Finishing Touch

How to streamline the post-production process.

“Once it’s been printed, it’s not the last step,” says Julia Kaufman, color production supervisor, Cushing. “There’s so much that happens after. We’re really keen on making sure – before that last step, before leaving the door – we’ve done all we can do.”

Kaufman is talking about the post-production process. While the design and printing of graphics is extremely important – this industry wouldn’t exist without it – we can’t forget about the time, people, and effort that are necessary in the final stages of production. We’re talking cutting, laminating, sewing, kitting, and more, plus ultimate approval from the client.

Kaufman began her Cushing career five years ago as a color digital/prepress operator. Her current role includes overseeing color operators and finishing operators, monitoring job statuses, setting and meeting deadlines, and getting orders out the door in a timely manner. For her clients, ranging from interior designers and architects to commercial real estate brands and higher education, this can be the most important part of the production process. That and quality control. Post finishing, her team confirms the printed graphics match those sent from the client and have the correct color resolution.

They double check that the lamination, cutting, and hardware involved are as requested. “Once that’s been confirmed, it gets the ‘ok’ and it’s ready to go,” Kaufman adds.

The team at Thysse calls it “critical party collaboration.” “Our production management, prepress, and project management teams always evaluate workload for the day and prioritizes it with pack-out and ship dates and work complexity in mind,” says Brooke Barney, director of marketing and strategy. 
Thysse is a third-generation design, printing, and manufacturing company in Oregon, Wisconsin, specializing in visual communication. The 92-employee business services national, mid-sized to large companies in the manufacturing, retail, higher education, sports facilities, restaurants, healthcare, and financial services industries with a focus on retail signage, promotional displays, environmental graphics, and tradeshow exhibits.

“We save time, labor, and materials by having the subsequent action steps in a workflow considered and planned for at the beginning of the process,” adds Scott Reed, Thysse’s large-format production manager. “How we prep files helps printing and cutting efficiencies. How we print and cut files supports finishing and packing efficiencies. Yield is the ever-important consideration, but a close second is a workflow that drives successful product finishing and limits verbal communication, which is often a poor substitute for documented details and proper planning.” 

“We plan pack-out prior to production and produce everything with that in mind. We look at the transit time from one work cell to the next,” says Emma Lyons, project manager, Thysse. “Producing via transit time helps eliminate bottlenecks as we put the priority on the stores/locations that have a longer transit time.”

Age Old Question

“Bottleneck.” It’s a word we hear often surrounding the post-production process, as printers are producing high-quality graphics at faster and faster speeds. And it’s a question Big Picture has asked readers for the last 10-plus years. But is finishing still the bottleneck?

“Yes and no,” Kaufman says. “It’s situational. Today the equipment is doing what needs to be done, but projects are becoming more expensive. Turn times are getting a little shorter and the time it takes to complete is longer because they can become complicated projects.”

It really depends on the intricacy of the project, she continues. If a client asks for wall graphics to be contour cut into shape versus printing same-size vertical panels, finishing can become the bottleneck.

“The finishing equipment available today is good, there’s just sometimes a lot of extra work that takes longer on the back end,” Kaufman says.

For the staff at Thysse, it’s all about planning ahead. “Post-production can be a significant challenge in our industry, but we have chosen to take steps recognizing the amount of time and labor it takes and plan accordingly,” says Dean Bott, general manager, Thysse. “A big part of that is staffing. Our post-production staff is skilled and trained. It’s a dedicated, permanent position that’s just as important as any other role in our organization.” 

The staff at Cushing agrees. The shop’s in-house design team consists of eight prepress operators/designers who have training on materials, the finishing process, and end products.  

“It’s been so helpful to have the people who are setting up the files know what the end result will be.”

Kaufman mentions a rigid sign outside of a business, as an example. Cushing’s team understands there will be hardware in the top corners of the sign, so they design accordingly, which removes any back and forth with the client during installation. 

When artwork comes in the door from outside sources, Kaufman doesn’t hesitate to ask questions or make suggestions. Outsourced design firms aren’t necessarily privy to asking finishing questions upfront on topics like hardware, lamination, and installation. “Many, many times we get our work from outside designers, companies with premade artwork, and we have to ask, ‘Did you think about this? How’s it going to hang?’ The artwork is just not set up that way.” 

Automation

Kaufman says there are too many things to do by hand in terms of fully automating post production. “A finishing operator has to man the laminator or cutter.” But Cushing is consistently looking to streamline the process so projects flow easily from printing to finishing. 

“We’re always trying to be as efficient as possible,” Kaufman says. The shop recently added a new MIS production workflow platform that replaced the system they had used for years. “We’re hopeful this new workflow will help us revise our workflow, tailor to the system, learn a little more about costs, and how long they take to do by timing them.” Kaufman, most importantly, is looking forward to jobs being quoted the right way the first time.

“We take advantage of automation,” says Bott. To do so accurately, Thysse has implemented automated workflows for preflighting and proofing. “The biggest impact of automation comes from imposition, where we use AI to organize and assemble the printing and cutting to properly feed the pack-out.”

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