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Making the best MIS choice

Feb 1, 2003 12:00 AM


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For more than 30 years, printing companies have used computer-based management information systems (MISs) to estimate and track job costs, manage inventory/materials and perform accounting functions. Initially, only the largest printers could afford the systems' steep hardware and programming costs. In the late 1970s, however, computing advancements — coupled with off-the-shelf products from Profit Control Systems, Stewart Systems and others — enabled midsize printers to add an MIS. By 1990, the original handful of vendors had grown to more than 60.

Throughout the 1990s, fully integrated systems evolved as hardware became more affordable and software specifically designed for the printing industry became available. Today, there are an array of cost-effective systems that can meet the estimating, order-processing, job-management, costing and accounting needs of even the smallest graphic-arts companies.

This article will review current trends and provide basic selection guidelines. In our April issue, we'll share some user/vendor experiences and comments.

OPEN, SERVER-BASED SYSTEMS

MISs are shifting from proprietary hardware and operating systems in favor of networked computers using Microsoft Windows NT, Apple OS, Linux or Unix. In the 1990s, local-area networks (LANs) matured — servers handled database and data traffic, but computing was done on the user's PC. Since 2000, however, “thin” server-based technologies, such as Microsoft Terminal Services (built into Windows 2000/XP) or Citrix, are used on local computers, but the actual computing is done on the servers. While this approach requires more powerful and expensive servers, it significantly reduces workstation costs.

Another important trend is the use of Web browsers to execute programs, perform queries or even enter data for estimating or data collection. Thin-client and browser technologies enable users to operate an MIS from any computer.

Unfortunately, few MIS users take full advantage of their systems' capabilities. Rather than creating a fully integrated system that connects all components, many users simply automate accounting functions and continue to manually create job tickets, quote letters, invoices and purchasing systems. Or, worse yet, a spreadsheet or other homegrown system is used in tandem with the MIS.

Do-it-yourself systems also may result from another common MIS pitfall: buying a system based on potential features that are slow to materialize. If a vendor is years late in delivering modules, users may lack the time or inclination to fully implement the new tools. In some cases, it may be more difficult to re-install an existing system with new modules than it is to install a brand-new system.

GET INPUT FROM KEY USERS

Successful system selection and implementation should start with the involvement of key users. As you begin the evaluation process, organize a selection committee with representatives from estimating, sales, production, administrative, management and accounting. The group should audit your current system to identify essential features and develop a wishlist of optional ones.

One caveat: An MIS often can solve problems that your evaluation team didn't know existed. Customer service representatives (CSRs), for example, may routinely phone a production manager or personally visit the production floor to respond to customers' job-status questions. These employees might not realize they could access the same information from their own desktop via an MIS.

Create an MIS shopping list by combining your audit results with the checklist of general MIS attributes on p. 22. Next, select five or more systems to evaluate — as your MIS knowledge grows, trim your list accordingly. Keep the following in mind:

  • Selected vendors should be qualified by system size/capacity; available modules and compatibility with your business, as well as your style of estimating/management; and by price

  • Ask vendors for a preliminary proposal with full technical descriptions and pricing for the desired system modules

  • Organize demonstrations either online, onsite or with self-installed demo disks

  • When evaluating estimating functions, use two or three jobs typical for your plant

  • Narrow the initial group of vendors to two for more in-depth test-drives and discuss the systems with some current users.

Final selection should be based on a vendor's stability, support capabilities and reputation, as well as a system's:

  • Capabilities, performance and flexibility

  • Growth potential

  • Ease of implementation/training

  • Cost (including support).

The final step in a successful implementation process is to review your objectives. Rather than merely serving as a passive record, an MIS should be a proactive means of controlling production activities. It should be the key vehicle for communicating information to the plant as well as the system of record for job, production and accounting activities.

MODULES FOR SMALL TO LARGE PRINTERS

Most system requirements are based on operating practices, workflows, type of equipment used (web, sheetfed and digital presses) and products. The size of the company also is a deciding factor — a company with 20 or fewer employees and sales ranging from $750,000 to $3 million doesn't have the same job/employee tracking requirements as a larger organization.

