PlanetPress and the Great Manufacturing Process Improvement

Guest Post by Mike Diarmid from Diarmid Lucey

PlanetPress: I’ve got a million stories about it.

Well okay, probably only several dozen, actually, and many of them are of the standard “PlanetPress takes ugly mainframe output and makes it look good and be really useful” variety.  Or perhaps the “PlanetPress takes database information and generates lucrative customized mailings” tale that we all know so well.  Maybe I will burden you with some of these yarns one of these days.  You have been warned.

But I want to start with what might be my most unusual story.  You might call it PlanetPress and the Great Manufacturing Process Improvement, and the story is out of the ordinary because we normally think of PlanetPress as a print stream handler that comes into play for sales and marketing tasks (personalized mailings), administrative tasks (management report distribution), financial tasks (billing) and the like.  It usually hovers around the manufacturing process but rarely—in my experience, at least—impacts it directly.

The scenario

Except this once.  Let me set the scene: the client was a company that takes the crayon drawings of elementary school children and transfers them to a variety of durable products such as plastic plates, coffee mugs, ceramic tiles, pot holders, kitchen towels, key fobs, etc. etc. as well as to paper products like calendars, note pads, letterheads and the like.  The company received orders from schools, and each order contained anywhere from 20 to 150 8½x11 sheets of paper with crayon or watercolor drawings on them, and attached to each drawing was a company order form specifying which products and how many of each were desired, e.g.: 2 coffee mugs, 1 set of two pot holders, 4 calendars, or perhaps 2 plates, 2 tiles, 1 note pad.

The production process to manage all these products was, to understate the matter, barely controlled chaos.  Each individual product required that a copy of the child’s original drawing be reproduced in a different size—big for the calendar, small for the note pads—and sometimes in a mirror-image format, as for instance for the coffee mugs for which a dye-sublimation printed output was heat transferred to the white ceramic surface.

The Production process

To achieve this, the client company had a large number of digital color copiers/printers which each had sophisticated integrated scanning capability, plus a bank of standalone scanners to feed the dye-sublimation devices which lacked built-in imaging capability.  Each copier/printer or scanner was manned by a worker specially trained to produce one, and only one, end product.  The original “artworks,” with order forms attached, were physically passed from station to station, where they were repeatedly scanned to the appropriate sizes and passed further along once the individual station’s part of the order had been produced.

Where the flaw lies

You can at once see the potential for problems in such a process.  A piece of artwork and its order form could become separated.  A production station could be accidentally skipped.  The original artworks could be damaged or degraded in the repeated scanning steps.  The process flow had to be reversed and repeated whenever an output product proved imperfect. (Not all products were turned out immediately, before the artwork/order forms had passed on to another step.)

Moreover the operators for each scanning station were “specialists” in their particular product, were not readily interchangeable, and being specialists could and did demand specialist level pay.  Finally, reorders and supplemental orders involved reacquiring the original artwork—which had been filed away if it had not been returned to the originating school—and routing it through the whole byzantine system once again.

A quick consideration of the situation shows clearly that the basic “problem” was the need to scan the artwork multiple times to multiple different sizes.  And a basic understanding of PlanetPress reveals that PlanetPress can take a stored image and render it as an Image Object in any document at any required size and orientation.

The obvious answer

The solution was of course obvious: have each piece of artwork scanned one time, then stored on a central server, and called as a variable image in PlanetPress forms/intelligent documents designed for each ultimate product.  Combine this with an easily programmed Visual Basic mini-application which consolidated the order data for each piece of artwork (e.g., two mugs, no plates, six notepads, etc.) and output a print job embodying that information.  Then feed the print job to a PlanetPress Watch/Workflow Tool queue which would parse the order information and route print jobs for each product to the connected printer(s) set up for them and, presto!, there you have the PlanetPress Suite used as manufacturing control software.

The client was ecstatic.  Yes, they had to purchase the PlanetPress software and printer licenses, and yes, they had to invest in reliable, redundant servers with high storage capacity, but the gains far, far outweighed the one-time costs.


    • – And finally, the consolidated order print job could be stored in a text file as an order record.
      • – Artwork needed to be scanned only one time, and that scan could be careful and high resolution/high quality.
      • – Nothing had to be passed station to station.
      • – Nothing was lost, and no products were inadvertently skipped.
      • – “Specialist” printer operators could be replaced by less highly trained staff.
      • – Artwork was electronically stored for easy access for reorders or reprints of damaged product.

      Not at all the usual job for PlanetPress, but one that shows the marvelous power and flexibility of one great piece of software!