How the public can pile on the pressure

Friday, May 10, 2013

Would you rather print products that you can charge a few pence for, or products you can charge a few pounds for? Not, most printers would agree, the toughest of questions. Which is why, spurred on by the advent of digital kit that can print all kinds of high-margin personalised consumer goodies, many printers have set their sights on this sector.

And yet making tidy profits from this emerging market is trickier than the generous per-item prices of these products might suggest. As any businessperson will tell you, time is money, and so a printer now dealing with potentially hundreds of thousands of consumers with small order values, rather than a small number of professional customers, will need a workflow carefully set up to ensure they don’t see margins quickly eaten up by manual intervention costs. Printers will need to consider, then, whether their off-the-shelf workflow will be sufficient for their B2C needs, or whether it’s time to consider building something more bespoke.

Certainly, automated workflow is not an area that printers should underestimate when considering the B2C sector, say those with experience of this field. Although it might be assumed that the physical processing of lots of little orders rather than a few big jobs would be the most challenging aspect of printing B2C, in fact it has been the workflow systems and the IT infrastructure that have been the biggest hurdles for West Yorkshire-based River Digital, reports founder Ollie Renshaw.

"Without the workflow we couldn’t operate this way; you simply can’t handle that volume of pre-press by chucking people at it," he says.

Precision Printing managing director Gary Peeling adds: "While the gross margins can be very healthy, that only holds up as long as there is no need to intervene in the automated processes." And Neil Bather, managing director at software distributor Transeo Media, agrees: "Whatever a firm’s background, a B2C workflow has to be different to that for standard commercial print."

Know your needs
Just how the workflow should be different is, however, up for debate. Some feel that a combination of specifically B2C front-of-house modules hooked up to more generic workflow software will be more than up to the job. Others feel a more bespoke approach will be needed.

Transeo’s Bather falls into the former camp, explaining that as well as providing the customer with a highly functional photo product creation and ordering platform, a software package such as Taopix also has some workflow functionalities built in. "Taopix provides a fair amount of workflow out of the box. The majority of our UK clients use the workflow built into Taopix," he says, adding that a successful solution employed by many others, is hooking Taopix up to another workflow software package. "Some customers use additional tools like Enfocus Switch to route the jobs through the factory," he says.

Such a system is employed by River Digital, which uses Taopix to handle the creation of files for submission into its workflow via hot folders, where the firm’s Xerox Freeflow Process Manager software takes over handling the routing of the jobs to the appropriate machine, applying colour management settings and selecting paper from the right input tray.

Renshaw explains that it is having this B2C-specific front-end that is the important bit. He points out that products are built, ordered and paid for online and so it is this part of the workflow process that simplifies or completely removes many of the factors that complicate the conventional print workflow. Print-ready PDFs are produced by software such as PixFizz or Taopix, he explains, so they are not subject to the vagaries of the customer’s level of expertise.

This B2C front-end also apparently takes care of making customer service a tracked part of the overall workflow. The live chat helpdesk that River Digital offers consumers is integrated into the client-facing product portal, explains Renshaw: "Having a single centrally administered system that tracks all interactions is key," he says.

And in fact, Renshaw is one of several printers who argue that having good workflow software in place is only a part – albeit a very important part – of the workflow challenge that B2C printers face. There are other fundamental ways, such as limiting the number of stocks and formats customers can choose from that will seriously limit workflow and changeover headaches, he says.

Michael Todd, managing director at Retford-based RCS, a firm already printing a large number of consumer products, including celebrity cut-outs and personalised playing cards, and looking to make further inroads into B2C, agrees that this is the case. He points out that although printers might at first assume they have to offer as many stock and format options to consumers as for B2B work, this is not necessarily the case. "One area that is simplified with B2C is that we have narrowed our substrates down to three," says Todd. "As a result we don’t have that many stock changes per day."

Todd also has a few other tricks up his sleeve to reduce the complexity of the route RCS’s consumer items take through the factory. One concerns the packaging of the personalised playing cards the company offers through mypokerfaces.com, where Todd has discovered that inserting decks of cards into boxes, while very hasslesome and time-consuming for RCS, matters little to customers. "Not inserting them into the box saves a lot of manual work and our research has found that no one really minds if the cards are not in the box, as long as they get the box," he says.

Another trick Todd has adopted is to use envelopes with windows instead of matching up personalised cards with personalised envelopes.

"As part of my research, I went to see Greetz in Holland, which handles hundreds of thousands of orders with three people in production," he says. "My big question was how do you bring together the envelope with the right card? The answer is they use a window envelope. You’d think, given the target market, that that would meet a lot of resistance, but they have cut the window into a funky shape and turned it into a virtue. It ends up supporting their brand."

Todd does feel, however, there may be a limit to how much impact such steps can have in ensuring the smooth processing of lots of small B2C jobs. While he agrees with River Digital’s Renshaw that pairing a B2C front-end with a more generic workflow (a system RCS employs by combining PixFizz and Enfocus PitStop Pro), is more than adequate for some B2C print set-ups, issues may arise, he says, when job volumes increase.

