Many of these early software companies were absorbed into larger groups, which developed sophisticated systems that now cover all areas of label and package printing industry management, including estimating, order processing, job management, production scheduling, shipping and invoicing, stock and materials management, through to costing and shop floor data collection.
The latest technologies look to drive increased workflow automation, integrating with pre-press, inspection and finishing, all working to lower production costs and increase profitability, as well as providing easy-to-use E-commerce software.
These systems are generally brought together under the heading of Management Information Systems, more commonly abbreviated to MIS.
‘Information’ to be managed is both electronic and physical, including paper and electronic documents, audio and video information, spreadsheets and data files, all of which need to be processed and delivered through multiple channels including e-mail, smart phone, printer or web interface.
In this series of articles we define a management information system as an organized combination of people, hardware, software and communication networks both within an organization and linking to the outside business world.
The system is designed to collect information covering all important business processes, then record, process and route that data to where in the business it is needed.
It provides detailed analysis and reports which assist management in understanding the effects of different strategies, and helps in effective decision making.
Let’s now apply these basic principles to a label converter or carton business. What information does it need to capture (input data)?
How is it managed? What needs to be stored and/or archived, and what needs to be delivered (output data)? Figure 1.1 outlines a simplified label information management system.
Figure 1.1 The basic structure of a computerized management information system
In more sophisticated MIS systems the range of input, processing and output steps becomes more complex, as seen in Figure 1.2.
Figure 1.2 Shows what may be included in an expanded management information system
Following on from the information provided in these charts, label and package printing industry MIS systems can be divided into the following stages, or categories, of operation:
Transaction processing: handles all routine and recurring transactions, such as invoicing, supplier payments, payroll and inventory tracking.
Operational information processing: gathering and organizing information from transactional processing and other forms of performance-related data. then presenting it in a format useful for managing the business.
Decision-supporting information: provides managers with the necessary data and support information from a wide range of sources to enable them to make intelligent and informed management decisions.
Problem solving: the computer uses captured information to help recognize, formulate and solve problems. It may also be able to explain solutions and, depending on the level of sophistication, learn from that problem solving.
An efficient, label specific management information system is able to manage the entire business, streamline the administration process, reduce costs, eliminate errors from the re-entry of data and maximize the efficiency of plant personnel.
Key benefits will include:
Identify the company’s strengths and weaknesses and so enable continuous improvement from a measured base
Provide an overall picture of the company and the way it operates
Improve decision making and speed up actions
Better manage customer information and target sales, marketing and promotional activities
Gain a competitive advantage
We now review in more detail the most common operations and functions of a modern label or package printing MIS and workflow automation system.
This is an essential element of any business management system in a label or carton plant, with customers expecting to receive an estimate quickly and efficiently.
The request for a quote should describe the external characteristics of the label - for example size/shape, wind direction, number of colors, paper and quantities - and may need to include different quantities, print or finishing options. The converter will also be looking at whether printing the proposed job by conventional or digital processes offers the best return. An example of an online quote form, using Cerm software, can be seen in Figure 1.3.
Figure 1.3 Instant on-line label quote form using Cerm MIS software
After an estimator has established the cost, somebody in the company will define the proposed sales price, normally by adding a margin or evaluating added value contained in the estimate.
To prepare the estimate the converter may additionally need to search a database for appropriate substrates, inks, tooling or cylinders and determine their availability. The estimate may need further manual tuning in relation to competitor or profitability metrics before it is printed onto the company's letterheads, or sent to the customer by fax or e-mail. If the customer subsequently telephones to discuss the quote, it can be called-up on screen for review and possible amendment.
MIS software can be specified with an ‘online quote’ facility that will automatically calculate the selling price, or quote for a variant of an existing estimate (such as another quantity), following pre-defined rules.
Sophisticated Online quote software allows virtually any member of staff to produce an accurate quote, eliminating delays in getting back to customers. Some software will even enable customers to quote jobs themselves.
Web-based systems provide on-the–road sales staff with immediate answers to scheduling or costing questions along with detailed quotations and even facilities to upload the artwork for the job.
Another role of an estimating software module is to allow converters thinking of investing in a new press to run trial estimates and do cost crossover comparisons with their existing machinery or with other suppliers’ press technology.
