Never, Ever, Say ASAP to a Printer.

Planning Print JObs

Here we are at the beginning of a new year, so it’s a great time to talk about planning. Whether you are a person who likes to plan in advance, or hates to plan in advance, there is no downside to advance planning for print jobs. And, lucky for you, the printer actually does all the planning, you only need to get a file due date from your printer and work backwards from there to your final approval date from your client (or boss).

To be clear, in what follows below, one day means one working day. Depending on your printer’s schedule, a work day might only be weekdays, or it could include weekends too if the print shop is running six or seven days a week. If your printer says 7 day turnaround does he mean Monday to Monday or Monday to Wednesday? Right. You don’t know unless you ask.

And NEVER, EVER tell your printer ASAP when they ask when you need it. Your rep has no idea what ASAP means. When a  job hits production with no due date, that means as soon as “possible” and if there are a week of emergencies with due dates in front of your job… you guessed it. The unscheduled job sits. And sits. I have seen it happen too many times to count. A good rep will pin you down and ask you what you mean by ASAP, five days? ten days? Everyone has a different definition. A great rep will never create an expectation they cannot meet, because the difference between expectation and reality is stress.

Having said that, sometimes it is helpful to have a ballpark production schedule before you agree to take on a project. If there isn’t enough time, do you want to work day and night on your end to meet a file deadline? Is overtime in the budget? Will your client cooperate with copy and internal approvals? Exactly. Now you know where I am going with this.

Timing/Schedule

When you are planning a print job, the following schedule will work 99% of the time in a commercial sheet-fed environment. (Web printing can have a different schedule depending on run length.) I put this together to simplify a “ballpark” schedule. There are instances where this schedule doesn’t exactly fit, and I will explain some of those in a minute. Just bear in mind that the scenarios here will not fit 100% of print jobs.

Exceptions to these timelines occur when running jobs on web presses. Depending on run length and paper availability, you might need to book your press time a month in advance. You also may be able to have much of the finishing done in-line on a web press which will save you time on the back end.

Let’s take these points one-by-one:

File to Printer & final specs, due date & delivery address
If you get all the information to the printer on day one, your job will be far better off than if you piece-meal the information. For example: if you send the file to the printer and say that you will get back to them with final ink choices after the marketing boss/client/decision-maker gets back from lunch and chooses a palette, and you think something is going to happen on your job in the interim… nope. Not happening. Don’t assume that because you can design a file in one palette and switch it out in a minute in InDesign that your printer can do the same. Because they can’t. Don’t assume that your printer has some kind of  MIS system that allows them to input your spot colors in Sales and that it updates a job ticket and alerts prepress. Because they don’t. It’s hard to remember that print is really and truly a custom manufacturing project but it is. And what that means is nothing happens until all the info has been captured. The number one problem with incomplete information is delivery addresses. Everyone thinks that it happens last so it can get to the printer last. In some companies shipping labels are printed at the time of order entry. And if that is the case with your vendor, the order needs to wait in shipping and return to order entry for shipping labels and then turnaround and go back to shipping. You get my drift.

Proof Received, okayed and returned to printer
Each type of proof takes a different amount of time. A PDF proof is quickest and the least accurate for things like color. A folding blueline takes a little more time and contract proofs with folding bluelines take even more time. Add on getting proofs to you and then for you to get them to client and then getting them back to the printer and you can see how one day can turn into a week. Be proactive and find out who will okay proofs and that person’s availability when the proofs are ready. Are you and the client on two different sides of town? Plan ahead to meet at the printer or have the proofs shipped to you and you take them to the client. Working this out in advance can really be a big time-saver when the deadline is tight and there is no room for error. Don’t expect your printer to take three days out of their schedule if the client is on vacation and the proofs sit on a desk for three days. The other thing to remember with proofing is know what you are proofing. All specifics like names and addresses and websites and etc. should have been proofed at the copy stage. Final proofing may be for color, pagination, die-cutting, or other bindery operation. And if you know your client/department/boss always makes changes and requires another round of proofs, tell your printer so that this is built into the schedule.

Simple Trimming , Bindery, Folding
Believe it or not, some times we have to wait for the ink to dry before we can cut your job. If it is printing on coated paper, it’s likely going through an infra-red (IR) drying unit and will emerge ready to cut. But if it is an uncoated sheet with a lot of ink on it, like solid coverage, there might be drying time involved before the job can be trimmed or bound. Most printers have a folder set-up for letter folding or a simple right angle. Complicated folding like a pharmacy fold or map fold takes longer to set up. Ditto for cutting. If you need a diagonal corner for example, that takes longer to set up, cannot be programmed into a cutter (yes, cutters are programmable, it’s super-cool!) and because it becomes a manual set-up and run operation it takes longer.

