How Far We’ve Come! Workflow Automation in 2021

In 2019, our 2nd drupa Spotlight report focussed on the progress on systems integration. Now, two years later, we are once again taking a closer look at the developments and offer you a handy guide to start off your own business’ workflow automation with.

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In our Global Trends Report Spotlight 2019, we discovered that system integration and workflow automation had been a top priority for printers and manufacturers. In fact, automation experienced a boom about four years ago and started drastically changing workflows in our industry in the 21st century. Back in 2017, print expert and long-time drupa fan Pat McGrew tackled the issue as well. So now, two years after our detailed drupa Spotlight analysis, we are taking a closer look at the status quo once again and help you navigate and optimize your workflow automation process.

No matter the job stages, printers rarely operate all manually nowadays. In Prepress, for example, only 4% operated all manual, another 18% mostly manual. Whereas 11% had their workflow fully automated and 28% still described their operation’s level of automation as “mostly automated”. HP Site Flow, “Print production workflow. Optimizing operational productivity and results” (2021)

Step 1: Eyes on the Price

Over 88% of highly automated respondents agreed that workflow automation reduces errors and the need for reruns.HP Site Flow, “Print production workflow. Optimizing operational productivity and results” (2021)

First things first: Pat McGrew defines a workflow as “the repeatable and auditable tasks, events, and processes used to consistently move work from job onboarding through to completion. Some or all tasks may be automated toward the goal of super-efficiency and predictability in production and supply chain management,” claiming most companies operate with a workflow process even though their jobs just “come in and they flow through the organization” rather than tying all processes into a consistent and verifiable reporting structure, providing connectivity to the touchpoints right from order entry to delivery. Only then, your workflow will be able to provide the results that are the main motivators to automate print production workflows to begin with: increased production efficiency as well as profitability, raising your output, an increase of volume of shorter run work, and avoiding bottlenecks. McGrew even composed a series of questions to help you correctly assess the status of your workflow. And of course, we have lots of articles on our blog about workflow automation as well, so you should be set up well to start out your own research.

In 2019, most printers (over 35%) reported only “a few islands of automation” regarding their workflow automation progress. 16% were unable to mark any progress at all. While most printers and suppliers were working on implementing cohesive system integration (24% for “many islands of automation”, another 24% saying they “started comprehensive systems integration” and 12% even talking about “completed comprehensive systems integration”). “For those printers who replied they had made ‘no progress’ on integration, we asked why. 50% stated insufficient funds/resources and 40% the lack of skills/specialist knowledge.”drupa, “2nd drupa Global Trends Spotlight 2019 – Progress on systems integration” (2019)

Step 2: A Clear Vision

So, put their hand on their heart and tell us, how much time and effort you put into finding the right solution(s) for you? We know it can be a confusing endeavor and there are lots of promising options out there, but with workflow automation there is not the one solution that works well for everyone. But a point every single one of you can easily start at is connecting islands of automation that should be linked together to optimize the overall workflow. Other great starting points are web-to-print solutions, order entry and management solutions, job tracking as well as resource allocation, flow control, and consumables ordering. It is however important to always reevaluate and report as each step is completed to get a realistic overview of your own company’s situation.

Step 3: The Fine-Tuning

While our smallest recorded companies work with 3.5 systems, the largest work with about 7.7 on average. The most popular IT system used globally is PrePress workflow with an overwhelming 66%, followed by color management workflow. Our analysis showed that the use varies highly across the smaller and larger printers, for example with 45% and 82% for PrePress workflow, and less between sectors or regions.drupa, “2nd drupa Global Trends Spotlight 2019 – Progress on systems integration” (2019)

After your evaluation, you should be able to sketch a workflow map with your own disconnection points. These are the points you can tackle first. Look for a suitable offering option and identify which vendors are closest to those disconnects. Be sure to choose the right option for your business and not just go with the one that looks easy or just comes at a low price and don’t hesitate to bring on new vendors, if you can identify more than two or three disconnects. By now, there are lots of easy access as well as advanced workflow automation options on the market, so every printer and supplier should be able to find the right choice that suits their existing operations and needs.

Publication printers are leading the field, with 46% describing their primary business highly automated and 37% medium automated. Digital printing specialists, working in primarily digital printing, are following closely with 31% describing their business as highly automated and 50% saying their primary business has a medium level automation.HP Site Flow, “Print production workflow. Optimizing operational productivity and results” (2021)

How would you describe your level of workflow automation? Do you think it has become easier to transition to automated operations over the last few years? Or has the amount of options been confusing? Share your impressions in the comment or on our social media profiles!

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