Web Enabled Collaboration – Before and After

Look for packaging workflow solutions at drupa08

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Last month we discussed in some detail the arguments for Web Enabled Collaboration. We saw that it can be a very efficient mechanism for managing the flow of documents and instructions between the participants of a print project. Many of these collaboration solutions started off as simple monitoring functions added onto production workflow systems. The initial design goal was to allow management and marketing to peep at production from wherever they were. Production, of course, was confident that no harm could befall them as long as they controlled the underlying IT systems, which was the case in most installations. In fact, the early adopters did not feel any change for many years. The systems available in the nineties were not very easy to use and many non-technical users were still coming to terms with setting up a decent spread sheet. When management finally began to monitor production (albeit at first to justify the investment made in these systems) they realised the potential was far greater than what was initially envisaged. Marketing (or at least the believers among them) saw a whole new opportunity. If they could be in a city office and look at artwork hosted on a production server at a remote site, why not invite the customer to have a look?
This demand has really driven the development of collaboration systems. The need to have a browser-based front-end became obvious and thanks to the exponential growth in power of enabling technologies  such as Java, it was possible to deliver a high level of functionality on a browser that was hitherto available only on classical form based solutions. All collaboration systems have undergone major upgrades in the last two years. It must be stated that many of the requisite hardware related technologies such as broadband connections, multi-core processors and terabyte storage became available and affordable during this time, thus helping the vendors to deliver on the ‘Web Enabled’ promise which was only marketing spin not so long ago. However, the vendors realised that they cannot sell these systems in the same way they sold graphics workstations. A vast majority of the potential customers are large entities with varied activities related to different media, spread across many locations. They also have quite a few legacy production systems of their own, hosted on multiple OS platforms. Therefore, many vendors now undertake to implement a solution as a project and price it accordingly. I expect this to follow the trends seen in ERP solutions, where the consultation and implementation cost is a non-trivial multiple of the software license fee. This often results in the IT head being hauled before the board where he will be asked why he thinks this is an investment when it is obvious to all the rest that it is an expenditure. But that’s another story for another day.

There is another interesting development that is taking place right now. It started with the integration of the prepress workflow solution with the company’s existing MIS. For the past many years, big-time workflow vendors such as Esko have focussed on their core solutions that address the needs of specific segments such as packaging and were happy to offer MIS integration through third party plug-ins. However, there are a host of other vendors with an IT background who have selectively adapted concepts and trends seen in ERP systems and begun to offer them as options to their version of a web enabled collaboration system. To compensate for their deficiency in core prepress technologies, they have latched on to the evolving PDF workflow concepts. Unlike the well known vendors’ solutions, many of these systems are not particularly strong in any one segment but they offer an affordable entry-level system. This has forced the traditional vendors to include some of these features in their offerings so that they are not perceived as lacking in function. This reminds me of the ‘features war’ between word processors in the late eighties. If they can bark on four legs we can do so on two.

One such function that is now popular is web-to-print, which enables the customer to place a print order on the Internet in an interactive manner and track the progress. The simplest of these allow users to do their own price estimate selecting from a choice of materials and design. The more complex ones facilitate online artwork approval and even offer control of production schedules and deliveries. I must say that the terminology can sometimes confound people. A few old-timers I know assumed web-to-print had something to do with a better feeding mechanism for web presses! The shadow of the jargon-rich world of IT is falling on us.

You will see many workflow product offerings in drupa 2008. In fact, the largest single sub-category under Prepress and Premedia is Workflow Systems with 84 exhibitors. Many of them have also classified themselves under “Internet and network services for the printing industry”, where you’ll find 28 exhibitors. If you are a visitor, there is no way you can ignore the big stalls of globally known names like Agfa, Esko-Artwork and Kodak. These companies have proven solutions that cover a range of requirements. But do take time to have a look at the others as well. Heidelberg, for example, is not a company that many will still associate with prepress. But you will be amazed at the depth and ease of use of their Prinect Printready and Signastation solutions.

Dalim is a vendor with well designed workflow and collaboration products. They also have an industrial strength artwork editing software that competes well with serious packaging vendor EskoArtwork. Another company that I have followed for a long time is HiFlex. They were always on the MIS side of printing, beginning from a time when many printers had to be convinced of the need for MIS. They now have a broad based architecture that is flexible enough to manage any media and have an excellent suite of products that can be interfaced with many popular prepress and production systems to form a total ERP system for printing.

If you are on the verge of making a decision to buy a web enabled collaboration system, please remember that these are all ‘Projects’ and not ‘Products’. Many of them will cost as much as a four colour press but do not expect these solutions to be as knowable and predictable as a printing machine. There is a lot of ‘site-preparation’ required in the minds of the eventual users. But if you do have a growing business that is customer focussed and you want to remain that way, collaboration is the way to go.

David Jeyaraj is the COO of Printcare PLC.