Raymond Duval, Director of Solutions Sales at Ultimate, discussed workflow automation with Morten Reitoft at INKISH.TV:
Talking about Ultimate TechnoGraphics, I (Morten) think that your software is very important in all these discussions about workflow automation. Before we talk a little more in details about some of the products that you do, is there a going need for workflow automation or is this coming in cycles?
It’s not cycle. It’s growing. We’ve seen a change in software automation, workflow automation and operational automation in the last few decades. 1990 was the first Drupa we did. From that time frame to today, it completely changed our development, the customers needs, the requirements, the production environments where back then it was still about craftsmanship. Doing imposition, placing pages, pagination, page letters and preparing files to print manually. Today, all the discussions we have are about automation. That’s why we always discuss with customers considering their current workflow, implementations and what they are looking into. I don’t think today there are any discussions with customers where complete automation is not the subject. For sure, it’s part of our daily discussions, to talk about Automation not just about our product but in general.
Do you think that this tremendous need in the market for workflow automation is based on the commoditization of print so everything becomes cheaper, it needs to be faster and you need to use the sheets better, or is it just the fact because the computers are becoming cheaper, faster and better? What drives this development for the workflow automation in your opinion?
You said a few keywords. There’s many concepts for automation and for business in general. Cutting cost, better profitability and productivity is not just for us in the printing industry, but across the board. Today, it would be manufacturing face masks which is a subject anybody watching TV would be confronted to. You need to produce more in fast time, so automation and optimization is essential. For us in the print industry, it’s the same thing. If you want to produce faster with less dependency on people knowledge, you need to automate certain tasks. It’s essential not just for a print business that sells traditional commercial commodities like business cards, postcards, product brochures – anybody can print that. When you get a step above, you look into embellishment with the new equipment, you look into on-demand true shape nested products like small chocolate box that you can sell in weddings. For commercial printers that want to diversify their offering, optimize the use of their printing and finishing equipment, automating the process is the only way to do it else you will need more people, more time and it affects everything else that you said. Profitability and productivity can only be achieved by optimization.
I think it was Heidelberg in Scandinavia who said that the utilization ratio was on average less than 25% in Scandinavia. We get more and more efficient, so we can get things out of the door faster but still you have a free capacity of 70-75%. Is it because we calculate per time used or it’s just because the ones that really invest in workflow automation, are the ones that are really busy and utilize the machines better.
Optimizing a production environment using the maximum capacity or capabilities of the printing and bindery equipment, regardless of what you do whether transactional printing, commercial printing or specialty printing like photo, at some point, to maximize your throughput, there are some key moments where decisions have to be made. For example, going from a 4-head, 5-head, 7-head, whatever offset press where you would print high quality for certain runs for your customers, it’s a normal assumption around the world that these same customers, their runs are smaller. To keep that press busy, you need more customers, more contracts and it brings a difficulty: How do you manage your people schedule and how do you sort everything else?
What you are saying is basically when you look at the utilization of the equipment, that doesn’t really say the complexity of the jobs because it can be a lot of smaller jobs. So if you had 50% utilization of the equipment last year but it was longer print runs and fewer jobs, you maybe have a higher value to the 25% utilization but you need to have automation in order to be profitable. Is that a correct assumption?
Yes. Those customers that are fortunate to have also invested into centralization of the information with dashboards, they can look into these numbers and see where they need to invest or make adjustments. I’ve visited a few customers in the last few months, just before our confinement, and one of them was very surprising. They heavily invested in the last five years in digital printing equipment, continuous feed and cut-sheet, and printing a ton of jobs there but still based on mailing/promotional high-value material so they invested into a UV offset press which they keep really busy and run through a tremendous number of plates because they have high quality customers and jobs to run on that press. For them, it’s a complement and that’s the reference I made to investing at key moments where based on your customers and jobs, sometimes if you want to automate your workflow and the way you generate the orders upstream, you also need to look into your production capabilities: printing and finishing.
I think you are a few people that really sticks out when it comes to the automation processes. What is Ultimate TechnoGraphics capable of offering that brings value to that story? What value do you, as a company, bring to the market?
Our core business is imposition so placing pages or objects on paper, and finishing automation meaning communicating finishing parameters to equipment which is essential when you look at the global production environment.
Of course, generating orders and web-to-print came around 15 years ago but still today people are investing into storefronts or web-to-print. Then came a much more accessible MIS concept where you could manage your information and costing to boost your profitability where you could intervene. Imposition is still essential where 80% of the jobs are repetitive. There are some variations maybe in page size or some specifications for how you want the printing to come out, but 80% is always the same thing. Automating this task gives you the flexibility of using these men hours elsewhere in production. This is where we fit well to not only do this task but also connect with systems as I mentioned upstream and downstream. Gluing all of this … Web-to-print can be, in the perception of most commercial printer, ”automated” meaning an end user whether it’s B2C or B2B goes into an online shop, orders a product, pays for this order. Then, it goes into the other steps of the workflow: preflighting, imposition, printing, etc. So gluing whatever is upstream to do the imposition automatically is where we optimize based on any type of printing environments, product-wise.