For classification purposes, the following system characteristics are organized by size and type of business. Some graphic-arts companies, however, may have multiple system requirements. A quick printer, for example, may need a streamlined point-of-purchase system that serves as a cash register, pricing the job by components involved and operations performed, recording the transaction and generating an invoice.

$2 million or less: quick/in-plant printers and copy centers

The key MIS focus for these users is automating pricing through invoicing, with some job tracking. Typical modules include:

  • Price-list estimating (table-driven pricing)

  • Order entry/job ticketing (printed/electronic)

  • Invoicing

  • Accounts receivable

  • Sales analysis and related reporting

  • Job costing (optional): Time is posted by job rather than employee or machine

  • Job tracking (optional) through terminal input or barcoding.

Companies in this category typically produce short-run jobs using standard papers and sizes. For copying and duplicating work, the workflow includes receipt of hard copy or digital files with limited prepress operations. Some leading system providers in this category also offer job-tracking capabilities where the status of the job is keyed or bar-coded into a workstation as each milestone operation is completed.

Some systems offer their own accounting packages, but most of the products can be interfaced to popular off-the-shelf accounting programs such as Quickbooks or Great Plains.

There are also systems for copy centers and quick printers that provide elements of order processing and shop-floor management with file-handling capabilities. Although these products may lack some traditional MIS elements, most receive files, price work, FTP the files (often first converting them to PDFs), create a job ticket and process the work into the plant.

$2 million to $10 million

MIS priorities for small to midsize commercial printers include estimating, production and material management, job costing and accounting. Typical modules include:

  • Time and materials-based estimating (and price lists for standard work)

  • Order-entry/job ticketing (printed/electronic) with change-order tracking

  • Job costing/production reporting by machine and employee

  • Shop-floor data collection (keypads, terminals, bar coding)

  • Job tracking — status checking from shop-floor data collection and production

  • Materials management — purchasing and inventory

  • Report suites and report writers/inquiry tools for custom reports

  • Accounting — accounts receivable/payable, gains/losses (integrated or separately linked).

Operations specializing in custom work will require a more complex estimating and planning module. The estimate is used as the basis for job planning and job-ticket creation, along with feeding information into job costing. Data collection is generally done at keypads using bar codes or computer terminals.

$10 million or higher

This category includes large printers with single or multiple sites. These operations have many of the same business-management requirements as midsize printers, but with a greater need for scheduling modules. In addition to the modules described in the previous category, these larger printers' MISs typically feature:

  • Direct-machine data collection

  • Real-time dynamic scheduling (capacity loading and managing).

As a company grows, so does the importance of real-time, shop-floor data. The costs for direct machine interfaces is significant — about $5,000 to $30,000 per unit. While smaller operations can't justify this expense, larger printers with multimillion-dollar presses are better positioned to absorb the cost, typically experiencing an ROI of about two years.

Scheduling is another module typically found only at larger plants. Many smaller plants do a poor job of manually scheduling — these companies usually just expedite their jobs once proofs have been approved. Nonetheless, while a simple job-tracking board or spreadsheet may suffice for smaller operations, most large plants need some kind of computer assistance.

NO ROCKET SCIENTISTS REQUIRED

How will you get data out of your MIS? Regardless of company size, this is the single most important selection criterion. Generating reports or queries shouldn't require a degree in computer science.

In the past, some vendors' MIS products were proprietary — often only the vendor or an experienced programmer could get custom views of the data. Today, however, most systems allow users full data accessibility.

Open-database structures, such as ODBC and SQL, facilitate interfacing to accounting packages, fulfillment systems and e-commerce or other specialized programs. Many systems also use Crystal Reports, Microsoft Query and other off-the-shelf programs to generate reports with statistical graphics.

Other factors to consider when defining your system requirements include Internet interconnectivity, as well as computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) features. Most systems have either extended their Web-connection capabilities through a self-developed interface or use JDF-compliant standard mapping programs. Web interfaces are used for receiving specifications or orders or tracking jobs, as well as for placing orders into fulfillment systems and managing inventories.

