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Digital Workflow Management



Published October 18, 2005
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Over the past two decades, the prepress production process has undergone dramatic changes. The impact of Macintosh desktop publishing technology and the more recently adopted PC platforms has been tremendous. Production turnaround has been significantly reduced, the reduction in materials consumed by the prepress process has been greatly diminished, the predictability of the digital prepress system has been enhanced, and the output of all print mediums has been positively impacted by the adoption of digital workflows. Over the past five years alone, the penetration of digital printing on a production basis into the traditional printing markets has been phenomenal. And based on the activity level I recently witnessed at the Print '05 Exhibition in Chicago, there doesn't appear to be any lessening of the current pace of adoption.

Inasmuch as the typical digital prepress department has become more efficient and cost effective in its production and delivery of more predictable results, the amount of digital components in need of management throughout the process has become staggering.

In this article we will review a bit of history on how the digital prepress environment has evolved, a brief look at what exactly is the asset we are attempting to manage, the general areas of concern by consumer products companies, prepress providers and printers with respect to ownership, management and redeployment of the digital asset, and some methods that have been developed to allow all parties to cooperatively build the required infrastructure for future growth and profitability.

History

With the integration of traditional prepress and computer based desktop publishing systems, the need to manage large amounts of art boards, loose scans, halftones, flats, and die vinyls was replaced by the need to store and manage large quantities of scans, EPS artwork and digital die lines/templates.

As the volume grew, typical art department technicians were found to be spending more of their working hours searching for and retrieving the various digital components of the job than doing the actual work on the files. This was exacerbated by the fact that most Macintosh users would use a "sneaker net" method of transporting files to and from different workstations and file servers because of the tremendously large file size and the limited processing speed of those early day CPUs and network "pipes" through which the files needed to be transported.

As faster networks were developed, the larger prepress houses adopted a more centralized file server arrangement. In the early days these servers contained multiple volumes, each with a different capacity to store job files.  The need for more suitable and efficient methods of archiving, retrieval and repurposing digital assets was evolving from a "wish list" item to a "must have" requirement.

To begin to address this growing concern, tools were developed to organize and manage the file server environment. Archiving was an initial piece developed to enhance the organization of the digital landscape.

Archiving is basically a means by which the digital asset is catalogued using certain naming conventions by which one can query the system and retrieve the asset in a systematic and productive way. Some of these systems were enhanced to include a thumbnail of the graphics.

Now the beginnings of a manageable archiving and retrieval methodology were coming together.

The fundamentals

The distinguishing factor in most archiving systems today lies in the ability to organize the database either as a brand centric asset system or as a job centric asset system.

The ideal approach would yield the ability to organize the assets in such a way as to (1) catalogue them as a job centric archive including all of the graphic elements as well as the job parameters specific to the production steps needed to produce the job in print, and to (2) filter the job parameters when archiving the brand assets so that others in the consumer products companies brand group may access the assets in order to repurpose for a sell sheet, PowerPoint presentation, advertising media, and so on.

So there are two prominent reasons a company would want to implement a digital asset management system:
1.    Internal - job centric
2.    Client driven - brand centric

Most job data handled by prepress services companies these days is in digital format. Considering the volume of data going back and forth between the consumer goods company, the designer and the prepress provider, along with the amount of alterations and intermediate approval cycles, the chance for error is huge. Errors such as misplacing or sending the wrong files or versions of files can create costly interruptions in the cycle of launching products and line extensions. Occasionally these errors can end up getting on press and into print, a cost the prepress supplier will bear.

This, compounded by the increased volume of work that is required to be produced for the same revenue each year, makes it just about mandatory to become more efficient in storing and maintaining control over that data, not just in the archive but while it is still work in progress.

Job centric

As defined, job centric data management refers to the organization of the job data inside job folders on a server. The aim is to keep this data organized while the job is work in progress, and to carry that organization all the way through to archiving. For the prepress company, this is the easiest way to archive and identify the components of the job, which may be needed either for alterations or to create new line extensions. This style of organization lends itself to users that are directly involved in either the design aspect or the manufacturing aspect of any project.

Brand centric

Consumer products companies these days have the technology to enable them to break with traditional models that required them to go through a marketing or creative department to create collateral pieces, presentations, sell sheets, etc. Everyone in an organization can benefit from having the access to files that can be used to dramatically improve their marketing reports or presentations.

But publishing image data that is designed to be searched in a "job centric" fashion to users who do not know job centric information makes it difficult, if not impossible, for them to locate the components they need. The data needs to be filtered and published in a "brand centric" format before it is made available to this type of user. These users will need to be looking for objects and images based upon a specific brand or product grouping. These users do not know or care about projects in which the data was previously used.

Providing tools to systematically transition image detail from job centric to brand centric data is key to a successful asset management system.