"I’m not convinced our internally developed system is particularly scalable," he says, explaining that this is a worry in light of the fact that, although the firm currently processes around 200 B2C jobs a day, this could go up to 8,000 when RCS increases its range of products and activates its distribution partner.
Precision Printing’s Peeling agrees that when a company is dealing with a high volume of orders, something more sophisticated than River Digital’s and RCS’s current set-up is needed. By building its own bespoke B2C system, Precision can deal more efficiently with the 50,000 jobs a day that come the printer’s way in peak season, says Peeling.

A key feature of this built-in-house B2C workflow is its ability to intelligently process all the different timescale demands presented by different jobs, promoting urgent jobs to the front of the queue even if they’ve only just come in, and producing work-to lists telling operators exactly what needs doing next.
"That’s crucial to balancing the jobs passing through the factory at the same time on different service level agreements," says Peeling. "Some jobs may be on a one-day turnaround and others on three days. A job could come in that needs to jump ahead of thousands of jobs already in production."

Peaks and troughs
But it’s not just about eliminating human decision-making about job queues when the factory is flat out. A bespoke B2C workflow is also a godsend in ensuring the printer is appropriately staffed when the workload isn’t quite so high, says Peeling.

"So you need something that can analyse the peaks and troughs in production and help work out when you need people," he explains.

"It can be hard for someone on the floor to understand that," he continues. "On manual processes, if you put 10 staff onto a line when the job only needs five, they will all work, and do just enough so it looks busy. Our solution is to provide a dashboard to our temporary worker agency and let them manage staff numbers," he says, reporting that the result has been a drop in the printer’s bill for temporary sales staff, from 30% of an item’s sales price in 2011, to 15% in 2012.

Having a purpose-built workflow also enables Precision to offer the kind of customer service the average consumer expects as standard in today’s online shopping-oriented world. "In B2C you need to keep your customer and the consumer up to date on the status of a job from receipt to shipping," says Peeling, explaining that this means having a system that is smart enough to know where a job is and able to automatically share that information with partners and the consumer, and so integrates with the partner’s business systems and with the consumer-facing website so that they can go and see for themselves and/or receive an email keeping them updated.

In light of how well Precision seem to be faring with a purpose-built system, printers may well be starting to feel inclined to follow suit. But there is a catch. As you might expect, such a system doesn’t come cheap, and may well in fact just be completely beyond the budgets of many printing firms.

"One printer already in the consumer print market went to a developer to get a quote for a new system to meet their future requirements and was given a figure of $1m," reports Chris Knighton, managing director of Precision’s bespoke-built Oneflow System workflow software, a system the company is now offering to other printers. He adds that Precision’s system has cost the not immodest sum of around £250,000 a year for several years to develop.

What Precision aims to do, then, is fill the current market gap between off-the-shelf workflow offerings that, in some instances, will not be quite sophisticated enough, and expensive purpose-built systems, something which, reports Todd, has certainly piqued RCS’s interest.

Of course at £25,000 a year, Oneflow still doesn’t come cheap. And there are those such as River Digital who feel it is possible to operate even more leanly than this if the right software packages are hooked up, and if the right approach is taken to minimising manual intervention in B2C jobs in other ways than just the inputting and programming of jobs. Though the market offering is in some ways still catching up with offering B2C workflow solutions, printers like River Digital feel there are tools already out there that will allow smooth, and most importantly, cost-effective, processing of lots of small B2C jobs.

But what the burgeoning B2C printer ultimately opts for may well depend on the scale of their offering, or perhaps the scale they feel they will eventually reach. Building a bespoke system may well be an attractive option for those wanting this sector to become a primary business generator for them. For others, a mid-ground option will be best, and will help them to reduce risks and costs by calling on the experience of someone who has already embraced the B2C workflow challenge.


 

CASE STUDY
River Digital
Founder Ollie Renshaw swapped public sector printing for printing for the public in 2009 when he left Kirklees Council, where he had been managing the in-house printing facilities, to set up River Digital.

The firm, based in Emley, West Yorkshire, is a lean operation with just two staff including Renshaw. And despite acknowledging, "two blokes in Emley are never going to take on the might of a player like Photobox" it does boast some pretty big clients and partners, albeit ones that aren’t happy to reveal their identities. "Our plan was always to offer white label print and fulfilment for brands with a relationship with consumers," says Renshaw.

Central to the white label solution is the use of Taopix software, which enables the firm to create branded sites for its customers and to handle the whole process for them if they require it. Taopix handles the creation of files for submission into the firm’s workflow via hot folders. From the hot folders the firm’s Xerox Freeflow Process Manager software takes over handling the routing of the jobs to the appropriate machine and applying the right colour management settings and selecting paper from the right input tray.

As far as possible the printers and the workflows are configured so there is no need for any intervention until they need to be finished, apart from keeping the paper and ink/toner topped up. In some cases work runs as soon as it comes in, even if it is overnight, to be completed manually in the morning.

Once printed, jobs are finished manually by Renshaw or his partner and then packed up for shipping. Tracking the jobs is done via a barcode, which enables both operators and the software to keep on top of things, including providing the all-important trackability for customers of their products.


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