Estimating moves front and centre
Published: 7 July 2020 | No comments yet
Printers have been looking to drive efficiency and service through software integration for many years. With coronavirus restrictions focusing minds on remote and online working, the imperative to link estimating and web front-ends looks set to grow strongly, says Andy Knaggs
If there ever was such a thing as the ‘humble’ print estimate – and generations of skilled estimators would say otherwise – then today it has become something much more: a hugely more dynamic part of a printer’s operation. Online ordering, data exchange protocols and workflow automation have played their parts in this, and estimating engines must now do much more than simply replicate the knowledge and expertise of a human estimator to deliver a price: they must, as Nigel Tyler of MIS developer Optimus puts it, ‘produce a whole work model about how a job will go through the factory’.
Tharstern sales director Lee Ward reinforces this point: ‘These days, the estimate is more than just a way to drive the price – it defines the manufacturing process, the best route for the job.’
Integration of MIS estimating with other software and processes has therefore become of much greater importance within the print industry, while the modern print buyer, influenced by the experience of using sites such as Amazon, wants near-enough instant pricing to base their buying decision upon.
The ‘new normal’, shaped by the increased levels of online and remote working necessitated by the Covid-19 lockdown, might also be expected to raise still further the importance of seamless integration between MIS estimating engines and web front ends. MIS vendors have remarked that questions about online ordering were starting to be asked more frequently by printers during lockdown.
We will come to the issue of integration shortly, but the twin factors of speed and accuracy in estimating can be dealt with quickly and precisely. In short, there can be no trade off: estimating engines must be both fast and comprehensive. While Mr Ward states that ‘speed is everything at the moment’ – and this may well be true – there is another truism observed by Adrian Zesiger, senior director at EFI for Enterprise Productivity Software: ‘Printers always need accuracy. No-one will ever say ‘can I have the other estimating system that’s not accurate?’. They have got to have both speed and accuracy.’
This has been a great challenge for MIS developers, but those at the forefront of this field say they have been able to incorporate a huge amount of power ‘under the hood’. ‘We have a customer that has found it can generate 400 prices per second via a website,’ said Mr Tyler of Optimus. ‘That’s how far we have pushed it.’
Complex data streams within printing operations are a fact of life, and they can move in more than one direction, with information gathered from the customer entry point being married to technical production and resource data that already exists. For this reason, MIS has become a focal point of integration – a conduit between those bidirectional flows of data.
The estimating engine at the heart of the MIS is already established above as that dynamic definer of how a job can be most effectively produced. It is almost always problematic to talk about this kind of integration in generic terms, however, since every print operation has unique requirements, often based on its own individual business rules. The nexus between MIS and web-to-print is now of course a vital one, because almost every printer has a website and wants to use it to funnel work into its production environment.
EFI has the simplest answer: buy both your web-to-print storefront and your MIS from the company, and the integration is already there. Some are willing to take this path, but many have followed alternative routes. EFI is happy to provide XML links and other tools to help a printer to drive more bespoke integration projects involving third party software, and might also charge for professional services to work on this if the printer does not have the necessary skills themselves.
For Optimus, integration projects have become quite commonplace. ‘The buzz is all about integration, in my view,’ says Mr Tyler. ‘The number of active integration projects we have is very high, and it’s a big driver in what we are asked to do these days. The integration of MIS with websites leads into all the rest – including prepress systems such as Enfocus Switch – so that the whole thing flows through.’
Bespoke integration of MIS with web-to-print systems, either from major software vendors or print companies’ own in-house developments, is therefore much in demand. Customisation extends into the estimating engine itself, reflecting the fact that everyone has different ways of running the factory and different pricing rules. There is potentially infinite complexity.
‘Over the years, we have found that printers have different peculiarities that they have wanted to amalgamate into how they did an estimate,’ continues Mr Tyler’s colleague Steve Richardson. ‘Now we have a whole suite of configuration tools at our disposal, and we can give you process blocks of logic that enable you to speed the whole thing up, so if you want to adjust every variable you can. You can concertina the logic as much or as little as you want. Generally, though, people want the maximum information from the minimum number of clicks, little icebergs that drive the estimate and job bag, but also set off the dominoes along the whole line.’
Tharstern’s Lee Ward says that for standard SKU products, integration with a web storefront is a fairly simple process, but becomes more complex with true online estimating. Typically these kinds of projects are handled through APIs (application programming interfaces), and the company is soon (projected Q4 2020) to launch a new ‘API estimating portal’ that would, for example, provide a link from a button in a typical web-to-print system straight into the estimating portal. It will enable both customers and sales staff to create quotes online.
‘It’s about making estimating accessible to the online community – sales or customers – and that’s where we are focusing. APIs are key to that,’ said Mr Ward.
However, bringing about a successful implementation of an integration project is not just about getting software vendors to talk and collaborate, he adds. ‘It still needs someone at the print company to bring it all together. When we pitch to businesses, we label that person as an executor (Editor: pronounced with emphasis on the ‘u’). They are able to bring different people in the company to the project and rally round the suppliers. They have a technical slant but also project management skills.’
Professing to deliver a more web-native MIS environment is the Australasian vendor printIQ, which has a UK office in Aylesbury, and claims to be growing quickly in this region. The company’s product manager Mick Rowan explains that it actually refers to its technology as MWS – a managed workflow system – and is able to integrate with a wide range of third-party vendors. ‘It has always been about automation, speed to market, and being able to quote fast and consistently,’ he told Digital Printer.
Integration is typically done through a suite of API tools, allowing printers to harness best-in-class software, link their own MWS to another print operation’s, so that they can offer products they don’t actually produce, and to interact with e-commerce through the API Punch-Out tool. ‘Through our knowledge of web-based systems, we can allow a lot more integration and functionality,’ said Mr Rowan.
There is an idealistic wish within the industry for integration of digital storefronts and MIS estimating to deliver a form of live pricing – a constant bi-directional flow of information such as spare capacity and fluctuating input prices (such as paper costs) that produces prices based on rapidly changing data.
‘We’ve had a lot of requests that estimating should look at scheduling and capacity, but that’s a huge project and I don’t think any systems can do that yet,’ said Lee Ward of Tharstern. ‘You would work out a price based on the capacity you think you will have when the job comes in, but then the capacity changes so the price is invalid.’
EFI’s technical sales specialist David Lowe refers to this as his favourite question that printers ask him. ‘People ask for it, but usually, when you explain the rationale, they decide they don’t want it. For example, the software might say there is no space and turn work away. There is always space. You don’t want the software to take over, you want to win with estimates at your best price, get the work in and be more efficient about how you produce it. The winning of the work is a pricing exercise.’
Seeing the issues of MIS integration from a different perspective is Alan Dixon of Workflowz, which specialises in pre-media software distribution and integration. His view on the prospect of live pricing is that it lacks some ‘personality’. He said: ‘It doesn’t really reward the experience. It doesn’t have the nuances to recognise that you are a trusted customer and therefore offer you personalised prices. This is missing from a lot of MIS and e-commerce platforms. There is a huge opportunity for someone to do some innovation there, but no-one is yet.’
Neither remote working, nor software integration are new concepts, but with virus restrictions focusing fresh attention on the former, there seems to be an increased focus on the latter already developing among print companies that want to make their customers’ buying processes as seamless as possible, while also enabling them to operate with lean efficiency.