Estimable estimators

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

In the late 1970s print estimators worked with the original spreadsheets, which were large sheets of paper with printed grids that were filled in by hand with written instructions and calculations.

This long-standing MIS developer is now being run by the founders’ children
This long-standing MIS developer is now being run by the founders’ children

If they were lucky, the human estimators had an adding machine or desktop calculator to help with the figures. A busy medium-sized printer might have 10 or more full time estimators. Finding and keeping that many specialised estimators could be tricky, as the work was exacting but hardly exciting. Computers were an obvious solution, but the knowledge of how to program for such specialised calculations wasn’t.

One of the first UK companies to crack it was what was to become Imprint Business Systems, which is still going strong after 42 years. Today its customers in print and packaging run into the hundreds and many of them have used Imprint systems for at least 25 years.

Like most of the early MIS developers, Imprint grew out of the needs of a particular print company, which then used the experience gained to sell to a wider circle or printing and packaging companies. The late 1970s and early 1980s saw a lot of computer estimating start-ups, often with printing company roots. Some of Imprint’s original UK competitors from 40-odd years ago have also survived and prospered independently, such as Optimus (originally Optichrome Computer Systems Ltd, or OCSL), DDS (Accura) and Tharstern, while others were taken over by the ever-expanding EFI empire (such as Prism, Radius, Shuttleworth and Technique). A few others have either merged, or closed, or both.

Imprint itself was founded in 1978 by Glennys Bourne and Jonathan Richards. Originally the pair had worked together at the art book printer Shenval Press in Harlow. Richards was general manager, later a director of Shenval, but had learned programming skills at college. Bourne went on to run the nearby Caterpillar Press.

Bourne says that the reason for writing the original computer estimating program was a shortage of the trained human variety. “You could not get estimators for love nor money,” she says. So the first estimating program was written to suit the needs of Shenval Press and Caterpillar Press. Bourne saw the potential for Imprint beyond the needs of Shenval and Caterpillar, so the latter was sold to concentrate on the new business.

“The Imprint name describes the company well and has stood us well over the years,” says Richards. “As for why the name was chosen, it just seemed a good fit at the time.”

Both are still very much involved today. Bourne is CEO, while Jonathan Richards says he’s “allowed to be chairman on high days and holidays”. However, time marches on and their children Will Richards and Nick Bourne have also joined Imprint – the latter now being MD.

Today Imprint is based in High Easter, in the countryside between Chelmsford and Bishop’s Stortford, handily close to the M11 and Stansted airport. It employs 16 people in an often overlapping mix of management, programming and customer services roles.

Focus on training

Last year Peter Horwood joined as commercial manager, having known Imprint for years through his work at Sensor System Consultants, which makes Sentinel counters for shop floor data collection. “Our customer-facing staff are experienced ex-industry people and we put a lot of emphasis on installation and training,” says Horwood. “We have real people on the end of help lines with a deep understanding of the system and the industry.”

Although this year’s lockdown affected Imprint the same way as everybody else, working from home was already quite common for the programmers. Horwood says that the quiet time has been used productively. “We’ve been able to bring products forward and get them finished earlier than originally planned.” Also accelerated was the introduction of a brand new company website at www.imprint-mis.co.uk, with a new logo to go with it. “The website is much more vibrant, modern and to the point,’ Horwood says. “It’s been a big departure for Imprint. The whole point of a website is to elicit enquiries, and provide just enough information to persuade people to contact us to find out more. We don’t want to overdo it, so there’s more engaging content with a lighter tone. There’s more use of social media too.”

After all these years MIS for print is now a mature market. “New customers generally have already had an MIS system of some sort before,” says Horwood. “A lot of interest comes from users of legacy MIS that are no longer being supported. This is particularly evident when it comes to integration options. Some customers are huge with hundreds of users on multiple sites or divisions, others are tiny, but want a good system that can grow with them.”

Modular MIS

The Imprint MIS is now on Version 18 for all its modules. Users can purchase new modules as the need arises, which then self-detect to work together as a whole. Standard with every installation is the Imprint Desktop. It’s the jumping off point when users log in and is customisable. Users can view everything relevant to customers and jobs, including estimates, job bags, invoices, contact messages, emails, delivery notes, diary, reports and documents.

Hardware and software have changed over 40 years and Imprint has moved with the times. “We have always been in the PC area and adopted networks as soon as they came along,” says Richards. “So we began with DOS and moved on to Windows. We are now offering browser-based multi-platform software. Other major milestones have been integration advancements such as JDF and API. Historically third parties were not as open to connecting with other solutions as they are today, but this has changed radically for the better in the time we have been running Imprint.”

API, for those who don’t keep up with their TLAs, means Application Programming Interface. Imprint has created APIs for linking third-party systems directly to its MIS modules. This is sometimes a simpler and faster route than navigating the convolutions of the ‘open’ JDF.

The printing industry itself has also changed radically over the past four decades, so its requirements and expectations from MIS have shifted too.

“Most of our early customers were huge sheet and web houses, so we are very at home in this area, but we also have small company users,” says Richards.

“Over the 40-odd years we have developed a range of systems for general print (including sheet, digital web, and wide-format), direct mail, carton, label, book production, exam papers and screen printing. Our first packaging MIS was developed some 20 years ago.”

These modules are not just a general print system with something tacked on the front of it. They share some components, but all are highly configurable, “even by the customers if they wish” says Richards. The company offers a site licence rather than user licences, so customers can add as many users as they want.

“Updating is covered as standard under our licensing agreement,” he stresses. “We are constantly developing and refining the system driven by advances in technology and customer requirements and we do a lot of bespoke programming for our client base. We allow easy access to customers to do their own thing if they wish. For example the Imprint document designer makes it really easy for customers to modify or create their own documents. The built-in report generator allows reports to be created easily, without any SQL knowledge.”

Automation advances

There’s still plenty of scope for ongoing development, Richards says. “The big thing in MIS today is automation, linking to other software via APIs, cutting out bottlenecks and time, creating a smooth integrated system. This began with accounting systems but is now involving a wide range of workflow and production software, reducing user input.”

New products that have been completed during lockdown have been a browser based Desktop, a web-based SFDU (shop floor data collection unit) and an automatic label estimating unit. Smart Carton estimating has been advanced with an integral carton design and layout system, including composite sheets, intended for use by non-CAD operators. API links have been developed for Quickbooks and Xero accounts system, joining the original Sage link.

The very latest release is an app to link Imprint MIS bi- directionally with the Enfocus Switch user-configurable workflow, now available on the Enfocus app store.

Some of the automation uses what other companies call artificial intelligence (AI) as it sounds whizzy, though Richards is a stickler for accurate terminology. “Artificial intelligence is sadly becoming a buzzword, and wrongly used as a marketing ploy,” he says. “We have automated estimating and automatic production scheduling, indeed we have systems where a job can arrive via web portal – web to print or some third party software – and can go right the way through without human intervention. But I would hesitate to call it AI, just damn good algorithms!”

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