Optimizing production workflow plays a significant role in a printing business’s success, and taking steps to improve end-to-end processes, eliminate bottlenecks and improve efficiency can significantly boost profitability and enhance customer experience.  
Today, many print providers are grappling with price increases, labour shortages and supply chain disruptions. Optimized and automated workflows can help combat these problems by improving efficiency in core tasks such as order entry, scheduling, estimating, quoting and resource allocation. 
In the past, print providers have viewed print production workflow as limited to shop floor processes. However, in today’s era of rapid digital transformation, management information services (MIS) systems enable print providers to integrate all the workflows necessary to seamlessly complete a job. 
The state of a print provider’s workflow also affects the customer experience, and print buyers and decision-makers are under enormous pressure to better manage and cost-justify their communication investments. This is where print providers can benefit from workflow optimization to help address these challenges and improve customer experience. 
A NAPCO Research survey of communication buyers and influencers found that more than half find direct benefits from workflow optimization to be highly valuable (Figure 1). These include the ability to place print orders at any time (72%), accurate tracking of print costs (58%), immediate pricing quotes for print work (55%), and access to past purchasing history (54%), followed by real-time job status, easy job reordering, and ability to access previous orders. 

Figure 1: Customers’ Value Benefits of Workflow Optimization 
What Is workflow optimization? 
Workflow optimization refers to the improvement of current business and production processes. It involves the application of intelligent rules and automation to existing work processes for better efficiency, reduce errors and encourage collaboration. In a NAPCO Research study, “Future-Proofing Your Printing Business”, 86% of commercial printers reported they were likely to take action to optimize production. 
However, optimizing only one point in the production process and failing to address others can lead to bottlenecks in other areas. Therefore, optimization needs to be implemented across all areas of the workflow. 
The operating reality for many print service providers is defined by customer demands for more complex orders, the need for more variable data, lower order volumes, faster turnaround times, online order entry, and having less margin to work with to get printing jobs in and completed. To contend with these pressures, many print providers focus on workflow optimization to correct common practices that can create production lags and incur additional costs, including: 
 Tedious and time-consuming job onboarding processes 
Manual data entry and reentry of data already captured 
Multiple standalone systems, which require extra overhead to manage 
Spreadsheets that are “everywhere,” so there are multiple places to look for answers 
Many touchpoints per job, which increases the risk of errors 
No communication or collaboration between departments 
Bottlenecks resulting from scheduling and inventory issues 

Identifying workflow breakpoints 

A recent Printing Impressions webinar titled “Grow Your Business and Improve Profitability Without Adding Overhead” focused on how increasing production automation, reducing touch points and streamlining workflow can lead to growth. During the webinar, Ricoh U.S. Consulting Solutions Architect, Arron Robinson shared a diagram pointing to workflow breakpoints that optimization and automation can eliminate (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Breakpoints in the Workflow 
Source: Ricoh & Avanti Software 
Finding ways to streamline job submission, estimating, invoicing, prepress, printing and finishing can eliminate breakpoints and bottlenecks in the manufacturing process. 

Here are examples of areas that can be optimized: 

Automating job on-boarding, scheduling, purchasing, fulfillment and data transfers from one stage to the next 
Making sure software applications “talk” to, or integrate with, one another 
Enabling real-time job tracking and alerts 
Supplying one “system of record” that manages all lines of business 
NAPCO Research study, “Future-Proofing Your Printing Business” also found that highly automated printing operations experienced higher throughput, faster turnaround, enhanced productivity and more profitable jobs compared to those with less automation. 
Increasing efficiency and productivity enables a printing operation to print more jobs per hour. Higher throughput directly relates to profitability as it reduces non-chargeable production time. In turn, print providers can produce more jobs for more customers without additional manpower. In addition, as automation eliminates workflow bottlenecks caused by manual processes, it increases production speed and helps reduce labour costs. 
Figure 3 shows the various types of software for automating printing operations and indicates that more than half of the respondents invested in software that can both automate and optimize their production from end-to-end. 
Figure 3: Top Software Used by Highly Automated Print Providers 

Steps to optimize workflow 

Optimizing production workflow does not have to be complicated. Here are some key steps to guide you in optimizing your workflow: 
Step 1 
Identify bottlenecks and areas of improvement. Start with an assessment and document your current processes from job enquiry to the delivery of the finished product. Keep a lookout for ways to reduce pain points and opportunities that could allow you to save time, increase capacity and improve communication between departments. 
Step 2 
Define your priorities. Don’t try to change too many things at once. Start with one challenge and resolve it. Also, be sure to involve your employees in defining priorities and solutions. 
Step 3 
Implement the change. Involve all the employees that will be impacted. Monitor its progress and put processes and checklists in place for successful change management.  
Step 4 
Once successfully implemented, move on to your next priority and repeat these steps. 
Optimization is a long-term process that takes commitment, and successful printing organizations are always looking for new ways to drive efficiency, productivity and better serve their customers. Let Ricoh help you streamline your print production and operations for improved customer service, profitability, and better business agility. Find out more about Ricoh’s Avanti Slingshot print MIS software and start optimizing your print production workflow today!