Me & My… Tharstern modular MIS

By Simon Eccles, Monday 05 February 2018

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Smart Graphics turned to Tharstern when it dawned on the company’s team that the MIS developer could provide for efficiency savings.


Bellard: light bulb moment came when we drilled down into how long the sales and estimating process took

Smart Graphics was founded more than 25 years ago and has always been based in the Clydebank area just outside Glasgow. The company specialises in vehicle graphics, with a
particular emphasis on large passenger transport vehicles, such as trains and double-decker buses. Cars, trucks, vans and some boats are also handled, as is some banner and signage work. Customers include CityLink, FirstGroup and Stagecoach for buses and trains, and G4S, Greggs and Samsung for other vehicles.

“Our client base is all over the UK, as far north as Aberdeen and as far south as Cornwall, and for most of the major operators,” says Paul Bellard, general manager at Smart Graphics. He has been with the company for four years.

Although there is a southern sales office near Basingstoke, all print and other production is carried out in Clydebank. Installers travel to client sites all over the country, which are usually at the vehicle manufacturers’ or operators’ premises. There is more to the business than printing: the service ranges from design to specification, prototyping to production, product sourcing to planning to installation. Graphics removal is also performed when needed, often after temporary event promotions.

Usually, the customers supply the digital artwork, Bellard says, and then Smart Graphics’ designers obtain the vehicle outlines from the manufacturers and modify the graphics to fit.

“We do have design capabilities and certain customers will call upon those services,” he says.

Web-based ordering is offered, and management information includes inventory reports, timeline management and installation reports. Survey and application teams are based around the country.

All this takes quite a lot of organising.

A new Tharstern modular management information system was installed in May last year and is now well into the implementation phase. It is replacing an older FileMaker Pro-based system that had run up against its limitations.

Printing is handled by large format inkjets onto vehicle grade self-adhesive vinyl. “We have two HP Latex 370 printers,” says Bellard. “Up until four years ago, we printed everything via Mimaki solvent printers. Latex was well into its second generation, and having used it in a previous job role, I knew it would significantly change our production department and improve quality greatly.”

The Latex 370 printers handle rolls that are up to 1.63m wide. The latex ink emerges dry from the printer and can be laminated immediately, unlike solvent ink, which continues to outgas for 24 to 48 hours. It uses the latest latex inks, which need significantly less drying heat than previously, thanks to a primer ink. As the ink is basically water-based with heat-activated resins carrying the pigments, there is no odour as the ink cures.

“Within months, we went from a 5% per month waste level down to 1%,” says Bellard. “After a year, this was less than 0.5%, partly down to the consistency of latex over solvent. Another benefit is the odours created by solvent that thankfully we no longer have to contend with. We laminate all print with a Seal 62 Pro laminator. We have four drum plotters for cutting all graphics. Our banner offering is quite small so we have no need for banner finishing kit at this time.”

Why choose Tharstern?
Switching MIS systems isn’t easy, which is why companies tend to stick with the same system as long as possible. Bellard says that the old system had reached its limits. “We have run a bespoke system on the FileMaker platform. Although it suits the day-to-day needs, it does not offer a great deal of management information and relies on a great deal of information duplication at various stages throughout a job’s history,” he says.

“The Tharstern system seemed to have solutions throughout the software to suit our needs. Having been in the graphic industry for 28 years, I have been aware of Tharstern for some time. I looked at its system 11 years ago, but at the time it wasn’t suitable. But now after many discussions, and I have to say exceptional sales consultation service from Ross  Edwards, Tharstern has answered the majority of my concerns and demonstrated the power of the system to all the team here,” he adds.

“The light bulb moment for us was when we started to drill down into how long each part of the sales and estimating process took. In the past, even the simplest of business quotes for customers would have taken around 30 minutes to produce, but this will now be done in a third of the time.”

Was anything else considered?
“I looked at redeveloping our FileMaker system and I looked at Clarity but only from a distance,” says Bellard. Clarity is another UK-based MIS developer that was the first to create a system specifically for large-format signage and graphics work. “I also looked at EFI but it wasn’t for us,” he adds.

Edwards is Tharstern’s business development manager for the Midlands and the north of England, Scotland and Ireland. “One of the key points to emphasise is that Tharstern supports all sectors, including wide-format. Within our estimating module, we don’t have different versions for different sectors of the industry. It’s a one-stop solution for all, which means for any Tharstern customer that if they decide to add kit and services, they don’t need to worry about having to invest in further modules to support them,” he says.

“A big portion of our customer base are wide-format specialists, and more than 50% of our customers have a wide-format machine. They don’t necessarily specialise in that type of print, but our system has the ability to handle this. Some of our modules and options do offer particular advantages to the wide-format sector. These include our Advanced Imposition module for nesting irregular and regular shapes together. Our Milestones functionality can manage every aspect of the job from site surveys through to artwork approvals through to installation. The Job Tracking module can just as easily be used offsite via tablet devices for installers, who can also upload a photo of the finished installation.”

How is the adoption going?
Implementation of the Tharstern system has been a rolling process, he explains.

“We haven’t been able to transfer any information from FileMaker, so we have started from scratch,” he says. “It has taken five months so far and we are just going live. We’ll be using the estimating daily and we’ll use the scheduling across three different departments of the business. We’ll also use the purchase orders, the stock system and invoicing – everything is going to be used on a day-to-day basis. It’s early days, however in trials it is performing as expected.”

What should other buyers look out for? “There are always problems integrating any new system. I’m sure I will encounter many more in the coming months,” says Bellard.

“Because of the issues we had in the past, I have ensured that everything is working as it should. With the help of Marcus Smith, the project manager at Tharstern, we have achieved that.”

As advice for others considering Tharstern, he recommends: “Watch out for user licences and make sure you get the correct amount at the time.” However, he reports: “Support so far has been very good, most issues are solved within a few hours if not straightaway.”

Good and bad points?
“The best thing so far is the ease of estimating, however this will change when we start to see more data and then the analytical tools will become increasingly more useful,” says Bellard. “There is not really anything I have found that I don’t like, but give me time! I would certainly recommend it to others.”

Tharstern is a long-established MIS developer, set up in 1984 and based in Colne, Lancashire. Its modular MIS is installed in more than 700 UK sites. It’s based on SQL and web services and supports most printing business needs.

Smart Graphics uses the following modules:
Job Costing
Purchase Order Processing
Production Scheduling
Accounts Link to Sage Line 50
Stock Control
Multi-user Scheduling
Shop Floor Data Collection
Business Intelligence 

Price Tharstern prices start at £10,795 for its entry-level solution, which includes installation, training and technical support in the first year.

Contact Tharstern 01282 860660

Company profile
Based in Clydebank, Smart Graphics is a vehicle graphics specialist with particular expertise in very large vehicles, as well as some banner and signage work. The company offers a full service, from surveys and planning, through artwork preparation, printing and lamination of vehicle grade vinyl, then installation and removal. Printing is mainly handled by a pair of HP Latex 370 1.63m inkjets, with lamination done by a Seal 62 Pro and cutting by drum plotters. The Tharstern MIS was installed in June 2017 and is going live after a rolling implementation period. It is replacing a custom FileMaker Pro based system. The company has 20 staff and is targeting growth of around 25% to 30% in the next two to three years.

What has it brought to the company?
As implementation is only just happening, Bellard is looking forward to future benefits. “Our goal is that it will create sales capacity by making tasks easier, but that it will also give us a greater understanding of many aspects of the business in a shorter space of time,” he says.

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