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Getting Up to Speed with Job Management Software for Large-Format Graphics Production

Companies that specialize in large-format graphics have long used job-management software to stay profitable. But developing a job-management system that can support a 'full-service' printing business is not always that easy.

By Eileen Fritsch

Many companies that specialize in large-format graphics have an entrepreneurial culture because they helped build a whole new branch of printing from scratch.

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  • In theory, a printing business with the right mix of analog and digital printing equipment could produce the full range of collateral and graphics used in brand marketing. But doing it efficiently and profitably will require job-management software that can track labor, materials and equipment costs, production and finishing requirements, and delivery data for the full range of print jobs.

    On paper, this concept sounds logical. But of course it is not that simple - primarily because large-format graphics production involves so much more than putting ink on paper. Retail, point-of-purchase (POP), event and vehicle graphics use dozens of materials other than paper. In addition to the printed substrate, graphic producers have to take into consideration the cost, durability and compatibility of laminating films, backing films and mounting materials. Each graphic must be engineered to withstand the specific display conditions to which it will be exposed.

    And, in the large-format graphics realm, printing and finishing may only represent a fraction of what is required to complete the job. Producing and mailing brochures and catalogs is entirely different than producing and hanging a variety of banners and displays at big events such as the Super Bowl. Finishing a large-format graphics job can include shipping kits of POP displays to multiple sites, arranging for cranes and crews to hang massive outdoor banners, or coordinating the installation of vehicle wraps or wall coverings.

    So developing a job-management system that can support a "full-service" printing business is not always that easy. It is one thing if the printing operation (such as an in-plant or quick-print shop) only wants to offer a limited selection of posters or banners, along with documents. But developing job-management software that can handle all of the print collateral and display graphics used in brand marketing is a much different story.

    The Large-Format Business Cultures
    Many large-format graphics producers already use some form of job-management software - partly because of the nature of their business, and partly because they tend to be early adopters of production technologies.

    Many of the companies that specialize in large-format graphics have an entrepreneurial culture because they helped build a whole new branch of printing from scratch. They took risks on unproven equipment, and spent countless hours educating potential customers about what was possible with large-format graphics.

    Some commercial offset printing companies have seemed slow and reluctant to embrace change. Lithographers are accustomed to buying equipment that will last 10 years or more. The expected life of large-format graphics equipment is three to five years.

    Today, getting orders to print 300 displays is a sign of growth and progress to a large-format graphics firm that started out printing multiple one-offs. A lithographer may regard a 300-piece run as just part of the depressing overall trend toward smaller print runs. This difference in perspective matters because it explains why large-format graphics producers offer extra value-added services to keep clients who place "larger" orders. As a result, many of these types of jobs are not awarded solely on the basis of who can provide a rock-bottom price.

    Experience with Job-Management Software
    We asked several large-format graphics producers about their experiences using job-management software, and what changes they might like to see in future versions. Everyone seems to agree that, while no system in perfect, they cannot imagine running their business without it.

    They recognize that developing a single, do-it-all program for all forms of digital print production is difficult, partly because producing large-format graphics is all about customization.

    As Lynn Krinsky of Stella Color explains, "Everything we do in wide-format is custom - and it gets more custom every day."

    Large-format graphics producers have grown their companies by (1) being the first to create and offer new types of products; (2) offering services that go well beyond printing and finishing; and (3) constantly diversifying into new markets.

    It is still unrealistic to think that a single out-of-the-box software package can address every type of product or service a large-format graphics producer might ultimately choose to offer. And that is okay. Large-format graphics producers still see plenty of benefits from using the data gathered by job-management software that meets most of their needs.

    What Job-Management Software Does
    We use the term "job-management software" here because it seems more appropriate to small businesses than broader terms such as "management information systems" (MIS) or "enterprise resource planning" (ERP) software.

    Enterprise resource planning software integrates all data and processes for an organization into a unified system. ERP systems were originally designed to help large companies eliminate waste for lean manufacturing. Job-management software is a type of ERP program geared toward smaller businesses, such as sign shops and digital graphics producers who rarely produce the same job twice.

    In general, job-management software combines some or all of the following functions:

      Estimating/order entry
      Job ticketing
      Shop floor tracking/costing

    Job-management software can also include some sales-management, marketing, or financial reporting functions. But many users of job-management software choose to export the data from the job-management software into a more robust customer-relationship management (CRM) program, marketing automation software, or accounting software package such as QuickBooks.

    How Graphic Producers Use It
    Some companies that offer large-format graphics also produce other types of specialty products. For example, Visual Marking Systems in Twinsburg, Ohio uses a mix of screen and digital printing equipment to make decals, nameplates and overlays for equipment manufacturers and public transit. They also create POP displays and fleet graphics.

