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Scratching The Surface Part 1 - Streamline The Office

Remember when you where a kid and your mother told you to share your toys! In business it’s not that much different and the best solution is through a network.

By Daniel A. Keegan

What have we learned about the sign industry? First of all, on the average three out of four projects will be classified as a “rush job”. Secondly, the sign industry is changing on a daily basis. The sign business has taken on a new meaning with the advancements made in digital printing. Chances are that if you are not offering digital printing services at this point in time, you are seriously considering it for the future of your business.

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  • If you haven't noticed, more and more people are turning to the sign shops for their signs and printing needs. They are in search of that "one stop shop" that can fulfill virtually all their needs for a reasonable price. Most of the time these people are not looking for the large runs of a finished product. A couple of signs here, a couple of P.O.P. displays there and throw in a poster or two.

    Not so long ago, you may the seen digital print shops popping up left and right. They were classified as a "service bureau" and listed as such in the yellow pages, which at the time was an advantage for the sign shop and probably still is. Even though the general public is becoming more educated in the world of digital output, they still turn to the SIGNS section of the yellow pages for help. A sign shop is a "service bureau" and if you offer digital printing services along with the standard items, chances are that you will get the job.

    What this all boils down to is that people procrastinate and the burden of getting the job done on time is left up to you. You are the only one that can make a judgement call as to whether or not it can be finished in the allotted time frame. What we do know is that the customer wants the rush job at the normal price or you won't get it. How streamlined your office environment is can dictate whether or not it's even possible. No, this does not mean how clean it is, how much work space that is available or the fact that you might have an assembly line type setup. Another term for this is called "office automation".

    Sounds expensive! Not really. Office automation is a benefit to both large and small companies alike. In simple terms, you are attempting to streamline your work flow and production from point "A" to point "B" with the least amount of effort and the potential to share data/information. The easiest way to do this is through a network or LAN (Local Area Network). There are two responses to this: (1) You already have one setup, but are you using it to the full potential, or (2) You don't have one setup, but do you understand the benefits to why you should have one? What you may not have realized is that your computers operating system (Windows for Workgroups 3.11, Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows 2000, Windows NT and the MAC OS) has built in networking capabilities in it already. Just throw a network card in each computer system, connect a few cables to a hub, activate the network utilities in your operating system and you have a simple network up and running. A little easier said than done! It may take a little reading or some outside help, but it can be well worth the investment.

    What about the cost? It's probably less than what you think. A good network card (3COM or Intel) will run about $50 each, an 8 to 10 port 10/100 (autoswitch) hub (you only need one, but always get more ports than you need for the future) around $200 and if you use pre-made cables (Level 5e) for your project, a 100' cable is in the neighborhood of $60 each. Many of the newer computer systems already have network cards built into them and you may not realize it, always check first before you purchase one. Let's assume that the average small sign shop has three computer systems. So, you would be looking at a cost of around $530 (3 network cards = $150, 1 hub = $200, 3 network cables = $180). To bring in outside help (a consultant) may add another $200 to $500. This is a very basic network setup, also known as a "Peer to Peer Network", in which there is no SERVER involved.

    Why would you even want to consider a network? Well, lets think about this. Are all of your computers in one central location to where you do not need to move around to get to them? Probably not! Can all of the staff access the Point of Purchase (POS) or Accounting software at the same time to work up an invoice, estimate or work order? Do you have to wait in line to do these things? Can you perform a backup of all systems from one computer? Can you transfer or retrieve a file from one computer to another without interrupting the production of a job? Do you have a desktop printer connected to each computer system? Do you have Internet capabilities? Can everyone access the internet at the same time? Are you considering going to DSL, ISDN or a T1 connection? This is where a network would be a great asset. There are dozens of questions that could be asked, but this should be enough to get the gears turning. A simple network setup could resolve these problems. It may take some research or a phone call, but knowing whether or not your POS or accounting software is multi-user capable might be the top priority.

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    In actuality, a network can also save some money too! Time is money, so if you can shave a few minutes off here and there throughout the can make more money. There can be a significant cost savings in hardware too. Shared devices can make up for the cost of the network. Instead of needing to purchase three desktop printers, now you only need one shared printer. Instead of having to purchase multiple devices (ZIP drives, tape backup system, DVD or CD reader/writer, etc.) for each computer system, you might be able to narrow it down to one. Design software on the other hand is a different story. Most are not multi-user capable and a separate copy per system is required if you intend to have more than one design station.

    So how does the "Peer to Peer" network work? As an example, lets assume that you have three separate workstations. Computer "A" is located at the front counter which contains the POS or accounting software and has a printer attached to it. Computer "B" is a design station that is connected to a vinyl cutter. Computer "C" has some design capabilities, but mainly used for word processing and the internet. As stand alone systems, computers "B" and "C" cannot create estimates or invoices, plus have their own printers. Computers "A" and "B" cannot surf the web or check the email. The only way for computer "C" to copy downloaded (emailed) files to computer "B" is by copying the files to a disk and loading the file(s) into computer "B". Here's where a simple network can be a great asset. By "sharing" each computers hard drive or certain directories/folders and the printers connected to those computers, a user can access files, software and printers from any station. That means computers "B" and "C" could create estimates or invoices. Computer "B" can access those emailed files from computer "C" without using a floppy disk for the transfer. All three computers can print to the same desktop printer.

