Workflow on Parade
Ken Kingston, production manager for Parade magazine, remembers one defining moment in his move to an all digital workflow. That's when he had what he calls "a gut check."
It hit him when officials from his new workflow software provider, Dalim Software, told him they had never integrated their software with an IBM AS/400. The problem: The AS/400 is Parade's computer platform of choice.
Kingston swallowed hard. "The Dalim [Software] people calmly said they would work it out," Kingston says. "It took me a second [to recover], but I was okay with that. There were lots of issues we were going to have to work out, because we were committed. You just have to jump in and do it. But at another time, that might have been a deal breaker."
Kingston isn't alone. Plenty of other mid-sized publishers and printers are having gut-check moments as they step up to technology's bleeding edge, and implement all-digital workflow systems.
These are among the software industry's newest solutions. They promise to let publishers and printers tightly manage and automate projects, from initial concept to final delivery.
They also allow publishers and printers to access prepress and preflight services, send files electronically to the printer, track changes and approvals, without hard proofs or manual intervention.
Automating the workflow process typically takes days out of the production cycle, saving time and money, and lets publishers and printers offer a greater range of services to clients.
But for some printers and their publisher clients, all-digital workflow technology is ahead of its time.
"It's a big leap to make, [and] we're seeing more and more customers who want to make that leap," says Charles Blanchard, president of Blanchard Systems Inc., a systems integrator in New Orleans. "But many printers are reluctant to move to an all digital workflow, because if [their] customers aren't ready to go [digital], the printer might lose the customer."
Still, all-digital workflow has plenty of vocal supporters and early adopters. They believe by increasing efficiency and manageability, and cutting costs, a savvy print provider can boost their range of services, driving growth and profitability. It also helps printers offer more customized services.
VENDORS ON THE MARCH
Plenty of companies are jumping to offer these services to printers and publishers, says Gil Hatch, president of the production systems group at Xerox Corp., Stamford, Conn. "The move to digital printing is brought on by the acceptance of the PDF/X-1a standard," he says. "Now we're suddenly seeing [complete] software and solutions offerings."
Xerox is one of the companies leading the charge. Xerox's FreeFlow Digital Workflow Collection provides open interfaces that work with a variety of digital workflow software packages, including Xerox's own products, and those of third-party providers.
"We believe print shops know best what software and hardware components they need, so our job is to allow those different components to work together," Hatch says.
Agfa Graphic Systems Corp., Ridgefield Park, N.J., is also on the bandwagon, having recently released a new version of its ApogeeX digital workflow software. The release boasts a user interface that remains consistent across the organization—a key consideration for organizations consolidating multiple processes under a single digital umbrella.
"One of the issues that is suddenly being raised is ease of use," Blanchard says. "Customers are deploying their employees to do several jobs, where they once performed only one task. So ease of use becomes important."
IBM is also fielding a digital workflow solution, dubbed Infoprint Workflow. As with competitors Dalim Software, Xerox, and Agfa, IBM is focusing on the big integration picture, and less on individual software packages.
Infoprint Workflow helps users integrate data and control processes throughout the publishing organization, says Bruce Otte, worldwide solutions offering manager at IBM Printing Systems group, in Boulder, Colo.
"We can help our customers not just in automating their document factories and integrating customer data, but also with integrating downstream logistics and management," Otte says. "That can change the focus of an organization, giving them the ability to offer new services, and reach new customers."
THE NEW FACE OF WORKFLOW
Printers agree: all digital workflow does more than automate the production process. "Printers can begin to change the way they do business, targeting products and services to individuals, corporate clients, or new customer segments," Blanchard says.
Indeed, company officials at Continental Web Press Inc., a magazine insert and commercial web printer in Itasca, Ill., are thinking in exactly those terms. Like Parade magazine, Continental Web is installing Dalim Software's Ficelle and Twist software products.
The plan: to use the all-digital workflow system to better communicate project status with customers. "Our customers, such as ad agencies and publishers, will be able to view project status, and review content prior to file delivery," says Ed Zepernick, Continental Web's director of prepress. "We believe that gives us an edge over our competitors."
