Nowadays, for a printing house to be using an MIS|ERP is not a convenience but a necessity for large and medium-sized manufacturing companies, says Paulo Souto. - The impact of the pandemic is undeniable here. Our customers today say: “If we did not have an MIS system that enables remote connectivity, we would not be able to continue operating.” This statement is a good reflection of today’s reality - companies that have implemented process automation solutions adapt to changes faster.
Poligrafika: What is the impact of the pandemic when it comes to the interest in business automation solutions such as MIS? Which printing industry sectors have become more active in implementing such solutions since the outbreak of the pandemic and why?
Paulo Souto: I am impressed with the changes taking place in the printing and packaging industry. Just a few years ago, the number of processes - sales, implementation or services - that are now taking place remotely, would be out of the question. For years we have been talking about Industry 4.0 at number of seminars or congresses but the interest of companies in solutions related to this concept is in no degree proportional to the amount of time dedicated to discussing it. This is not seen as having a machine that will bring specific, expected productivity and profit levels. Just as with the cloud-based solutions - for many years there has been a great deal of distrust towards them. Today, for a printing house to be using an MIS|ERP is not a convenience but a necessity for large and medium-sized manufacturing companies. The impact of the pandemic is undeniable here. Our customers today say: “If we did not have an MIS system that enables remote connectivity, we would not be able to continue operating.” This statement is a good reflection of today’s reality - companies that have implemented process automation solutions adapt to changes faster. It is important to mention that automation or digitization is not the same as the implementation of the Industry 4.0 concept, which includes many more details. From the Industry 4.0 perspective, a fully integrated MIS system is a very simple solution, one of the many essential pieces of the puzzle. This is still a distant future in the printing and packaging industry, although label and packaging producers operating in the food supply chain are inherently more automation-oriented. With the start of the first lockdown, the production output of these companies was very intense. The market transformation is taking place before our eyes, e-commerce is achieving record increases, which is great news for the packaging industry.
What was the year of 2020 like for SISTRADE? I understand that sales have increased and the team has grown.?
P.S.: Last year, orders for our solutions increased by 60% compared to 2019. New contracts from foreign markets, which in our case means, contract from outside Portugal, increased by 140%. As a result, our implementation teams have their hands full; we hired new employees, increasing staff by 10%, and it is still not enough. We are growing globally, not only in Portugal or Europe but also in Asia; our branch in Thailand undergoes dynamic development, we have new clients in India and Bangladesh. It is a very promising market for us, holding great potential, although the projects carried out in Asia are very complex. There are many plants with management from different countries employing several thousand people, therefore, the level of process complexity is incredibly high. At the moment, we directly employ nearly 70 people worldwide, most of them work in Porto, of course. In different countries we count on the support of our partner companies that assist us in sales and implementation process of our system. Until the last year’s October our partner is Poland was Reprograf-Grafikus company, however, we decided to end this cooperation and focus on direct presence. While label and packaging producers are on the rise, commercial print companies recorded losses. Bookstores have been closed for a long time in many countries.
What kind of challenges do MIS solutions respond to and what problems do they solve?
P.S.: During the pandemic, they solve a fundamental problem for companies and that is a lack of mobility. They enable remote work with access to all information, data and transactions within the automated workflow. In short, they enable normal functioning during these unprecedented times. This is of great value for companies that are forced to send their employees to work remotely. We have clients that make production scheduling from home, this was unheard of a year ago. Even in quarantine, our clients have access to all data from production machines without the need to be present at the plant. Mobility and integration of all operational aspects of the company - management of orders, purchases, warehouse, production scheduling and accounting - is now a must. Naturally, machine operators must be physically present at the plant, so we are not saying that implementing an MIS|ERP system is equivalent to implementing Industry 4.0 but without it, we can neither think about the implementation of the latter concept nor of a smart factory. Industry 4.0 represents a kind of umbrella. We noticed that the pandemic caused our client to start using features they had never used before; they began to discover how helpful and advanced our MIS|ERP tool is. Mentality is clearly changing.