    The ERP system that Visual Marking Systems has used since 2004 does not come from the printing or graphics arena. Their company uses ERP software developed for all types of companies that specialize in short runs of custom products. Visual Marking Systems uses it for everything but estimating jobs.

    "We are quoting vehicle wraps, high volume decals and low-volume POP signs," explains Tim Mitchell, vice president of supply chain management. "The variability of work we estimate is a challenge, but we have customized our own process internally. We know when we see certain types of jobs (e.g. with gradients) that it will take longer to run."

    Every week they analyze the production data generated by the ERP software to identify whether problems were caused by an anomaly (an employee's bad day or a bad batch of materials) or something else that might cause problems to continue.

    Analyzing data from a lot of jobs has helped them detect waste problems caused by dust. They added curtains, and adjusted the layout of their equipment. The data has also helped them identify what type of equipment they needed to buy next.

    In addition to estimating, Mitchell would like a system that would allow online ordering - an Amazon-like shipment tracking system that keeps customers informed about when they can expect to receive the work.

    Some large-format graphics producers such as bluemedia and Stella Color use estimating/job-management software that was specifically developed to help sign shops digitally print a large variety of short-run jobs.

    Over time, this software has become more full-featured as large-format graphics producers have expanded into new markets, and begun targeting clients who could order graphics by the hundreds instead of one or two at a time.

    Bluemedia produces large-format graphics for agencies, retailers, events, restaurants, fleets, malls, media companies and sports. Of the 80 employees at bluemedia, only six are actually involved in printing. Because so much of their work now revolves around display fabrication and graphics installation, bluemedia President Jared Smith reports that only about eight percent of what they produce involves printing.

    Smith said bluemedia originally developed their own job-management software. But they soon realized that they would have to employ a tech team just to keep the software current, so, when Smith found the job-management software specifically designed for estimating large-format graphics jobs, he bought it. The software he chose is customizable, meaning that bluemedia's IT team can add new capabilities as long as they stick within certain programming parameters.

    "I don't think there is a corner of that software that we don't touch on a daily basis," said Smith. "Every person in our shop uses to it see who's up next and what's the next step."

    For example, at seven o'clock each morning, Smith gets a report delivered to his smartphone that tells him how much the company invoiced the previous day versus the amount that was forecast to be invoiced. If there is a significant gap between the forecast and actual numbers, he can focus on finding and fixing the cause of the gap.

    "Invoicing is 100 percent automated, so that when our shipping guy hands a box to FedEx, the invoice goes to the billing contact, and the clock starts ticking for them to automatically get periodic reminders."

    Clarke Systems Architectural Signage Systems Wayfinding ADA

    If he could design a "perfect" job-management software system, Smith said it would include a more robust customer-relationship management program. He acknowledges, however, that the companies that make production software might not be as good at the CRM side of it, too. Smith said, "We use third-party software for our CRM." His IT staff has figured out how to make the job-management software communicate with the CRM software so that bluemedia's best customers routinely get special offers and promotions.

    Here are just a few of the ways large-format graphics producers are using the data from job-management software:

    • To provide customers with accurate estimates. The estimates are based on the current costs of materials, including the amount of materials wasted on jobs for which the graphics do not fill the full width of the roll or sheet
    • To help advise customers of how they could save money by tweaking their designs to avoid waste and better fit their standard materials
    • To identify bottlenecks in production
    • To let customers track the progress of jobs in production
    • To ensure that every job is invoiced immediately after it ships
    • To determine which customers are most profitable to your business. With this data, you can take steps to encourage their loyalty and find more customers like them.
    • To reveal which jobs are costing you money to produce
    • To make sure everyone in the shop knows exactly what each job requires, and in what sequence the steps should be taken
    • To make sure you have enough of the right materials in stock to complete a specific job

    Complicating Factors
    In terms of pricing, large-format graphics producers have learned that it is impractical to rely totally on the accuracy of the data provided by the job-management software. Nor can you expect to automate every aspect of your large-format printing workflow. Some variables in the large-format graphics production workflow still require human judgment, guidance and resourcefulness.

    A High Number of Materials
    According to Krinsky, Stella Color has anywhere from 400 to 500 SKUs for materials in their system. If a job comes up that requires a material they have not used in a while, they have to double-check to make sure that the prices in their system are still accurate.

    The prices of materials cannot be drawn from a standardized database because high-volume users of certain vinyls may qualify for lower, direct-from-the-manufacturer prices. Shops that order smaller quantities of vinyls less frequently have a different pricing structure.