CIM CAPABILITIES

Over the next decade, CIM capabilities will be standard in most MIS products. CIM can enable the printing industry to achieve end-to-end automation, from order entry to delivery of the final job.

CIM would be impossible without JDF, a format/industry standard based on eXtensible Markup Language (XML) and built on the existing technologies of CIP3's Print Production Format (PPF) and Adobe's (San Jose, CA) Portable Job Ticket Format (PJTF). JDF provides the means to describe print jobs in terms of the processes needed to create them. The format lets users explicitly specify the controls needed by each process.

Adobe, Agfa (Ridgefield Park, NJ), Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) and MAN Roland (Westmont, IL) were the initial developers of JDF. In 2001, the companies transferred JDF activities to the International Cooperation for the Integration of Processes in Prepress, Press and Postpress (CIP4), a standards body located in Switzerland.

Many printers currently take advantage of digital links from their presses to MIS and platesetter data to generate electronic job tickets and preset inking, feeder and delivery systems. Over time, these efficiencies will increase — many significant CIM/MIS developments were announced or demonstrated at Graph Expo 2002.

Agfa highlighted the integration of business and production systems featuring Apogee X, its PDF/JDF-based workflow system. Heidelberg introduced the first components of its Prinect CIM solution: Printready, a client-server, JDF-based workflow for automating prepress tasks, and Prinect Internet Portal, which supports online print buying, remote proofing, custom branding and secure file transfer. Other Prinect modules include estimating, quotation, ticketing, tracking and delivery.

Creo (Billerica, MA), Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL) and Printcafe (Pittsburgh) provided a real-world CIM example: JohnsByrne (Niles, IL), a $20 million commercial printer that integrates content creation, prepress, press, postpress and MIS. JohnsByrne's installation links components, including Creo's PDF-creation tools, Synapse InSite prepress Internet portal, platesetters and proofers; Printcafe's Hagen OA; and Komori's K-Station and presses, as well as postpress equipment.

Komori demonstrated the Hagen OA management system transferring data through its K-Station to the presses on the show floor and then exporting the press data back to Hagen OA.

Printcafe demonstrated Press Connector on MAN Roland's PECOM press-operating and networking system as well as Komori's K-Station. Press Connector is a JDF-based integration model that links Printcafe's management systems with press consoles and on-board production-management systems to provide a real-time, two-way flow of information, including makeready times and good/bad counts.

MAN Roland's JobPilot, a PECOM software module, creates, edits and organizes electronic job tickets that enable users to preset more than 100 automated functions on MAN Roland equipment, while the press prints the previous job.

Another module, PressMonitor, can access the working status of jobs currently in production and allows all pressroom shifts to be continuously monitored.

MIS/E-COMMERCE INTERFACING

Many vendors have joined PrintTalk (Reston, VA) to facilitate MIS interfacing to third-party e-commerce systems. PrintTalk, a non-profit consortium of MIS and e-commerce vendors, was formed several years ago to create an open standard for the direct communication of data between e-commerce applications and business-management systems. Printcafe uses its own PCX JDF-interfacing tool for e-commerce/MIS integration — other vendors also have their own tool sets.

Printable Technologies (Solana Beach, CA) and Prism USA (Plymouth, MA) announced the first PrintTalk-based integration to be used in production between a Web-based ordering system and MIS. At Graph Expo, Printable demonstrated JDF and PrintTalk connectivity between HP Indigo (Woburn, MA) presses and Prism's management software. Prism used PrintTalk and JDF to connect its print-management system to ScenicSoft's UpFront print production tools (since acquired by Creo), as well as to Printable's Desktop.

These emerging e-commerce/MIS interfaces should enable the content creator to go beyond entering job specifications or tracking jobs. The potential to manage jobs — doing preliminary file processing that includes preflighting, color-management, previewing content, scanning for pricing and conversions to a common format (PDF) in conjunction with creating a JDF-compliant job ticket — will evolve in the next few years.

As you evaluate system options, remember that an effective MIS shouldn't just automate manual operations. It should provide a new way for management to profitably meet the challenges of today's competitive environment.

MANAGEMENT INFORMATION SYSTEM (MIS) CHECKLIST

General attributes

  • Will the system operate in your hardware and network environment?

