The Bernard Group could reasonably be described as a standard-bearer for the viability of print. Anyone fearing for the future of printing trades can consider the year-on-year expansion of the organization and immediately take heart. Since it came into being in the late 1990s – the brainchild of one lone print broker in search of guaranteed, reliable quality – annual growth has averaged at 35 percent. Today the Chanhassen, Minnesota-based Group employs more than 650 people across three divisions and has a turnover of $150 million.
It is this enviable success that represents one of the most significant challenges continuously facing the company, however: How do you maintain a rapid growth trajectory without compromising quality or service along the way?
It was with this concern uppermost, that in 2016 the Bernard team decided to tackle a production issue which was becoming increasingly problematic. Despite having a sophisticated, high-end workflow system feeding the company’s vast array of digital print engines, imposition was confounding production efficiency. The process was not only labor-intensive and frequently exasperating, but also impacted the ongoing expansion across all divisions. When we first came across Tilia Labs our small-format division employed 120 people and we had a team of six full-time staff working shifts to supply imposition for our round-the-clock production output,” comments Diego Diaz, Solutions Architect for Workflow and Print Systems with the Bernard Group. “I’m pretty sure they’d all join with me in saying it was a laborious and unfulfilling activity.”
tilia Phoenix was developed to address precisely the issues faced by companies such as the Bernard Group. A sophisticated planning and imposition application for packaging, labels, commercial, and wide format, it was built from the ground up to improve production efficiencies. This is accomplished through fully automating the creation of effective, print-ready impositions across potentially millions of possibilities, enabling fast accurate estimates, reducing pre-press time, maximizing media usage, and reducing post-press complexity.
With its small format division in most pressing need, Diego Diaz and the Bernard Group’s Automation Workflow team set out in search of an imposition solution that could deliver the flexibility and power capable of managing imposition for a uniquely diverse spectrum of print jobs.
“The bulk of our orders for our small format print services come predominantly via our smartpress.com facility, which is an online print ordering portal specifically for professional designers,” explains Diaz. “The key point to understand is that we don’t do anything templated. We give designers the freedom to print any shape or format they want.” Given that this might be an imposition challenge printing even just a handful of jobs per day, with Bernard Group’s 30,000+ active online customers as well as their many large-scale corporate clients, the company had a powerful incentive to find a better solution.
When Diaz and his team stumbled upon Tilia while interrogating a new upgraded version of their Enfocus Switch workflow system, they were immediately struck by one significant difference to other solutions they had researched. While every other solution had required the company to make pre-defined templates, resulting in thousands of individual templates and “workflows like circuit diagrams”, Phoenix could create new impositions automatically with pinpoint control over the layout process.
“Most imposition systems we had looked at were entirely template based, meaning our hands were tied. We needed something that we could script and continue to scale up as we went along,” says Diaz.
Crucially, Phoenix Imposition AI takes an entirely different approach to common imposition solutions. Rather than template-based, it operates according to machine and production requirements to generate print-ready layouts on-the-fly. This approach, in tandem with Phoenix’s extensive automation API, accessible in Switch via dozens of scriptable properties, offered a very powerful proposition for Diaz and his team. The Bernard Group is able to leverage this flexibility to build Switch “flows” that dynamically adapt to the work coming in and greatly reduce overall workflow complexity. Although not template-driven, Phoenix can be directed to use templates if production calls for it, automatically choosing the correct template according to machines, product shapes, etc.
Considering Bernard Group’s rampant growth, the freedom to define their own rules and control behavior dynamically won a big thumbs-up.
“As soon as we spoke to Tilia, we realized they knew their stuff. They knew how to design and how to program,” Diaz continues. “More importantly, their willingness to listen, learn and develop the system in line with our needs far surpassed anything we had experienced before. They truly embraced stepping out of the box with us.
