The future is up in the air

Kristian Dando
Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Cloud-based systems are changing the way printers work, allowing them to better serve changing customer demands and put resources and capital into more effective channels, as well as providing additional functionality.

The basic premise is simple: rather than have applications, storage, and computing power on site, cloud technology makes all these services and more accessible remotely, using servers off site. It means not having to replace servers every few years, and means that applications are always up-to-date. And because a lot of the technical back-end functionality is taken care of off-site, it means that there’s less reliance on in-house IT technicians. Meanwhile, clever integration and use of data can also make for some neat extra features in many print- focused cloud apps – it’s little wonder that printers are adopting it in increasing numbers.

When Bridson & Horrox, a family-run printer based on the Isle of Man, acquired two other printing businesses in the north of England, Haslam and Wallace, in 2017, it provided the ideal opportunity to implement a new overarching system. The company plumped for Agfa’s Apogee; at the time, it was the only system which could service the company’s specific needs: a pre-press workflow allowing for both sites to work together, irrespective of the location of staff, and without the need to have an in-house workflow server. 

“I started talking to various suppliers about a cloud solution, but it worked out that only Agfa could provide what I was looking for,” says chief executive Darren Horrox. 

“We converged three businesses into one and we now use cloud services for accounts and workflow,” he continues. “The MIS handles quotes, workflow, job workflow. It’s brilliant; you don’t have to buy a server. It’s in the cloud and effectively ‘someone else’s problem’.” 

He adds that while the ongoing costs are higher, not having to renew IT kit balances that out.

At Crescent Press in Solihull, migration of some of the business’s core functions to the cloud is well underway. Customer service manager Paschal Edwards is overseeing the move to Keyline, an online MIS/workflow system from German developer Crispy Mountain, which was acquired by print giant Heidelberg in June this year. The software works using cloud technology, but it has an array of features which allow integration with other applications, as well as elements of automation technology, which make day-to-day operations easier and more effective. 

“We wanted to improve integration with third-party apps, automate things like dispatches,” explains Edwards. “Keyline is able to integrate with Switch, the software we use for proofing. When we swapped from litho into digital in April last year, one of the things we wanted to do was integrate orders, and the process led us to automation.” 

The changing nature of the orders the company receives also made the switch to a new system make sense. “We’re getting higher-volume, lower-value orders. That’s the nature of digital print,” says Edwards.

Keyline UK sales manager Wayne Beckett, reiterates this: that the changing nature of how a typical print firm operates makes moving to a cloud system a natural step. “The big thing is that run lengths are coming down and margins are getting tighter,” he says. 

“People used to pick up artwork from train stations and then take it to the printers. Now you can get the system to do the whole job. If you’re looking at a lot of small orders there are no manual interactions – the first you’ll see of them is on the shop floor.”

One of the added bonuses of using Keyline for Crescent is allowing workers to use their time more effectively. It also means that staff don’t need to be in the office to check up on the data; it can be logged into remotely via smartphone. 

“We’re looking to use Keyline automating proofing, dispatches and paper orders, to reduce workload for individuals but maintaining staffing levels,” says Edwards. “We didn’t have setup fees for internal servers – the ultimate benefit is that it can be used anywhere. You can use phones and iPads to check live data and provide quotes.”

While the business hasn’t fully transitioned to the system just yet, and the move is a little more challenging than originally anticipated, the initial signs are good. 

“We’re still in the process of implementing it,” explains Edwards. “Initially we’ve just done the quote process; we’re happy with it. The main benefit is improved speed of estimating. It means we can be more productive.

The supplier perspective

The possibilities presented by the cloud are also changing the ways suppliers present their products to market. Heidelberg has completely re-evaluated its software and licence arrangements, consolidating nearly 50 separate software licences into one more manageable package. “Moving things to the cloud in themselves doesn’t offer value,” says Jacob Hededam, head of software sales and services for northern Europe at Heidelberg. “We had 47 different licences – which made it a nightmare even for our internal salespeople.”

The company is taking its cues from the likes of Adobe and Microsoft, which now offer nearly all of their software via the cloud as part of a subscription, with companies paying on a scale of the number of images they generate. “We’ve seen a lot of small-to-mid-size printers who’ve been watching us who can now get on board,” says Hededam.

The company recently welcomed its 500th subscriber to its new system, but for Hededam, the possibilities that moving to the cloud brings run far beyond using a server. “We are able to capture data in the manufacturing process, to provide business intelligence, and use it to help find clients identify bottlenecks and improve efficiencies,” he says. 

While an increasing number of functions can be transferred off-site, there are, for now at least, limiting factors in some fields: “I think bandwidth could potentially be an issue for rendering and that seems like something you should keep on premises,” adds Hededam.

For Simon Landau, director of global strategic partners at Print Factory, a cloud-based system devised by printers, the practicalities of keeping everything up to date is also factor in the appeal. “There’s never a doubt about machines not having the latest version of a driver or an installation of software; there are no restrictions on growth or capability in a cloud-based licence solution; and while print shops of all sizes are used to making large investments, a solution that’s transparent in terms of periodic pricing can be reassuring. Plus, with the right providers, those costs can be ramped up or down at any time, depending on how much business is being done.”

There are practical considerations to take into account, particularly when it comes to security. Karl Greenfield, head of cyber security at Barry-based cyber security firm Capital Network Solutions reckons that moving to a cloud can be beneficial, but also advises you to do your due diligence, and taking care not to expose yourself. “The good news is that they [cloud-based providers] do take security very seriously,” he says. “There are economies of scale – more power and lower cost with resilience built into the system,” he says. “The sort of things we see are automated attacks, and brute force attacks against weak passwords. Look at account lock-outs, combinations of words and numbers, special characters – lengthy passwords. Consider the ‘attack surface’ and what could happen?”

Landau adds: “Being based in the cloud provides the advantage of confidence: being backed up, operators can always access automatically backed-up versions of settings and profiles, and of course there’s security against malware creeping in ‘on site’. 

“For smaller businesses, that may seem like overkill. But we’re all moving online, more and more, and on-demand cloud-based services are becoming the norm.”

Naturally one of the risks when switching to a system based on cloud technology is that you are relying on the infrastructure of others – and you’re at the mercy of your own internet connection. However, as Bridson & Horrox’s Horrox explains, with connections to the internet typically more robust than they’ve ever been, the risk is relatively low. “We all suffer if the internet fails, but it doesn’t as much as it used to; we’ve lost minimal amount of time in the past three years,” he says. 

“Life isn’t risk-free, unfortunately,” adds Landau. “Downtime is cited as a great disadvantage of cloud computing because service outages are always a possibility. They can happen at any time. But then, the same is true for power outages. The way to mitigate that risk is to design an on-site setup with disaster recovery in mind, and to integrate your cloud solution with a recovery plan that provides the shortest possible recovery time.”

For many printers, it seems, it just seems a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ going cloud-based is going to happen. “It’s seamless,” says Horrocks. “It really does speak for itself, if you do your homework.” 


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