    Premium Pricing for Customization and Creativity
    Large-format graphics companies grow by continually wowing their customers with something new and different - something that they had not known was possible. Now that UV-curable inks make it easy to print on almost anything, the creative possibilities have multiplied exponentially. You can charge clients a premium for being the first (or only) to have displays created from unique materials, such as leathers and woods. Only you or your sales rep can estimate how much a particular client will value the innovation.

    Online ordering systems can confuse new customers.
    So many variables are involved in offering a wide selection of graphics products that it can be a challenge to set up an online storefront. For example, only a limited range of laminating films can be used for vehicle wraps, so the system must be engineered to take this into account.

    According to Krinsky, some buyers still confuse laminating with mounting. So customer-service reps have to carefully confirm that the customer understands what they are ordering. If your online storefront gives the user only a few choices, that is fine. But many large-format graphics producers offer a wide range of products to buyers in many different markets.

    Extensive Setup Time
    Setting up a job-management software program can be a major undertaking, partly because you have to name and enter so many different types, sizes, widths and thicknesses of materials.

    Powerful job-management software "makes you get your act together before you even implement it," said Smith. As you work through the software, you may be asked questions such as "What do you want to charge for the scrap area?" or "How much do you pay for inbound shipping for that material to come to your plant?"

    He said the process of setting up the job-management software forced him to think through every aspect of his operations.

    So once you've set up a job-management program for large-format graphics, it can be difficult to switch. Krinsky likened it to getting married and then considering a divorce: "It's disruptive and expensive to make a change." And before you make your change, you do not know for sure that the new system will really be much better than the one you have. So for better or worse, you try to work things out with your partner.

    Pricing is an art, not a science.
    Some graphics producers use the estimates provided simply as a baseline - to confirm what is possible. But there may be cases when you want to adjust the quote you give the customer. For example, you receive seemingly identical orders to wrap two trucks - one quote will be for a flower shop, and the other will be for a plumbing business. The orders may be identical in terms of specifications, but your sales staff has told you that doing the two trucks for the plumbing business might lead to an order to wrap 198 more trucks. That is not the case with the trucks for the flower shop.

    Experienced large-format graphics producers have learned that filling your pipeline with a stream of a lot of small jobs with low potential for future growth may keep your salespeople too busy to focus on building relationships with the clients that can bring you the most business.

    Words of Advice
    When successfully implemented, job- management software will be integrated into every aspect of your business. Take the time to research what you are getting, because once you get it set up, changing will be difficult.

    Look for evidence that the software developer really understands the type of graphics you will be producing most often.
    Jared Smith knew he had found the right software for large-format graphics production when it asked questions related to banner hemming and grommet spacing preferences. To get the software up and running, he did not want to have to spend a lot of time switching off a lot of functions (e.g. saddle-stitching, perfect binding) that did not relate to his business.

    Minor details that may seem insignificant to a software developer can cause costly headaches if they do not reflect the real-world customs of graphics producers. For example, the dimensions of graphics are expressed in width by height instead of height by width. If the setup for entering measurement data does not reflect user habits, it can be easy to make mistakes.

    Understand the limits.
    While job-management software can provide some consistency in establishing baseline pricing, keep in mind that winning a job will not always be about your ability to cut prices to the bone. Successful large-format graphics producers profit by finding jobs that are challenging. They remove price competition from the equation by identifying ways to help clients solve some very specific problems related to fabrication, logistics, display or installation. It is difficult to quantify this type of insight in software that focuses exclusively on streamlining and automating the manufacturing process.

    In large-format graphics production, "You can't get in the mindset that it's always the same old thing," said Krinsky. "It's never the same old thing."

    Look for good technical support.
    Firms that have developed job-management software specifically for large-format graphics understand that their customers work in a fast-moving industry. Because a large-format graphics producer's ability to grow profitably can easily be disrupted by new equipment, materials or economic conditions, they strive to develop software that is flexible enough for customers to adapt and diversify. Even so, large-format graphics producers expect to maintain a strong, ongoing relationship with the software company's tech support team.

    Whereas large-format graphics producers profit by helping individual companies solve specific challenges, software developers profit by solving problems that are shared by a broad base of customers.

    It is perfectly understandable that most print-centric software developers focused first on developing job-management software to make traditional offset and digital press printing more efficient. But if they want to expand the usefulness of those programs to encompass large-format graphics production as well, they must take a very close look at the specific requirements of graphics production. More importantly, they need to understand the entrepreneurial drive that explains why some large-format companies have been able to adapt, diversify and add equipment even during the Great Recession. Company culture matters!

    Eileen Fritsch is a freelance writer specializing in the arts, technology and the future. As a founding editor of The Big Picture magazine from 1996 to 2003, she wrote about how businesses and creative professionals could benefit from advances in digital printing and imaging technologies.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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