Then, finishing is something we’ve been doing for nearly 15 years. JDF back then was this obscure code set for most printers where today, it’s an integral part of where you can invest as simple as a cutter. Automation downstream in bindery to a cutter where you can cut a different stack of paper automatically. Automation to bindery is also something we talk to customers about every week, not every day because you need some volume and variability. We have customers around the world that are doing this. We are seeing now, even in these moments, conversations with customers that are working on the workflow analysis from their home, but now are moving fast on putting in place theirs plans to automate right down to bindery where they can take into account a higher volume of smaller runs with the same number of people or with less people, yet growing their business. Finishing is definitely a component.
So we play on two fronts but I think the most important thing is to be able to connect upstream and downstream and it is a part of our success.
Even thought workflow automation and imposition have been around for some time, it gets smarter and smarter. We hear buzz words like Artificial Intelligence and IOT. Still I believe there’s a lot of printing companies that have multiple workflow automation solutions that are based on the hardware they invested in. Let’s say you buy a certain branded printer and you get a snippet of a workflow that works specifically for that one. Is there something where you can add value, if you are a printing company with a lot of legacy systems?
You are right on. We don’t see any commercial shops or factories that doesn’t have this problem. Customers say: ”In offset, we are automated to a certain point. In digital? Yes, to a certain point. In large format? Yes, to a certain point.” These are just three separate islands where sometimes the same job will go into two of them, or parts of an order will go to one segment and the other. So above and beyond the actual production, the actual putting-the-ink-on-paper, all the preparation of the files, the orders, the management, when you have this duplication of data, it becomes really difficult to do, for larger customers, an analysis of the jobs. Then, to have three systems, three ways of checking the files, imposing the files, do whatever color management on the files is very difficult. Centralization, regardless of which software solutions you choose in a workflow, is essential to be able to decide based on conditions for example where each job will be printed. In the same centralized software solution, you standardize your operations, you reduce your technology risk of having three different workflows. It’s a risk to maintain. The machines, at the end of the day, do more or less the same thing. There’s ink or toner that goes on paper and you just need some different variables to prepare those files.
More and more printing companies operate both offset and digital. Sometimes, you would like to have the last minute decision on what machine to print on. Having a fully implemented workflow to also handle these kind of things is something that can be very valuable for printers because it is about load balancing on the equipment they have. A lot of printing companies, especially during crisis, are concerned about not only the depreciation and investment but also the repayment time and ROI. What is the typical repayment time of how much value do the Ultimate Solutions bring?
It’s always depending on the size of the problem or the project. We have customers that can automate their operation from a small investment in the range of €1,400-1,500, as well as really big projects where the investment on our side is in the €20K. But then you’re taking also about the reference of the customer. The customer that does millions and millions of books pages or transactional prints might say that they would repay to your question in a matter of days whereas the smaller customer that has this issue of 2-3 different workflows based on their equipment, even if they’re strictly digital, will invest in minimal amount of money but they calculate because of the number of jobs that they repay in weeks. The ratio is different but the fact is the automation investment nowadays, regardless of the software technology you look into, the repayment for most investment is very fast.
There seems to be at least 2 different levels of people that works with Ultimate. There’s the ones that install a piece of software and utilize it to whatever it does with the front end, and there’s a number of printers who have decided to invest a lot of money also in integrating systems using the Application Programming Interface (API)s. Are you also capable of offering APIs and automation for these types of companies?
Higher the volume of the customer, the more complex the environment is with offset, digital, large format with different types of products or jobs. The same customer could have a segment of their business dedicated to book-of-one, whether it’s a photo book application or a normal book for self-publishing needs and they also do transactional, very high page count jobs with variable data where the optimization needs to be there. We have very advanced APIs to connect with MIS systems and probably half of these customers have their custom developed MIS and file management system. We connect with those through API. We also have a very easy to implement XML approach, where with an XML ticket you can drive most of the variability needed for production. This is how for example we connect with tools like Enfocus Switch. There’s a European integrator called Impressed based in Germany that did two configurators based on this API using also advanced XML ticketing to be able to drive the imposition process. Connectivity and flexibility are essential for these projects.
In today’s race for market shares and growth, is having both a User Interface (UI) and also the API capabilities a demand in the market or is something that you have to push down the throat of your customers to understand the value of it?
I’ll use an analogy with cars: You cannot talk about an expensive Italian fast sports car to a customer that only needs to go from a point A to a point B with four wheels. He’s not gonna be even looking into this. It’s the same thing for a commercial printer. If they need to automate a certain volume of jobs in Hot Folder automation, meaning to have jobs PDFs and JPEGs to be in folders where there are some conditions and the print-ready files are generated. It’s sufficient for them whereas a more complex customer with offset, digital and a lot of variation in their jobs, we’ll look into an API or an XML approach so they can conditionally decide at the last second to drive a certain job a certain way. This flexibility is more and more required by customer. Then years ago, we used to have these discussions with customers that had IT teams, prepress teams, workflow automation teams and it was customers of a certain size. Today, a mid-range customer site wants to discuss this. They want to be able to control from their system whatever is happening downstream after the orders where the data is generated.
Watch the full interview on INKISH.TV by clicking here.