An extension of estimating software modules allows converters to identify every individual product requested by the customer and perform the following actions:
Follow up the Artwork approval cycle (upload artwork, transfer to prepress, receive soft proof & thumbnail, receive approval/reject, …)
Follow up any history of repeats and traceability (when did we produce, how many, with which paper, which box numbers)
Optimize production formats – for example combine products with the same characteristics (for example same substrate or die) into a single job
Display stock level / orders per product.
The system stores this information as ‘objects’ (or ‘Products’ in the Cerm software), to which specific customer order information is added - list of products, quantities, delivery date(s) and addresses(s) – when a specific quote is required. The software then calculates the cheapest of the pre-defined production paths and creates a production job.
A major advantage of this approach is that product approval can be managed before a sales order is entered, significantly decreasing lead-times.
Figure 1.4 Label Traxx Online label estimate process showing items such as quantity, wind direction, size, press and price per thousand
Once an estimate has been agreed, it will need to be efficiently and accurately turned into an order, with the job passing from sales into production and eventually on to despatch to the customer.
The aim of the order processing software therefore is to accurately convert the estimate into the production order (create the job bag or job ticket. See Figure 1.5.)
Figure 1.5 Viewing of the job ticket on the shop floor using Tharstern MIS software without the need to re-key any information. Re-orders can also be quickly expedited through a simple job duplication
With order processing information entered, production planning can start. These functions include: assign job priority; track jobs in progress; view press or process capacity; track and maintain roll materials inventory (using bar codes) and order and receive materials electronically; prepare and issue delivery notes and print-out pallet, carton or shipping labels.
Production scheduling MIS modules provide full visibility of machine capacity (see Figure 1.6), both short and long term, and offer detailed scheduling of each production step from customer approval through to shipping. It may also be possible for press operators to consult their work schedule on their press or feed back what they are doing in real time.
A change in schedule can be automatically seen on the shop floor. It is also possible to reserve production slots and automatically schedule planned maintenance stops.
Figure 1.6 Visual scheduler in Label Traxx MIS software system
Job optimization steps include grouping or ganging similar labels or cartons together by substrate, colors or cutter tooling for example. Data can be sent out to a system like the EskoArtwork Automation Engine for automated step and repeat, while some digital presses come with their own built-in step and repeat software.
Some suppliers now offer job tracking modules that allow customers to view their own jobs and even enter information directly into the MIS system in a secure environment with multiple levels of access.
Customers can raise quotes and jobs, review progress of jobs already in hand, monitor key milestones for overall tracking, and even ask for customer specific reports to be run in real time. If finished print is held in stock, customers can raise ‘Call Off’ orders that automatically feed through to warehousing modules for picking, packing and delivery.
INVENTORY CONTROL AND PURCHASING
All label and packaging printing converters carry stock from paper and film reels or sheet stock, to inks and varnishes, cutting, embossing and foiling dies, cartons and product packing materials. In addition, they may be holding stocks of labels for customer call-off, or pre-printed stock products labels. And consumables like labelstocks, inks, cutters and other tooling, packing and cleaning materials, foils and lamps are coming in all the time.
Controlling and managing both stocked products and finished goods inventory is therefore a key part of any label management information system – ideally tracking product inventory in real time. It also becomes feasible to agree and store both minimum and maximum stock holdings, with the system providing replenishment reporting and even automated inventory management.
Most label-specific MIS systems have a roll tracking facility, based on bar coding, enabling full traceability of the rolls used on any job. Some are fully integrated with material suppliers, allowing electronic ordering. The shipment details are sent back to the MIS electronically, with the manufacturer’s EPSMA barcode number of the roll and the exact width and length. A handheld scanner (Figure 1.7) can then be used to take roll inventory by scanning all of the roll barcodes.
Figure 1.7 Barcode scanning of rolls using an iPod scanner. Source Label Traxx
Finished goods inventory includes labels called-off by customers and items that are resold like ribbons and printers. Increasingly, MIS suppliers are also being asked to incorporate interfaces to transport suppliers, enabling the sending of electronic instructions to DHL, UPS, etc., in order to manage transport and shipping.
Quality control systems which document quality issues, returns procedures and complaints logging have become an important element in the management of label or package printing businesses.
When problems or complaints arise there needs to be a system of reporting and corrective actions, including the generation of management reports that enable fault trends to be ascertained and analysed. This may lead in turn to updating of quality control procedures or new employee training documentation.