Finishing – Foil, Emboss, Perfect Bind, Spot UV
Some bindery operations are more complicated and that’s why they take more time. Take foil stamping and embossing for instance; these techniques require a die, which needs to be made and proofed. Sometimes this take the same amount of time as the printing, sometimes it takes longer. Your printer’s production department has this planned out to the day, and sometimes the hour, and that is where your print rep is getting the schedule, straight from production. Trust your rep and don’t try to push for a different schedule. Also, plan on adding extra time for each finishing operation that happens. They often have to run in sequence, not simultaneously so each process can add another five days to the schedule.

Case-binding
Case-binding takes much longer than perfect binding or stitching and there aren’t as many binderies that perform case binding. It’s a good possibility that your print job may even be going out-of-state for this finishing. Schedules that run a month or more out are not uncommon. Patience grasshopper!

Paper Scheduling
Depending on if your job is going to print sheet-fed or web, paper may take from one day to five weeks to arrive at the printer. Sometimes, the sheet-fed paper you specified is not locally available and needs to be ordered from the paper mill. In this case, it might take up to seven days for the paper to arrive, depending on which part of the country you are in. Most paper mills are in the Midwest, Wisconsin area. In California, it typically takes seven days to receive a mill order starting on Thursday—the day the paper merchant needs to get his paper order to the mill to make the truck that is leaving Friday. That means you have to let your printer know by noon on Wednesday. If your job is running on a web press expect it to take anywhere from one to five weeks for paper to arrive. Give your printer time to do the job right, give your paper merchant time to do the job right, and you will eliminate a great deal of stress and expense. In the best case scenario, you will know about a mill order’s paper situation when you are given the estimate. That way, you can order the paper on day one, give the printer the file on day two, the printer gives you a proof on day four, and then it’s just a couple more days before the paper arrives. By then, dies (if necessary) are made, and everything is ready to go. If the paper is in stock at the local merchant, it will be at the printer the next day. If the paper is at a local mill warehouse, it takes two to three days to get to the printer. Some terminology know-how is helpful when talking about paper availability. Local merchant means the paper is at the local merchant’s warehouse. Local Mill means the paper is at the paper mill’s local warehouse which may be in another part of your state. Mill warehouse means the paper is located at the paper mill and mill order means the mill needs to make the paper for your order. Winter storms affect trucking schedules. Be smart and add extra time to critical projects after snow is on the ground.

Dummies
As soon as you have narrowed down or decided on your choice of paper, order dummies. Even if it is a simple project, ordering dummies is an excellent habit to get into.

Drawdowns
As soon as you have decided on your final paper, order drawdowns if you are printing spot or a solid color, it may take a few days to receive them. If you want to see type or screens on your drawdown, mention that when you request the drawdown. (Screened drawdowns are very rough and not very accurate.)

Proofs
If you know your client is going to make revisions to the proof, build that into the schedule. Tell your printer upfront how many rounds of proofs you think the job will take. Be clear about whether the subsequent rounds of proofs will be PDFs only or blueline or contract color. You can adjust the proofing workflow to work best for your client. Your printer can start out with bluelines because your client will be making adjustments to color necessitating a contract proof
 at the end. Remember that proofs are an expense, and they can add up, especially for large projects that include numerous pages or require complex hand cutting. Do not expect your printer to “throw in an extra proof.” It’s a hard cost item, and he will not appreciate the hit to his bottom line.

Press Check
When you give your printer the estimate specs, let her know if you are going to need a press check. Unless you are printing highly unusual art with a special technique, you do not need to be at a press check. If your client requires it, find out if she wants you to watch out for something specific.

One final word about scheduling and your print rep. Sometimes Printer A will tell you a job takes 15 days and Printer B will tell you it takes 10. Sometimes someone is not telling the truth and is already planning on calling you with some bad news in a few days about how there is going to be a delay. In my experience, that doesn’t happen very often. Why? Because good printers stay in business and good reps stay in the business. A good rep is a rep that tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. And sometimes Printer B can do it faster, because of better equipment or more shifts, or more flexible plant scheduling or they really want your business and are willing to work overtime to get it. Only you, the savvy designer and print buyer will know the truth, caveat emptor!

Do you have a story about a scheduling nightmare? I’d love to hear it, comment or contact me, we all learn from all the printing stories out there!

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