Automation: The Strategic Plan

By Pat McGrew / Published:

Ryan McAbee, Pixel Dot Consulting

This article is part of a series, check out the entire series here.

In today’s dynamic printing industry, automation stands as a cornerstone and catalyst for organizational growth. Without it print businesses cannot manage customer expectations, production turnaround times, labor challenges, and all the other constraints inherent in a small-batch custom manufacturing environment. Yet, automation is not a single out-of-the-box widget or panacea to remedy the many challenges in your print organization. It is only one pillar to support the vision for where the company needs to go and to help execute the plan to realize that vision.

The Path from Vision to Reality

Vision is the story of where you want the business to be or the long-term desired outcome. The strategy includes the direction and the many steps required to get there. Someone who likes to travel might have a vision to visit all the countries in Asia. To make the vision of traveling to 48 countries a reality, there are many steps to take At a minimum, the plan would include:

  • Which countries to visit?
  • What order to visit?
  • What time of year to visit?
  • Who is going?
  • Logistics: How to get there? Where to stay? What to do and see?
  • Resource allocation: How much will it cost? How will you pay for it?

There are tools and strategies for executing the plan. There are online groups and software to fast-track trip planning, track flight costs, and identify travel requirements for each destination. One strategy may be collecting and using points and miles to book the flights. Another is to travel in the off or shoulder seasons to save on travel costs. There are many strategies –  the key is finding the one that works best for the objective and gets you closer to realizing the original vision.

Now, apply this to automation for print production. The vision should explicitly define the desired outcome. Look at the metrics you use, but don’t stop there. Think about the potential of reducing mail sorting time by 50%, increasing the speed from job queue release to the first printed page, or eliminating touchpoints in your prepress workflow. The candidates are every process that your assessments have shown use more time than they should!

Let’s take the processes that accept inbound print files and prepare them for print. Before you can automate, you must understand each handoff and touchpoint, even those that may already be automated. Identify the steps and the people involved to help define your strategy:

  • What are the touchpoints and handoffs?
  • How many files arrive with missing elements or unprintable graphics?
  • How many loops does a file take through the handoffs?
  • How many mistakes are made during a month that cause rework after print?
  • Logistics: What are the current tools, and how are they integrated?
  • Resource allocation: How many people touch a file during its journey?

Answering these questions is essential to developing a viable automation strategy. Your strategy must have goals and metrics to define success, too.

Market the Mission Internally and Externally

Any project involving automation includes optimizing processes to save time and costs. Otherwise, the status quo would be good enough. These processes will most certainly impact internal staff but may also involve external clients and partners. Instead of data points and talks of efficiency, reframe the narrative as a story full of benefits for people and processes.

Employees want to know how the change will positively impact them. Will it remove everyday pain points, lessen their workload, or make the job less stressful? The same goes for customers and partners. Will it result in a faster turnaround, better pricing, the ability to manage orders online, or the implementation of an  online dashboard for auditing? Remove any assumptions and biases upfront through clear communication or risk confusion that later derails the project.

Gather or Hire the A-Team

Automation projects require the involvement of your best caliber people — the informed, the dedicated, and the advocates. Key to the entire process is the leader of the project. One might assume the best leaders for automation projects are the most qualified internal staff from the IT department. While their technical expertise will be needed, the best project lead understands the project’s business objective and, ideally, has a personal upside to seeing its completion. For automation projects, this is typically someone in production operations, like the director of operations, shop floor supervisor, or similar.

Also, consider the internally available skillsets and employee bandwidth. Sometimes, the technical expertise is missing internally. Other times, the key personnel are already overwhelmed with their daily assignments and other projects to be pulled into another direction. Outsourcing to a trusted third party or existing vendor partner might be the best path in both instances.

Set the Schedule to Succeed

The size, scale, and complexity of the automation project dictate the schedule. The schedule is best set using the minimum number of meetings to move the project to the next milestone. The touchpoints only exist to answer the question: what next action is required to move the project forward? The number of milestones should be no more than necessary to get to a minimal viable product (MVP) that can be tested, used, and quickly improved when needed.

Since automation almost always requires the integration of multiple systems and data sets, the schedule must include time to set up and configure testing environments with a complete set of testing protocols. There is simply too much risk in making changes to live production systems.

Measurable Metrics and Moving Forward

How will you know when the automation project worked? Circle back to the original vision and ask if the goal was accomplished. For the traveler, it would be after the 48th country visited. For your automation project, it will be when file acquisition, preflighting, correction, and readiness for print are automated in a seamless workflow with minimal touchpoints. Even when the goal is accomplished and the measurable metric verified, the project is incomplete.

There is still work to document the technical requirements and create standard operating procedures for any impacted staff. These form the basis for internal staff, and possibly external clients and partners, to see how the result benefits them and learn how to take full advantage of the automated solution.

Come back next time for a step-by-step plan that you can follow! Questions? Hit us up.

About the Author

Pat McGrew


Pat is a well-known evangelist for inkjet productivity. At McGrew Group, she uses her decades technical and marketing experience to lead the industry toward optimized business processes and production workflows. She has helped companies to define their five-year plans, audited workflow processes, and developed sales team interventions and education programs. Pat is the Co-Author of 8 industry books, editor of A Guide to the Electronic Document Body of Knowledge, and a regular contributor to Inkjet Insight and

Leave a Comment