    Note: (1) to share software, it must be multi-user ready. (2) You may have to install a copy of the shared software in each system. (3) To share a printer, you will need to install the drivers on each system. A little homework is required!

    If you want all three systems to surf the net, then you must have broadband (Cable, DSL, ISDN or a T1) setup. The way these work is through the network connection in the networked computer. A network router is added to the network or may be included in some network hubs to connect to your broadband connection, which is actually called a WAN (Wide Area Network) connection. In this example, the HUB/network router is like a traffic controller and tells the signals where to go. Now that the internet connection is routed through your hub, any computer system on your network can potentially surf the web. Your internet service provider can direct you how to configure each system for internet access.

    What about throwing a Macintosh computer into the mix? Yes! It can be done! There are programs available that can allow a MAC to connect to a "Peer to Peer" type network. This type of network however is not ideally suited for mixing operating systems such as MAC and PC. One drawback to this type of network is that as others are accessing the hard drive or printing, you may experience a hesitation in that computer as you are using it. Much will depend upon the horsepower in that system and you may not notice it at all.

    A SERVER based network...

    A "SERVER" based system is very similar to the above "Peer to Peer" with one exception. Now you have a centralized data system. It is a separate computer system that will probably be running the Windows NT 4 Server software or Windows 2000 Server software. The server is not used as a workstation, it basically sits there as a means of sharing data, printers and other devices in one central location. It really does not just sit there, because it is constantly working. The server software is very unique in itself. Picture having the ability to have any type of operating system or computer, including MAC or Unix based system, sharing data in one location. As far as printing goes, you can have one...two...or even more attached to the server that everyone has access to in one location.

    To attempt to simplify the advantages of a server imagine the following:

    1. The POS or accounting programs, if multi-user capable, can be installed on the server to allow everyone to access it. Programs like QuickBooks Pro have this capability. Although multiple licenses will probably be required.
    2. Your design and/or jobs directory can be located in one central location that can easily be accessed.
    3. If you have clip art libraries, font libraries, logo libraries or vehicle template libraries that others need access to can be all loaded onto the servers hard drive for everyone in the shop to use. Just make sure the server has a big enough hard drive first!
    4. No workstation hesitation due to someone accessing the hard drive or printing to your printer.
    5. The ability to backup data from one location versus several! It is better to have a backup device located in a workstation that can backup data from the server.
    6. Any operating system (Windows for Workgroups 3.11 thru Windows XP, MAC OS 7 thru MAC OS 10, UNIX, DOS and even other network operating systems such as Novell) can connect to the server with ease. Yes, it can get a little tricky at times, but it can be done!

    Keep in mind that in years past, people were trying to run all of their software from a server on top of storing their data files on it. This would bring the speed to its knees. Later, they learned that by installing the program on a workstation and the data files on the server, that the speeds were dramatically increased while still being able to share the data. Think of the server as your central library. All of the information is stored in one location.

    What about the added cost? Yes! It will cost more. On average, a five (5) user version of the server software will cost between $1000.00 to $1200.00 not including the computer system. What if you have more than five workstations? Not to worry! What they mean by a "5-User license" is that if you had NO operating system on a computer, that you can have 5 installs of the network server software which is actually a workstation version. Legally, when you purchased your computer with the Windows OS (3.11, 95, 98, NT, ME or 2000), it has its own license (MAC included). So, if you had 20 Windows 98 computer systems you can connect them to the 5-User NT or 2000 server software. Ever wonder what to do with that old computer system that just got put into the closet because a new workstation replaced it? Turn it into a data server! You may need to install more memory or add a second hard drive, but chances are it's still usable. If you are not running software from it, a 200 MHZ or greater computer work fine and you just saved a wad of cash. When you feel that the old system is too slow or appears to be fading away, this is when it's time to consider something new. As far as the internet connection goes, it's the same as explained above in the Peer to Peer.

    An advantage to a network is that the location of each computer system does not matter. They can be next to each other, in different rooms or clear across the building. You can start small with a simple "Peer to Peer" and add in a server down the road as you need it. A network is a useful tool to add to your collection and once you have one, you'll wonder why you didn't have one before.

    Don't be afraid to experiment a little on your own. The more that you understand about your own networking needs, and the advantages to your shop, greatly be to your advantage. It means that you will need less outside help and there are plenty of good books available that can help. A word of advice is to sketch up a simple floor plan of where you want to place your computers and equipment. Then make notes as to what you want each system to do. Seek an outside source that has experience with your type of operation that you feel comfortable with and have them provide a quote to perform the work. If you feel that the price is reasonable and you are ready for the change, then go for it! If you want to try it yourself, remember to always have an outside resource to fall back on.

    This article discusses the standard office benefits of a network, which is only the beginning. Future articles to include "Part 2 - The network and vinyl cutting" and "Part 3 - The network and digital printing".

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