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Who wants to be average?

Jun 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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RT Associates (Arlington Heights, IL) has a motto: “Not your average printer.” Over the past two decades, the company has evolved from typesetter to desktop publisher to on-demand printer to marketing services specialist.

Throughout all of these transformations, one thing has remained constant: RT Associates has always capitalized on its front-end expertise. “Our prepress strength [enabled] our digital printing success,” says co-owner Bob Radzis. “We could bring in files, digest them quickly and get them on press.”

Affordable workflow automation
In 2001, RT Associates added Web-to-print capabilities via Saepio’s Agilis Marketing Suite. “The Web part was terrific,” says Radzis. “We had 350 templates online and an automated front end. But once we got [the orders] back to the shop, we had the same old job tickets and manual bindery. Producing these smaller orders was a big issue.”

In 2004, the company began searching for an affordable solution to automate its workflow. “We kept asking [the vendors] to show us an example of a JDF workflow with our pieces of equipment. Nobody could,” says Radzis. “I haven’t seen anyone [automating] Web-to-print from job creation all the way through the plant.”

At Print 05, Radzis and his team were intrigued by a demonstration featuring Objective Advantage’s OASymbio front end (“Desktop”) driving Duplo’s DC-645 slitter/cutter/creaser.

Objective Advantage (OA) (Houston) specializes in custom software development and system integration. “We automate print production,” explains Gareth O’Brien, vice president. “We help print providers link their workflow to the customer/vendor supply chain.”

OA’s core OASymbio workflow automation tools are shrink-wrapped, off-the-shelf solutions. “It’s modular and all built from a JDP platform,” says O’Brien. “While it provides a relatively cost-effective way to get started, it’s designed for custom integration, depending on what the user needs.”

A few clicks from start to finish
OASymbio Desktop,the product Radzis saw being demonstrated in Duplo’s booth, lets users lay out, print, cut and crease jobs with a few mouse clicks, even if the output and finishing devices are from multiple vendors.

OASymbio uses PDF and JDF to link presses and finishing systems. OASymbio does the layout, which ensures there will be no surprises downstream. The job will definitely work with the designated press/finishing combination. “It makes the setup of a complex piece of equipment, the DC-645, a one-click operation,” says O’Brien. “Because the knowledge is captured within the tools, you don’t have to [rely on] prepress employees with production-level knowledge.”

Here’s how it works:

  1. A customer supplies a PDF of an unimposed one- or two-sided print job.
  2. OASymbio guides the operator through the layout process for printing and finishing.
  3. OASymbio produces an n-up PDF sheet and uses JDF to submit the job to the press and finishing machine.
  4. The JDF submission automatically creates the job in the press controller’s queue and supplies the press operator with the necessary job information, such as number of sheets and media.
  5. The operator loads the correct media and prints the job.
  6. The press controller automatically lets OASymbio know when the job is done printing.
  7. 7. OASymbio already knows the exact layout used to place the items on the sheet. This information is used to set up the finishing equipment automatically.
At RT Associates, OASymbio transmits JDF and preview images of the sheet to Duplo’s DC-645 JDF Connector running on a PC next to the machine. The JDF Connector shows the operator a preview of the sheet, clearly indicating how the sheet it to be loaded into the DC 645. Using the data supplied in the JDF from OASymbio, the application sets the slit, cut and crease positions.Finally, the RT Associates operator clicks “Start,” and the machine sets itself up and processes the sheets.

Each job can be saved as an OASymbio Job Template. Subsequent new jobs can be created from the same template, further streamlining job setup.

Automating job creation
OASymbio Desktop and the DC-645 are the first implementation of a broader end-to-end strategy. RT Associates is a beta site for OASymbio Server, which further helps minimize manual intervention in the Web-to-print workflow. “Until now, regardless of the Web front end’s sophistication, printers typically had to receive an e-mail, download the sender’s PDF file, intervene to impose it for printing and finishing, and then load it to the relevant print queue, negating many efficiencies of the Web model,” says O’Brien.

Once they are uploaded to OASymbio Server, OASymbio’s Job Templates automatically perform all of these tasks. There are several options for creating a job and executing the workflow without manual intervention. Users can access the server via any Web browser and drop a PDF into a hot folder representing the specific product. It’s also possible to submit jobs directly from the Web. Alternatively, the OASymbio Server product can display an FTP URL, enabling it to receive files from any FTP software.

