Nishikawa printing plant
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Apogee Cloud at the Nishikawa Group

Apogee Cloud: Moving the commercial printing workflow into the cloud at the Nishikawa Group, Japan

The workflow system with the RIP server that prepares files for printing holds a dominant position in the prepress department. It requires resources to upgrade it every time a new OS version is released and involves ongoing electrical and maintenance costs, while being operated under the constant risk of damage due to (power) failure. Seeking to relieve printing companies of this massive concern, Agfa-Gevaert Japan, Ltd. began offering Apogee Cloud, a service that moves workflow software into the cloud. The Nishikawa Group was the first company in Japan to adopt this cloud-based workflow in May 2016.

Katsuhiro Okamoto, director of Agfa-Gevaert Japan's Marketing Department, spoke to Seiichi Nishikawa, president. He first asked for a short introduction of the Nishikawa Group.

Seiichi Nishikawa, president of the Nishikawa Group: “Our business group is in its 66th year, and I became president in 2001. My business vision is for us to transition from the printing business to the information processing business. The intent is to expand the non-printing business interfaces while still maintaining and valuing our core printing business. The goal is to create a new business category of information processing services.

We're working not only on this new category. Printed materials represent about 80% of our group's sales. and we focus on strengthening our traditional printing business, by introducing the 625mm cut-off offset press and post-processing equipment, building a new plant, and facing new challenges while making large capital investments.

In terms of business outside of our traditional model, for printing, we're concentrating on new services such as developing digital printing, variable printing and utilizing 3D printing. In addition to that, we're currently in the midst of developing web-related businesses that are highly compatible with printing, such as creating and operating local community sites, developing our own company's media similar to a free paper on the web, and encouraging communication with the local community.”

Okamoto: In Japan you were the first user of the Apogee PDF workflow system and your company was the leader in adopting this advanced cloud technology. What kind of problems were you facing in your prepress workflow when you did that?

Nishikawa: There weren't any issues with the prepress workflow itself. The biggest point in our decision to adopt Apogee was the capability of PDF-based operations.

In our business group, production and creation, printing and manufacturing and business are divided over separate locations. Having people move between those locations took a long time. At the time, the web and the communications infrastructure weren't fully developed; I knew that a workflow system based on smaller "data light" PDFs had been developed, and that distant problems could be resolved if this system was effectively utilized. Apogee was the best known native PDF workflow system. The believe that PDF-based workflow systems would become the future standard was the number one reason for adopting Apogee.

After that, both the communications infrastructure and ease of use of PDF improved, and because we adopted Apogee early, we were able to ride the wave of workflow facilitation.

Okamoto: Mr. Nishikawa, in the past you have said that adopting the Apogee PDF workflow system was an inevitable step. You have also said that adopting Apogee Cloud was a no-brainer, but what exactly did you feel were the advantages?

Nishikawa: Cloud technology is being utilized quite naturally all over the world, but I thought that it would still take a while before there was a solution for the printing industry that would use the cloud. And then Apogee Cloud, which has a very easy-to-understand name, was being developed, and there was no reason not to try it out; in other words, we were certainly going to test it.

Okamoto: Was this a smooth transition?

Nishikawa: To be honest, during these tests, I really haven't been aware of any problems that we've faced with the workflow itself. That's because up until now, there hasn't been anything that uses cloud technology for RIP or other purposes. As a result, I had never before considered that the investment costs for the management, maintenance, and regular upgrade of the current RIP server were a waste.

But when this new technology appeared, I realized that something I thought was totally normal was actually a huge waste. The functionality can now be expanded without buying a extra server, and in addition to reducing the capital cost for regular hardware upgrades, the management costs for installation space, electricity, human resource costs, backup and security systems don’t exist anymore. In addtion to that, there's no longer any risk of power outages or other disasters. Also, excessive investment in information security is no longer necessary, and even in case of bad luck in our own premises, the customer data is still safe. This is incredibly important in terms of business continuity.

Thanks to the proposal from Agfa-Gevaert Japan, we've been given the valuable ability to adopt cloud technology early. Adopting this technological innovation in our company brings new perspectives and we've been able to uncover elements of waste, improvement, and reform.

Okamoto: At your company, you were running RIP servers in 3 locations: Nishikawa Headquarters (Higashiyamato City, Tokyo), as well as the Sasai Plant (Sayama City, Saitama) and Hidaka Plant (Hidaka City, Saitama) of Nishikawa Printing. So the document data was saved on the servers at each location. By using cloud technology, centralized management became possible. Tell us more about that.

Nishikawa: We started test operations of Apogee Cloud in May of last year. When we first started the testing, I was worried and I wondered if we would be able to maintain the same processing speed and whether the work would flow as smoothly as it had. But when we actually started out the trial, there were absolutely no operational problems. There may be some variation on how fast or slow it is depending on the data size, but overall, there has been no change in the processing speed compared to our previous RIP server.

Because we were able to confirm that the work flows without issue, we made the decision to officially adopt Apogee Cloud starting in May of this year. In addition, since we tried using Apogee Cloud, not only has the workflow RIP moved to the cloud and have our servers disappeared, but we've also had suggestions for reviewing personnel assignments and roles, and suggestions for streamlining the production plants.