Quality control systems may also store ISO, OSHA or other international or national standards requirements and documentation that can be viewed or print generated by employees.
Once a job has been completed and shipped it needs to be costed and an invoice issued as quickly as possible. Additionally, the sales, accounting and management teams will want to know if they made a profit on the job and how much.
Label costing systems can now be linked to a wide range of company data, including the clocking in and out of each employee - with time being automatically recorded to the job docket. Labelstock, inks and other consumable information is automatically captured. This information is combined to create the actual job cost, which can then be compared against the original estimate.
Some variables are more difficult to measure – ink consumption for example. This is because ink is sometimes mixed out of other inks without real booking, and it is not easy to divide the total consumption of the same ink between different jobs. Interfacing with ink dispensing systems, such as those manufactured by GSE, will ensure proper booking and traceability of ink.
For converters requiring more in depth shop floor data, the latest MIS modules provide real-time press room statistics including the number of labels or sheets produced, material used and running speeds. Data can include full capture of both gross and net label quantities as well as length or quantity converted, so providing accurate cost monitoring control throughout production.
The Accounts operation is at the heart of any label or package printing industry management information system. It operates the general ledger/nominal ledger where all financial transactions are received, processed and summarized in real-time.
The results of these transactions are shown in financial reports which provide the management team with forecasts, profit and loss data, and all the usual financial management data provided by standard ledger analysis tools.
This makes it possible to view critical business data at a glance, track the company’s progress against key business performance indicators, obtain an instant picture of how the business is performing and quickly highlight any areas in need of attention. See Figure 1.8. for an example of Finished Goods inventory by age, value and percentage.
Where required, a whole variety of more comprehensive management reports can be prepared and presented. These will enable the management team to drill down much further for more detailed analysis.
Figure 1.8 Finished goods inventory as shown in the Label Traxx system
The accounts department is also involved in the invoicing process, in sales and purchase invoice reporting (Figure 1. 9), credit control and surveillance, handling tax rates, pre-payments, and dealing with accounts receivable.
Figure 1.9 Sales and purchase invoice reporting in Tharstern MIS
MIS modules allow the accounts department to manage employee expenses, supplier invoices, cash flows, reconcile accounts and offer historical reporting. Currency handling for forex (foreign exchange) sourcing or sales transactions might also be included.
The label and package printing industries are continually seeking ways to integrate MIS with increasingly automated pre-press and production systems to meet a range of challenges: to remove the risks of human error; to handle an ever-increasing number of shorter runs; and to overcome a shortage of skilled operators. In addition, the impressive rise of digital print for labels has increasingly pushed both MIS and pre-press vendors to develop more automated solutions.
To remain profitable today, converters must ensure their pre-press and production workflows are integrated within their business and management operations and connected with their entire supply chain, 24/7, wherever that may be in the world. Indeed, some systems now offer the ability to take an order online, accept payments, pre-flight files, correct them, and send directly to the press without any operator intervention.
Overall, the trend is towards ever more press and finishing line automation. We are seeing the emergence of self-managing presses, cloud computing and cloud-based assistants, smart data management and smart printing systems, WiFi control, and even fully hands-free and totally ‘lights-out’ production. This trend affects all aspects of printing press and finishing line technology.
Traditional narrow web machinery suppliers are seeing the press less as a mechanical device and more as a software-driven machine tool, with the prepress job data file increasingly driving the whole workflow. The JDF sent to the printing press contains the job protocol, in CIP3 or similar format, which will transfer job data such as pressure accuracy, dot gain, register, web control, and cutting depth.
Integration of MIS and pre-press automation software ensures that customer ‘job’ information held in the estimating files is used to automatically create a new pre-press job and deliver new artwork, make it print-ready and prepare proofs. Status updates on everything from plate layout, RIP-ing and plate making are sent back to the MIS.
Whatever printing process is being used – flexo, offset, letterpress, digital – brand colors must all be accurate and consistent, and can be controlled through the same workflow.
Workflow automation can identify which jobs – typically reprints – can re-use an existing plate set, or an existing cutting die from store, or enable a slitter operator to retrieve previous slitter instructions to automatically re-set the slitting knives. See Figure 1.10.
Figure 1.10 Automatic re-setting of slitting knives with workflow automation. Source ABG International
Further integration with camera inspection systems - such as that demonstrated by AVT and Cerm – allows the creation of inspection files per print frame (Figure 1.11).
