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The speed demons: printers who race against the clock

By Jon Severs, Monday 11 January 2016

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Ali Ridha Jaffar, sales director at Print Express (part of the Syncoms Group), does not like traffic.


His company is building a reputation for excelling at fast-turnaround print to the extent that it has attracted work from the likes of Google and the NHS, but the one aspect of the order-to-delivery process Ridha Jaffar can’t control is London’s congested thoroughfares. 

“You can never rely on the roads!” he exclaims. Not that he lets it get in the way. “We very much have the ‘get it done’ attitude,” he says. “When roads fail, we use the Tube and railway network to deliver urgent printed collateral within the specified deadline.”

Ridha Jaffar is not alone in going the extra mile to meet ever-faster turnaround times. Where once a 24-hour delivery time was deemed quick, many printers are now offering three-hour turnarounds. That’s from order placed to the client having it in their hands in just 180 minutes. 

Clearly, the need for such fast turnarounds is going to mainly be centred on a select group of products. Ridha Jaffar says it is usually business cards, leaflets and wire-bound presentations and manuals. Peter Gunning, acting chief executive at Grafenia, which also handles a lot of very quick-turnaround work, agrees. “Business cards and flyers are the most common last-minute things,” he says. 

You’d think it would also be a market only open to digital printers, but you would be wrong, says Gunning. 

“It’s all about volume,” he explains. “If you were to put a stopwatch on the end-to-end production of a single job, then no doubt digital would be quicker. But because we ‘parallel process’ up to 100 jobs simultaneously, the time per job with our automation is much lower, even with litho. We still do our same-day dispatch work on Komori B1 litho presses.”

Matthew Peacock, director at Active PPP, agrees that there is much a litho printer can do to try and compete with digital on turnaround. “They can apply the same lessons from digital; there are always opportunities to reduce lead times and streamline administration in these traditional processes, even if the process is slower because of the need to make plates.”

Gareth Roberts, managing director at litho commercial printer Bishops Printers, says it is not often they are asked for such quick turnarounds. Nevertheless, his business is tuned up to respond when they do come in. 

“Our range of equipment and the 24/7 nature of our operation does allow for great flexibility,” he says.

“We don’t get too many demands for next- or same-day deliveries, unless a client has made an oversight and is desperate for some collateral for an exhibition or business trip. We accommodate shorter lead times wherever possible.”

Speed isn’t everything

Whether it be a digital or a litho press, though, running fast turnaround work is not simply a case of working faster. 

“You’ve got to design your workflow around this being the norm,” says Gunning. “We don’t have folk with clipboards and megaphones shouting ‘Panic!’. Any same-day jobs get an automatic queue jump and all our processes prioritise the work with the shortest deadlines.”

Ridha Jaffar says this kind of automation is key, and can be crucial in serving customers when they are placing orders far outside normal working hours. “Some of our clients who belong to the financial sector will log onto SynCloud, our web-to-print platform, at midnight, requiring their presentations delivered to them by 7.30am. One of the key challenges is taking orders and processing files at unsociable hours. We’ve overcome this by automated ordering and workflows that take the files straight to the press. Through such processing, the customer is given a huge degree of control and flexibility, and ultimately, does a lot of the work too. We find customers relish such independence.”

It’s not just about automation, though, you need to have every aspect of the business tuned to sing the same fast-turnaround note, says Peacock. 

“To succeed in quick-response business, you must have a clear business strategy and marketing plan and business model centred on rapid response, short-run and variable content capability,” he says. 

“Companies must then ensure that the whole workflow, from customer enquiry, through quoting, order taking, order processing, pre-press, print, finishing, to dispatch and invoicing, is designed and operates as a unified automated process that can dispatch a job within 24 hours (or whatever target time the strategy directs). 

“In other words, see the digital press as just one component in a whole slick business system that minimises delay at every stage from enquiry to dispatch. 

“This means finishing processes should be connected to the press or at least located in work cells with the press, pack and dispatch so that they are virtually a single process. This may mean operators no longer see themselves as purely printers or finishers, but instead are multi-skilled to service the whole print, finish, pack dispatch operation.”

For PrintExpress, the fast-turnaround operation has also meant expansion internationally.

“We can print and deliver within three hours domestically,” says Ridha Jaffar. “But we are also one of the few UK print companies that have a manufacturing facility in the US. Therefore, we can print and deliver globally in as little as 24 hours. Currently, we service more than 23 countries, covering Europe, the Middle East, and North and South America.”

That may seem like a lot of work for a small amount of business, but the evidence suggest that such shifts in production and fine-tuning of systems will benefit the business, whatever the turnarounds demanded by clients – a more efficient system will mean more room on the presses to put through more work. 

And the clients demanding these turnarounds are far from few in number. In the retail sector, turnarounds have undergone a similar process of growing ever shorter, driven by consumers seeking instant gratification from online shopping. Businesses have caught the bug and are increasingly demanding a similarly instantaneous service. Those business also want to capitalise on internet trends with quick-to-market marketing solutions, and that flexibility is only possible with fast turnarounds. 

Some have also suggested that with the declining numbers of specialist print buyers, last-minute purchasing is likely to become the norm as multi-channel buyers have less understanding of the need for – and less tolerance of – longer lead times. When the speed is not there, Bishops’ Roberts says, clients can often get frustrated. 

“This year I have noticed that with the continued decline in the number of printers, when the market is seasonally busy – March and April and from the end of August through September – there is a feeling that there are far fewer options for those placing general commercial print – trade or end-user clients. 

“We have then come under real pressure to take on work to unrealistic deadlines when we are operating at full capacity. And the client becomes frustrated because there isn’t the simple option to go elsewhere, as there typically has been over the last decade. 

“Perhaps this is an interesting shift in demand and capacity balance.”

It’s important to note, if you are reading this thinking you still don’t think the hassle is worth it, that clients are very much willing to pay more for a fast service. 

“If there’s a critical event that means the customer just has to have the print there on time, then I think, like everything, people expect to pay a bit more if they’ve left it to the last minute,” says Gunning. “But if they’re paying a premium, they do expect white-glove service and reassurance that you’ll meet their deadline.” 

“Customers are willing to pay a premium for urgency,” agrees Ridha Jaffar. “We don’t compromise on customer service, and would not expect customers to either. We charge a premium, and deliver to the utmost of our abilities.”

Quality counts

Both stress that the faster turnaround does not mean a sacrifice on quality, quite the opposite. Because of the premium price, both say customers expect the very best quality. 

But what of the risk of promising too much and being thwarted by circumstances or misfortune? Perhaps the traffic is exceptionally bad, or press breaks down and the back-up option of an arrangement with another local printer fails to click into place as it should? How damaging could missing a tight deadline be?

Gunning says: “Your promise is only as good as your guarantee and what you rebate if you fail. That’s why we always give a full credit if we fail to dispatch on time – that sharpens the mind.”

With that in mind, in this high-risk, fast-turnaround world, how much faster could print get? Ridha Jaffar thinks it is about as fast as it can go already.

“I’d say at three hours, we are pretty much there,” he says. “However, one has to be practical. If deadlines are extremely tight, and a business card looks good without lamination, then this is what we would recommend to the client. But, if lamination is necessary due to colour – we’d find a way to get it done within the agreed time-scale. We will always push the boundaries and our teams are trained to do the same.”

If that is the case, and with clients getting ever more impatient, the two-hour delivery surely can’t be far away... 

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