  • Is it easy to use?

    • Intuitive screens and prompts

    • Modern look and feel

    • Easy to navigate

  • How does it handle current/future processes?

    • Electronic prepress

    • On-demand printing

    • Variable imaging

    • Fulfillment/distribution and other services

  • Does it provide flexible production controls?

    • Job tickets

    • Change orders

    • Data collection

    • Scheduling

    • Job tracking

  • Are scheduling methods dynamic?

    • Timely

    • Graphical

    • Responsive

  • Are reports meaningful and timely?

    • Executive snapshots

    • Quick operational and sales benchmarks

  • Does it integrate office automation?

    • Word processing

    • Spreadsheets/databases/graphics

    • Contact management systems

  • Can it provide an Internet module or connections to e-print providers?

  • Can you take it on the road?

    • Remote communications

    • Sales-force considerations

    • Management requirements

  • How does it handle computer-assisted estimating?

    • Allows remote entry of specs via remote interface or Internet

    • Checklist screens/menus offered

    • Alternative price-list quoting capabilities

  • Can the system grow with you? How will it handle:

    • Electronic prepress upgrades

    • A wider range of presses

    • On-demand printing

    • More postpress operations

    • Variable-imaging preparation

  • How smart is the system?

    • Automatically calculates layout and press selections

    • Provides diagrams

    • Detailed specification checking

    • Indicates obvious errors

    • Performs a capability check (ink coverage, paper weights)

    • Improved template creation for repeat or standard jobs

    • Whole estimate cloning, component building and sub-operations

    • Multiple output options

    • On-screen review, summary, production details

    • Performs visual value-added and commission computations

    • “What if” pricing alternatives with value-added or markups

    • Creates variable quote letters/price lists

    • Format or content can be altered by salespeople and customers

  • Does it create estimating won/lost statistics?

    • Tracks estimating activities by sales person, customer, type of work, etc.

  • Does it integrate with other applications?

    • Order entry (job ticket)

    • Purchasing

    • Scheduling

    • Job costing for estimate vs. actual analysis

Order entry

  • How are job specifications entered?

    • Specs can be entered by sales or customer service/production employees

    • Salespeople and customers can do remote jobs with files

  • What electronic job-jacket options are offered?

    • Customized: printed/on-screen (color)

    • JDF-compliant

    • Displays details for multiple forms or components

  • How does it track changes?

    • Customer alterations with instructions, space and pricing options

    • Manufacturing changes, includes a means of indicating what happened

  • Does the order-entry module include:

    • Job tracking/inquiry capabilities

    • Automatic credit-checking based on accounts receivable and credit worthiness of customer

  • How well does it integrate with other applications?

    • Estimating: basis for job specs

    • Purchasing/inventory: allocations/requisitions

    • Scheduling/loading: key dates/hours

    • Job/production analysis: comparative data

    • Invoicing: pricing/correction information

Shop-floor data collection

  • Does it dynamically update:

    • Scheduling, job status, material utilization

    • Job/employee activities

    • Payroll

    • Job status

    • Plant production/productivity activities

  • What data-collection devices are offered?

    • Keypads, bar codes, workstations, touchscreens

    • Bar codes ideal in multilingual environments

    • Supports direct-machine monitoring

    • Press and postpress machines

    • Electronic prepress: CEPS, desktop

    • Interfaces to prepress output devices

    • CTP, imagesetters, proofers

    • Interfaces to digital presses

    • Links to workflow-monitoring systems (part of CTP or other digital workflows)

Loading (tracking work) and scheduling (controlling work)

  • Does loading show department/operation work by ship/due date?

    • Shows hours to go for each department

  • Computer-assisted scheduling (CAS) is proactive

    • Provides dynamic control over job flow

    • Routes job based on estimate and equipment availability

    • Displays hours for each operation/personnel

    • Determines job and department due dates

    • Identifies conflicts/late jobs by department

    • Provides early warning system for schedule delays

  • Creates an electronic scheduling board

    • Has visual job positioning

    • Provides job-sequencing control

    • Permits testing of different production scenarios

    • Makes adjustments for repairs and maintenance

Job/production analysis

  • Are job costs (labor, machine, paper and ink) automatically tracked?

