Friday 26 December 2008

Christmas cheer or another cock-up?

(Cock-up is not as rude as it sounds: from letterpress printing when type was “cocked up”. It was obviously an expensive mistake, unless timely spotted by an eagle-eyed operator.)

But enough of the education. I don’t know what your Christmas lunchtime was like. It’s a very stressful period in our house. “Will those men be back from the pub for 3.00pm?” worry the womenfolk. (Years ago it used to be 2pm, but times change.) “The parsnips are drying out fast”, or words to that effect. “Can we squeeze in another half (hrmm)?” from the opposite sex – a good ten minute walk away at five to three.

A little while later, the confrontation. That’s when the timing of the good ladies reveals itself. The Royle Family yesterday revealed what the good cheer (and plenty of it) will do to offset turkey still undercooked (pop bits in the microwave); gravy cold and difficult to pour; potatoes like crisps; and the afore-mentioned parsnips needing only a match to start a house fire.

Oddly, in my old printing company and I suspect many others, when there was little work and the minders had time on their hands, there were more cock-ups than usual. So there has to be a balance. People need to be relaxed (not too relaxed) with enough time to do the job properly – not feeling under pressure. And maybe a brief rest after to savour their achievement (Not too long, though. Sometimes I wildly mused that the alcohol would be better used in the minders than in the damping.)

Knowing what’s needed in the job and planning its production to a deadline is vital. It does please the consumers when the job is both good and on time. It’s also good to minimise waste. Take the Christmas dinner. We don’t all want turkey for five days (days 4 and 5 in various curried formats) or bubble and squeak for breakfast ad infinitum. Actually I don’t mind the last one.
So your New Year’s resolution should be to organise the ingredients (costing), sort out the cooking timings (kitchen production planning) and work to a practical deadline (schedule for pub opening hours).

Compliments of the Season and I wish you all a very prosperous New Year! (If I could only remember where I hid the port, I could enjoy the last of the stilton.)


Thursday 11 December 2008

Strictly Come Printing

There has always been competition. You may remember the historic Judgement of Paris. There, on Mount Olympus, the hapless judge (Paris the handsome) was choosing the most beautiful between Hera, Aphrodite and Athena. The prize, apart from the title, was a golden apple. Paris was to get his consultancy fee in kind. These beauties, if the statues are anything to go by, were more scantily clad than Rachel in ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

That’s pre-empted my other competitive example. As my wife is fanatical about the BBC’s “Strictly”, I have been sucked (if that’s the right word) into avidly following the lunges, lifts and fleckles of the gyrating contestants. The rules of the competition have been explained succinctly by the ‘retiring’ John Sergeant, as simply the gaining of judges’ points (for dancing skill) and public votes (for popular appeal) being equally important.

Now here’s where my printing brain kicked in (before you ask where this was all leading). Particularly in hard times, many printers scramble to get in work (popular appeal) – but at any cost. I know it looks good to have a fat order book. But aren’t they forgetting the judicial discipline (commercial skill)? If dancing was your profession you’d have to earn enough to live and put a bit aside for new frocks (or whatever your chosen costume may be).

Sure, you can do the odd bit of ‘charitable’ work (Charitable: Full of love and good will; benevolent; kind). But there is a limit, even at Christmas. Unfortunately, the bullet has to be bitten. Printers, to survive, must work out what their real costs are and price their jobs accordingly. Of course there are the idiots who will price jobs ridiculously to try and ruin the market for everyone else. But if you can display your skills and show confidence in your products, your customers will not desert you on a price whim. And that confidence is stronger when you know what services you can genuinely afford to offer to the market. (By the way, the Printpak free download might give you a clue to some of this.)

So the moral is ‘By all means come printing, but be a bit stricter on your commercials.’ I feel a spiritual moment coming on, so I’ll sign off and pour myself a large whisky. To misquote the perpetual Bruce Forsyth, “Keep prrrrinting!”


Thursday 27 November 2008

Shortness of time

I think it's Parkinson's second law that states that 'work expands to meet the time available to it'. And it's certainly time that gives printers most of their problems.

There's never time to consider the estimate properly, or look at the alternatives. No time allowed to check the copy or repro thoroughly. The minder never has the time to read the jobsheet carefully (that's what he says, anyway).

And customers think the presses run at warp factor nine, and expect deadlines to stay the same despite the last-minute changes they chuck in the way. Never mind the courier who has a different time on his watch from everybody else!

Older printers will remember that when faxes came in they were thunderstruck. It meant they couldn't just post off the proof and have a two or three day breathing space until the next stage. But now it's far worse. The customer thinks he's done all the hard work, and that all the printer has to do is press a magic button and the precious source file gets miraculously corrected where necessary and transformed into neatly packed boxes of perfectly printed copies.

So don't print buyers appreciate the effort that printers make? Well, they do if it's pointed out to them. Printers usually try hard to sell the service angle and not just the print, but it's a struggle. And it's always time that does for you. That prestige job that has to be 'just so' is always the one with the silly delivery time, and of course makes a mockery of your original costings.

