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Thursday, July 29, 2010

"Industrial Color" - Changing color with data

So if I have a high speed inkjet or other manufacturing device what is going to characterize the work.

(My comments here are for a "typcialy" situation and certainly don't all apply in all cases.)
  • Each produced piece is unique (or part of a unique group) and has associated metadata associated with it.
  • High speed - A thousand feet per minute or roughly two 8.5" x 11" full color duplex items per foot.
  • Time critical - The work is contractually bound to be completed within a short period of time.
  • Tight economic constraints -  The pricing of the contract typically spans months or years and relies on tight cost control over every element, i.e., not too much waste, etc.
  • Manufacturing intensive - This involves many additional steps before and after the print or imaging function.  
  • Modest color accuracy - These items, while involving a full spectrum of color, are operational items that have some physical use, e.g., an ID card, a mailing statement, etc. and, as such, color, while important, isn't the primary function of the item.  Accuracy within about 5% typically is acceptable.
  • Require co-mingling - The manufacturing process only works in an economic sense if the items are manufactured in a group - but items in the group may have separate, incompatible color requirements.
  • Low-skill operators - Manufacturing succeeds only if the personnel costs are kept low so the manufacturing process has to be easy for unskilled workers to master.
  •  Primarily "Hands Off" - The manufacturing process is highly automated - the operators are controlling the machines.

While at first glance this may appear to be your typical VDP-type workflow it really is not.  There are several reasons for this.

Industrial color work involves an industrial manufacturing environment.  Typically the manufacturing process has a dedicated manufacturing line.  The cost of this line to a large degree dictate the type of work and the general amount of flexibility available to add new work.  As in any other manufacturing scenario the cost of the line is typically high and the price that can be charged per piece low; implying a high volume is required to make money.

Color, just like any data processing aspects, has to be handled by unskilled labor.  I can't have a long row of color specialists working on parts of a 100K PDF in order to get it out by noon.

In a typical print environment this is accomplished with a press - I make artwork, plates, etc. once and print many (maybe millions) of identical pieces.

Inkjets change this game.  As costs drop an inkjet replaces the printing press.  No plates are required and I can print the same number of pieces at a slightly higher cost but I can make them unique.  So what was once black print on pre-printed shells becomes full color direct printing with no shells.

Given all this there is really a fork in the road.  Down one fork, from a business perspective, one could continue to think about all this as an extension of the typical VDP workflow - just more pages, more paper, and so forth.

The smarter approach is think of this as something different:
  • Each piece to produce is unique and can have unique requirements.
  • A set of these pieces fit into a manufacturing group.
  • The big win is to manufacture the pieces as efficiently as possible.
This doesn't really sound all that new or interesting, does it?  Well, at least it doesn't if you don't think it through.  And, in fact, it really isn't if you think that about color as being "the same" throughout this process, i.e., like a mailing job on pre-printed paper.

But that thinking is very limited.  The only reason to think that way is that is how things have been done in the past - after all all the logos are the same on that big roll of pre-printed paper.

To us "Industrial Color" is the ability to change the color aspects of each piece being manufactured just like (and just as easily as) we change the data aspects, e.g., a mailing address.

For example, let's say I get 100K pieces a day from a customer for mailing.  These are full color but there are 10 lots of sub-work (different logos, etc.) all with distinct color issues (lot #1 is over all too green, lot #2 is fine except for a bad RGB maroon in a logo, etc.).  Worse, all of these pieces need to be comingled for mailing. What do I do?

If you're into traditional VDP-type workflows you probably turn the work away because there are too many color problems to fix on too many pieces and there aren't any tools that can handle the workload. (Industrial customers don't want to hear that the 100K page file they just gave you has bad color - they don't care - it has to be printed.)

This is where Lexigraph's new tools and our "industrial color" technology changes the game - we allow color to be as flexibly changed and altered as data - both in terms of speed and automation.  Now our problems with this hypothetical job go away.  We figure out which documents need color changes, we add these changes to our mail-processing server, and we run the file through.

After all, color is a data aspect of the document just like the name of the addressee.

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