By taking advantage of the newest print management systems, printers can avoid double entry and omission errors. In essence, they can simplify tasks in a timely manner. Some management systems are geared toward financial information, such as estimates, quotes and invoices, while others focus on artwork management and approval modules.
“Label Traxx provides a single framework for all of a label printer’s business data,” explains Dorothy Asboth, sales manager at Label Traxx. “Having a single system of trusted information means that we can quickly find accurate data to make informed decisions about the direction of the business. It also means that label converters can react to customer requests quickly and efficiently, making it simple and pleasant for end users to buy from you. Our aim is to streamline the printer’s administration and production operations and eliminate errors and data-re-entry.”
Label Traxx software provides numerous tools to streamline operations. These include, but are not limited to, estimating, order processing, accounting, job costing and shop floor data collection, web commerce tools and a KPI dashboard. The ability to manage stock, such as raw materials and finished goods, also enables quicker turnaround times and promotes quality control.
Geert Van Damme, managing director for Cerm, concedes that print management systems are not sexy, although they do affect the bottom line. “It’s just a tool, it’s not a game,” he says. “It’s not creative and it’s not fun. It’s like booking a flight online: you can do it easily but not when you want to travel with a dog. Still, we see that more and more printers are looking at renewing their existing ERP/MIS because of the huge time savings that can be achieved. We have the feeling that our software will become more and more popular because of this.”
Van Damme adds that it’s important for software providers to keep up with the latest IT and printing trends. “We need to offer a state-of-the art solution at all times, taking care of the past, managing the present and evolving for the future,” he says. “What we can expect for the near future is more standard interfacing between main industry suppliers, which we showed at the Automation Arena at Labelexpo Europe 2017 with nine other suppliers. What we can also expect – in the long term – is more intelligence, going in the AI direction, when all are connected.” Cerm has developed a function to its print management systems that produces sleeves, as well as labels, by adding a specific technical sleeve description. The company followed an industry trend toward a cloud-based dashboard, where the main KPI’s appear on a mobile phone with Cerm’s new Smart BI platform.
In general, modern print management systems have improved productivity, service and quality. Jobs can be scheduled with similar paper, cylinders and tools in order to reduce setup times. Developers have also worked to keep their customers better informed, providing easy access to troubleshooting. Simpler production prevents mistakes and leads to enhanced quality.
Michael Rottenborn, president and CEO of Hybrid Software, believes that print management systems today are necessary to a successful label printing operation, especially as the functionality of these systems continues to expand to meet the industry’s changing needs. “These systems have always been popular, but today they are absolutely vital for most printers,” says Rottenborn. “With run lengths shortening and faster turnaround times, the number of jobs that printers handle today is extremely high, too high to manage with spreadsheets and printed job tickets passing through the shop in plastic job jackets. Even among smaller label printers, it’s rare to find a successful printer that doesn’t have some form of MIS or print management system.”
Rottenborn notes that vendors are increasingly requiring tighter integration between the print management system and the actual production workflow, which drives the platemaker or digital press. “This is logical because the same pressures that drive printers to manage their job information also drive them to produce jobs faster and more efficiently,” he explains. “Linking the production and print management systems has been possible for years using standards like JDF, and it has become a key requirement when printers look for a new print management system.”
As is the case with other aspects of the labels and packaging industry, print management systems are leaning more toward automation. “Print management systems historically have been manually-driven, but today, good MIS systems are enhancing production workflows by integrating into all aspects of production to push incoming work without requiring total human intervention,” explains Susan Moore, vice president of US sales at Tharstern. “In addition, automating the data gathering function to bring actual costs into each job is a result of technology enabling good partner integrations from hardware to software back into the MIS.”
According to Tharstern, technology is enabling MIS systems to incorporate algorithms to help the production teams with their decision making as it relates to job efficiency and layouts, ganging options and overall plant communications. “With this type of technology, label companies will realize higher levels of production volume with no increase in staff,” adds Moore.
Print management systems are not a one-size-fits-all solution. They are tailored to each company’s needs. Cerm can customize data-grids, menu bars, reports and documents and restrict access to functions. This is normally done for a group of users to which the individual user belongs.
“For our customers, we have a set of parameters that will enable them to choose to go left or right. For example, pharma products may never be combined, while for others, it would be most economical to combine products,” explains Van Damme.
Rottenborn notes, however, that customization has its limits, especially in this market. “All print management and workflow systems have some degree of configurability. Every printer is unique, and their cost structure and business processes are unique, as well,” he says. “But the trend we see is to provide more functionality in the base print management system and less customization for each user. No software vendor wants to support a separate system for each customer, and luckily this is not needed with most modern systems.”
Keeping up with digital
The latest print management systems set up an automated link to the production workflow and into the digital front end (DFE), which drives the digital press. Hybrid Software’s Rottenborn notes that estimating short-run digital orders correctly and accurately can still pose a challenge, as a number of factors come into play. Each digital printer and press comes with a different costing algorithm. In addition, the number of colors in a job can have a large impact on the printing speed. Quoting, however, is typically done before the final artwork has been finalized.
