30 March 2018 Print Companies

The Precision Printing approach to managing the workflow chaos

Precision Printing has moved to a factory which will allow it to hit ambitious expansion targets, but that growth is going to depend on automating the entire workflow.

“We have brought order to the chaos,” says Gary Peeling, managing director of Precision Printing. He is speaking about the workflow and systems the company has developed in order to handle not hundreds but thousands of jobs a day.

But he might also be hinting at the move from increasingly crowded factory in Barking to the relatively wide open space of Dagenham, just a few miles east.

This is now a very well organised factory: all equipment on the same level and a logical progression from printing to finishing consolidation, wrapping and dispatch, each job being tracked and monitored at every step in its progress.

Without the type of automation and structure that Precision has employed, chaos would indeed reign. And the company would require an army of staff, a battalion to raise job tickets, a regiment to run around the shop floor logging where each job is, and why it is running late.

Alongside the production floor are the brightly coloured offices, more central London creative agency or tech start up than east London industrial zone. This is because Precision wants “to attract the young talent, so the inside has been designed to be as pleasant as it possibly can be”, according to Peeling.

The young are constantly on his mind. The twenty-something marketing executive with no previous experience of print, often called Jane, is his target customer and like the youth that work at the business on the fringe of Essex, Peeling wants her experience to be as pleasant as it can be.

That is not always the case. In the traditional way of buying print, there are conversations between customer and the print management team, the printer and suppliers where costs swiftly pile up when errors occur.

In margin squeezed times nobody makes money and everyone is unhappy. It is not a pleasant experience. In contrast, the modern e-commerce way, is about loading artwork into a web portal, approving the job almost instantly, and that job is delivered a few days later. It is as pleasant an experience as buying through Ebay or Amazon or, importantly, as clean as organising an email campaign through MailChimp or similar. And for Jane it is the future of buying print.

The risk is that confronted with the traditional route, Jane will decide that email marketing is the way to go. Over her career Jane could be responsible for spending more than £1 million on marketing materials, money that will be lost to the industry unless Jane’s experience is a positive one.

Everything at Precision Printing is geared to that end. It works as the production house for companies creating one off print products. It began with greetings cards and photobooks and shows no sign of stopping. The current favourite is something called the Love Book where individuals create a book selecting ‘multiple reasons why I love you’ to present to their partner. There are choices on the words, the images, the number of pages and the binding, whether limp or hard cover.

“We deal with a lot of start up businesses, for companies that do not have their own production platforms,” says Peeling. “Some of the start ups don’t go anywhere and some will go from zero to £5 million turnover in 12 months. We know how to partner with these businesses.”

Precision Printing originally developed its OneFlow workflow software to handle this type of work because it could not find an application that was suitable for tracking the flow of an individual job, perhaps involving several printed items, around its factory in Barking. The workflow system remains as important now as when first conceived.

“Our workflow needs to enable us to make money from an £60 order, but the question is how do you make money from a £3 order?” says Peeling. Partly through volume. Precision can cope with an average of 8,000-10,000 orders for consumers each day and 300-400 orders a day through Where The Trade Buys, its business to business portal where orders are larger but where buyers will have a much broader selection of products and choices.

In the run up to Christmas the volume builds inexorably until 19 December when, Peeling says, the business is receiving, processing and shipping 50,000 orders a day. Automation is the business.

Submitted files are wrangled through prepress without intervention. Colours are managed and impositions selected. This is easier for the four HP Indigos, two B2 format, two SRA3, than for the two long perfecting RGMT 928 SRA1 LED UV presses, but is still automated.

The twenty-somethings sitting at phones are there to deal with the exceptions, not to discuss the finer details of each job with customers, says Peeling. If preflighting has picked up a problem, the wrong size for example, the job is returned to the client for correction and an IRC conversation can answer questions if need be.

There are displays in this department, as there are throughout the factory, showing a progress dashboard, where all the jobs are and where the bottlenecks, if any, are building.

The first decision is whether to direct the job to the litho presses or the Indigos. If the job is produced digitally the first time it is touched is when lifting it from the delivery. For litho, a number of jobs will be ganged on a sheet, and a set of plates produced. Each job on that sheet is identified by barcode printed on laser printed job sheet that travels with the stack through the process.

The operators at each workstation have their own work to lists, so know what is coming down the line. Scanning the bar code will retrieve job instructions, using these if possible to set the machinery automatically. The dashboards use a traffic light system to indicate which jobs are on time or delayed, while colours are also applied to each job to indicate when it is due to be delivered.

At midday on a Thursday afternoon, a simple traffic light system displays how many jobs are running behind schedule, how many are on time and how many sit between the worlds, delayed but not requiring intervention.

The same barcodes identify the different components of a book, the body pages and cover for example, that are produced separately and need to be married at the casing in point. The codes will also identify the different elements of an order that need to be collected before being sent out. This process is controlled through rules created in Siteflow when a new job is taken on and accounts for all possible combinations for a single-copy product. Where a mistake is made, the operator will key this into the system and a reprint is ordered.

The final step is the wrapping station which is now based around a CMC cartoning system. It has the same job information and is able to dispense the correct amount of corrugated, to envelope the package and then send it to the labelling point where the address is added and directed to the bin for the appropriate delivery business, which is alerted that the package has entered their system.

The same workflow applies to the batched jobs coming through Where The Trade Buys where different pricing applies to urgent, standard or a ‘saver’ price for non rush jobs. This allows the software to batch jobs in the most efficient way for the litho presses, the same paper, format or numbers for example. Offset starts at 250 sheets and so efficient is the process that the majority of business cards orders are printed litho.

A new layer of complexity is coming as Peeling explains. “We will shortly be able to deliver into central London in the afternoon for same day delivery,” he says. Then add in some of the additional finishing processes that the company is offering as value add options. It has lamination, laser cutting and will shortly be offering foil blocking.

Without the end to end automation, none of this would be possible. Without the ability to take in job instructions from a web portal and apply these to the production workflow, it would not be web to print but “web to nowhere,” says Peeling.

“We started thinking in a back to front way, from delivery first. If you are going to be producing small orders, the workflow is the critical element,” he says.

Precision has already spun OneFlow into a separate technology company, now SiteFlow, and it has sold this to a company in Germany, with the name changed because trade printing is not a familiar term for the country’s print fraternity, and to a UK company working in a completely different sector. Where The Trade Buys Australia is also being launched.

For Precision itself, the goal is to build revenue to around £30 million in 2019 with the original project based offset litho business growing only slowly. Current turnover is £23 million. The growth is going to come from smaller orders.

“The traditional Precision Printing customer will spend an average of £25,000 a year with us and the Where The Trade Buys customer will spend £1,000-2,000 a year,” he says. “That now adds 700 customers a month and grew sales 88% last year.”

At one time growth at that rate would mean piling on overheads in the form of people and assets to cope, and frequently creating a cash crisis.

That now longer applies. Precision’s automation software makes the business scaleable and providing the building can cope, and Peeling reckons that for the next decade it will, automation makes growth possible.

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Precision Printing managing director Gary Peeling has created an environment at the new Dagenham premises aimed at attracting young talent people.

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