In an industry long focused on hardware for putting marks on paper, the development of sophisticated MIS has had a more marked effect on printing’s ability survive and thrive in the internet age. For IPMG, Australia’s largest privately owned printing group, rolling out EFI Technique in its four plants across three states, for both web and sheetfed, has proved to be a transformational process.
Patrick Howard talks to the people behind one the world’s most advanced production information systems.
The drive for world’s best practice in printing production brings with it its own set of risks. Moving from a craft-based, printer-centric, production to an automated manufacturing process not only changes the traditional roles of personnel in prepress, press operation and postpress, but creates new and expanded responsibilities for others in the process. People working in areas such as customer service become central to the process, operating in an expanded role that defines the trajectory of a job all the way to despatch, allowing a customer to track it through a single point of contact.
Production people schedule work months in advance, filling operational shifts without a wall chart in sight. Paper purchasing, generic and customer indented stock, is kept under online tabs with personnel aware of where each roll is and when it will be required. Even press operators are kept better informed on the progress of each job and what’s coming up next. In a comprehensive electronic workflow the whole process is power charged, with the potential for human error reduced to a negligible degree.
Not without risks
The risks, of course, lie in the implementation; in the transition from a paper job bag that contained the customer’s requirements, to the invisible information highway from customer order to dispatch. They lie in standardizing workflows in different factories, because no two plants ever operate the same. In the first instance, risks lie with the management decision to transform a moderately efficient printing operation into a world-class example of productivity that is future-proofed.
It’s not a decision to be taken lightly, certainly not by the team at IPMG that made the call to bring the Group’s four printing plants onto the same MIS platform and link them across thousands of kilometres into one production network that could respond quickly and allocate resources efficiently and cost effectively. In the three years since the in-principle decision was taken to move to a single platform, much has changed for the company. It re-located Hannanprint Sydney from inner suburban Alexandria out west to Warwick Farm, in the process building one of the industry’s largest single-site factories. It explored the option of a merger with the Blue Star Group to create the country’s largest printing company. And, it saw a nearly complete renewal of its top echelon of executives and senior managers with many years experience moved on in generational change.
That the installation and inauguration of EFI Technique MIS across the entire company took place and is now success-fully up and running says a lot about the depth of IPMG’s management determination and its technical resources.
Working through the change points
Four years ago when IPMG management came to fully recognise the limitations of the company’s different ad hoc systems and the potential efficiencies of having all plants use the same MIS, the workflow systems in place were, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. Prism was the common thread, in use in both Hannanprint plants (NSW and Victoria) and Inprint in Brisbane. Meanwhile Offset Alpine was coming to end-of-life of its Logic MIS.
According to Chris Sledge, IPMG’s IT manager, it was not even that simple. All the Prism systems were of different versions and every system had multiple customised apps to facilitate individual work practices.
Management made the call to find a robust, state-of-the-art MIS system that could be rolled out in a basic format for all plants, yet was still able to be customised for the combination of web and sheetfed; of large contract publication work and day-to-day commercial printing. In August that year, EFI bought Prism, effectively becoming the software supplier to most of the group. Aware of the corporate plans afoot, EFI actively promoted its high-end systems as the solution.
While recognising the strengths of the EFI systems, IPMG decided to look further afield. The UK-developed Technique already had a substantial footprint among the larger Australian web printers such as PMP, Franklin Web, AIW and Spot Press. It was also the MIS of choice for the massive Polestar Group in the UK as well as Caxton in South Africa. After months of investigation and discussion, the decision was made to go with Technique.
The contract was signed; the deal was done … then EFI acquired Technique. Despite being initially surprised to find itself back in the EFI camp, the transaction made little difference to IPMG’s decision. There was an ongoing relationship between the creator of Technique, Paul Cooper, who stayed with the company after the buyout and IPMG’s IT personnel. They were reassured there would be sufficient R&D investment from EFI.
Changing lanes on the information highway
One of the first challenges the IPMG implementation team faced was that everyone wanted to do it their own way, the way it was always done. According to Chris Sledge, the early meetings were a lot about documenting processes and discovering what everyone else was doing. “When you have a number of companies with legacy systems, you have to set some standards. Negotiating a standard using what you already do is a time consuming process. We had to insist that the core processes were the ones that came out of the box. ‘We want one system’ was the mandate from the top.”
He says: “We had to help everyone understand. We are not going to break this system into individual pieces to suit existing ways of doing things. We’re going to take it out of the box.”
The core team of IT personnel and operatives were willing to write customised add-ons but only in addition to the basic core of the operating system. It required many compromises and not a little enforcement to implement a single system across the group.
The team was bolstered by the support of Craig Dunsford, the newly appointed, CEO of printing across the group. He was committed to realising the ambition of making IPMG printing as good as it can be in the information age.
For Darren Hardman, the early meetings were a first chance to actually nut out how the company was working. “We all met in a room. That was a significant moment for all of us at IPMG, all the people sitting down together. I’ve been at Offset Alpine for ten years and I had never talked to anyone at Hannanprint about this type of opportunity before. We all talked to our counterparts in other parts of the business to say ‘g’day’ and meet at functions, but never to sit down and work out what we were going to be doing together.”