Let's hope that Printpak saves you time in estimating and invoicing (and protects you from underpricing, miscalculating and missing opportunities).

Anyway now its time to pack up my computer, and spend a little quality time with my family before it's bed time.



Wednesday 19 November 2008


Last weekend I was at an international print trade fair, and being outside my usual environment I was able to inspect a few rival print MIS products without fear of recognition. Most of our rivals are extremely reluctant to show us their products, so I have to resort to subterfuge for this kind of thing. (If any are reading this, please feel free to download and inspect our system.)

Anyway, what I noticed principally was the apparent extreme complexity of what I saw. Screen after complicated screen - they seemed to be enormous and comprehensive systems - very appropriate for such expensive products, and judging from the prices, evidently aimed at large print companies.

But thinking further about it I came to an altogether different conclusion. Large print companies often do large jobs but fewer jobs, unlike the smaller jobbing printer who tends to do more jobs but with a lower average value. It follows that the administrative headache is actually rather worse for the smaller printer than for the larger.

So one perfectly logical business strategy is to write a simple system, aimed at larger companies, because their requirements are less demanding, and charge more. Larger companies can afford it, but to justify the expense the program has to be made to look both powerful and complex. When, er, it isn't.

But a really useful program would actually have to be powerful, more efficient, more simple to use, and priced so even the smaller company could afford it.

So lets get this paradox straight. The expensive product seems more complex but doesn't need to be that great, but the inexpensive one needs to be very powerful but seem very simple. The word that comes to mind is 'sprezzatura'. This Renaissance Italian term means doing something very difficult while pretending it's actually easy. Like someone juggling while riding a mono-cycle, or maybe a pianist continuing to play the most amazing jazz while talking to the audience.

Sprezzatura is what Printpak does. I've only just realized it. We know that our estimating tools are second to none, and whenever we put in something really useful, someone always says 'that looks too complex - how can we make it look simpler' or even 'how can we hide it'. We've always had to do that because the product has always had to sell itself, without expensive salesmen on the road, and without lengthy on-site configuration. We have to make it seem easy. But when you stop to think whats actually happening inside, it's a lot more powerful than the expensive systems.

So that's my word for the week. Sprezzatura.



Wednesday 12 November 2008

Printpak Users

I'm away from my desk this week, training the support staff on the up-coming update, which will include purchase orders, job costing and stock control. Staying in a hotel gives you a lot of time for contemplation, and I've been thinking about Printpak's loyal customers.

A couple of our established users have kindly agreed to guinea pig the new release for us, and I was reflecting how the relationship between software house and customer is a two-way affair. In the printing industry there is so much that is non-obvious to outsiders, and so many idiosyncrasies that we depend on our users for feedback almost as much as they depend on us for the programs.

Some of our users have been with us for over fifteen years now, and I like to think our software has grown with them. And although the Kords are now mostly retired and the new digital presses have swept in to take over the short-run market, many of the essential processes are virtually unchanged. We still design an image, transfer it to paper, and then fold, stitch and trim it. The basic core processes of Printpak still preserve the original logic from all those years ago, which I guess is the sign that we got it right in the first place.

So to get back to the subject of our users, I've come to realize that in the same way that their requirements and problems fill our lives, our software permeates their lives in a way I don't think we always appreciate. Its only when you go on-site to a large installation and see Printpak on every desk in the office that this really comes home.

What we write, they use daily, and that heavy responsibility is really what makes this job so worth while.

But enough schmaltz.

Before I finish, I came across this cartoon of the 'Anatomy of the Printer'. If I'm infringing somebody's copyright, please let me know, but it seemed too good not to share. I haven't been able to identify the artist so if anyone can tell me I would be grateful.


Thursday 6 November 2008

An Industry First

Well - its been a long time in the making, but I think we're about to score a Print MIS industry first.

We've now fixed November 28th as the official launch date, but pretty much everything is in place now for the first FREE fully featured Print MIS. This should finally mean that the estimated 50 percent or so of printers who don't currently have an MIS has no excuse to remain ignorant about whether they are covering their costs.

This industry is known for its suicidal undercutting. That normally gets even worse in a recession. Now maybe there's a way out. All it takes is for printers to work out the real cost of doing each job - including an allowance for indirect costs, and then to dig their heels in and refuse to budge lower than that figure. Sounds simple, but you'd never believe the reasons for not doing it!

"If we included all the costs we'd never get the job" (no comment)

"If we're working all round the clock we must be doing something right" (then where is your enormous expected profit?)

"It's a sprat to catch a mackerel" (but it's interesting to see that the customer who stitches you up for a small job will fillet you even more efficiently for the larger ones!)

"But we've already covered our costs this month" (so why give it all away?)

So thats it. If independent print companies are to survive, they have to keep an eye on their profits. There's really no excuse any more. Not when there's a free MIS available.