The Digital Workflow

By Steve Smith, Contributing Editor | November 29, 2012

Throughout a job, digital adopters make changes to tackle a new set of challenges.

As any label converter who has adopted digital technology can tell you, the printing component is often the easiest part of the transition. Sure, the technology differences are substantial and will require some serious effort to properly integrate – but once the actual printing process is understood it quickly becomes second nature, which is to be expected when you consider that the end result is still printed labels (something you’re already familiar with).

However, what often surprises digital adopters is the substantial change in the way the “other” components of their business are affected. Almost everything involved in the process between taking orders and shipping finished product can be quite different in the typical digital environment.

Order taking
The order taking process of course starts with the estimating function, and, by nature, digital technology encourages (and deserves) a significant shift in thinking. Sales folks (and customers as well) should be educated into a different mindset, based on the simple concept of “versioning.”

A customer will typically be better served (and almost invariably happier) if they’re made aware of the cost savings and branding options now available to them. Contrary to the traditional approach which encouraged customers to minimize colors and plate changes for cost reasons, they can now run amok and order multiple distinct designs with minimal (if any) extra cost. This can have a significant impact on the estimating process – a salesperson needs to understand when versioning might be appropriate, when to suggest that a customer might benefit from minor art adjustments to make more cost-effective use of “ganging,” and of course their estimating system needs to deal with this as a normal part of everyday life.

Further, once an estimate is prepared and the customer decides to proceed with an order, the process needs to be flexible enough to deal with frequent changes in direction. It’s very common for a customer to request an estimate for 10 versions totaling 25,000 labels (for example), only to change their mind once they get into the artwork phase. Such changes can affect the number of versions and/or quantities and often occur several times before the final order is ready for production. So, unless you opt to create new estimates every time something changes (a ridiculous waste of time), system flexibility and secure data control are paramount in ensuring that the appropriate adjustments automatically flow through the estimate – otherwise the ensuing job ticket may no longer reflect the customer’s actual needs and the pricing may be completely wrong.

What the above shift in thinking does should be obvious – it increases the number of unique SKUs that the label converter needs to deal with. What may have been a single-version order in the flexo environment (or perhaps single-plate changes to achieve some degree of simple versioning), could suddenly turn into dozens of unique art files with completely different visual characteristics. Each of those files needs to be separately pre-flighted, proofed, adjusted if necessary, re-proofed (possibly multiple times) before the order gets into production.

In short, the whole pre-press process is dramatically altered once digital is introduced – instead of focusing on color separations, trapping, plate preparation etc, it now becomes an intensive file-processing function with possibly many times more art files than have ever been encountered before. This single difference in approach has caught numerous converters napping – they’ve failed to understand (and prepare for) the fundamental shift to an entirely new pre-press workflow and the associated increase in volumes.

Job Layout and Submission
This function is usually another piece of the prepress function in a digital environment, but very frequently either misunderstood or poorly implemented. For a typical multi-version order on a typical digital press with, for example, a 13" web, it almost always makes sense to print different versions across the web – thereby optimizing the finishing part of the production process. After all, why print 1,000 labels of the same version five-up on the web and require the rewind staff to splice five rolls of 200 back together, when you can print the whole 1,000 labels in a single “lane” and avoid splicing at all? If you gang five similar versions across the web (regardless of color or art differences), the time savings should be obvious.   However, this job layout function can be quite complex and time-consuming (particularly when quantities vary between versions), and it’s “new ground” for most converters, so it needs to be recognized as yet another step in the new workflow.

Fortunately, some leading MIS vendors have attacked this challenge and have semi-automated the job layout function within their software, thereby saving lots of time and potential errors. Ganging of versions across the web is a key benefit of digital printing, but it needs to be done with care in order to achieve optimal results (not to mention optimal profitability).

