Getting sophisticated signage to the store shelf requires a lot of digital heavy lifting. At Vestcom International, raw product data sent by major retailers and brand manufacturers must be scrubbed, organized, converted to PostScript files, and sorted by variables such as tag type and store location before being transmitted to 10 company production facilities around the country for printing and shipping to the customer. In the past, six or seven employees worked nearly full-time manually launching and directing these processes according to hundreds of business rules. Then Vestcom put the entire series of tasks on auto-pilot with Automate. This massive reduction in manual intervention led to major efficiency gains, a 97 percent reduction in error rates, and the ability to respond to rapid business growth without having to proportionally grow data center staff. And the cost was thousands of dollars less than hiring a programmer to write code.
Vestcom produces customized shelf-edge marketing solutions ranging from basic pricing labels to integrated price/promotion communications for many of the country's leading supermarket chains, grocery wholesalers, drug stores and mass merchants. The Little Rock, Arkansas-based company generates millions of shelf-edge labels, strips, “talkers” and other items every week, combining color graphics, text and product images to help retailers drive sales.
Customers requiring a new batch of labels or other shelf signage transmit product information such as UPC number, item description, and pricing to Vestcom via FTP, secure FTP, VPN, or email. Vestcom must then transfer the data to a production server, invoke two internally built GUI-driven production applications to cleanse and transform it into print-ready files, intervene at strategic points to apply customer-specific business rules, and send the cleansed PostScript files to the appropriate Vestcom print center to fulfill the order.
"The nature of our business is that it's highly labor-intensive. Given our transaction volumes, preparing customer data for printing required 150 to 200 hours of pointing and clicking per week when we were handling it manually, and the time commitment was increasing because of our business growth," said Ron Evans, Vestcom's director of data center operations. "We needed to automate our processes to keep our labor costs under control, minimize the potential for human error, and ensure we meet our customers' expectations. Customer satisfaction is our #1 goal."
The Solution: GUI Automation
Rejecting coding or scripting because of the expense as well as the overhead involved in maintaining code, Evans began hunting for a business process automation software platform that could remove the print preparation burden. Most of the products he evaluated were job schedulers that could execute batch processes, but lacked the GUI automation and business logic abilities necessary to perform Vestcom's complex job setup electronically.
Automate had all three capabilities, including the power to move from screen to screen and choose from various radio buttons and drop-down menus in Vestcom's applications to enforce customers' business rules. That would make it possible to move and rename files, take different actions on different days, follow instructions not to print a given label if there is no UPC code match, and so on—all by simulating manual keystrokes and mouse clicks.
Evans downloaded a trial version of Automate, used the program's drag-and-drop task builder to compile a few test automation sequences in a matter of hours, and concluded that the software had both the functionality and ease of use he was looking for. He and a colleague then began compiling automation routines using Automate's pre-programmed actions and graphical workflow designer, ultimately automating more than 300 different processes tailored to each account's requirements.
Today, Automate polls Vestcom servers for new customer files every few minutes and shepherds them through the entire cleansing, reformatting, and redistribution routine without manual intervention. As a result, Vestcom has not only reclaimed work hours equivalent to four or five full-time employees but also eliminated the need to increase data center headcount to accommodate company growth. "Without Automate," Evans noted, "we would have had to add one person for each of our three shifts."
The automation strategy has also slashed data processing errors to the near-zero level and enabled Vestcom to speed print preparation duties by running multiple processes and jobs simultaneously. This in turn supports the company's need to meet tight turnaround times that may see customer data come in at 8 p.m. for printing and packaging by 10 a.m. the next day.
In addition, Evans is continually adding new tasks to Automate's workload, using it for everything from archiving data and FTPing files to pushing text files required to keep Vestcom's production applications up to date. "We're still creating new tasks and finding other uses for Automate almost every week," Evans said.
In other words, Automate is not only speeding the process of making Vestcom's customer jobs fit to print, but also supporting a variety of other business processes that are fit to automate—all without paying a programmer to make it happen. And you can print that.