Designing Workflow to Drive New Opportunities

By: Elizabeth Gooding, President at Inkjet Insight and Co-Author of “The Designer’s Guide to Inkjet”

You may think about book workflow, graphic arts workflow, direct mail workflow or maybe transaction printing workflow as unique solutions. While every workflow should be unique to the service provider, thinking of the workflow solution as unique to a particular application segment can limit a company in terms of their process design and potential for page growth on their presses.

In every segment, general areas of tasks and processes have to be managed and ideally, automated. The general areas are fairly similar across business segments, for example:

  • Job/file intake
  • File validation/preprocessing
  • Image rendering/transformation
  • Color management
  • File post processing
  • Production scheduling, tracking, reporting
  • Printing (and electronic production)
  • Finishing
  • Delivery
  • Billing

However, the specifics within those general buckets, and the flow of work between buckets, can be very different. Traditional thinking is that if the jobs and flow are different, then the approach to automating their workflow must be different as well. I disagree, the PROCESS for designing the workflow is the same:

  1. Document all current work processes from the ability to receive (or internally create) a job through the delivery of the finished product to client billing.
  2. Identify all discrete aspects of the work that can be automated
  3. Define the most streamlined process for each unit of work
  4. Design flows that put those “automated units of work” together in different ways for different jobs

It’s the resulting workflow design that is unique. However, when you think about workflow design in this basic way, you may realize that breaking work down into smaller units (sort of like the concepts of object oriented programming) gives you the flexibility to put workflows together in different ways for different jobs using the same component parts, for example:

  • In a transaction print or direct mail environment, workflow design may be focused on data validation, variable composition, load balancing and postal processing. Transaction printers should also plan to take in large graphics files for clients who want to add messaging or educational materials to their statements. I’ve had clients that wanted to send their statements as a booklet. That requires an imposition step not typically associated with transaction printing. Transaction printers who are taking on more graphical work and perhaps some higher coverage direct mail also need to look carefully at the color management processes and ink estimating steps in their workflow to make sure that jobs are priced and produced cost effectively.
  • In a graphic arts environment, workflow design may be more focused on authoring or ordering aspects of the process, but that doesn’t mean commercial printers shouldn’t be looking closely at options for data validation and thinking about options for handling more data-driven jobs.
  • Modern book printers have very complex workflows that enable different publications to be sent to the printer as a single job and processed through the remainder of the workflow as “jobs of one.” These jobs of one effectively put book printers in the mailing business and cause more overlap with transaction printing and direct mail than one might initially expect.

Designing reusable components within your workflow, and “stubbing in” steps for other types of work you may do in the future, will make your workflow system more flexible, extensible, and auditable.

With more sheet-fed inkjet devices entering the market, printers in many segments are supplementing their core business with signage, workbooks and other tangential applications. Some of this can also be handled on a continuous device. It’s not enough to have a press that can handle this business, the workflow needs to support it as well, particularly if any of the overflow work requires data-driven customization or personalization.

Data is changing the nature of most application segments today. Inkjet printing solutions like the ones Powered by Memjet are enabling the production of books, collateral, direct mail and even signage, packaging and labels to be data-driven in a cost-effective way. Data and inkjet together are blurring the boundaries between application segments and the companies that operate in those segments, as companies now want to do more than one thing with their equipment. I can almost guarantee that you won’t have the ability to jump into new sectors if you hard-code your workflow to align with the current vision of a particular application segment. Also, don’t be fooled into thinking that you will magically gain new capabilities by simply adding modules in your workflow. You must design your whole workflow to do more in order to keep the door open to new opportunities.

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About the Author: Elizabeth has a rare ability to see design related issues from many perspectives. She has managed creative teams on complex design projects, selected outsourcers for major brands and helped print organizations to retool operations, focus their market positioning and educate sales teams to accelerate growth. At Inkjet, Elizabeth works with a team of top analysts to translate those experiences into tools, data and content to help print organizations evaluate the potential of inkjet, optimize their operations, work effectively with designers and grow pages profitably. She is also founding member of the Inkjet Summit advisory board and a curious consultant constantly seeking innovative ways to help designers and printers hone their craft and drive new pages onto inkjet presses.