It's that competitive edge that's motivating forward-thinking firms, such as Parade and Continental Web, to ante up and adopt early. But if most publishers and printers aren't ready to pull out their checkbooks, a survey found most believe an integrated workflow would help their business.
The survey, conducted by Xerox Corp. at the recent On Demand trade show in New York, found 94% of attendees polled believe fully integrated workflow processes will have a positive impact on their business.
The leading benefits cited by respondents: new revenue opportunities, increased flexibility and efficiency, and improved customer responsiveness. And for printers specifically, creating new applications for publishing clients was cited as a top advantage.
None of this is news to Kingston at Parade. The New York publisher prints at five printing plants across the country, outputting 30 to 70 different versions of its Sunday newspaper supplement. The country's most-read magazine, Parade runs in more than 320 newspapers nationwide.
"We can have several different versions of Parade depending on where the advertiser wants to appear. If an advertiser just wants to be in Los Angeles, we'll print a version for that area," Kingston says.
Dalim Software's products help Kingston track and manage those different versions. "If I get a call from the plant about a particular version on press, I know I'm looking at the same version on the screen. Before, it was very hard to look at the live pages."
Like many magazine publishers, Parade has been using digital technology for years. But different processes existed as "islands of automation," Kingston says. For example, traffic, book makeup, information systems, desktop publishing and layout, and imaging departments all had their own digital systems.
"I didn't want to change every step," Kingston says. "We decided to tie all those processes together, across all our plants, so we didn't have to spend time tracking different jobs." To accomplish that goal, Parade installed Dalim Software's Ficelle and Twist automated production workflow packages.
Ficelle is a Web-based project management tool that provides display, tracking, and administration of print production. It stores and manages production states in a central, shared database, and provides access to that information over a secure Web site.
Twist is a digital production workflow package with modules that let users work on, view and approve pages, and check production parameters.
Dalim Software's solution was developed to be scalable, meaning publishers and printers can start small, but think big. They can implement the software on a small scale, and grow it as their requirements increase, says Blanchard of Blanchard Systems.
"We've been able to bridge all those islands of automation with the software," Kingston says. "Now our plants can access a file and check information, without having to involve someone here [at headquarters]. It's saving a lot of time, and certainly prevents phone tag."
Because it's built with Java, XML, and other programming technologies that support multiple computer operating systems, Dalim Software was able to integrate the software with Parade's AS/400 environment. The software provider continues to tweak and customize the solution as Parade requires, Kingston says.
"If I had one suggestion for someone planning to move to digital workflow, it would be to make sure you have a software company or integrator that will work with you, because more than likely, you'll need it," he says.
Indeed, Parade continues to make adjustments to its new digital workflow system. In December, the publisher upgraded its computer systems, adding redundancy and real-time backup. This keeps systems on-line in the event of a critical hardware or software failure.
"We can now replicate [duplicate] our [publishing] database every half hour," Kingston says. "If our system goes down for some reason, we don't lose much information."
These efforts are helping Parade react faster to changes, even late in the production process. "People in the traffic department are not putting together a dummy book anymore," Kingston says. "We've been able to use our people better, and increase their skills. We [even] eliminated one position. But the big benefit has come from streamlining workflow, and getting information to the plants."
EARLY ADOPTER CHALLENGES
The challenges facing early adopters of all-digital workflows are no surprise to Mary Lee Schneider, president of pre-media technologies at R.R. Donnelley & Sons, Chicago.
Last year R.R. Donnelley opened its Digital Solutions Centers (DSCs) for customers who were all digital, or going that way.
The centers aim to improve customer communications with the printing giant, through standardized print workflows and file formats. Customers can deliver their files electronically to R.R. Donnelley, evaluate soft proofs, and submit pages for correction, approval, or rejection.
"The idea is to give customers greater control over schedules, and streamline file processing," Schneider says. "They can also access jobs anytime and anywhere."
R.R. Donnelley moved virtually all of its short-run magazines to the DSC technology last year. Next up: company officials plan to integrate their long-run customer projects into DSC offering.
Schneider believes digital standards, such as PDF/X-1a, are speeding acceptance and driving demand for all-digital workflows. "The delivery of an acceptable file format, PDF/X-1a, along with the implementation of that file format using automated workflows, has accelerated that move," she says.
