A few weeks ago, there was an inquiry on the social question and answer site Quora asking about companies that offer on-demand printing and mailing services with an application programming interface, or API. As my first foray into Quora, I provided an answer that listed some of the available options I could think of, noting that the options I listed could be considered print production “platforms”.
Platforms are typically synonymous with software; the Windows or Mac operating systems would be considered platforms that provide source code, interfaces, and other tools to help people and companies develop on top of that platform. By providing a platform with tools that ensure consistent presentation and execution, it encourages developers to utilize that platform to build their own custom programs on top of it. This platform concept has been extrapolated in recent years to apply to broader types of applications, such as print production, which leverages a combination of software and hardware as a base to create entirely new applications.
The print-on-demand model, which leverages digital printing, Web enablement, and automation, has been utilized most effectively as a platform for print production. The whole idea behind creating a “platform” for print production is to standardize the way that jobs are submitted, processed, produced, and distributed to customers or recipients. Multiple third-party/external entities without their own print production capabilities can easily build their own print-centric applications on top of that platform.
Jobs submitted from those external entities then flow into the platform provider’s production workflow, often aggregating jobs with similar attributes to optimize production efficiencies. Most platform-based workflows support a touchless workflow at least until the job hits the finishing process; even then, inline finishing can automate the workflow to an even greater extent.
So what’s the “secret sauce” of providing a platform? Indeed there is some customization in many platforms that enables a seamless workflow, but they all operate on the premise of standardizing submission, processing, production, and fulfillment processes.
- Web-based job ticketing specifications that third-party entities need to adhere to can standardize the information about a job that is submitted into a workflow.
- The processing step leverages that job information and prepares the job for production, including and prepress processes that need to be applied to the job, as well as any aggregation/collection of like jobs from multiple sources to optimize production.
- In print production, many platform providers have production “lines” or “cells” that are dedicated to specific processes or application. For example, there may be cells dedicated for postcards, while other cells are dedicated to printing the bodies of photobooks. If multiple pieces are required to fulfill a job, as in the case of many books, the bodies and covers are often barcoded and brought together in the finishing process.
- These finishing processes are closely aligned with each application cell to further optimize efficiency. Going back to the previous example, soft-cover perfect binding may be placed at the end of a book production cell, while guillotine cutters may be more likely placed at the end of a postcard cell. Finished goods are matched with orders to be fulfilled to the appropriate recipients.
Print production platforms manifest themselves in a number of different ways. As I mentioned in my Quora answer, Mimeo.com offers its MimeoConnect program, which allows third-party developers to tap into a variety of functions that Mimeo has to offer, from direct integration with its print production capabilities to leveraging some of the job configuration software that the company uses in its own service. For instance, social document sharing and publishing community Scribd.com leverages Mimeo’s platform to allow customers to order printed versions of documents hosted on Scribd.
Other platforms work in similar ways, but require contracts, volume guarantees, or other metrics with the platform provider to ensure that the right efficiencies can be achieved for both parties. This type of model is often utilized for on-demand book providers. Lulu.com’s relationship with ColorCentric Corporation or Amazon.com’s relationship with Lightning Source are prime examples. Some providers don’t necessarily consider their offerings as “platforms”, but have built their business and production systems in a way that provide them with a very standardized back-end workflow that can be highly customized to each customers’ needs.
While offering an actual platform as described may not suit every company, it’s an important trend in print-on-demand, especially when considering the underlying concepts of workflow standardization and automation. Standardizing on submission, processing, production, and fulfillment should be a focus for any printer that’s trying to remain competitive. Focusing a standardization effort around specific applications like books or Web-enabled job submissions are ways to start the journey of obtaining an optimized workflow, as well as a way to more easily find repeatable business without having to reinvent the wheel each time.