PDF In-Depth

Automating Workflows - Improve Cycle Time & Increase Profitability

March 05, 2001

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Process Automation is one of the keys to success in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, and Process Automation is also one of the major factors that is driving the new economy.

Automation can facilitate the process as well as enhance relationships. If you only achieve a more consistent process, the benefits of process automation are compelling.

One of the other major benefits can be the creation of a tighter link between you and your process partners. This can be achieved through the implementation of automated solutions that help bridge the process - some of these will be discussed later in this article.

What Is Process Automation?

So what is process automation? It is a solution, or complement of solu tions that can control and streamline processes, usually without any human intervention. While most people assume that the primary focus of process automation is the elimination of large blocks of time, there can also be significant benefit from eliminating lots of small blocks of time.

Implementing process automation can be achieved by a wide range of methods. These include doing it yourself, hiring an integrator or developer, or purchasing one of many prepackaged solutions.

The types of solutions available take many forms. When most people think about process automation they usually think about Wizards, Hot Folders and Templates. While these are used in many process automa tion solutions, there are many other solutions that may be less sophisti cated yet still very effective.

Basic Automation Tools

One of the most basic types of automation is available as part of most of the major operating sys tems. Features like the ability to automatically start up and shut down the computer at various times can actually save substantial time during the work day. Another fea ture that is available in current Macintosh and Windows operating systems is the ability to assign tasks to function keys. Imagine how many tasks you repeat many times throughout the day. Assigning these tasks to function keys can save lots of time over the course of a day, week or month.

As we move up to the next available levels of process automation tools we come to the category of inexpensive utilities. These utilities, which are usually much less than $100, can add a variety of automation tools to your toolbox. One of the oldest of these is Quick Keys from CE Software. While some of the bene fits of this powerful package have been added to the OS, as previously mentioned, they have managed to increase the scope of the utility to handle many more complex actions.

Another package is Cruise Control, which is from Walnut Systems. This utility adds time and calendar scheduling functionality to a variety of included actions, or Apple Scriptable actions. And this is only a small sampling of the types of free or inexpensive utilities that are available to you that will allow you to capture lots of small but signifi cant process benefits.

AppleScript

AppleScript is probably one of the most powerful process automation tools available today. This Apple included utility allows you to streamline many of the functions of the Finder, including file move ment and management, as well as lets you control other Apple utili ties like color management. In addi tion, many of the core applications that you currently use on a daily basis have built-in AppleScript sup port. In fact, AppleScript actually allows you to build inter-applica tion scripts to further automate many of your process tasks. Apple Scriptable applications include Quark, InDesign, Photoshop (although it is somewhat limited, a utility called PhotoScripter can add the missing functionality), Flight Check, Acrobat, etc.

At first glance, learning Apple Script is a daunting task. However, once you start using it, and begin building simple scripts, you begin to see that it isn't really that difficult at all. Should you want a more secure base of understanding to start from, there are many books and white papers available from the AppleScript Web site on apple.com that can get you started. AppleScript supports batch processing, so that you can create hot folders that have specific actions applied to them to allow a drag and drop execution. Apple supplies most of the tools necessary to do the basic script writing, and as you become more proficient, and demanding, you can even purchase other tools that can enhance the look and feel of the interfaces, too.

Windows

And, if you must do Windows, Visual Basic has many of the same features and relative ease of script ability.

Color Management

A major process automation and collaboration tool is ICC Color Management. While we have been hearing of color management for a while, the state of the industry is such that many of the early headaches are resolved and, as a result, the adoption rates are up. Color Management offers output consistency while reducing cycle time and therefore cost. It also facilitates image reuse and blind workflows. Probably one of the more significant benefits is that it can reduce skill requirements once it is in place.

Automated Process Applications

As we move up the list to a more complete line of applications that offer process automation, we see a class of applications that perform a collection of tasks and processes. These include applications that simply act as output control solutions to applications that can manage a large part of your entire workflow, and, of course, there are many that fall somewhere in the middle.

The output control group of prod ucts include Xinet FullPress, Imation (Now Scenic Soft) Color Central, the Helios server products, and many others. These solutions can, at their simplest level, give you a way to organize your output devices and the processing parameters for each of them. However, their additional functionality can include a variety of utilities and functions like OPI, Color Management conversions, etc.