As I mentioned in my opening comments, this is usually the least challenging part of the workflow once the press technology has been learned and understood. I’m not suggesting it’s necessarily painless, but this article is focused on the workflow issues surrounding the printing process, so I will skip over to the next challenge that is often not anticipated…

Unlike conventional presses, digital presses very rarely do their finishing in-line. Yes, it’s certainly
possible to link a finishing line to the back of a digital press, but the vast majority of converters have found an offline approach to be more efficient (where the printing and finishing processes are undertaken in separate areas of the plant at different times). One simple reason may be that it makes no sense to stop a very expensive digital press while a die is being mounted – why not continue printing and thereby maximize the ROI of the press? There are other reasons that contribute to this approach, but suffice to say that finishing is usually done separately from printing in a digital setup.

This change has obvious effects on the production flow. Where previously a press operator may have spent hours preparing an analog press for a complete job from printing to finishing, now the digital operator focuses on the printing portion only. Setup time on a digital press is often almost non-existent between jobs, so he/she becomes a master at cranking out job after job of beautifully printed (but unfinished) full-width webs – which then get passed on to a separate section of the plant. 

The staff receiving those webs then set up their finishing line for each job depending on its needs – in the simplest of cases a die gets mounted, lamination or varnish set up, slitting knives adjusted to break the web into rolls, and so on.  This process can be quite time-consuming, particularly when the job itself is typically much shorter than traditional runs. It’s not uncommon for the setup to take longer than the finishing itself, and it’s also not uncommon to see a finishing team perform more than 50 such changeovers each day in a reasonably busy plant. Hence, a new approach to managing that part of the workflow is essential.

Lastly, the finishing process has another unique challenge as a result of the offline digital approach. For reasons of efficiency and total throughput, it often makes perfect sense for the finishing staff to “jump the queue” with a job that arrived from the pressroom later than something they received earlier, for the simple reason that they can make use of the same setup as another job they’re working on. Otherwise they could easily be mounting the same die (and all the associated pieces of the puzzle) several times in the same day, which is clearly inefficient.  Of course, there are going to be times when efficiency needs to be sacrificed in the race to meet individual job deadlines, but the point is that the function of moving jobs progressively through the plant often changes with offline digital finishing.

Okay, I’ll concede that the rewind process might best be considered part of finishing (and it certainly is in some plants with in-line turret-rewinders), but it’s most often done by separate staff with standalone equipment. What digital introduces into this part of the equation is the potential for enormous confusion, not to mention increased opportunity for errors. When a rewind operator receives a typical analog job, it’s usually a lengthy run with few changes – allowing them to crank their rewind station up to maximum speed and fly through the job with minimal intervention. In comparison, a digital job may consist of 10, 20, 50, or even hundreds of different versions, each of which may only be a few hundred labels (or less). What this does to the rewind operator’s life should not be underestimated – it massively increases the need for close attention to detail and certainly increases the amount of physical intervention in each multi-version job. And once they’ve rewound all versions, the usual quality control step (where the finished rolls are tallied against the job ticket for accuracy and completeness) also requires a greater level of activity and focus.

Assuming everything tallies, and the finished rolls match the job ticket, the last link in the chain is shipping. It makes little sense to analyze this function any more than to recognize that it also becomes more complicated when you’re packing 50 different versions for a single customer, and there’s often no visual indication of which rolls belong to which customer.

A label plant’s shipping area can quickly become a chaotic mess unless the layout and work processes are adjusted to deal with the many more SKUs per ticket.

In summary, while digital printing certainly offers many identifiable benefits to the converter, it’s critical to understand that it’s not as simple as “just adding another press.” In a digital printing environment, the entire workflow from beginning to end has significant differences that need to be understood and planned for – unless of course you choose to treat your shiny (read: expensive) new digital press as just another piece of machinery, and that would be a huge mistake if your goal is to maximize throughput and profitability.

Steve Smith was President and Co-Owner of Lightning Labels until its acquisition in 2008 by Cenveo. Lightning Labels is a Denver-based label converter and was the first all-digital and internet-focused operation in the industry. Prior to his involvement in the label industry, Steve had an extensive career in Information Technology, including the establishment of several internet-based businesses, and was one of the early proponents of online marketing.
He can be contacted at steve@songbirdventures.com.

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