Anyone who does not yet know how complex and multifaceted a print production process is will certainly know it after talking to Martin Klein. After all, he deals with the adversities of print production, which sometimes reveal workflows, down to the smallest detail.
Martin Klein is the CEO of ctrl-s GmbH in Stuttgart, which, in addition to classic prepress services such as CtP and Repro, specializes in software for production automation and consulting for digital transformation.
After all, the change from the traditional craft to the integrated Smart Factory – the goal of many print shops – cannot be achieved simply by flipping a switch. Moreover, anyone who believes that the production of a printed product is a linear process that can be processed easily has overlooked the many variables – and has also overlooked the fact that there is not a single workflow in print shops, but rather an array of different processes that have to be synchronized.
The orders, which are becoming ever smaller in size, converge from classic sales and e-commerce portals, and must then be recorded and placed on track, where they pass through the prepress process, through production via print and finishing, and through logistics. And there are deviations everywhere! Even the use of digital instead of offset printing requires different processes. Data must be supplied instead of printing plates, and if in doubt, different papers and finishing machines must also be used. Items such as inks, plates, papers and many other consumables have to be ordered, stocked and scheduled in print shops. Calculations, merchandise management and financial accounting must therefore be integrated and eventually a warehouse with administration must be operated for semi-finished products or customer advertising materials. If now a fellow company – such as a bookbinder for adhesive binding – is also involved in a job, then freight forwarding, and other logistical measures become necessary. And now the busy and hidden picture is complete.
If a print shop transforms from a print service provider to a service provider, it is at risk of being lost without end-to-end networking and automation. However, everyone who prints is currently facing such challenges. In addition, print runs are declining, the production of individualized products or personalized unique copies in the first run has long since become a reality in print, and mass customization is the megatrend that has now arrived and will have an enormous impact on the printing industry.
However, classic software solutions will only be able to cope with these trends to a limited extent because some of the so-called Management Information Systems (MIS) are based on decades-old architectures and have largely neglected the trend towards smaller batch sizes and mass customization. They are too inflexible for the growing number of small orders.
To remedy this shortcoming, proprietary systems have been developed, especially in online printing plants, which require large investments for individual solutions that cannot be easily and quickly adapted to upcoming changes in the workflow.
“First came the digitalization of individual processes and workflows. Now comes the networking of the entire print shop internally and externally with customers and suppliers. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of obstacles to overcome.” – Bernd Zipper
“Workflows are installed throughout the system, allowing each individual process to be controlled, but only each process individually. This is why the processes have to be connected with each other,” says Matthias Heinz, Senior Consultant for Presales and Project Management at ctrl-s. But there are still missing interfaces or media breaks where automation can fail. “Print shops always lose money where there are no interfaces,” says Martin Klein.
It is not uncommon, for example, that a closed shop for existing customers or an online print reveals these weak points. This is because with a web shop, the world of a print shop changes massively as a result of digital ordering processes. “Our workflow manager Symphony is not just a product for online printing, but a solution for commercial printers with complex but standardized processes,” says Heinz.
The way to a Smart Factory
“When developing Symphony, we have always asked ourselves who actually manages the different workflows? And can a workflow start another workflow? This brought us to a completely new approach to optimizing workflows in print shops,” explains Klein. The Symphony Workflow Manager has become a solution that uses a standardized platform to create flexible and editable workflows while integrating existing hardware and software. “This allows a step-by-step scalable path to a Smart Factory.”
The freely configurable workflow engine also automates business processes. The architecture is interface-friendly in order to seamlessly integrate existing systems. Symphony can be installed in a print shop’s data center or made available in the cloud. Operation and configuration are carried out via the Conductor, the central client for operating the individual modules. It can be equipped with plug-ins for each user, which they needs for their work. Essentially, these are different views of the orders and access to the Symphony modules such as warehouse, shipping, billing and administration tools. A further operating and communication concept is available with the customer-, supplier- or workstation-specific WebClients, which provides information for a specific work step both internally or externally. Order envelopes and daily slips are thus digitally transformed. Work instructions, feedback and production data collection merge.
Full overview of lists and forms
With an order list, all responsible employees are informed about order information in real time. Incoming orders, order sources, status and status changes, deadlines, order and customer details, previews, tracking, order history, reserved services, backlogs of the individual production steps and the entire position, automated download and upload of print data for correction in an external editor and numerous other things are displayed in the order list. All details can be searched, filtered and grouped for a clear presentation.
The order forms inform the process participants on their screens or as hard copies regarding each work step. Symphony can change the focus from collective forms to individual items depending on the workflow step. Thus, the order forms contain both a barcode for identifying the sheet and the individual items. For collective forms, a sheet companion form is generated after collection, which describes and visualizes all the items contained on the collective form. In case of confusing products, a cut-out can be used to show the unmistakable characteristics of the product and help the employee to put the right product into the right package.
The statuses are recorded when the order has reached or left a certain process step. Statuses can be fully set automatically by JMF communication or a workflow, semi-automatically by scanning the barcode on the job ticket or product, and manually by specifying the status in the job list.
In this way, those involved in the process always have real-time status changes of every order in view. Dashboards also provide an overview of company-relevant information. And a clear traffic light system provides information about the scheduling situation or other critical statuses.
Benefits for users
Symphony controls processes via configurable workflows and can therefore be set up for many applications without additional programming. It is possible to create processes that contain complex rules and conditions. This makes generic workflows possible that trigger actions, set statuses, send an e-mail or start other workflows, wait for their results and, depending on one or the other condition, continue to branch. Workflows are typically linked to products, so that, for example, a adhesive-bound brochure follows a different workflow than a warehouse product or a business card. Other objects (plates, printed sheets, orders, packing lists, delivery notes, invoices, etc.) can also be linked to workflows or controlled by workflows.
Without going into too much detail about Symphony’s way of working, as it would go beyond the scope of this article, it can be concluded that Symphony is a successful platform for implementing print 4.0 strategies.
The modular structure and workflow engine allows individual adaptation to all processes in the value chain and can fully automate processes from order acceptance, data preparation and production through to dispatch and invoicing. “If process control through workflows is not sufficient, additional modules can integrate new functions with little programming effort,” says Klein in response to a question about the expandability of the system, adding: “Actually, our customers don’t buy any software, but rather a benefit that helps them with their transformation. And this especially against the background of the fact that in recent years the customer relationship has become increasingly digital.”
Automation beyond production
Symphony goes well beyond just automating production. With intelligently controlled workflows, the integrated print shop is no longer a utopia. Products from different online portals can be synchronized in a workflow route, thousands of products can be billed correctly according to different criteria with little effort and print and non-print products can be delivered together in a package on a specific date.
If a shipping employee scans the barcode printed on the accompanying order form, with which the system identifies each individual order and generates packing lists and shipping documents, he or she is informed of the respective status. If a shipping rule is stored in the system according to which all products are to be shipped to the same address in a single package, the shipping employee receives information about which products belong in the package, what production status they have, or where they are found in the warehouse. Tens of thousands of orders are thus no longer at risk.
My Take: Symphony plays in a completely different league than workflow management systems, which merely claim to manage workflows. When Symphony users say that Symphony saves them about 90% of their time on automated productions, then ctrl-s and Martin Klein are on the right track with their product. After all, a good 85% of the existing print market volume consists of standardized jobs.