A Supply Chain That Runs Itself
The grandees of business re-engineering have been preaching for years about the power of Computer Integrated Manufacturing (CIM) to large corporations like GM and Ford. You might be surprised to learn that these lessons can also be effectively applied in the graphic arts industry for small and large shops alike. Process automation offers a golden opportunity to increase capacity, up productivity, optimize staff resources, and improve cash flow—even in today's economy.
You may be asking, "Why should I think about automation if I'm [just] trying to stay alive?" The simple before-and-after snapshot in this article should give you an answer.
PROCESS AUTOMATION … IN SIMPLER TERMS
To begin, let's consider what process automation is. If a process is a defined series of actions undertaken to achieve a specific business objective, then process automation is applying computer processing to a series of business procedures.
Underlying process automation is the convergence of several concepts:
• that applications can be programmed to perform tasks in a fault-tolerant way without human intervention;
• that disparate applications and systems can be interfaced with each other to exchange messages and data using industry standards; and
• that powerful databases are the key to storing, retrieving and managing information.
STATING THAT A DIFFERENT WAY:
• Computers rather than people should do repetitive, predictable tasks because machines are faster and cost less. When—not if—the process goes wrong, it needs to do so in a graceful enough way that you can easily pick up the pieces.
• Computers need to talk to each other in a way that does not require a massive programming effort to re-tool if you decide to change one or two components in the system.
• Powerful databases storing the information (metadata) about your jobs provide the necessary flexibility to let you look at, present and get reports in more ways than you originally thought when you captured the data.
HOW CAN IT AFFECT YOU?
To find out what process automation can mean to your business, take a mental inventory of your company's systems. You may find systems for production, tracking, scheduling, estimating, billing and general ledger. These systems generally receive information from different sources (raw files, instructions, purchase orders and bills, to name a few) and generate myriad types of output (such as final files, proofs, invoices or orders for consumables).
If your shop is like most, these systems do not share information, and most are not organized as relational databases. If this sounds familiar, you'll be able to relate to the following scenario that occurs daily at many prepress houses, publishers and printers.
In a non-automated workflow:
1. Before the file for a chapter of a book comes in the door (literally or virtually) of ABC Prepress, the book publisher fills in a job ticket and generates a purchase order (P.O.).
2. The publisher's staff keys the information into the P.O. system, then usually prints out and faxes the P.O., or mails it out with the job.
3. The job arrives at ABC, probably on a disk or CD with a hard-copy proof. At ABC Prepress, a customer service representative (CSR) enters the P.O. and any publisher job-ticket information into the production system.
4. The files then get preflighted and copied from the disk onto a work-in-process server.
5. Next, an ABC production team member assembles a job bag, which includes all the checklists and any original components.
6. This job bag moves around the shop until the job is completed, and the final files and proofs are delivered to their destination.
7. The job bag is then shuffled into billing, where it is mated to an estimate.
8. After the CSR has analyzed the job, an ABC biller creates an invoice.
Do these steps resemble how a job moves through your shop? Now, take a look at what process automation can do to streamline this workflow.
In an automated workflow:
1. The publisher fills in a job ticket and a P.O. as before, but now the system automatically creates an electronic job envelope. All the necessary files for the job are placed into this envelope.
2. Prior to the publisher's job submission to ABC Prepress, the file is automatically preflighted. If the preflight fails, the file
won't leave the publisher's desktop until errors are fixed.
3. If the job passes, the electronic envelope moves into ABC's tracking system, where the metadata from the publisher's digital job ticket and the P.O. is used to automatically populate the fields of ABC's job ticket.
4. The system then routes the job to a designated location in the work-in-process database and informs the CSR that the job has arrived. All this happens without any intervention by ABC's production specialists.
5. Next, the system notifies ABC's production manager, who then assigns the job to an operator. This person knows where to find the job because the system placed it exactly where it should be.
6. The system routes the job from process to process and automatically calculates the amount of time the operator spends in each area.
7. Once the job is completed and the final files are shipped to their destination, the job envelope moves into the billing department. Because of the automated methods of tracking, there is minimal CSR involvement. The estimate and job costs can be electronically reconciled to create the invoice.
The value of these processes to the publisher is:
• Information is only entered once.
• Jobs run through without errors.
• Schedules are maintained.
• Information about which files have been sent and retrieved is available.
• More accurate billing.
• Better archival services.
The value of these processes to ABC Prepress are:
• Jobs are preflighted before they arrive.
• Information is not re-keyed when the files arrive.
• Job tickets are automatically created.
• The information requires less validation because it comes from the source—the publisher.
• Files are routed to where they should be on the server.
• The job ticket is updated as it moves from area to area.
• Fewer people invest less time in the billing process.
• Billing is performed more accurately.
• Invoices get mailed sooner.
• With the files and the associated metadata already in a work-in-process database, it is easy to move that information into an asset management database for archival.
The results of these changes are:
• Faster throughput.
• More accurate job tracking.
• More productive CSRs, who no longer spend the majority of their time writing job tickets, reconciling information and analyzing job bags.
• More productive operators, who no longer spend time looking for files or filling in paperwork.
• Fewer billing disputes.
• Increased cash flow from quicker invoicing.
• Quicker month-end closings.
• Clients can see the progress of their work without the assistance of a CSR.
In this automated process, systems are talking to each other (e.g., the client job ticket and P.O. being used to generate the tracking ticket), and databases are being utilized (e.g., the work-in-process database) to locate and track items, and move them into archives with minimal operator intervention.
Another component of an automated process is an infrastructure (local area and wide area networks) that can move data and metadata within the enterprise and inter-enterprise. As you are now establishing your supply chain over this network, you had better make sure that it is up more than it is down. Without a managed network, especially the wide area network (WAN), you risk interrupting your supply chain.
Next, you need applications that are interfaced with each other and integrated into the overall system, and standards, standards, standards. Standards to code the job tickets, standards in the way that the databases communicate, standards in the network protocols you use and in the file formats you deploy.
Why Emphasize Standards? Standards allow you to interface and integrate quickly, accurately and efficiently. They also allow you to switch components into and out of your workflows and systems.
Two of the most important standards for process automation in the graphic arts are job definition format (JDF) and extensible markup language (XML). If a system is JDF- or XML-compliant, it can take in JDF or XML data, do something meaningful with it, then spit out information in either of these standard formats.
If, in the earlier example, an automated preflighting solution were not JDF- or XML-enabled, the publisher's job-ticketing system (input to it) would have to be custom tailored to the preflight package, and the job-reception system would have to be coded to accept the preflight reports (output from it). As fast as technology changes, in 18 months or so, there is likely to be a new and improved preflight solution to interface and integrate, for example. Implementing the new solution will take more custom code to accept the new inputs, which takes time and money, and is error-prone.
If the preflight solution is JDF- or XML-compliant, custom coding is not needed. A file will pass through an XML booking process extracting various data and inserting it into a JDF job ticket near the initial production stage. Knowing the value of standards allows you to make informed system and software purchasing decisions.
- Alan Darling
Alan Darling is executive VP of Vio Inc. He participates in several leading industry organizations, including CIP4 (the parent organization of JDF), AdsML, CGATS (Committee for Graphic Arts Technology Standards), DDAP (Digital Distribution of Advertising for Publications), GRACoL (General Requirements for Applications in Commercial Offset Lithography), and the Ghent PDF Workgroup.