It wasn't long ago that the standard turnaround time for a print job was a few weeks; now it's down to just a few hours, but it is ensuring print's place in the 21st century media mix
A strange thing happened to Steve Rushton a few weeks ago. He found himself dealing with a print job with a deadline a month hence.
Rushton, who is managing director at Cannock-headquartered SR Print Management, found that his incredulity was shared by the print partner he selected to produce the work: "They phoned up to ask if it was a mistake on the delivery date, they couldn’t believe we were giving them a month to do the job."
In the always-on, want-it-now culture that is the norm in 21st century industrialised nations, print turnaround times have joined the rush for instant gratification. Deadlines that used to be weeks have become days, and days have become hours.
Rushton has worked in print since 1985, and recalls lead times way back then were "three to four weeks, take it or leave it. Now, three or four days is the norm."
And, increasingly, it can be merely a matter of hours. Shortly after talking to PrintWeek for this article, Rushton handled a job where the artwork arrived at noon, with the finished job needed in Manchester by 6pm. And this sort of immediate need is by no means unusual.
"We relish those sorts of challenges," he says. "At the end of a busy day, people on the team here might puff their cheeks out and go ‘phew’, but they do enjoy the challenge and also the praise the next day from the client."
As a print manager, SR’s point of difference comes from the quality of its own systems, and of the supply network of trusted print partners it has built up over the years, with benefits that cut both ways. "We pay our suppliers on 30 days, that way we get a good response," Rushton notes.
Rushton’s company has established something of a specialty in handling seemingly impossible deadlines, and he’s not the only print industry boss finding opportunity in a customer base with an apparently insatiable need for immediacy.
Online print specialist Solopress switched its business strategy from competing on price to establishing a competitive difference by offering a 24-hour turnaround as standard.
Order by 2pm and Solopress offers free next day delivery. And the company has just pushed this deadline out to 8pm for orders bound for London. Most of its work comes in via the internet.
"It’s a USP for us, and it’s not just on standard products like business cards," explains operations director Adam Wilson-Bowen. "Even if it’s folders or something that needs to be made up by hand, we still offers the same service."
Wilson-Bowen says life at the firm’s Southend-on-Sea facility, which operates 24/7 and runs a range of offset and digital kit, "really can be quite full-on", which is surely something of an understatement.
Typically handling 350 jobs a day, it could be 150,000 flyers one minute, a few hundred business cards the next, or the aforementioned folders needed for delivery to Scotland next day. So how does the company cope with such a shifting set of requirements, while still meeting its next-day promise?
Wilson-Bowen says it is "all down to protocols – what to do and when," driven by tailor-made MIS and slick workflow systems. "Our presses just don’t stop. The computer will select whether a job is produced conventionally or digitally depending on the quantities. And we’re always changing the run order."
In the never-ending quest to speed production through the facility, he pinpoints drying times as the biggest bugbear for the company. "Drying can be an issue, but we’ve used special inks to combat that."
"I guess we’re another emergency service for some people," he muses, citing the fact that alongside the next-day delivery aspect of the business, clients will turn up to collect jobs at all hours of the day or night: "We save the day, and they look good, whether it’s a one-off rush requirement or people who use us all the time."
This personal contact aspect is perhaps an unexpected benefit of the ‘need it and need it now’ culture that’s also being experienced by Yorkshire’s Print-Leeds, as the firm’s managing director Rod Fisher observes: "With internet buying you never see anyone, there is no personal connection. But with rush jobs, people tend to bring them in and take them away, so this way you do. A lot of people like to drop in, they like the coffee here," he quips.
With three distinct strands to the Print-Leeds business – digital printing, UV printing onto plastics, such as lenticulars, and labels – and a 36-year career in print, Fisher has seen enormous changes in the way print is bought and sold. "Equipment is faster and faster, and makeready is quicker and quicker. Everything we have is automated, and we constantly invest in new technology to be able to produce jobs as quickly as we do. Unfortunately, technology is why so many jobs in print have been decimated," he says.
Fisher remembers the days when the company’s production board had weeks of work on it. Now his team is looking at just two or three days forward loading of digital print work, perhaps four days for printing onto plastic, with label printing having the biggest lead time due to the availability of specialist label base stock.
"For labels it can take four or five days to get a specific stock, so the availability of materials becomes the turnaround. Whereas the plastics we keep in stock are all on consignment – it’s the only way."
Go faster stripes
Fisher’s point about the role played by advances in printing equipment and technology is well made. It is the digitisation and automation of previously manual processes that has, over the past 25 years, transformed the industry and dramatically compressed the amount of time involved in everyday print production tasks.
And as any visitor to this year’s Drupa will know, printing equipment in general has never been faster or more efficient, with manufacturers pushing the boundaries on what’s possible when it comes to moving paper through rollers, fast.
But it is software systems, be it workflow, MIS, or web-to-print, which can arguably have the most profound effect.
