Top 10 Reasons In-plants Should Prioritize Workflow Automation

A workflow expert explains how workflow automation can build business, cut costs and make your in-plant more valuable to customers.

As your customers ask for increasingly more of their jobs in smaller quantities, how are you managing the increased workload in prepress while still keeping your presses printing? As your management asks for yet another round of cost cutting, where do you squeeze this time? And as your customers move to digital campaigns and use print more selectively, what is your in-plant doing to stay relevant?

No silver bullet exists for these challenges, but in each case, workflow automation can be a key contributor. Automating the way jobs flow through a shop and how you communicate with customers can have a favorable impact on your costs, turnaround and output quality, while enabling new business that keeps your shop relevant. Automation can touch every in-plant process, from interfacing with customers to management of orders and billing, process management of production schedules, and setup and production from prepress to delivery.

Here are my top 10 reasons why in-plants should make workflow automaton a priority.

  1. It enables new business. Workflow is a great source of opportunity and value, an enabler of new applications that drive new business to meet the changing needs of the parent organization. A Web-to-print system generates incremental business from orders placed after hours. Adding a Web-based repository enables new client asset management services. Adding variable information capabilities can enable sales reps to automatically deliver customized sales communications using material in the repository. Most new applications require new workflow, and automation helps you meet and exceed cost, quality and speed targets.
  2. It bridges print and digital media. More particularly, automated workflow can enable multi-channel communications that incorporate print and digital media—email, PURLs, social media and mobile communications—and deliver better business results than traditional approaches. Among the systems that enable content to be created once for distribution across multiple channels is the new Xerox FreeFlow Digital Publisher. Other solutions orchestrate multi-media campaigns and personalized fulfillment. Increasingly, this is how marketers work today, and workflow automation helps the in-plant add value to those efforts.
  3. It tightens ties to customers. When your systems integrate with those of your customers, you become more valuable, even indispensable to them. Web-based ordering is a nice convenience, but managing digital assets makes you part of the team, and contributing to a marketing automation system can give you a seat at the strategy table, boosting your relevancy.
  4. It will cut costs. Cost reduction is the benefit most in-plants associate with workflow automation, and for good reason. Studies show that most print operation costs are locked inside workflow—80 to 85 percent, according to InfoTrends. These include labor-intensive, non-printing activities like estimating, preflighting, finishing and job tracking. Automating these processes frees staff for more value-added work.
  5. It accelerates turnaround. Of course, print engine speed and reliability are critical factors in production speed, but workflow is the key to managing job-in to job-out turnaround. A highly automated just-in-time manufacturing system at Norwegian manufacturer Danfoss enables product manuals supporting 4,500 variants in any of 30 languages to be produced within 20 minutes of receiving an order, to keep up with 24- to 48-hour custom manufacturing turnarounds. That’s the kind of speed that underpins efficient, productive operations.
  6. It eliminates errors. When performing repetitive tasks, automated systems make fewer errors than people. Further, many systems incorporate error detectors, such as bar code readers that track a job’s progress and alert operators when errors occur. Transactional printers have developed automated systems to ensure that the millions of checks they produce are in the correct amount and delivered to the right person, preventing errors that literally cost money. Similar technologies can be applied to minimize errors in any in-plant.
  7. It improves output quality. In traditional printing, achieving top image quality is a craft, but in digital, many quality processes can be automated to achieve extremely fine tolerances, including color measurements beyond what the human eye can distinguish. The shop still needs to perform regular maintenance on the press, but even that is less burdensome with in-line spectrophotometers to automate the color calibration process. Today’s digital presses also incorporate systems to automatically achieve tight front-to-back registration and proper image density across the page for color fidelity. These tools take the uncertainty out of color and image-quality management, enabling in-plants to deliver every job with confidence.
  8. It’s easy to implement, maintain and scale. Many in-plants shy away from workflow automation systems—or fail to take full advantage of them—because they can be complex to implement and maintain. But today’s systems are designed for use by print operations, not programmers, with simple drag-and-drop operations to build workflows. Look for open, industry-standard architecture to ensure easy integration with your existing workflow, and modular design that permits easily scaling up as needs change. Emerging cloud-based systems can further ease these concerns, offering nearly immediate implementation and eliminating the need for in-plants to install system updates.
  9. It’s affordable. Today’s workflow systems are more affordable than ever. For example, the new workflow automation platform from Xerox, FreeFlow Core, is available at a list price of $2,500 in its most basic configuration. (A free trial download is available at In addition, emerging cloud-based systems can contribute to affordability, with monthly payment plans that eliminate large, upfront capital expenditures.
  10. It will help you survive and thrive. According to InfoTrends, 60 percent of print service providers count automating their print production workflow as a priority. That’s because, in the mature print market, operational efficiency is key to success, and workflow is where efficiency can be controlled. Certainly most in-plants know by now that traditional offset workflow systems are too staff-intensive for the greater job quantities that typify short-run, on-demand digital operations. Workflow automation helps in-plants compete successfully with external firms, meet cost-cutting goals and enable new business that keeps the shop relevant.

That’s a recipe not only to survive, but to thrive.

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