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MIS: Beyond the basics

Sep 1, 2004 12:00 AM

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Quick printers and small commercial plants don't have the same management information system (MIS) needs as their larger counterparts. An off-the-shelf system including estimating, job ticketing, invoicing and accounts receivable capabilities usually will suffice — and cost less than $5,000.

MIS vendors, however, now are expanding their products to encompass more of the small shop's business goals. New modules for e-commerce, customer management, data collection, and extended sales and marketing capabilities will help your company run more smoothly. Highlighted here are several new features, as well as ways to put your MIS to use — beyond the basic functions.

Sales and marketing support

Some print shops have utilized programs such as ACT! or SalesLogix for managing sales. Now some MIS developers are rolling these capabilities into their own products for smaller businesses that can experience major profit gains from repeat customers.

Cyrious Software's (Baton Rouge, LA)business-management software targets shops looking to increase sales and profits per employee. To troubleshoot the problems most quick printers encounter, Cyrious reportedly offers fast estimating, reduced paperwork and re-entry of information, and data reports that track orders, inventory and receivables. Founded in 1996, the company has a customer base of approximately 1,500 and serves commercial, digital, screen and sign printers.

The Cyrious MIS features fully integrated sales management and marketing tools for franchises, which reportedly improve customer relations and help drive repeat business. Users can sort a database of current and past customers according to specific characteristics, such as total order cost, last order date, purchasing patterns, geographical location, etc. The query results in a list of customers that then can be sent personalized e-mails or letters to target their business — such as a “We miss you” message, for example, or a promotional offer.

For daily sales duties, management can use a macros tool to set up a series of automatic activities according to personal preference. Users trigger a series of events that might schedule a follow-up call automatically when an estimate is created;e-mail a customer when an order is complete; notify management if an order is voided; print thank-you notes (including different versions for new and repeat customers); or other such options. Reminders help customer service reps (CSRs) remember when to take follow-up steps, eliminating unnecessary calls and preventing customers from slipping through the cracks. The Cyrious MIS also can track which clients have been sent communications and the resulting effectiveness of the correspondence or promotions.

Through these functions, the Cyrious system is said to ease the jobs of owners and upper management by relieving them of duties that can be assigned to lower-level employees. Users are given clear prompts specifying what tasks need to be done.

Optional add-on modules for Cyrious Software include WebView, an e-commerce site; parts and costing; and inventory.

Off-site estimating

For print companies sending salespeople out into the field, remote estimating lets staff use laptops to create estimates on-the-fly. Franklin Estimating Systems' (Salt Lake City, UT) Remote Estimator Client is one such option. Franklin released its Estimator 5.01 in August, and will offer demonstrations at Graph Expo. The Remote Estimator Client module offers off-site estimating as an add-on to Franklin's MIS for small and midsize commercial-print companies. This upgrade gives sales staff the same capabilities on their personal computers as the in-house program.

Franklin Estimator 5.01 reportedly generates estimates quickly and easily. The user enters job specs and up to three desired quantities, then selects the finished size, paper stock, ink (or combination of inks) and other criteria from standard drop-down menus or inputs other custom or unusual sizes. The program can calculate ink costs for printing both sides of a piece of paper. A Stock Filter option will help narrow choices of suitable stocks, simplifying the process. Estimates then are provided for each of the quantities specified.

Franklin Estimating Systems, which evolved from a research company for printing rates founded in 1917, has designed its Estimator 5.01 for comprehensiveness. The system is based on industry-standard rates but is fully user-definable. Rates may be customized per job or specifically for the local economy.

Franklin's MIS is available in Basic and Pro versions. The Basic system allows users to have multiple estimate windows open and running simul- taneously; includes a customer-history arena; offers multiple rate structures; generates text or files for fax, e-mail or hard-copy communications; handles user-specified paper markups; and produces detailed price reports. The Pro version has additional capabilities, including the ability to turn an estimate into a job ticket; a link to Franklin Estimating's DataManager system; and the ability to import customer files, track jobs and export data into popular accounting packages such as Peachtree and QuickBooks. The Pro level also provides numerous detailed reports, including invoicing, estimate, ink, message, press and stock analysis, among others. Currently more than 1,200 customers are using Franklin Estimating's management systems. A faster and more powerful version of the DataManager is now in the beta stage of development.

The software development team also is in the beta stage of creating estimating software specifically for copy centers and digital-print facilities. This product will include options to produce accurate quotes for wide-format presses, copiers and more. The remote function also will be available for this product, which the company expects to release by the end of 2004.

