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A Workflow Overhaul

To eliminate production inefficiencies, Aflac's printing subsidiary, Communicorp, restructured its customer service methodology and installed the latest high-speed equipment.

May 2009 By Steven Schnoll
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NAMED ONE of the decade’s top 10 most recognizable corporate icons, the lovable Aflac duck, featured in television and print commercials, not only makes us laugh, but delivers a powerful message about our financial future. 

Headquartered in Columbus, Ga., Aflac (short for American Family Life Assurance Co.) utilizes an enormous and diversified array of printed material to support its high-profile icon. To produce the hundreds of millions of printed pieces Aflac needs each year, the company relies on a wholly owned subsidiary called Communicorp. 

Located on one of the Aflac campuses in Columbus, Communicorp’s 117,500-square-foot printing facility operates in a 24/7 mode, and is dedicated to Aflac’s marketing needs. In addition, Communicorp produces work for numerous commercial clients—from national accounts like Porsche North America and The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. to local customers like Realtree Outdoors and Synovus Financial Corp.

With such tremendous work volumes involving a diversity of printed material, Communicorp officials knew they needed a new and more efficient workflow. Both customer service and profitability were targets for improvement. So Communicorp undertook a multi-year project of systems and software upgrades.

Communicorp CEO James Woodall created a mandate for change within his organization. Biweekly, pre-dawn meetings began, assembling all officers and managers to discuss the need for improvement and to assemble a team to make it happen. It was during one of these sessions that Woodall suggested contacting an industry workflow consultant for assistance in achieving a lean manufacturing posture.

The first step suggested by the consultant was to perform an in-depth assessment of the company’s strengths and weaknesses. A SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis was made, and the current workflow was mapped. Communicorp’s consultant worked in tandem with a senior management team to define and build an effective and efficient integrated workflow.

Limitations of the Existing Workflow

Communicorp utilizes a variety of technologies, ranging from five Heidelberg sheetfed presses to multiple HP Indigo and Xerox printers, all managed by a Rampage workflow system. Considered adequate for ongoing work from both Aflac and commercial customers, the workflow was not prepared for production surges. 

The bindery, complete with folding, die cutting and saddle-stitching equipment, was also being challenged to meet new requirements. An off-site 25,000-square-foot fulfillment center, coupled with an award-winning creative department, was in place to support the growing needs of Aflac as well as Communicorp’s commercial clients, but all needed to be integrated. These investments sufficiently supported short-term needs, but the increasing print demands necessitated more attention.

Woodall tasked CFO Elizabeth Dahlin and Marcia Bonsell, vice president of production, to work with the consultant to identify and eliminate production inefficiencies. They soon realized that investment in equipment and software alone was not the answer; the operation required a complete restructuring that would alleviate repetitive paper work and manual tasks required to generate jobs. Everyone involved saw the need for a complete workflow overhaul.

“Previously, when bottleneck problems occurred in the system, the answer was to add more people, which really didn’t solve anything,” observes Bonsell. 

“It was applying short-term fixes to the problems rather than identifying the real solutions,” adds Dahlin. 

They felt that Communicorp needed to apply sophisticated analytics to turn massive amounts of Aflac and commercial work into intelligent production processes.

Vast Amounts of Printing

“Aflac’s print demands can be daunting,” reveals Bonsell. 

A case in point is a marketing campaign that Aflac launched this spring. This campaign required Communicorp to produce 1,020 different print projects within a 60-day period. This equated to approximately 109,900,000 individual pieces. Simultaneously, 500 unrelated jobs (both Aflac and commercial) were also in production. 

“If we had not constructed the proper workflow to meet these needs, we could not have produced all this work without outsourcing,” concedes Bonsell. 

Meanwhile, Communicorp had committed to several important new equipment purchases. The centerpiece was a new 10-color Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105 press with a CutStar roll sheeter. New cutters, folders, die cutters and software were added to support this behemoth, and all of this had to be considered for any new workflow system. The arrival of all this new technology challenged current organizational efforts, and Dahlin and Bonsell exhorted managers to envision a future in which the company could reduce costs and increase productivity.

It was soon determined that the incumbent system could not provide the level of detail necessary to go forward, and a very thorough search began for providers of a new MIS (management information system). EFI Pace Systems seemed to best fit the operation because of its ability to integrate with multiple existing software and hardware products. 

EFI created a Web portal specifically for Aflac work. Aflac’s marketing team, through this dedicated Web ordering portal, can now select a product, immediately check a PDF to ensure that it is the correct piece, receive a customized price estimate, forward an e-mail to the appropriate individual within Aflac for approval and send the job specifics to Communicorp, all in just a few clicks. Once the online order is entered, it queues up on the Communicorp server for job entry into the Pace MIS.

When a job is entered online, a Communicorp production analyst uploads the order information into an ePace job ticket; paper is ordered; the job is scheduled; and it then moves to Metrix, a sophisticated imposition software package from LithoTechnics that takes its cues from efficiencies chosen in the estimate. The job then moves to the upgraded Rampage workflow software for RIPing. Fuji plates are imaged on a Screen U.S.A. platesetter. Print production is done on either the new 10-color Heidelberg XL 105 or one of Communicorp’s other presses. 

Following printing, projects move to the bindery where the jobs are finished on either a new MBO or Stahl high-speed automated folder. These units, working at 18,000 sheets per hour, created another potential bottleneck which was alleviated by adding a high-speed, automated shrink-wrapping machine.

This entire process required the cooperation and dedication of many vendors, who all worked in a seamless manner to achieve the desired workflow. While the JDF/JMF integration is not yet complete, it is anticipated that all the new equipment and software from job inception through bindery will be JDF-enabled by the end of 2009.

Web Portal Proved a Challenge

Jay Farr, general manager of EFI Pace, acknowledges that “the intelligent design of this customized Web portal was truly unique. Since the entire system had to match previous Aflac systems and processes, this created quite a challenge for our system engineers. Being one of the largest installations to date, Communicorp represented a major effort and required us to commit a significant amount of resources to accomplish.” The result is an easy-to-use system that is getting rave reviews from Aflac.

The new Web portal, combined with new and efficient, high-speed equipment and an overhaul of customer service methodology (see sidebar) have created a lean, streamlined workflow, efficient and prepared to meet any future demands. 

The overarching realization from Communicorp’s thorough studies and implementations is that this should be an ongoing process, a constant effort to not only have the capability for improved workflow, but to anticipate the ever increasing need to meet change effectively.


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