In order to remedy these challenges, print management software providers have teamed up with digital press manufacturers to accommodate the different types of digital printing and finishing equipment out on the market.
“We have a number of digital-specific tools that we have developed,” explains Label Traxx’s Asboth. “Label Traxx estimating enables you to compare the crossover point in the costing of a job between two presses – this could be digital versus flexo. In order entry, we have made it possible to import label specifications that are part of the same family from a spreadsheet, as well as import multiple SKUs onto a job ticket. We have also introduced automation in prepress through the integration with Esko’s Automation Engine and Hybrid’s CloudFlow software.”
Label Traxx passes job data over to the prepress software, along with stepping instructions. The prepress software subsequently generates the step and repeat automatically. According to Label Traxx, this has dramatically decreased the amount of time required to process digital jobs in prepress. Recently, the company partnered with AB Graphic International on a project designed to automate setup on the ABG Digilase digital laser cutter.
Asboth says that the results dramatically increased productivity on the machine. “With the high volume of orders, and the even-higher volume of art files that need to be processed by digital label printers, Label Traxx has an ongoing commitment to streamlining the digital label converting workflow,” she adds.
When providing product support, Tharstern’s Moore describes the customer experience as “your company’s competitive advantage.”
Label Traxx offers ongoing training and consultation services to assist companies with their MIS. “As a business, we take customer service very seriously,” says Asboth. “Label Traxx provides a framework for the label converter. We work with the printer to profile all of their equipment and define their costs, and then we find the most efficient path for that particular business through our software. Every installation and configuration is different – just like every label business is unique.”
According to Hybrid Software’s Rottenborn, the customer service (CSR) function is changing fast among label and narrow web printers. “As more customers submit jobs online, the traditional ‘high touch’ service model has been reduced,” he explains. “But the CSR function has changed as well, and in many printers the CSRs are performing many tasks that were formerly the domain of the prepress department: receiving artwork, checking for file problems and suitability for the intended print process, making sure the job specs in the print management system are correct, and finally, submitting the artwork into an automated workflow system that may go directly to press.”
This trend has eliminated much of the repetitive work from prepress, freeing up the department to handle the challenges of new products and ever-more-complex artwork.
Installing a print management system is not as simple as plug-and-play. Cerm’s large consultancy department features specialists who guide customers through the software implementation process. Cerm will spend between 15 and 50 days on a new project, depending on the size of the customer and the variety of their product offerings and production processes.
An efficient print management system will improve the customer experience, as well. As more levels of the process become automated, providers are freed up to handle specific requests as opposed to administering actual jobs.
In keeping with the latest trends, suppliers have developed products that meet the industry’s needs. Label Traxx recently launched the Siteline module. Siteline is both a tool for a printers’ sales teams and a web portal for customers to connect with the business at their convenience.
“Siteline for Label Traxx gives your customer the ability to access all their pertinent label business information online and place reorders online from any connected device,” explains Label Traxx’s Asboth. “Think of Siteline as a self-service customer view, so they can interact with you at any time of day. If a customer needs to look up the details of an order they placed last year for budgeting purposes – they can now do that from their mobile phone, outside of your business hours.”
Cerm’s latest offerings feature built-in choices. “Whenever we spot a new trend for our target group of customers, we will build this for everyone as part of our update policy,” says Cerm’s Van Damme. “For example, we see a growing trend for consignment stock of printer’s products at the customer. Well, we’ve built it: stock can now be invoiced when the customers send you a consumption report.”
Cerm’s products will also become more intuitive in the future, Van Damme says. “We will evolve to cloud-based products, where all customers see their functionalities increase day by day, without having to install heavy updates every six months. I do see the need for standardized interfaces like (X)JDF for labels. And this will, in the end, open up our complete Cerm system to a set of APIs that can be used by anyone connected. This will allow customers to use some of our intelligence in their own applications.”
Hybrid Software’s products include efficient tools for prepress experts to perform their jobs faster and better while also supporting automation. “PackZ is the only true Native PDF production editor for all types of packaging: tag and label, flexible packaging, folding carton and corrugated,” says Hybrid’s Rottenborn. “CloudFlow provides a fully automated workflow that includes artwork management and process control via a strong central database, regardless of whether the workflow is running locally or in the cloud. It also features an integrated approval and collaboration module called Proofscope, which allows printers to interact directly with their customers to annotate and approve artwork online.”
Hybrid’s products are designed to shorten production cycles and eliminate lengthy delays in receiving customer approvals. CloudFlow also interfaces directly with Label Traxx and Cerm, and customers who have implemented this integration have seen tremendous gains in productivity and efficiency, adds Rottenborn.
Tharstern, meanwhile, has designed a user-friendly MIS that provides interfaces and reporting functions for sales and customer service staff, estimating and production planners, production, warehouse and shipping staff. With the click of a mouse, Tharstern’s customers can convert data into a job and work order.
“Our customers can see profitability and performance on jobs by using the Job Tracking module on the shop floor, so that all labor and materials costs can be captured directly against the job,” says Tharstern’s Moore. “Scheduling, inventory, purchasing and invoicing functions are also available in the Tharstern MIS.”