Accredited by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) last year, and endorsed by the Digital Distribution of Advertisers for Publication (DDAP), PDF/X-1a offers a stable format that can be used for cross-media media publishing.
Criticized for not being as robust at TIFF/IT-PI, regarded as the digital equivalent of film, PDF/X-1a is, nevertheless, better suited for all-digital workflows. "The TIFF/IT-PI format is a large file, and that makes it difficult to use in a digital workflow environment," says Barbara Hanapole, executive director of the DDAP, Marblehead, Mass.
Those who adopted the standard quickly discover it's not trouble free, says Paul Scalenghe, vice president of production at Alcone Marketing Group, a sales promotion and marketing group in Darien, Conn.
"It's a great standard, but it's easy for some things to slip through," Scalenghe says. "It's important to check [the files], particularly if you have a lot of different files coming from different sources."
FIXING THE BUGS
Scalenghe uses Markzware Inc.'s Flight Check software to automatically scan and detect errors in PDF/X-1a files such as incorrect colors, fonts, and images. "We run Flight Check, and then pull our proofs from that, so we don't waste time proofing something that's obviously not going to be acceptable," he says. "The earlier PDF errors are found, the less costly they are to repair."
Problems aside, the PDF/X-1a standard got a big boost last year, when Time Inc. announced it would accept only PDF/X-1a files from advertisers. Industry observers expected PDF/X-1a use to skyrocket as a result.
It didn't. As with all-digital workflow technology in general, awareness of PDF/X-1a's benefits is high, but industry-wide adoption remains years away. Still, devotees of all-digital workflows and the standards that drive them say adoption rates are climbing.
"Sixty to 70% of the files we've received this year are PDF/X-1a, compared to 30% last year," says Schneider of R.R. Donnelley. "We'll take any [digital] file format, but we're seeing more PDF/X-1a files at our Digital Solutions Centers."
Publishers are driving the change. After moving to an all-digital workflow, Clinicians Group, a Bloomfield, N.J., publisher of medical journals, asked advertisers to submit their content as PDF/X-1a files.
Company officials didn't hold their breath while waiting to see how the new requirement would be received. Instead, they proactively engaged advertisers, evangelizing the business benefits of PDF/X-1a, and helping them master the technology.
"We worked with [advertisers] to convince them you could manage and manipulate the files, and that we could maintain the quality," says John Caggaino, director of production for the company, which publishes Clinician Reviews, Women's Health Primary Care, and 10 other monthlies. "We've had good success with it."
A big factor in Clinicians Group's success: showing advertisers how PDF/X-1a speeds late changes. "We had an advertiser that wanted to change from one three-quarter page ad, to two junior pages, at the last minute," Caggaino says. "In the film world, that would take two or three days. All we had to do was have the art director reformat the materials, and show them to the advertiser. It saved the ad."
Demonstrations like that are key to gaining acceptance of digital workflow among publishers, printers, and advertisers alike, Caggaino says. "When you can show someone why you're asking them to change how they do things, you have a much better chance of getting them to go along," he says.
Clinicians Group, which uses Quark XPress, relied on custom-developed software for its workflow solution. "Most of the software was developed before I got here, so we just set about tying it together," Caggaino says.
After digitally completing a publication, Clinician Reviews sends its PDF/X-1a files to an R.R. Donnelley DSC for printing. "We initially had a few problems with file naming conventions, some color issues, and some proofing issues, but they didn't take long to work out," Caggaino says.
After ironing out the initial kinks, the return on investment was rapid and ongoing. Clinicians Group has saved thousands in printing costs since finishing the conversion of its magazines and special issues to the digital format early this year.
Caggaino expects more payoffs down the road. "We've only done this [all-digital workflow] for a few months," he says. "We can find ways to do things even more efficiently as time goes on."
Clinicians Group is also using the all-digital workflow technology to develop and push pages for its Internet sites. The company is reaping time and cost savings there as well.
In retrospect, Caggaino's faith in migrating to an all
digital workflow has been rewarded. He encourages other publishing organizations to take the plunge as well, saying the rewards far outweigh the risks. "It's about time the industry joined the 21st century," he says.
- Bob Francis