Built-in alerts, large-format module

AACRO Computer Systems (Marietta, GA) sells Print Shop Manager for quick printers and small to midsize commercial-print shops. AACRO has been developing pricing and estimating software for more than 20 years and introduced its option for the printing industry in 2000. Based on design criteria requested by printers, the system reportedly is easy to use and cost effective. A job order begins as a quote, is turned into a work order/job ticket, then becomes an invoice, with an optional link to QuickBooks for further accounting abilities.

Print Shop Manager includes built-in reminders and warnings to sales reps and CSRs entering job data. Instant payment history is recalled at the time of a quote, alerting the user if a customer has a history of late payments or other financial issues.

AACRO's optional large-format template guides users through pricing of posters, signage, blueprints and other specialty projects. Within the entry screen the user can specify how many images will be printed on each substrate, the number of copies, which printer to use and the resolution at which to print. Prices can be calculated based upon square footage, the number of colors, ink coverage or other criteria. Pre- and postpress services can by added into the cost of a job as well.

Production planning

PowerQuote's (Manassas, VA) V10 estimating and business-management software, released in 2003, is said to be the first system built specifically for Mac OS X from the ground up. This year, the company released V10.15 of its MIS. PowerQuote began as a print shop and narrowed its focus to MIS development in 1998. Today, print companies ranging in size from one to 20 employees use PowerQuote's system.

PowerQuote's MIS aims to help customers build profit within the manufacturing process with its Job SAVe (Job Specification Accuracy Verification) system. After a quote is prepared, multiple checks prevent data errors from putting crimps in the produc- tion process. When specs are entered into the computer, a summary screen allows the user to check the charges and estimated production times for each department. This information is included in a written report for the customer, who can then verify the specs are correct.

The estimate then is turned into a job jacket, with complete production details. Data is again checked by field filters, which affirm data falls within a correct range. Difficulty factors of above average, for example, or missing information will be flagged. Each data-entry page asks for the user's final approval before registering data to prevent accidental mistakes.

Information then is transferred automatically to various reports without data re-entry. A final calculation summary breaks down charges for each operation. Reports on paper orders, written quotes and job jackets provide another round of accuracy checks, decreasing the chance of printing a job with the wrong ink, paper, measurements, etc.

In addition, PowerQuote's built-in production schedule report is said to provide information that helps managers save wash-up and set-up time. Jobs with the same ink color, for example, or a similar paper grip edge can be sequenced in consecutive order to increase productivity.

PowerQuote offers a Lite version of its MIS, which can be upgraded to the standard system to gain production schedule, invoicing, account receivables and network capabilities.

Scalable system, logical scheduling

Printer's Plus (Romeo, MI) offers MIS packages at three different levels. Compuware developed the framework for this system two decades ago. Then, in 1996, Printer's Plus spun off as a standalone company providing management software for the graphic-arts industry. More than 1,000 installments have been made at quick-print and commercial shops with average staffs of 20, but also are used by companies with as few as two employees.

The Level 1 system comprises basic estimating features for quick printers and copy shops implementing their first MIS, and can be upgraded easily to a Level 2 or 3. Level 2 is marketed toward both quick printers and small commercial printers, adding sales analysis features while reportedly eliminating the paper trail. Companies re-entering data at multiple production stages are said to benefit from time saved. Level 3, the company's most popular package, further automates business procedures by integrating promotion, analysis and organization of internal operations with modules such as data collection, production reports and e-commerce.

Also included in the Level 3 package is the Printer's Plus Visual Scheduler. With this feature, jobs can be assigned to specific press and postpress equipment. Management can become more involved in the plant operations by overseeing the complete production process. Jobs are given time allocations, prioritized, and grouped according to ink color or other specs. Visual records of all jobs in progress illustrate time constraints for each press — color-coding provides instant recognition of conflicting jobs. Easy drag-and-drop scheduling lets the user arrange orders according to various equipment or time requirements.

A work-in-process function helps streamline scheduling by sequencing jobs according to their respective deadlines. Users are given press-time requirements for each day and are alerted if a job is overdue. Finally, the system produces a list of all completed jobs.

Other features of the Printer's Plus MIS include: accounts payable, general ledger, price book tuning, inventory capabilities, sales reporting, order and estimate history, a portable OrderPad laptop version and purchasing modules.

Shop-floor data collection, workflow integration

EFI PrintSmith is designed for quick printers, small commercial operations, and digital and on-demand shops. EFI (Foster City, CA) released V7.0 last March and will introduce V7.1 in October. Another scalable MIS, the system can be customized according to business size and budget, then later extended with add-on capabilities as business grows. Print companies using EFI PrintSmith generally report annual sales of less than $5 million. EFI reports having licensed 6,000 users, some with as few as three employees.

Portable, standalone and networked configurations are available. Options such as custom reporting, point-of-sale support, PrintSmith Portable and the online-catalog module PrintSmith Site further extend business. The MIS interfaces with major accounting packages and other third-party software.

