A catalogue of success

Karen Charlesworth
Monday, March 26, 2007

Production management software has simplified scheduling, turned around turnaround times and made meeting deadlines a dream.

Mail order companies have more reason than most to rely on their catalogues, and Express Gifts is no exception. The Accrington, Lancashire-based giftware retailer produces more than 100 different publications each year to promote its range of gifts and cards – from 16pp A5 leaflets up to A4 seasonal catalogues that weigh in at a hefty 700 pages each. “Our print is our shop window,” says group publications manager San Kapil. “We rely on it to drive 100% of our sales.”

But the pressure on Kapil’s publications department doesn’t begin and end with the mission-critical status of the publications. Market conditions in the mail order industry are changing rapidly, with internet shopping driving delivery times and, crucially, time-to-market schedules. Kapil says that Express Gifts’ buyers often don’t decide on items to be included in catalogues until the last week of a publication schedule, “because they’re trying to keep the items as up-to-the-minute as possible”. The result is that, at any given time, the publications department has four or five major projects live at various stages of production, some with lead-times as short as one week.

Express Gifts, part of the retail group Findel, is one of the largest buyers of print in the UK. Each of its 1.6 million customers receives a monthly pack containing digitally printed variable-data statements, together with a selection of sales leaflets, in a full-colour printed envelope. Additionally, each catalogue has a print run of more than 900,000, and rising. The catalogues were originally printed at Prinovis’ German factory and shipped over, but time and cost benefits have brought the work back to Prinovis’ new gravure superplant in Liverpool. Mailing is handled by several UK mailing houses. “We tend to divide projects between houses, to get speed of throughput and manage the risk,” says Kapil.

Tracking errors
With such a high number of projects carried out at such split-second timing, the paper-based job tracking system used by Express Gifts’ publications department “was beginning to creak”, according to Kapil. “We entered our schedules into Excel spreadsheets, and that was a time-consuming process, plus errors could creep in. We printed out the spreadsheets and kept them in a tray. When an operator finished a particular task, they had to walk up to the tray, find the sheet, tick the task off and put it back. Spreadsheets went missing, they got coffee spilt on them. From a management point of view, it was a nightmare because I never knew where any project was at any given time. If I was out of the office, I had to ring in and talk to somebody to find out what the progress was.”

Aware that some form of automated job manage-ment was becoming urgent, Kapil talked to EFI about its production management system, OpForma. He took the decision to install 21 seats of the system throughout the publications department: 15 in the pre-press area, and a further six for the company’s buyers, who work closely with pre-press.

Road to publication
Producing a publication begins with a creative meeting in which buyers and artists decide on rough page layouts. Items are photographed by Express Gifts’ in-house studio and passed to layout artists, who produce line drawings of each double-page spread. This line drawing is then passed to the pre-press department, which builds the page in QuarkXPress. Positional proofs are output on a Xerox DocuColor 3535. These are used for internal approvals – the proofs go through up to seven approval stages before being output to PostScript files from QuarkXPress and made into PDFs via Acrobat Distiller. These PDFs, together with a hard-copy contract proof printed on an Epson 7800, are sent to the appropriate printer on Express Gifts’ roster, which reads like a roll-call of the UK’s biggest web offset and gravure printers.

Express Gifts’ photographs are managed by a stand-alone digital asset management system. The pre-press department works with high-resolution images, colour-correcting these in Adobe Photoshop using a pre-defined curve template to match the colour space available on-press. OPI is handled through QuarkXPress, which imports low-resolution JPEGs and pulls in the high-res files at the time of printing.

Far-reaching improvements
Each stage in the job’s progress is monitored by OpForma. For every publication, a new schedule is opened in the database, setting project milestones such as layout brief date and photographic, artwork and print deadlines together with completion dates. OpForma tracks every page through 13 stages from product selection through to mailing, flagging up imminent and missed deadlines by emailing the relevant people. In addition, it manages staff time by allocating specific timings to particular tasks, and schedules and notifies meetings where necessary.

The difference that OpForma has made is far-reaching, says Kapil. “Internally, to the publications department, it’s meant that we get to focus on our work rather than spending as much as half our time on admin, as we did before. And focusing on the work means we produce better quality – we get the right products on the right pages, and there’s more time to put any mistakes right when they do happen.” He also cites the accountability that OpForma gives by tracking operator involvement: “We can see who did what, and when, which means we can see if there are recurring problems in the workflow.”

And having rigorous management procedures in place has added to the department’s flexibility: “The group managing director said sales were going to be a bit weak in November,” Kapil says, “so we decided to whip up a leaflet. We turned it round in a week, and it went a long way towards turning sales round. We just couldn’t have worked so fast if we didn’t have a system there, keeping the project on course.”

To add to this, OpForma has brought about “simple things, but huge in their effect”. “I can’t tell you how great it is to be able to sit at my desk and dial into any project,” Kapil says. “I never tried to add up how many minutes I spent walking to pick up progress spread-sheets, but I can tell the difference now I don’t have to do it.” Mistakes in communicating the schedules are now also a thing of the past: “Those nightmare times when you realised one person was working to a different deadline than everyone else, and it was going to hold up the whole project – I don’t miss those.”

In fact, Kapil says that OpForma has benefited the profitability of the entire Express Gifts operation. “Since we began to work with it, we’ve been given a group objective of producing more publications – because the more publications we produce, the more we sell, it’s that simple. We’ve met that objective easily, and our throughput of projects has increased by 40%. But it wouldn’t have been possible without OpForma.”

For the future, Kapil plans to integrate OpForma with a product information management (PIM) system scheduled to be implemented company-wide by the end of the year. The PIM system will integrate Express Gifts’ website, 24studio.co.uk, which acts as an online ordering facility: “It’s an exact replica of our catalogue, but online.” The PIM system will also supersede the digital asset management system that stores the Express Gifts photography, replacing it with a similar system linked directly to warehouse stock. “While it won’t necessarily mean we get any more efficiencies here in the publications department, integrating OpForma with a PIM system will make for time savings throughout the company,” Kapil says.


Business Mail order gifts
Turnover £200m
Publications 100 plus
Department staff 43
Problem Over-complicated pre-press workflow
Solution Installed EFI OpForma Enterprise workflow and management tool

INSPECTION LESSONS: IMPLEMENTING WORKFLOW MANAGEMENT
1
When installing a workflow management system, look at which areas of the operation need access to the system, and at what level
2 Integrate the system with OPI and digital asset management systems for greater productivity and better quality control
3 Set notification methods to suit your operations: if most key staff are not desk-based, notification methods should be mobile-enabled
4 Use operator monitoring facilities to analyse and correct any imbalances in workflow and working time
5 Enable automated reporting across the system, upwards to management and laterally to operators and stakeholders

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