A very interesting product from Markzware, the people that bring you FlightCheck, is Markzscout. This application gives you the tools necessary to build workflow templates that can identify, verify, change (if necessary), and move files from application to applica tion, to allow you to create an almost fully automated workflow. It also has AppleScript support, which can further enhance its effectiveness in a larger scale production workflow.

PitStop Server from Enfocus actually takes Preflight to a new level. Historically a preflight operation verifies a file to a specified set of parameters, and then notifies you if there is a problem. In this case they have actually added the ability to automatically fix and/or change many of the attributes of the file that don't meet specifications. This powerful automated application works on PDF files, and allows you to set customizable actions that can change things like fonts and object color, or even object positioning. In the newest version (1.5) they also have added the ability to handle color management.

The next group of products, Automated Output Production Systems, are probably the most commonly thought of solutions when people think about process automation. This group includes the Adobe Extreme products like Agfa Apogee, CreoScitex Prinergy and Brisque Extreme. Also in this group will soon be an increasing selection of output products that will have IPT nAct as their core RIP technology. These Extreme solutions provide an excellent way to utilize job tickets to set up predefined workflows and then execute them to meet each job's requirements. The Adobe Extreme based solutions also facilitate the use of PDF files for inputting, editing and viewing and even outputting in some cases.

The MaxWorkFlow product from Harlequin and Harris Publishing operates in a similar fashion, but doesn't use Adobe technology at its core. Then there's another group of products like Screen TrueFlow, BARCO, PressTige, Fuji CelebraNT, and DALiM SWiNG, each one offering varying levels of process automation which can significantly streamline and enhance your output workflows.

Cross-Discipline Automation

As we continue to move to collabo rative workflows, many products are being introduced to facilitate this new process model. Products like Agfa Apogee Create, a distiller on steroids, provide a more flexible and secure way to create PDF workflows that start at the designer's site and can move directly into the output workflow. CreoScitex Prinergy InSite is a new product that facilitates inter-process communication between the designer and the output production facility; and Heidelberg's new offerings tie the estimate, order entry and production processes together to maximize the efficiencies of the entire process.

Facilitating New Workflows

As we begin to use technology to facilitate these collaborative workflows, there are many new and more complete workflow solutions that are being developed. WAN workflows like InScope (formerly known by the development name as Stilton) from Adobe begin to facilitate many people working on a complex project, while interactively tracking and sharing the process data. In a similar vein, many new automated, or semi-automated collaborative Internet Workflows are being introduced. ASP (Application Service Providers) are creating a centralized group workspace, and adding specialized tools that facilitate the production. These tools include centralized data and process management, on-line and remote proofing, on-line RIPing, messaging, video conferencing, job tracking, and many other tools. Services like Sprockets and Convoq epitomize this type of service, while many others can be expected to surface in the near future. In addition, e-Management software that facilitate and bridge the entire process, like the Delano package from Agfa, will surely become a real part of the new production landscape. And companies like DAX, Vio and Wam!Net are also repositioning themselves as ASPs that facilitate these collaborative workflows.

Many of the tools that we currently use locally like preflighting are also becoming automated and moving to the Internet. MarkzNet from Markzware (FlightCheck), and Preflight On-line from CreativePro (Extensis) can now check files for production readiness and directly forward the passed f iles to the selected production facility. EP2.com from Shira can check, RIP and proof files for CTP plate readiness, and then forward them to the appropriate output vendor. Indocs On-line, allows you to edit files over the Internet without the need for the originating application.These types of tools, as they are developed, will also continue to add value and flexibility to the new collaborative Internet workflows.

Eventually, as these collaborative solutions evolve, we can expect that many more Virtual Workgroups that require little or no human interven tion will become commonplace. And as a part of this collaborative landscape there will continue to be links to e-Procurement providers that can handle the seamless purchase of outside products and services required in the production process.

Do You Need to Automate?

So after reviewing all of this, the next question is: Do you really need to automate? Well if we look at the benefits, the most obvious answer would be YES! However, the real answer to your individual case requires that you review your current client base and workflows to see how many of these types of solutions can directly benefit you.

You may f ind that your work requires so much operator intervention that some types of automation just wouldn't make sense. Or you may find that establishing collaborative Internet based workgroups would benefit your process and customer relationships.

Your workflow is very specific to you, your clients and the types of products and services you need to offer. However, anyway that you can get better process control or enhance and streamline your workflows usually creates a winning solution.

This article is being republished with the author's permission.

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