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FAQ & Tips - No More Guessing in Print Estimates

No More Guessing in Print Estimates

By: Bob Hall

 

Back in the days before estimating software became affordable and prevalent in our industry, I heard a story about a quick printer who was constantly being bugged by customers about how he arrived at his prices. Truth be told, he was ball-parking most of his estimates off the top of his head. In any case, he decided to put his computer at the front counter with the monitor on a swivel stand. He then created a template with basic job data fields. When a customer came in with a job, he would enter the job basics, pull a price out of the air, type it in, and spin the computer screen to face the customer. "That's what the computer says it will cost." He didn't g phed into multi-featured management information systems. And while some of these programs are clearly more popular than others in our industry segment, most have at least some penetration into our market. Our coverage, including a product roundup, concentrates on those systems for shops of all sizes. Omitted are those designed mostly for larger commercial printing operations, including various offerings from major vendors such as Kodak's recently introduced Enterprise Management Solution (EMS) and Heidelberg's updated Prinect, etc.

While print estimating is not rocket science, it isn't grade school math either. The subject is taught in printing educational programs at both the high school and, especially, the college level. Phil Ruggles, a professor at California Polytechnic College, has written on the subject for many years. His book "Costing Methods for Digital & Traditional Graphic Imaging" is in its fourth edition and "examines the scope and function of printing estimating and shows how to estimate, cost, and price today's printing technology." The book is available through PIA/GATF for $95 for non-members and $80 for members. Perhaps more accessible if less detailed is "Print Estimating Primer" by Don Merit, also available from PIA/GATF ($30/$20). Of particular interest is the section Estimating Software: A Buyer's Checklist.

The first computerized estimating systems started surfacing in the mid 1980s at the same time desktop publishing and personal computers were finding a place in quick printshops. The software emerged from different sources. For example, SoftUSE's Printer's Plan grew out of an internal software package developed by Sir Speedy shop owners Ugur and Tulin Edev. Power Quote evolved in a commercial printing environment. Printer's Plus was developed by Compuwear Corporation.

At the very least, estimating software will eliminate simple mathematical errors in pricing and billing. That alone can save a shop a lot of money. From those basics, pretty much the sky is the limit. Most vendors' offerings are modular with available add-ons to the basic packages. Depending on the product, the basic package could include estimating, sales entry, work orders, job scheduling, job tracking, work in shop, production reports, invoicing, accounts receivable, stocks and prices, quote letters, etc. Add-on modules might include such things as accounts payable, general ledger, purchase orders, check writing, accounting software connectivity, Internet connectivity, advanced analysis tools, Web-based ordering, etc.

Basically, these systems automate many of the tasks printers perform every day. They allow for consistent pricing, capture customer and job information, provide management information to allow for better decision making, and ensure that everyone in the shop is using the same procedures. That's a heck of a lot better than an owner running around trying to track jobs, manually estimate costs, write invoices, determine costs, schedule delivery, and keep track of customer histories all by himself.

But while there are obvious advantages to management software, there are also a few things that can keep a printer from adopting this automation. While the software itself is usually relatively easy to install, getting it up and running calls for some front-end effort that can be daunting to some. It takes time to enter data such as paper costs, budget hourly rates, etc. It also takes time to re-check the prices and fine tune the process. According to QP columnist John Giles, "Some printers are shocked when they compare their current selling prices to the prices recommended by a management system." Usually that surprise is that they have been under-pricing jobs.

"A printing management system gives you the cold, hard facts about what your costs really are and how much you have to charge to make a profit," says Giles.

It is a certainty that the vast majority of people who use computers in their work or personal lives take advantage of only a small number of the features their software packages provide. Face it, you fire up a program, get it to do what you bought it for in the first place, and let every other feature sit idle unless and until you need it. The same holds true with estimating and management software.

"Most printers don't even begin to use the full power of their programs," says Giles in a previous issue of QP. "All the systems provide special reports for tracking work. Most include 'tickler' sales programs to remind a printer when to contact a customer for a reorder. A user can look at data in a hundred different ways. Most are using their systems for estimating, pricing, and invoicing. Advanced features such as bar coding and Web support are too often overlooked."