A barcode is then printed for every print frame in the job and for every individual print lane (Figure 1.12). An AVT camera then reads the barcode and verifies the printed output (Figure 1.13).
Figure 1.11 Cerm MIS creates the AVT inspection print frames
Figure 1.12 Creation of inspection files per print frame , and the printed barcode of the print frame. Source- Cerm
Figure 1.13 The printed barcode picked up by the AVT Camera
The system links to the original PDF for image comparison and for step and repeat instructions. Taken together, these systems eliminate manual set-up time for the camera.
These developments point to a future where printing presses become self-managing units, where everything from production planning, to consumables ordering, to predictive maintenance, are all generated from the press itself, or though integration with MIS systems. This will have a massive impact on label press productivity, freeing up skilled personnel to focus on developing the business, rather than managing manufacture.
Such future plants could work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, automatically tracking work process across perhaps multiple sites – and all managed remotely through a secure web environment. How long before human-free, fully-automated label production, perhaps totally controlled through WiFi and robotics, comes to the market? Probably not too long.
Workflow automation will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 9.
A TYPICAL WORKFLOW SYSTEM
MIS systems today enable everything from materials purchasing, to production, distribution, invoicing and accounts information to be held in one computerized system, integrating with other applications, including desktop productivity tools, press management control systems, inspection, finishing, inspection, accounting and administration systems and supply chain integration.
Systems are fully integrated so data only has to be entered once and changes ripple through to other modules automatically. For example, if a customer changes the quantity required on an order, the computerized system automatically adjusts the works order, re-times the job, adjusts the production schedule and stock control - and then re-calculates the quantity of raw materials allocated.
At the hub of an MIS system is a database that holds all the details required to manufacture, stock and sell the label or printed package products, including press requirements, tooling, colors/inks, plates and finishing. Materials order/stock modules include bar code-driven traceability and details of substrates. An origination module provides full control of design, proofing, platemaking, etc; the specification of the label drives the automated production planning process.
Although based on standard components, bespoke programming is also often involved in tailoring individual MIS systems to an individual company’s needs. Modern MIS systems operate in real time, allowing the operator to move from window to window and enabling electronic commerce through flexible and adaptable architectures.
The following chapters aim to amplify the basic functions of MIS and Workflow Automation that have already been outlined, and examine how they relate to each other in a typical MIS workflow system (see Figure 1.14).
Figure 1.14 A good MIS will provide a streamlined and seamless administration process of jobs through a label or package printing plant
The overall aim is a single system able to manage the entire business, streamline the administration process and reduce costs, eliminate errors from the re-entry of data and minimize personnel. It should also be label industry or package printing industry specific as required.
A WORD OF CAUTION
As computerized data and management information continues to grow there is a danger that label and package printing companies keep hold of files that are no longer required or necessary . ‘just in case’ they might one day be needed. This information that companies collect, process and archive throughout their business activities, but nevertheless fail to actually use, is termed ‘Dark Data’.
This can have a significant impact on company IT budgets, with companies paying for cloud storage and to meet data protection and other regulatory requirements.
A proper information management system is required to prevent the storage of too much outdated and unnecessary information. This will include the following elements:
Firstly, develop policies and continuous training for all staff about managing data (including data on local drives, laptops, shared drives, removable devices and mobile devices).
Understand that although all data can be stored, it should not be done without valid reasons.
Do not keep data longer than necessary unless there is benefit to be obtained.
Introduce a cost charge for storage. If it’s free there is little incentive to remove it.
Have a centralized e-mail management system.
Delete e-mails as defined in the company’s organization policy.
Beware of data accumulated . perhaps in the cloud . by ‘creative departments’ without contacting or liaising with IT.
Have a defensible deletion policy, bearing in mind legal risks associated with storing too much data.
INTEGRATION IS THE ANSWER
With end-to-end integration from estimating through scheduling, inventory, production, quality control, shipping and accounting, MIS software and solutions today facilitate the easy collection and sharing of information. A company’s information collected and shared in one dynamic database will promote effective sharing and communication between departments, among employees, and even externally to and from valued customers.
The use of MIS ‘smart’ software in a modern label or package printing plant is able to automate workflows and optimize plant operations by recommending and planning the most efficient job routes, schedules, and allocation of resources.