Those basic needs involved developing lightning-speed response times based on heuristic programming that has allowed the Bernard Group to get rid of pre-imposing altogether. The company now imposes every job on-the-fly. Changes made to artwork files outside of Phoenix are automatically detected and updated in the job, and even unanticipated changes in production capacity are easily accommodated: “If we have to take a press offline for any reason, we just spring the job ticket over to a different press and the necessary adjustments are automatically made to the imposition plan,” says Diaz. “The point is that Phoenix is genuinely cross-platform,” explains Diaz. “Every RIP manufacturer will tell you that their RIP imposition will do the job perfectly adequately, which is generally true but each is optimized to one machine only. The tilia Phoenix Configurator within Switch is more powerful than any other solution. It does what it does really, really well for large format and small format, on HP Indigo, Fuji J-Press, Vutek, and on all our presses and finishing equipment.”
Finishing is a big winner through this process, according to Diaz. Being able to send the same JDF files direct to cutting and stitching has simplified practices dramatically and had a huge impact on quality control and training time. Where previously there were several different scenarios according to whichever machine was required, now: “Cutter 1 is the same as Cutter 2 and everyone in the finishing department is operating the same tools, eliminating another complex task for someone in prepress.”
The scripting flexibility comes into its own in this respect, he says. “We’ve been able to exploit Phoenix’s excellent ability for creating marks to script complex rules that have allowed us to replace our tickets on the floor with dynamic barcodes and job routing maps integrated into our MIS. When it comes to saddlestitching, that sophistication in scripting has also allowed us to automate stitching for books even smaller than the saddlestitcher manufacturer specifies. This means we can dynamically multiple up books smaller than a 4 ½-inch (114-mm) spine to avoid costly manual imposition setup or even more costly hand-stitching.”
Optimized for both irregular shapes and square-cut work, ganging is another aspect of both small- and large-format production that has been hugely improved for The Bernard Group through tilia Phoenix, according to Diaz. “It used to be a very arduous job but with Phoenix we can analyze jobs and automatically gang according to content, color profiles and intent,” he comments. “We’re now ganging in the region of 30 percent of our jobs, which as well as being more efficient and cost-effective, increases the overall production capacity of our equipment.”
On the retail side, Phoenix’s advanced shape nesting has been of noticeable benefit. Printing millions of custom pieces and unique cutouts, often on very expensive substrates – for stickers or signage, for example – Phoenix’s ability to tightly nest the shapes dynamically, even for superwide roll-fed printers and cutters, boosts both cost-effectiveness and sustainability. As well as the printing substrate, the Phoenix-Switch combination automatically factors in the Bernard Group’s extensive library of mounting and laminating substrates when calculating imposition options for the most efficient use of materials.
Since installing tilia Phoenix, all six members of the imposition team have been reassigned new and ¬– according to Diaz – more fulfilling roles that better utilize their advanced skill sets. In addition, prepress operatives now only work day shifts; a very popular development, he adds. In fact, Diaz suggests, these changes highlight one of the overarching benefits achieved as a direct consequence of the system installation: “Phoenix has enabled us to continue to grow at our current rate without taking on new people.” This contributed to a very rapid return on the investment: “Probably within the first couple of months,” Diaz estimates.
The Bernard Group has gradually extended utilization of tilia Phoenix since installation. After specifying it for the small-format division first due to the urgent need there, the company soon realized that its strengths could be put to even greater effect in large-format. The Group is now starting implementation in planning and estimation, exploiting the system’s Open API architecture which allows easy integration. Phoenix XML and JSON reports connect the information and statistics output of Phoenix with the next steps in automated workflows, automatically updating MIS/ERP systems with production information. In the tilia Phoenix Configurator in Enfocus Switch, the XML report is embedded into each file exported from Phoenix as a dataset to greatly simplify integrations.
Asked whether any of the Bernard Group’s large corporate customers have been pleased with the results of the investment, Diaz is faintly amused: “The fact that our customers didn’t notice a thing when we changed over has to be one of the best endorsements the product could have,” he explains. “Switching involved a complete overhaul of procedure and significantly changing personnel roles but we hit every deadline and quality has been maintained throughout. Our customers were none the wiser throughout.”