EFI offers shop-floor data collection that not only tracks jobs through the production process (giving personnel the ability to update customers on job status), but also provides reports on projected versus actual costs. These details give management a benchmark for understanding what time, effort and consumables actually are required for a job, so related costs may be incorporated into the billing process.

EFI has been working with other industry vendors to integrate its MIS options into end-to-end workflows using JDF connectivity. The company also recently announced integration between its Fiery servers (System 5 or higher) and MIS products. The resulting two-way exchange facilitates the movement of job details such as descriptions, parts information, colors, production counts, and start and stop time.

Real-time information sharing reportedly enables more accurate and profitable process development and control. Additionally, the integration is said to reduce administrative overhead by eliminating the need to collect and track waste data, page counts and other information now automatically captured by the server and sent to the MIS. Electronic job tickets reduce order-entry errors due to the fact that re-keying is no longer necessary. Repeat orders also are easier — previous job tickets can be recalled, copied and resubmitted directly to production.

Online re-orders, barcode production tracking

ReOrder IT!, the newest module available for printLEADER's (Stuart, FL) management system is said to let customers easily place orders online. A link from your company's website to the ReOrder IT! site allows customers to specify orders and view up-to-date job information at any time of day.

Clients log in with a user name and password — multiple contacts from a single buying organization are each listed by name within the site. The print buyer then can view order history according to date range and job categories. From there, old invoices can be reviewed, quantities altered and special instructions added. The customer then saves the order, reviews it and submits when ready. On-screen confirmation is followed up with an e-mail notification that the printer has received the new order. The online access of the ReOrderIT! module reportedly reduces a print company's phone and fax orders, therefore reducing customer service staffing requirements.

printLEADER, founded in 1989, also offers a barcode tracking module for data collection. A wireless system of user-friendly barcode readers and docking stations allows management to track employee and equipment data. This feature helps monitor job status, cost-center productivity, employee efficiency and machine output.

printLEADER currently has an installed base of more than 2,000. Additional system capabilities include a customer manager module; estimating for print shops, copy centers and brokered sales; and accounts receivable.

Leslie Shiers is assistant editor at AMERICAN PRINTER.E-mail her at

Hits and MISses

Real-world printers muse on MIS pros and cons

Sure, the benefits of an MIS sound great — but for printers accustomed to a manual process, the investment can seem unnecessary. In a recent edition of our InRegister e-newsletter, we asked small commercial and quick printers to tell us whether they use a management information system (MIS) or if they still rely on the backs of envelopes. Responses ran the gamut — some rely on a manual system, many have created their own MIS and others are pleased with their off-the-shelf versions:

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“And what's wrong with relying on the back of the ticket? Yes, it is an ancient way of doing things, and we're looking to advance into the new age of electronic tracking. We've looked into a few different systems and found the more money you spend, the more complicated the system is. There has to be a balance between cost, efficiency and user-friendliness.”
— Albert Silva, Cal Coast Color (Burbank, CA)

Hits and MISses

“We use a homemade solution, a database built with Lotus Approach. It gives us job tickets and reports — no data collection, accounting or anything else. It's constantly [crashing], but — for now — we're stuck with it. As for other solutions, I think EFI PrintSmith would be a good fit for us.”
— Dave Wright, prepress manager, Catalyst Graphics Inc. (Eagan, MN)

Hits and MISses

“The MIS is MISsing here. It is pretty much whoever screams the loudest. Then again, most jobs are turned in 24 hours anyway. Micro-management would only drive us crazy.”
— Gary Stone, Bhar Printing (Indianapolis)

Hits and MISses

“We're a small commercial printer and mailer operating in two locations. We use printLEADER for estimating, work orders, billing, accounts payable, customer management and general ledger. We've found it to be very flexible and able to accommodate the complexities of our business.”
— Doug Carlile, president, Professional Print & Mail, Inc. (Fresno, CA)

Online resources

For more management information system options for quick printers and small commercial shops (less than $5 million in annual sales), try these websites:

Source: Craig Press, Profectus Consulting

MIS at Graph Expo

Graph Expo is an excellent opportunity to see key MIS vendors. See p.22 for show details.

Hits and MISses

“We operate a small sheetfed printing company. We built our own information management suite of files using a commercial database product, FileMaker Pro, in 1991. We use it to keep all customer records and to produce estimates, job orders, invoices and statements. At the time we established our system, there was virtually nothing available for the Mac platform, but in the long run that was an advantage because we can tune our system exactly to our needs.”
— Ted Johnson, vice president, operations, Bailey Publishing & Communications, Inc. (Jacksonville, FL)