Companies that can successfully facilitate both types of systems can solve internal production problems (job) and publish out to their clients clean, organized data (brand) in an easily understood format. Once the job data is filtered, reorganized in a brand centric format and published to a client base, companies will also be able to benefit from the increased volume of pick-ups being requested. Fulfillment of those requests can also include the auto processing of the image to fit other media formats, such as resolution, color depth and other technical variations that are above the skill set of the average user.
Increasing efficiencies in these areas, coupled with the increased volume, will result in closer ties with customers, increased revenue and additional billing opportunities.

A typical asset management workflow

If your goal is to establish a fully functional digital asset management system, you should consider various workflow scenarios and determine which avenues are best suited to your operation and the mix of clientele from whom you wish to attract business.

As an overview, I would suggest that the following capabilities should be defined and implemented over time. The key to remember with all of this is to acquire a system which is scalable, allowing you as the user to establish a foundation from which you can build both internal and external capabilities while ensuring that a common database can be accessed to organize the data.

Once the foundation is solid, it is critical to your ongoing success that upgrades and additional modules are available and can be added on in the future.

A successful implementation should be based on the fundamental capability to handle jobs from start to finish. It is extremely important that the database be capable of tracking activities and interaction by users throughout the workflow. Some key scenarios would include:

Creating jobs

-    A customer should have the ability to create job requests and upload files to the host site.
-    The system creates a job and creates its appropriate job folders.
-    Supplied files can be downloaded to job folders.
-    Library files can be uploaded for use in a new job.
-    Old files can be picked up from archived jobs to create new jobs.

User interaction with jobs in progress

-    The user should be able to access job files via variable job information.
-    The system should support a file versioning control workflow which creates a copy of the file into a predesignated folder located at the root level of the server volume. This type of system can eliminate the need for assigning file version numbers, and can ensure that any OPI (open program interface) path information will always point to the current version of the desired file.

Customer interaction with jobs in progress

-    Production site marks files for client to download via web access.
-    Customer downloads files.
-    Customer edits files and uploads them back to production site.
-    Production site performs file edits as per instructions.
-    Generate reports on job status for viewing by clients via web access or print at the host site.
-    Be sure system allows for future customization as your needs and those of your customers change and evolve.

Archiving

-    Jobs that are complete get added to an archive queue.
-    Once all jobs designated for archiving are in the queue, it is important that the system has the ability to analyze the job files, determine and deal with duplication issues, create new thumbnails when needed, and maintain the job folder structure.
-    Once the archiving is completed, the job files should be sent to a designated trash location.
-    Archiving reporting is the final critical element for future tracking capability.

Customer workflows

-    The key to any digital asset management system is to enable a closer interaction with the client. This capability needs to have the flexibility to be customized based on provider-client relationship. The permissions you establish for one client might not be the same that you extend to another. Various levels of permissions will be provided for various circumstances.
-    Allow customers to perform searches based upon certain criteria.
-    Allow customers to locate files and keywords and add to portfolios.
-    Customers can download files directly or simply request changes.
-    Customers are notified when requested changes have been made.
-    E-mail notification is key.

Where to begin?

Over the course of the last several years as the digital prepress environment has evolved, many companies have evolved with it. As requirements presented themselves, IT departments were formed to handle the daunting tasks of managing all of the information which is critical to running and growing a modern business in the printing industry.

Due to this evolution, many companies are in a similar condition. They have several "silos of information": a database that handles print estimation, another for accounting, another for shop floor data collection, and yet another to eventually send out the invoice. The problem in most cases is that the burden on each of these silos has increased tremendously, and there are few systems available that have the ability to either link these legacy systems together or allow for a digital extraction of the data for compilation into a single reporting mechanism.

Therefore, strategic decision-making is compromised, resulting in the inability to respond quickly to changing market conditions, changing customer requirements and changing dynamics of our businesses. The company of the future must be in a position to be nimble and adjust focus on the fly. Information is what fuels growth and enables profitability through timely information analysis and decision-making.

My advice is to do the research by first taking a hard look at your business. Understand the information that you require in order to make timely decisions. Determine where the deficiencies are in your current information management system. Develop your wish list and do the research to determine what system allows for either replacement of or integration to those functions of your current system, which deliver sound data. Determine which database will allow you to start now and provide a platform for continuous improvement as the needs of your business and your clients business change.

Will you be able to respond in a timely manner?

Based on what I witnessed at the recent Print '05 exhibition in Chicago, the tools are definitely available to accomplish these tasks.

Patrick J. O'Brien is President of Premier Sales Ltd., in Peacedale, RI, USA. In addition to consultation services, Pat calls on nearly 30 years experience in the flexographic printing and converting industry to assist clients with sourcing technology and equipment systems from a worldwide network of manufacturers. He can be reached at 401-783-0817 or via e-mail at pat.o@premiersalesri.com.



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