In this industry, it is now assumed that efforts are being made to ensure high quality and a solid delivery system next to all cost reductions. So it is difficult to stand out as a company today. In the meanwhile all possibilities to reduce costs by streamlining and labor reduction in the production site have disappeared. However when we tried using Apogee Cloud, people initiated were assigned a different approach, including efforts to cross-train workers. Up until recently, it was OK to simply do the job you were assigned to. Now we've entered an age where workers will be given a variety of roles, and as their skills and value change, so will the appreciation. I was very happy when the staff were mentioning these kinds of ideas. I don't know if Apogee Cloud was the sole reason behind this, but it was definitely one of the major opportunities for it.

Okamoto: What kind of changes in personnel assignments and roles and connections to cross-training have occurred through the use of Apogee Cloud?

Nishikawa: The biggest change that we're aiming for with the introduction of Apogee Cloud is printing plate output that is fully automatic. There are currently CtP units in two locations, the Sasai Plant and the Hidaka Plant. Each plant had a printing plate output department as part of the operations office. There was a production management department at both plants as well. Now, the production management department has been integrated at the Sasai Plant, with output at the Hidaka Plant controlled from the Sasai Plant.

This means the operations office for the plate output department has been integrated with the production management department, so the operations office has disappeared as a department. This was possible thanks to the adoption of the Azura chemistry-free CtP plates: these plates are chemistry-free hence a lot of processing variables were eliminated. With Apogee Cloud, everything up to the output command is handled by the production management department. So the only element in plate making that requires manpower is the supply of plates. A specialized department isn't required just to take care of that.

Furthermore, our plants operate 24 hours a day, but the staff in the production management department only worked during the day. So, receipt and processing of documents at night was handled by the operations office staff who also output the printing plates. In the future, the production management department will switch to a 24-hour system. By doing this, the good effects will also affect the business operations staff.

Furthermore, I think that in the future we would like to use Apogee Cloud to have more of the front-line staff take care of the RIP and pagination work that was handled by the printing plate output department. For the document data that we have created in-house, I think that we should create a system where staff manage everything from pagination and RIP processing up to printing plate output.

Okamoto: By having staff in the creative department at Nishikawa Headquarters handle the RIP processing data that was formerly processed at each location, not only is the data now managed centrally, but the data sent to each plant is even paginated.

Nishikawa: Now that the processing speed has been confirmed, we want to set up the workflow so that the data is sent to the printer just in time, so that it doesn't cause changes to allocate it. Despite the fact that the plants are in distant locations, we have been able to take these advanced steps and cross-train the colleagues, with a positive effect.

Okamoto: I think that full automation of manufacturing is an important issue that should be tackled because it can eliminate waste and non-uniformity. I'd like to hear about your thoughts on that and what your efforts in that area are.

Nishikawa: Around the world, there's a lot of interest in Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things (IoT). It might seem like a topic that has no connection to us, but if companies in all kinds of fields are changing, printing companies can't remain the same. The working population of Japan is decreasing, so for companies to grow in that environment, the sales per worker must increase. In order for that to happen, I think that the new IoT technology is essential. Moving to the cloud is one of the transitions to IoT that printing companies can do.

Okamoto: By using Apogee Cloud, you're aiming to streamline the business and cross-train workers, which will result in increased productivity for each worker. Using Apogee Cloud, different kinds of automation are proceeding, and there is definitely a trend that highly specialized skills will no longer be necessary as we move forward.

For our company, we are planning to continue improving the level of Apogee Cloud and further automate, including security and centralized management. First, we're looking at a metered charge system and enabling the ability to respond flexibly to the amount of disc space used for both peak and off-peak periods. We're also considering working together with outsourcing partner companies to enable those partner companies to handle the RIP processing. 

Seiichi Nishikawa
Seiichi Nishikawa, President - Nishikawa Group

About Nishikawa

Founded in 1948 to manufacture and sell paper envelopes and wrapping paper, the Nishikawa Group has now grown into a business group of four companies, with Nishikawa Ltd. (Headquarters: Higashiyamato City, Tokyo; President: Seiichi Nishikawa), which primarily carries out planning and production work for commercial printed materials for all kinds of information media, at its core. This is supplemented by Nishikawa Printing Co., Ltd., which focuses on printing and finishing for commercial printed goods, NEXMEDIA Co., Ltd., which develops a variety of new businesses such as support for the local revitalization of Tama Ward in Tokyo, website management and 3D printing, and GAO-COMPANY Inc., which specializes in the creation of 3D computer graphics. In terms of printing facilities, Nishikawa has six 546mm cut-off sixteen page web 4/4 colour offset press units, one 625mm cut-off sixteen page web 4/4 colour offset press unit, a colour POD unit, a large size inkjet printer, as well as 3D printers.

ECO3 Apogee Cloud social

The story behind Apogee Cloud – Katsuhiro Okamoto

When ECO3 was developing Apogee Cloud, the goal was not to change the current operations environment but to negate the investment costs of managing, maintaining and regularly upgrading a workflow server.

Simply making minor improvements to a product's current functionality doesn’t lead to wide-scale innovation. The origin of the development was thinking about what would be good from the standpoint of a printing company and realizing that, by moving workflow or RIPs to the cloud, we could provide support for user innovation and offer big benefits.

The main issue to tackle is processing speed. If customers are no longer able to do what they formerly could due to moving the RIP from the server to the cloud, it would invalidate the significance and effect of providing Apogee Cloud. The ability to operate in exactly the same way as before, even when transferred to the cloud, was the minimum requirement when we were developing Apogee Cloud. However, we heard the results of the tests and we feel confident about the product.