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Automation pays

Jan 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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Associates Graphic Services (AGS) (Wilmington, DE) is celebrating its 35th anniversary with a bang. Founded in 1969 as a type house, AGS has evolved into a highly automated offset and digital operation, as evidenced by its 2008 CIPPI Award. The printer won first place honors for the “biggest improvement in efficiency and customer responsiveness as a result of process automation.”

“I'm a big proponent of reducing touches in your operation,” says Dave Zamorski, COO. “When a new piece of equipment or software is considered, we always look at how many touches it will eliminate in the process. Every time you eliminate a touch, you increase your profitability.”

Software connections

AGS, with its two Heidelberg 6-color CD74 offset presses, three Xerox iGen digital color presses and three black-and-white Xerox high-speed devices, was looking for a more efficient way to manage its information handling. Zamorski wanted an MIS that could support and complement all of the company's existing software. “We wanted a system that could talk to everything,” he says. “Everyone is JDF compliant, but not every system is certified. That narrowed our search considerably, and in late spring of 2008 we installed our new Avanti MIS.”

The printer liked the system's ease of use as well as its connectivity. “We selected Avanti as our MIS partner because it can integrate with applications that are key to our business like AGS Connect and OASymbio,” says Zamorski. “It will allow us to continue streamlining our operational costs while decreasing turnaround times and being more responsive to customers.”

The company's estimating process offers a good example of process automation in action. Previously, when clients wanted estimates, they contacted their salesperson. The salesperson completed a form and forwarded it to the estimator, who returned it to the CSR, who passed it along to the salesperson, who then contacted the customer. Now when a salesperson gets a request for a quote, he or she enters the information into the Avanti system, which creates the estimate and e-mails it to the customer. “We went from eight or nine touches to a salesperson having one touch,” says Zamorski. “There are no forms, and the system sends out a quote letter with the e-mail, copying the CSR automatically.”

Using templates created within the Avanti ( system enables AGS to streamline its estimating system. “Because we work hard to improve lean manufacturing practices, we know that 80 percent of what we print falls into defined categories,” explains Zamorski. “We can create these 12 to 20 templates and build an estimate within Avanti by having the salesperson or CSR enter the information.”

Automating W2P, too

Avanti's system links go far beyond the estimating process. “We have 14 storefronts for digital and conventional jobs. Today, half of our work is coming in through these Web-to-print applications,” says Zamorski.

When a job comes in through the AGS Connect storefront, it is automatically sent to the Avanti system, which captures the data and creates an integrated job ticket. The jobs are then batched into templates stored in the AGS Connect system, which helps automate online ordering and workflow. “It doesn't matter if it's a quantity of 50 or 5,000,” says Zamorski. The system automatically groups all like jobs. Proofing is done online. Once proofed, the job is automatically sent into the queue for the iGen.

“We can have 50 trifold jobs, for example, that run one behind the other on one of the iGen devices,” says the COO. “No hands touch the job from receipt through the storefront until it comes off of the press. Then it is sent to the bindery and shipped. We can get a job out of the shop in four touches, and that wouldn't have been possible without Xerox, Avanti and Creo working closely with our five in-house programmers.”

AGS takes in 50 to 70 orders per day via the storefront. Each order averages 3.2 line items apiece resulting in about 220 line items orders processed automatically every day.

An impressive productivity gain

AGS used a customer relationship management (CRM) tool prior to installing the Avanti system. The printer's old MIS system didn't interface directly to the AGS CRM system, requiring customer service people to manually enter information into both systems. Despite the CSRs and salespeople's diligent efforts, errors were inevitable. The old system also lacked robust accounting features. AGS's Avanti system includes a database for CRM, accounting and MIS.

“We have five full-time CSRs,” says Zamorski, “but they are not involved with the work that comes in through our storefront. They handle the 30 to 40 [other] jobs a day. We also now have one estimator, who also has other duties, vs. 2.5 estimators [in place] before this process automation.”

In 2006, AGS' sales were $10 million. Today, sales have grown to more than $13 million. “Process automation has allowed us to be able to do more with less,” reports Zamorski. “Between January 2006 and year-end 2008, we have increased our productivity 86 percent. That's a good example of how lean manufacturing can reduce the number of touches and improve profitability.”

Jill Roth is executive editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at

Keen on lean manufacturing

As we noted in July 2006 (“Going with the flow,”) AGS embraces lean manufacturing, the team-based systematic approach to identifying and eliminating waste that Toyota pioneered more than 50 years ago. A Screen PlateRite 8000 platesetter installed in 2002 was the springboard to a lot of subsequent automation.

The plant's 50,000-sq.-ft. production space provides maximum “flow.” Potential bottlenecks have been eliminated, and there's almost no inventory sitting on the floor.

Outstanding process automation

During Drupa 2008, the CIP4 organization announced the winners of the 2008 CIP4 International Print Production Innovation (CIPPI) Awards. The winners:

Best cost/benefit realization and improvement in efficiency

  • First Place: Metzgerdruck GmbH (Obrigheim, Germany)
  • Second Place: Cox Target Media, Inc. (Largo, FL)

Biggest improvement in quality production & customer responsiveness

  • First Place: Associates Graphic Services (AGS) (Wilmington, DE)
  • Second Place: Cox Target Media, Inc. (Largo, FL)

Best process automation implementation

  • Europe: Print Plaza AG (Dusseldorf, Germany)
  • Asia/Pacific: Southern Colour (Vic) Pty Ltd. (Keysborough, Victoria, Australia)
  • North America: Cox Target Media, Inc. (Largo, FL)
  • Emerging Markets: Pragati OffSet Pvt. Ltd. (Hyderabad, India)