O’Brien concedes that some Web-to-print vendors’ solutions also can do layouts, as well as some production scheduling. “But no one has brought the finishing device’s capabilities into prepress coupled with the production management—the actual workflow management of breaking out the data for each individual downstream system, sending them the data they need, the PDF, the JDF, to the press and finishing system, and then catching it when it comes back and sending it all to the OASymbio Server.”

No one touches the job
Prior to installing the OASymbio solutions, RT Associates assigned two people—one on each shift—to process digital jobs. “We’d pull a PDF off the server built in Saepio,” recalls Radzis. “Then we’d create a job ticket for it and transfer it back to the press. Now, all that stuff goes on in the background. No one touches the job on the front end. Jobs are delivered right back to the press with an automated job ticket.”

What once was a two-person job now requires only a fraction of the time. “We have it down to 25 percent of one person’s time,” says Radzis. Saepio delivers the orders to OASymbio Server, which does the imposition. “OASymbio then sends the JDF information to our new Creo/HP RIP,” explains Radzis. “We print the jobs and take them right over the DC-645. It could be a stack of two or five or 10 jobs—we just drop them in the DC-645.” Enterprise and the final frontier

This month, RT Associates and OA will roll out the next phase of the company’s workflow automation effort, OASymbio Enterprise. RT Associates is pushing on to the final frontier: shipping and fulfillment.

“When the order is created in Saepio, it can be quite complex, with both personalized and off-the-shelf items,” says O’Brien. “For example, you might have a trifold marketing piece, a greeting card, pen and key fob. You may order 1,000 in different quantities going to 25 different locations. All of that can be put together in Saepio as a single order and transmitted to OASymbio.”

From there, says O’Brien, the print specific part of the order goes to OASymbio Server, which handles all of the print and finishing steps. For the shipping department, OASymbio Enterprise generates a job sheet with a barcode and other information. “When they scan that in the shipping department, they’ll get all the particulars,” says O’Brien. “It also will print the packing slips for all jobs, with step-by-step instructions for the operator: ‘Pull 50 trifolds, greeting cards and pens, and here is the address.’”

Finally, OASymbio Enterprise connects with the appropriate shipper, such as FedEx or UPS. Shipping labels are printed automatically and tracking numbers are fed back to the Saepio system, enabling customers to track their orders. Invoice data is forwarded to the accounting system automatically.

OA didn’t build the component that connects the OASymbio Enterprise shipping workstation to shipping vendors. It’s an off-the-shelf OEM package that meets UPS and other shippers’ label requirements.

Radzis says OASymbio Enterprise will play a key role in handling work from two new Web-to-print customers. “One produces about 120 different types of pieces per day,” he says. “The orders are small, ranging from 25 to 50 pieces. So we [can’t] get tied up in the bindery, shipping and handling if we want to make these jobs profitable.”

‘It’s not about the technology’
After about a week and a half using the Duplo DC-645 slitter/cutter/creaser equipped with Symbio Desktop, RT Associates liked what they saw. “It was pretty cool,” says Bob Radzis. “So we called OA and said, ‘What else can you do?’”

Three OA employees spent a day with Radzis and the RT Associates team. “They understood the deliverables we were looking for,” says Radzis. “In one day they gave us a scope [of the project]. Not much money or time later, they had it built.”

Some tweaking
Although OA’s Symbio products are modular, some adjustments were required. “Every shop has a bit of tweak to it,” says Radzis. “We run a lot of our shop on FileMaker, so we needed some integration.”

JDF plays an essential role in RT Associates’ automated workflows, but the acronym wasn’t emphasized during the two companies’ meetings. “OA moved the discussion away from JDF,” says Radzis. “They talked about a workflow system."

OA’s Gareth O’Brien says this was a conscious decision. “It’s about the [customer’s] business; it’s not about the technology.”

The hype is over
Nonetheless, O’Brien is excited by the industry’s progress. “On a monthly basis, we’re seeing more JDF-enabled pieces of equipment we can add to the Symbio workflow, because the downstream work is being done by the vendors. The hardware vendors have really cottoned to the benefits of JDF- enabling their systems.

“I really think the hype is over. It is not something we can, could or might do. It is actually out there generating revenue for end users.”