Giles is not the only one who thinks printers don't take advantage of all the features of their estimating/management software. Virtually all of the vendors in this area that I have talked with on the subject say that often users of their products fail to take full advantage of many of the features they have paid for. With these packages costing a couple of thousand dollars, that seems a waste.

et many pricing questions after that, but I doubt if he's still in business.

Meanwhile, many of the estimating software packages used by quick and small commercial printers have morphed into multi-featured management information systems. And while some of these programs are clearly more popular than others in our industry segment, most have at least some penetration into our market. Our coverage, including a product roundup, concentrates on those systems for shops of all sizes. Omitted are those designed mostly for larger commercial printing operations, including various offerings from major vendors such as Kodak's recently introduced Enterprise Management Solution (EMS) and Heidelberg's updated Prinect, etc.

While print estimating is not rocket science, it isn't grade school math either. The subject is taught in printing educational programs at both the high school and, especially, the college level. Phil Ruggles, a professor at California Polytechnic College, has written on the subject for many years. His book "Costing Methods for Digital & Traditional Graphic Imaging" is in its fourth edition and "examines the scope and function of printing estimating and shows how to estimate, cost, and price today's printing technology." The book is available through PIA/GATF for $95 for non-members and $80 for members. Perhaps more accessible if less detailed is "Print Estimating Primer" by Don Merit, also available from PIA/GATF ($30/$20). Of particular interest is the section Estimating Software: A Buyer's Checklist.

The first computerized estimating systems started surfacing in the mid 1980s at the same time desktop publishing and personal computers were finding a place in quick printshops. The software emerged from different sources. For example, SoftUSE's Printer's Plan grew out of an internal software package developed by Sir Speedy shop owners Ugur and Tulin Edev. Power Quote evolved in a commercial printing environment. Printer's Plus was developed by Compuwear Corporation.

At the very least, estimating software will eliminate simple mathematical errors in pricing and billing. That alone can save a shop a lot of money. From those basics, pretty much the sky is the limit. Most vendors' offerings are modular with available add-ons to the basic packages. Depending on the product, the basic package could include estimating, sales entry, work orders, job scheduling, job tracking, work in shop, production reports, invoicing, accounts receivable, stocks and prices, quote letters, etc. Add-on modules might include such things as accounts payable, general ledger, purchase orders, check writing, accounting software connectivity, Internet connectivity, advanced analysis tools, Web-based ordering, etc.

Basically, these systems automate many of the tasks printers perform every day. They allow for consistent pricing, capture customer and job information, provide management information to allow for better decision making, and ensure that everyone in the shop is using the same procedures. That's a heck of a lot better than an owner running around trying to track jobs, manually estimate costs, write invoices, determine costs, schedule delivery, and keep track of customer histories all by himself.

But while there are obvious advantages to management software, there are also a few things that can keep a printer from adopting this automation. While the software itself is usually relatively easy to install, getting it up and running calls for some front-end effort that can be daunting to some. It takes time to enter data such as paper costs, budget hourly rates, etc. It also takes time to re-check the prices and fine tune the process. According to QP columnist John Giles, "Some printers are shocked when they compare their current selling prices to the prices recommended by a management system." Usually that surprise is that they have been under-pricing jobs.

"A printing management system gives you the cold, hard facts about what your costs really are and how much you have to charge to make a profit," says Giles.

It is a certainty that the vast majority of people who use computers in their work or personal lives take advantage of only a small number of the features their software packages provide. Face it, you fire up a program, get it to do what you bought it for in the first place, and let every other feature sit idle unless and until you need it. The same holds true with estimating and management software.

"Most printers don't even begin to use the full power of their programs," says Giles in a previous issue of QP. "All the systems provide special reports for tracking work. Most include 'tickler' sales programs to remind a printer when to contact a customer for a reorder. A user can look at data in a hundred different ways. Most are using their systems for estimating, pricing, and invoicing. Advanced features such as bar coding and Web support are too often overlooked."

Giles is not the only one who thinks printers don't take advantage of all the features of their estimating/management software. Virtually all of the vendors in this area that I have talked with on the subject say that often users of their products fail to take full advantage of many of the features they have paid for. With these packages costing a couple of thousand dollars, that seems a waste.