Mark Plummer, production director at Platinum Print in Harrogate, says the company has put a huge amount of effort into making its systems as slick as possible. From working with Vision in Print to implementing a Shuttleworth MIS and Fujifilm XMF workflow, Plummer is now in a position to know "exactly what’s what". "You are more inclined to take something on at short notice when you have the facts at your fingertips – otherwise you could end up dropping everything for a job but not making any money."
The XMF system allows customers to upload files remotely and create automatic job bags, and allows for quick changes if, say, a client is in dire need of an additional print run. "Within minutes we can be ready to run more," he says.
Plummer’s point about the need to know whether a job is going to be profitable or not will be music to the ears of Geoff Stephens, director at quoting and production management systems specialist TimeHarvest: "I would say that it doesn’t matter what shiny new press a printer has, or how fantastic their staff are, or how nearby their premises, or how nicely-liveried the vans. None of that counts if you can’t get your quote out on time. If you fall at that hurdle, nothing else matters," he asserts. "Getting accurate quotes done quickly with full knowledge of how much profit is to be made on a job before it is taken on, down to the last penny, is absolutely imperative."
TimeHarvest’s product range is focused on digital printing, which Stephens believes is fundamentally different from litho where printers will often run their presses based on ‘contribution’, rather than ‘profit’.
"The digital print market revolves more around service and response times than litho. In the digital print world every job has to stand on its own and make a profit," he states.
That said, in the world of heavyweight litho printing machinery, MIS developer Technique, which counts large web offset printers among its core customer base, also believes data management should come increasingly to the fore: "Some people are not looking to the future," says chief executive Paul Cooper. "They make great big investments in metal, but they are not used to investing in the handling of data."
Although Technique is finding some web offset printers showing interest in the wonderful new world of web-to-print, it’s in print-on-demand book production where enabling technologies like zero touch production are really taking off. "They can’t afford not to, when it’s such a low-value individual job," he notes.
Technology advances have transformed large swathes of the printing industry, but along the way, some production steps that also acted as important checking stages have been swept away, something that has caused Westdale Press managing director Alan Padbury to adapt the firm’s way of working.
Cardiff-based Westdale runs web and sheetfed presses, and will often handle jobs involving tricky substrates, multiple processes, and exacting quality requirements. "When you have a complex job that’s wanted very quickly, you’ve got to plan all the processes," he says. "That’s fine if you know they’re coming, but that’s not always the case. Some days it’s like driving up the motorway at 100 miles an hour with a blindfold on!"
He has a delightfully 20th century solution to the problem – the team sit down together and discuss the jobs in hand. "You’ve got to look for everything that could go wrong and be sharp, and be sure you’ve told the customer. Every morning we have a production meeting and go through every single job so we can head things off at the pass that could potentially go wrong, and everyone know what’s got to be done."
Whether or not one thinks that today’s ‘always-on’ lifestyles are a blessing or a curse, it’s clear that the near-600-year-old process of printing is finding new avenues as a result. In fact, print is proving to be remarkably adept at keeping up with the pace of modern life, believes Nicholas Green, executive director at Tangent Communications and founder of a recent entrant in the web-to-print scene, Printed.com. He cites the example of customers being able to create and upload artwork online "from the comfort of their own homes" rather than becoming embroiled in a process that would in itself have taken several days in the past.
"We are living in a world where the internet and mobile technology has created demand for answers and information now," says Green. "Looking forward, I think everyone is going to face ever-increasing pressure regarding the speed at which product is delivered, and print is no exception.
"There is a massive change in society and it will be so much more intense in the next five years – do I believe more and more people will shop online? Yes. And do I believe more and more people will turn to the internet for print-related products? Absolutely yes."
From Green’s point of view, it’s a real positive that the print medium is keeping pace with these changes, and late-breaking demand from customers is opening up the potential to bring in new profits. Printed.com has opted for a blended offering, if customers can wait four or five days for their work they pay a bit less, whereas if they want it immediately they pay a bit more.
"You have to put profit into the equation," he asserts. "At Tangent On Demand, for example, we have clients who are looking for a high-end boutique service. If we’re running through the night or over the weekend they know they’re going to pay more for that job."
It is a good thing, says Green, that print can clearly demonstrate that it is not being left behind. "Print plus the internet equals immediacy – so long as you’ve got the right systems."
Fancy systems or not, it’s a fact that print’s place at the end of the production chain means clients will always be pushing the boundaries when it comes to pushing those deadlines as far back as possible. As one long-suffering print boss notes: "Sometimes we will be quoting on a job for months on end. The creatives will have spent three or four months on it, and by the time they’ve finished the printer ends up with three or four days."
Perhaps the final word on this topic should go to someone at the sharp end, Twitter user @Presshulk. In classic Hulk style he writes everything in caps, and recently came up with this universal truth: "NO TIME TO GET SIGNED PROOF APPROVALS IN PRINTING ANYMORE BUT ALWAYS TIME TO PRINT JOB TWICE!!"
What are your turnaround times?
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