Best of British: The weird, the peculiar, and the traditional MIS
Monday, August 23, 2021
Optimus: MIS innovator is still going strong and finding fans in new markets.
Britain has a long history of innovations in what was originally simply called ‘computer estimating’ and grew into the all-encompassing ‘management information systems’. Quite a few of the companies founded in the early 1980s are still going strong today four decades later, although in some cases success along the way got them noticed, acquired and ‘consolidated’.
Optimus is one of the early pioneers that has remained independent as well as moved with the times. It was originally established in 1982 by the late Ted Stephens, whose Optichrome printing business in Woking was a driving force in establishing modern commercial colour litho.
“Ted Stephens hired a couple of programmers to develop an estimating system for internal use,” says Steve Richardson, UK and Ireland sales director of Optimus. Those first two programmers were Gerry Richins and Nigel Tyler, who have stayed with the company ever since.
“We actually wrote the first program on an Apple II computer, which shows how long ago it was,” quips Tyler. “However we decided we wanted a multi-user system and so we found Unix – a gamble as that was ahead of its time. We spent the vast fortune of £20,000 to £30,000 on a Unix server.”
At first it was just estimating, which expanded to job bags, invoicing and stock management.
Interest from other printers led to Ted Stephens setting it up as a spin-off called Optichrome Computer Services Ltd, or OCSL. After 25 years there was a management buyout and the company was renamed Optimus, after the name of its main MIS brand. “Since the MBO in 2007 there’s been no commercial connection with Optichrome,” says Richardson. “They remain our valued customer but we’re completely separate.”
OCSL originally operated from a house on the Optichrome site on Maybury Road, Woking. This had been a wartime ‘shadow factory’ and apparently was a laundry before Ted Stephens’ father Ken set up his print factory there in 1963. In 1983 Optichrome started building an ultra-modern factory on the site, gradually expanding into the space left by demolishing the old houses on the site. OCSL was originally in the new building but as it expanded it moved to separate offices behind the main factory block. It’s still officially based there today, though Richardson says that it’s no longer a hive of activity. “The site now is really a satellite for registration and filing. We’re now all home working, spread all over the world and were even before Covid.”
Apart from Woking there are Optimus offices in Madrid, Holland, Australia, and South Africa. There are a couple of employees home working in Germany too, says Richardson. In all there are about 40 employees worldwide and the company turnover is about £3m.
Richardson joined the company in 2003. Other senior managers include group MD Nicola Bisset (who joined in 2003 , and led the subsequent MBO), Richins and Tyler (from 1982), Netherlands and Germany MD Henny Van Esch, Spain and Latin America MD Jaime Aperador, group technical director Gerry Richens, and Spain and Latin America technical director Diego Poblador.
There have been “thousands” of customers since the company started almost 40 years ago, says Richardson. Currently there are about 480 active sites worldwide, he says. Optimus is available in multiple languages – it claims to have users in “21 countries and 17 languages for example,” says Richardson. “The lion’s share is English, but we can produce pretty well anything, not just Latin languages.”
The customer base is diverse and spread across all printing processes, plus some that are not print, he says. “In Italy we are dominant in labels. Our biggest customer in the world is Graphic Packaging International in Australia. In the UK there is a lot of wide-format and superwide, with installations for signage, or commercial printers with outsourcing.” UK customers include Service Graphics, The Delta Group and direct mail house lbox International. Sweden’s largest wide-format printer, Storbildsbolaget, is also a customer.
“We have had a digital focus from 2010 onward,” Richards says. “We can do weird and peculiar as well as traditional. We can handle any substrate and any process that has to go through a series of steps and processes. These can be outside print – we do have a couple of those, one in plastics and one in mouldings. There are also specialist printers or PSPs that also deliver other goods and services, such as stands, stages or building wraps.”
