Navigating the Path to Automation

By Gautam Jit Kanwar, President, BelWo, Inc.

Since the advent of the assembly line, manufacturers have looked for ways to continuously improve production throughput—the customer communications industry is no different. Through advancements in the quality, throughput and flexibility of digital equipment, communications providers now have new avenues of capacity. However, challenges still exist in processing data, expediting approval and getting the print-ready files to the production floor. Additionally, today’s communications providers must take into consideration compliance and process management at every turn—with complete audit trails from file receipt to delivery. There are multiple systems that claim complete automation from file receipt to print, but how do they stack up? And what is the investment? Can they accommodate an industry that must meet custom requirements while still maintaining complete quality control? There is an adage in business that says you can have it right or you can have it quickly. Here is the good news on that: With a well thought out automation of processes, you can have both.

Evaluating the different resources
Within the world of automation there are many choices, from proprietary programs that range from packaged with a manufacturer’s printer to custom modularized automation platforms, with pricing that varies significantly. Time of implementation, flexibility of software and the process itself are typically key factors in the decision-making process. Many of the systems packaged with printers appear to be a low investment as they are added to the cost of the machine or given as part of the purchase. These systems will still require an upfront investment in time, resources and workflow modification. The downside is custom workflows with manual intervention steps may need to be completely redone. Some legacy applications may not be able to communicate with the proprietary software.

The next option is a program-agnostic automation software platform. These systems are very flexible and customizable as they have been designed to take different file types. Additionally, there is a consultative approach taken in building the right system for your needs. Subscription models to systems such as this are beginning to surface. This guarantees the system staying up to date and allows for hands-free maintenance. As business processes change, modular approaches to the process make updates easy and efficient. This option also answers the call for customized solutions for specific clients. Workflows can be created to record and/or store reports from closed loop systems that include data receipt, proof approval, printing and piece tracking, including remakes.

Invest time in the process
The difficulties in fully automated services come from the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of the processes can be automated, but there is the 20% utilizing .Net programming, homegrown database work and customized programming that do not fit into the box with many automation packages. Cracking the code to solve the problem can be time consuming, but it is ultimately worth it for increases in throughput and eliminating the inaccuracies that come with manual intervention. Any time manual intervention is employed, it exposes the whole process to human error and lack of accountability. These errors can lead to huge fines and must be remediated. To solve such issues, there needs to be a clear understanding of why they occur; and what can be done to avoid them in the future. Too many times when errors occur in a process, and in lieu of understanding the root cause, often another process is added to check an overall inadequate procedure. This is how bottlenecks develop over time.

It is worth the time invested to create a process that does not need triage to keep running efficiently or human intervention to check. Daily, we are asking teams to make what could be a million-dollar gamble when utilizing manual verification processes. It is important to take stock in process and procedure and find the common issues, address them and determine a way they can be automated for the future. Identifying the processes and having a clear understanding of why the processes are in place is the first step to moving your workflow positively forward. Implementing a system that creates confidence and is proven to be stable and reliable is key. Features like early warning error systems targeting bad files and the ability to prioritize file processing contribute to a faster, more efficient way of dealing with data bottlenecks and improve overall workflow in the production facility.

The final value
Finally, what is it worth to clients, to production and to your overall bottom line to have a reliable automated process? Having the confidence that all files are being processed, automatic notifications are going out and job prioritization that can be done at the click of a button puts your business ahead and gives you a competitive edge. Keeping the production floor running through a strong automated data front ends the idle machine problem and allows for business growth and development.

Gautam Jit Kanwar is president of BelWo Inc., a global provider of managed services specializing in customer communications management (CCM) consulting and delivery solutions that help companies meet strategic CCM goals.

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