts within the industry, where a dwindling pool of experienced estimators has highlighted the necessity for a smart system for efficient automation across the entire business workflow.

“Print customers are requiring high quality, lower price, and faster turnaround more than ever before, which means workflow inefficiencies are having a more devastating impact. The impact of Covid-19 has made working remotely a necessity not an option, and the ability for staff and customers to quote from anywhere 24/7 can mean the difference between thriving and struggling to survive.

“This is where the printIQ management workflow system (MWS) significantly differs from the traditional MIS. printIQ is totally cloud-based with a visual and intuitive interface. Production-staff manage the factory while customers order and track, all within the same application from anywhere at any time. There’s no software to install, no separate Web portal or online ordering system to add on.”

Is that a quantum shift? Bromley believes it is. “printIQ is far more than just an MIS in that it manages the workflow of the business in its entirety.

“We understand that an offset solution doesn’t fit in a wide-format business. We’re in the position of being able to support industry specific pricing models, while many print management systems force users to adapt their pricing models to suit the limitations of their software.

“The printIQ job management tools are also unusual in the way that they are designed for the digital space- with online production boards to give the full view of the floor, regardless of the user’s location, along with tablet optimisation, barcode scanners, and smartphone app, to keep people moving.”

“We found that traditionally, MIS vendors have been quite inflexible, but we took a different path. Via our Connect range of modules we offer direct integration with an array of cloud‑based accounting packages, and integrated third-party applications such as Enfocus, Esko, HP, Hybrid, Infigo, Tilia Labs, XMPie and Zapier to mention but a few. We can also expose many of the workflows in printIQ, via our API’s, allowing our customers to produce their own custom printIQ integrations.

Over at Optimus, which has been supplying MIS to the print industry for almost 40 years, sales director Steve Richardson says that “historically, much criticism was rightly thrown at MIS providers in general, when many were (and some still do) calculate everything as sheets - essentially harnessing litho principles, when they simply don’t apply and are not relevant!

“This incompatibility resulted in frustrating workarounds and fudging of MIS systems, which simply did not lend itself to automation or increased efficiency. Simple and fundamental things, like the ability to calculate a quote using a square meterage calculation and book in a job with the correct level of ink coverage, were not properly included or understood. This I believe provided an understandable reluctance to invest in MIS from large-format PSPs. However, we are not all the same. Optimus dash can deal with these fundamentals and so much more as it is a process led system. This means that services such as installation and anything associated with the delivery of a project can all be easily configured and housed within the MIS.   

“The big step change in the last three years has come about with the management of files and integration with workflow providers - like Switch - as updates between the MIS and workflow can be many and varied, managing print ready files and real time status updates. 

“In addition, Web-to-print integration with MIS - specific to wide-format - has evolved tremendously and full production jobs can now essentially be booked in by the customers without their knowledge that they are inadvertently setting up a job ready to produce. If everything is understood, artwork files have been pre-flighted and processed properly, real time automation is possible.

“Moving forward, Optimus is focusing more on job ganging functionality and more advanced planning tools to cater for even higher levels of automation.

 Richardson continues: “I would suggest that there still needs to be more synergy across the industry in general, including printer manufactures. There is still tremendous room for improvement to make it easier for the MIS to obtain real time live data - but ultimately data harnessed properly from devices can be really instructive and a potential game changer. 

Lee Ward, chief revenue officer at Tharstern, reiterates that if the past 18 months have taught us anything, it’s that companies need their critical business data to be accessible online. “And what that essentially means is that companies have to remove manual processes and migrate them over to a suitable software solution instead. For large-format PSPs, an MIS can handle everything from sales and estimating, to scheduling and order processing, right through to warehousing and delivery, so the potential ROI of an MIS just got even bigger.”

Ward points out that Tharstern’s MIS is hybrid, using both Web-based and on-premise technologies, combining the accessibility and responsiveness of a cloud solution with the control and integration capabilities of an on-site solution.  

“Our customers’ core MIS remains at their premises, while their employees access it over the internet. Over the past few years we’ve been adding tools to allow the different teams within a PSP to access their MIS on the move. The most recent addition is our Remote Access Portal, which has been designed for sales and account management teams, but a PSP’s customers can also use it to create their own estimates and orders.”  

 Ward adds that “one issue our large-format customers wanted us to make easier for them was dealing with complex multi-location campaigns. So we developed functionality to quickly import and create production-ready estimates and jobs. We’re also working with companies like Colateral to integrate with campaign management solutions that make this process even slicker.”  

 Geoff Needham, of Wildcard Software, says that “over the past 12 months in Printlogic we have continued to expand the features available for wide-format work. The production end of the system can now be setup to cover anything from basic signage to completed POS units created from rigid boards to multi-step kitting jobs, whilst a whole new quoting area was created to handle the 20 - 30% of wide-format quotes that would be outside of a ‘standard work’ definition for these PSPs.

He feels that outstanding snagging issues in regards to MIS generally are mainly around pricing. “The processes and materials are so varied that it is difficult for a system to anticipate what the estimator wants it to do 100% of the time, without requiring so many inputs that it would be quicker for the user to do the quote on a piece of paper. Straightforward quotes are easily handled but for some off-the-wall quotes the PSP will have to accept that it will have to be manually input with the system doing little more than making the final quote document look nice.

“These are being dealt with certainly by Printlogic, but I don’t think any MIS system will ever be 100% capable in terms of quotes for wide-format work. In terms of the MIS industry in general, for systems that are non SaaS based updates are much more difficult and as a result I think they are generally slower to accommodate sectors like wide-format where there are frequent advances in equipment / processes and hence the related quoting.”

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