Today Optimus offers two main MIS products and some support items including a web-to-print system called Optimus Cloud. The Optimus 2020 MIS was introduced in 1999 and marked a switch to the Windows platform from the original Unix (2020 was a reference to perfect vision rather than the year). It still has a significant user base and is regularly updated, says Richardson, but the top product worldwide is predominantly now the Dash MIS, introduced in 2010.
“This proved to be a phenomenal success globally and it is the platform that we continue to build on,” says Richardson. “It was originally developed for fast-turnround digital print, but it is a very adaptable engine for lots of other vertical markets and other processes including non-print. It has very good connectivity to other third-party software such as web-to-print, websites, etc.”
Tyler says: “We still support Unix/Linux as some users still want it, and it’s becoming relevant again as the industry moves into the cloud.”
With home working already established, Covid-19 did not impact day-to-day operations at Optimus itself much, says Richardson. However, it hit some customers more than others. “It has depended on the market sector and region. Wide-format for events and stands has been important in recent years. Events have been hit hard. Large swathes of customers had to shut their doors. However, packaging and labels kept going and some thrived.
“Some customers struggled and we tried to support them, but we’re not a bank either. Some went to the wall because they could not pay the rent. But some have reinvented themselves. There are some positive signs now. A very big Swedish wide-format printer in the pandemic revitalised and changed its ordering to go online – this was led by customers. The printer says he doesn’t know how he’d have got through it without doing this, but now he’s massively grown the business.”
With the concept of computer estimating and MIS now some 40 years old, are there many printers left who haven’t got anything at all? “There have been installs to customers without previous MIS in recent months despite the pandemic,” Richardson says. “This is often when spreadsheets hit a ceiling and they want to grow the business and get more out of the resources they’ve got. During the pandemic we delivered two very significant multi-site systems, in Australia and the UK.”
There are other compelling reasons to adopt an MIS, he says. “Often when an estimator is retiring the management looks again at how to get more quotes out of the door. It is about capturing the knowledge and getting it into the system. You can configure our system to, not exactly de-skill, but capture that knowledge, the checks and balances and pre-ordained routines.”
Attitudes to computers and automation are shifting too. “The younger people in the industry are a much more IT savvy generation compared to 30 years ago. It’s staggering how far some people can take it and how they trust the automation. A few years ago they felt they had to check everything, but people’s mindsets are shifting.”
Optimus has long been an advocate of ‘lean manufacturing’ concepts. “This dovetails into Dash – for more progressive, simpler ways to work,” says Richardson. Links to other production and commercial systems are also increasingly important. “A big trend we’ve noticed is the desire for customers to have connectivity between MIS and any task that adds value – whether that is Switch, Agfa Apogee, whatever. They do different things, but talk to each other.
“We have a great technology called Optimus Web Services. This is an API, an accessible tech layer for Optimus so data can be sent and received. A few years ago customisation for end-users was too hard, so we had to do it for them. Now we can hand the keys over to them, with appropriate security.”
Optimus may have been a pioneer 40 years ago, but today it jostles in a crowded global market for MIS. Even in the UK that includes the equally long-established Imprint (subject of a Printweek Best of British profile last year), Tharstern and a host of smaller developers. All face the international MIS juggernaut that is EFI, whose UK acquisitions over the years have included Prism, Radius, Technique and Shuttleworth.
How does Optimus distinguish itself from the crowd? “It is a highly configurable and scalable award-winning system,” Richardson says. “Nigel Tyler did a brilliant job on the open interface. It adapts to a broad range of substrates and processes. MIS all do a similar job, but where we tend to win is being able to handle anything and deal with future-proofing. If you can define and describe it and there’s a calculation, we can put it in.”
Is there anything new in the works? An extensively redesigned website for a start, with the older www.optimus2020.com URL being replaced by www.optimusmis.com, says Richardson. “There are also really clever, exciting things with business intelligence and data coming. Nigel’s Dataflex is a game changer for many users in terms of what it can do with data. It’s more than standard reporting, it’s clever analytics. Watch that space over the next year or two.”
“Optimus Dash for its diverse reach, global renown and incredible success,” says Richardson. “It continues to evolve.”