With the backing of management, the installation and transition began to go ahead. Much had to be changed and many personnel had to be seconded into the implementation team; some core, others part of the extended team that would actually have to operate the system. Super users were identified and brought up to speed. There were many sleepless nights for people such as Darren Hardman, Sledge’s important partner as the project manager, originally from Offset Alpine, who was one of the key ‘go to’ individuals during the time.
The first stage initiated modules addressing such areas as scheduling, purchasing, estimating and customer service. Each sector has its own ‘super user’ from the different plants who worked on the implementation with the core team. These were permanently attached to the Project Team, a substantial investment in people power.
The implementation schedule was ambitious, with Offset Alpine forcing the pace. It was the plant with the most in-depth back up system; many of its processes were still almost entirely paper based. As a combined publication and day-to-day commercial printer, it presented unique challenges in shoehorning its processes into the one size fits all, out-of-the-box, Technique MIS.
It was also the first plant to go ‘live’ with Technique in July 2013, a bare six months after implementation had begun. The two Hannanprint plants quickly followed it in September and lastly Inprint came on line early in 2014. Impressively, even the disruption of shifting Hannanprint Sydney to its new Warwick Farm site failed to slow the rollout.
From the perspective of a successful implementation the scale of the project is difficult to grasp. It is the world’s most widespread Technique network; it is powering one of the largest printing companies in the country; it is a single end-to-end workflow from order input to finishing and despatch; and it is the intelligence behind some of the most automated printing processes in the industry.
A farewell to pegboards
Of all the changes in work practices resulting from the adoption of Technique, perhaps none is so obvious and efficient as the shift to electronic scheduling. Like other printing companies, Hannanprint had a huge scheduling board taking up walls in the production office. Chequered with pegs and labels it was a labour intensive roadmap of the company’s printing activities, present and as far into the future as could fit.
It was the most visible aspect of the ‘job bag trail’ that formed the basis of paper-based work-
flow systems:- and it’s all gone.
For Chris Sledge it was one of the most outstanding successes for the team and for Hannanprint in particular. Electronic scheduling is the holy grail of electronic workflows and something that had been tried before without success.
“We had four or five stabs at electronic scheduling under Prism. They’d upgrade it and we’d try again. And it never took; we still had the boards. With Technique once that module was set up, the boards were gone. Our forward planning is pretty detailed. All our major customers are on our system up to Christmas already. All our contract work is on the schedule. Every thing that’s sitting there is ready to go.
“It used to be where someone in Victoria would take a digital photograph of their board and email it to Sydney so they could see what they were doing. It’s progressed to a point where the same information is now available live on their mobile phones and tablets. Computer scheduling not only makes it simpler and easier to plan and oversee operations but it operates in real time, linked to press operations across the entire group. It is a spectacular window for management as well as operational personnel to see into the business, to assign resources, calculate capacity and plan for future days, weeks and months. Technique transforms the management of printing, requiring and empowering managers to operate at a much more sophisticated level than before, with greater visibility.
“We’re not chopping and changing at the last minute. We can look four or five months out and say that the whole job is better suited to Lidcombe, whereas before you’d get to October and be saying, we’ll send two sections because I just can’t do it here,” said Sledge. “October and November used to be such a stressful time for the planners, now it’s taken a lot of that out because we’ve got the tools to look ahead.”
The road ahead
Stage one of IPMG’s Technique project is complete and stage two is underway. All the plants are linked into the same system, all workflows are visible and intelligible to management at any point of the network, including from mobiles and tablets. Sales people and customer service representatives can access the production data in real time when facing customers to let them know how a particular job is going or when it is scheduled.
Paper purchases are based on real numbers, not estimates based on last year’s requirements. Everything is tracked and recorded from the consumption of pressurised air to power loads on the presses. Supplies are delivered at the point they’re required and waste is tracked and measured.
Under Chris Sledge and Darren Hardman, processes throughout the Group are being streamlined, duplications eliminated and the value of customised apps evaluated and where approved, written by EFI or the home-grown IT team. Technique may be an ‘out of the box’ product but it still needs customising. One of the first apps for Hannanprint is a ‘plate re-make function’ for the press operators.
“We have always and will continue to develop our own peripheral systems, because you never get everything you want from your core system. One of the reasons we bought Technique is that it is standard Microsoft, with standard tools. It’s quite open in that regard in its ability to put stuff in, such as plate remake; they give you the ability through their system to publish that,” says Sledge.
Stage three in the future is when IPMG will expand its MIS into the internet with Web2Print services, customer access to scheduling and tighter interfacing between its marketing services and print production. Digital print will be closely interfaced with massive offset web presses. Jobs of many hundreds of thousand of copies will flow through the same system as jobs for ten copies. It is the stuff of dreams at the present but it is likely to arrive much sooner than anyone thinks.
The successful implementation of EFI Technique into the Group has given the whole company a shot in the arm, a tremendous boost to morale as they are aware of working at the very leading edge of MIS and automation.
Just as Technique illustrates what the printing plant of the future will be capable of, it brings into sharp relief the new and different skillsets that will make the printers of the future. And for IPMG, that future starts now.