A better way
Founded in 1982, RT Associates (Arlington Heights, IL) is a $15 million, 72-employee operation that occupies 36,500 sq. ft. Co-founders Bob Radzis and Gary Teuber originally set up shop in Teuber’s basement with an Editwriter typesetting system. Their goal: to capture keystrokes from word processors, thereby eliminating retyping and proofreading requirements.

“We were trying to figure out a better way to do something,” says Radzis. Although RT Associates has long since mothballed its typesetters, the company has never wavered from its quest to find the best process.

From DTP to VDP because of CTP
In the late 1980s, the company transitioned from typesetting to desktop publishing. “We could compete with the guys with proprietary [color] systems,” says Radzis. “Pleasing color, for our business-to-business markets, was more than acceptable.”

At one point RT Associates ran six drum imagesetters and did full impositions. By 1995, the company could see the writing on the wall. “Direct to plate was coming, threatening our most profitable part of the prepress business,” recalls Radzis. “So in 1995, we purchased our first Agfa Chromapress, serial No. 13. We were a really early adopter.“

RT Associates produced the Novartis seed campaign, one of the earliest examples of variable-data printing.

Versioning vs. variable
Despite the company’s lack of printing experience and the industry’s primitive presses and variable-data tools, the move to the on-demand world paid quick dividends. “People wanted to see what the press could do,” says Radzis. “We became profitable within six months of installing the machine. “ Initially, most of the work was versioning rather than true variable data. Few clients had the data required for personalized jobs, but many perceived the benefits of short-run, targeted marketing pieces.

Within two years of installing the Chromapress, RT had 500 digital print customers. “That led us into offset,” says Radzis. “We were doing a lot of versioning and static runs, so we bought a Heidelberg Quick- Master DI in 1997 and that took off for us, as well.”

Several years ago, RT Associates added a Heidelberg Speedmaster 74 DI, which Radzis calls one of the company’s best investments. “It’s not uncommon for us to do 15 to 20 makereadies a day,” he says.

Here come the HP 5000s
In 2000, the company beta tested and ultimately bought a NexPress. (“A huge improvement over the Chromapress,” says Radzis, who specifically cites the latter’s quality and reliability.) The company also beta tested a NexPress with a fifth color unit and considered adding this press. Ultimately, due to a key customer’s requirements, the company installed two HP Indigo 5000 presses.


The JDF acorn that becomes the mighty oak
At Duplo’s booth during Print 05, attendees could see a 23-year-old college student confidently running the DC-645 slitter/cutter/creaser equipped with OASymbio’s front end and a Xerox 8000 printer.

“The floor should [have been] littered with the scales fallen from people’s eyes as they realized JDF is not that difficult,” says Dominic Quennell, Duplo Corp.’s vice president of global marketing. “Our customers can be more productive and achieve better results without relying on a high level of operator skill.”

Quennell adds that there’s a common misconception that JDF is beneficial only for operations with big presses and postpress equipment. “Those [larger companies] have done it very well,” says Quennell. “But it has tended to scare off the smaller enterprises.”

Teaming up with OASymbio, says Quennell, enables the vendor to offer a modular, affordable automation strategy. “We’re offering integrated finishing. Users can start with something that’s really quite simple, such as a digital press with a server and one of our little finishers. They can actually start their JDF enablement from that—they don’t need to put the whole JDF element into their management information system. This is the acorn JDF—you can start with this and grow it.”

Even this modest effort can yield dramatic results, says Quennell. Setup time for the Symbio-enabled DC-645 is said to be at least 25 percent faster. And, because the job is done correctly on the first try, there’s much less waste. Heidelberg’s Dr. Rainer Prosi, who also is the technical officer of the CIP4 organization, introduced Duplo to Objective Advantage (OA) at Drupa. “We could see a lot of areas of mutual benefit,” says Quennell.

Together, OASymbio Desktop and the JDF Connector cost about $20,000. Installation takes 10 minutes.

What’s next? Duplo is working on integrating one of its bookletmakers with OA’s automation solutions. Look for a nearline demonstration at Graph Expo. In addition to Duplo, OA is working with many other finishing vendors, as well as press manufacturers.

In general, says Quennell, printers are more open to the promise of JDF. “This is easier and more affordable than many [people] might have thought,” he says. “The penny is dropping now, as [printers] are starting to dip a toe in the water. JDF brings immediate benefits in terms of productivity, profitability and time savings.”

Katherine O’Brien is the editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at