    • Actual costs compared to estimated costs/standards

    • Maintains production histories

    • Provides capacity utilization and waste/spoilage tracking

    • Exception reporting available

    • Filtering and sorting data by key areas

  • Is presentation of information clear? Can reports be accessed online?

Materials management

  • How are raw-material inventories controlled?

    • Estimating and order-entry personnel can access data

    • Paperwork minimized

    • Timely system feedback for inventory levels, reorder alerts and pricing

  • Can the system accommodate customer-furnished stock or printed materials (for inserts)?

  • How are roll and sheet stocks handled?

    • Bar-coding options

    • Warehouse and receiving-dock personnel can enter inventory transactions

  • Can it handle finished and customer-supplied goods?

    • Links to fulfillment systems with pick lists

  • Does it generate work-in-process reports?

  • What purchase controls are in place?

    • Generates purchase requests/orders

    • Maintains pricing and vendor records

    • Tracks open purchase orders

  • How does the system track materials-handling activities (ordered, received, allocated and used items)?

Invoicing and accounting

  • Are invoices interfaced to order-entry/change-order systems?

    • System imports description and pricing information

    • Invoices can be edited

  • Can invoice wording easily be changed to conform to company, customer or sales requirements?

  • Does the accounting system conform to graphic-arts industry requirements?

    • How is the general ledger organized?

    • What details are required?

    • Can reporting requirements be reformatted for “Ratios” studies or special reports?

MIS PRODUCTS

System Vendor

Features

Contact

Avanti Computer Systems

Interface to Xerox and Internet use

avantisystems.com

Arimasoft

Scheduling for packaging and printing

arimasoft.com

CRC Information Systems

Integration and e-fulfillment

crcinfosys.com

Concord Business Systems

Flexo packaging, specialty/MS-based applications

concord-solutions.com

Dienamic MIS Software

Finishing industry system/Internet use

dienamicmis.com

DiMS! organizing print

Integrated with Internet/browser apps

dims.net

Franklin Estimating Systems

Windows-based estimating system for small/midsize firms

franklinestimating.com

Globe-Tek Corp.

Integrated with Internet connectivity

globe-tekcorp.com

Graphic Arts IT

Browser-based applications

graphicartsit.com

GraphiTech

Windows-based system for small/mid-size printers with Web-based ordering

graphitech.com

InfoNet

Interface to Xerox digital presses

to-infonet.com

MetaCommunications

Mac-based order processing and prepress systems

jobmanager.com

Pace Systems Group

Wireless and data-manipulation tool/e-commerce applications

pace2020.com

PagePath Technologies

Internet ordering for digital printing

pagepath.com

Parsec

Windows-based with Internet connections

parsecorp.com

PRIMAC Systems

Integrated solution, browser apps

primacsystems.com

Printable Technologies

Interfaceable Web-based solution

printable.com

Printactive Inc.

Small-plant system from the UK

(301) 704-6698

Printcafe

Interfacing advances/scheduling/Internet. Offerings include Hagen, Logic, PSI and PrintSmith brands

printcafe.com

Printers Software

Updated Windows-based applications, including scheduling

psisoft.com

printLEADER Software

Windows-based system with data-collection capabilities for smaller printers

printleader.com

PrintPoint

Multiplatform system for small/midsize printers

(800) 774-6853

Prism USA

Internet apps/PrintTalk Connection

prism-world.com

PROFIT Control Systems

Updated Windows-based modules/interfaceable Web-based solution

profitcontrol.com

ProGraphic

Estimating and accounting for small to midsize printers

prographicsoftware.com

PowerQuote Software

Mac-based estimating

macestimating.com

Radius Solutions

Larger-company packaging and commercial-printing updates

radiussolutions.com/us

SAP/UnitInc

New modules for graphic-arts users

mysap.com

or unitinc.com

Star*Key Software

Estimating for web printers

presstimator.com

Tailored Solutions, Inc.

Updates for label/litho industries; Mac- and Windows-based