Is it possible to fully implement the MIS system remotely? What about training? What does it look like during the pandemic, with all the travel restrictions?
P.S.: There is currently no option other than the remote implementation. How else could we carry out implementations in Thailand or Colombia? We did not even go there to sign a contract. Once the restrictions are lifted, we will want to return to personal visits to production plants in order to speed up the implementation process but currently everything is done remotely. Unfortunately, it takes more time, mainly as a result of communication problems, our clients have to explain what they need while sitting in front of the computer screen, they cannot take us on a tour of the plant or show us the digital document circulation. It is much more complex than during our live visit, it is more difficult for us to identify the real sources of problems, which often lie within human factor. This is a big challenge but not impossible, human beings have remarkable ability to adapt. For better results, we have had to change and improve our project implementation methodology many times. No less important is the issue of language - in many cases, English is not the mother tongue of the client nor ours. It is easy to imagine how complex these projects get, even without being hindered by lack of mobility.
The pandemic lasts for almost a year, so soon you will probably bring remote cooperation with the client to perfection. In your opinion, will you use this form of implementation more often even after the pandemic?
P.S.: I am sure we will. When modifying our implementation methodology, we discovered that remote work can be as effective as working on site at the client’s plant. Some clients have a hard time understanding this, when we are not present at their plants, they are a bit distrustful whether the implementation will actually go smoothly and successfully. I would like to give an analogy of children, can they learn everything remotely? Of course not, they go to school to learn how to interact with others and work in a group. It is similar in the case of implementations of such advanced tools as MIS|ERP systems. I think after the pandemic, around 50% of implementation work will be carried out remotely to the benefit of both parties. The clients will bear lower costs related to, for example, the travels of our implementation team, and we will be able to better manage our human resources. One person will be able to run several projects simultaneously from our office, which will also speed up the implementation process.
What makes Sistrade solutions different from the competitors?
P.S.: When I look at the printing industry sector from the perspective of years, I can see amazing changes taking place. On the one hand, the progress of specialisation, on the other hand, the diversification of services. Label manufacturers are implementing various production technologies to meet the growing expectations of their clients. Many printing houses, in addition to traditional flexographic technology, also use offset, rotogravure or digital, and in addition to labels, they are also able to produce folding cartons, corrugated cardboard packaging or other types of products. The process complexity is so big that software dedicated solely to the label production is not able to cover it. This is what makes us different from our competitors - our system combines all production technologies, and our processes are highly flexible. The client does not have to implement several solutions dedicated to different technologies, getting a complete solution from us. There is no other such supplier on the market. What is more, thanks to our global presence, we have experience in integrating data from machines of various manufacturers - European, American or Asian. This is not a question of programming, but of parameterization, which is our next competitive advantage. Last year, we celebrated our 20th anniversary. Our system, which is available in several languages, has been on the market for 20 years. When we make an installation in Poland, the system works in Polish, in Germany - in German, and in Qatar - in Arabic. Sistrade system works in 25 countries on four continents in the same version that we support all around the world. On average, every year we introduce a new version available to all our clients, which includes about 500 new features, reports and improvements. Our research and development department works tirelessly as we receive data not from one client’s system but from all our implementations worldwide. This kind of experience is a huge added value that all our clients.
What new feature have recently been added to Sistrade system?
P.S.: As I mentioned, the system has around 500 changes every year that is an average of one and a half a day! Recently, many innovations have emerged in the field of scheduling, especially related to the need to support remote work. Last year our system was upgraded four times. Each client receives a report on the new features, they can either use them or not, but they must have an updated version of the system. Otherwise, we would not be able to ensure the highest level of safety and reliability. Our system is entirely cloud-based, although there are customers who prefer to have it either their own server, or on ours, or on an external leased one. Therefore, it is available as both license and SaaS - software as a service.
How is Sistrade doing on Polish and neighbouring markets? Are there any implementations in Poland?
P.S.: We are gradually increasing our market share in the region of Central and Eastern Europe. A lot has changed in recent months - as I mentioned, we ended our cooperation with Reprograf-Grafikus and decided to sell and support our system directly on the Polish market. We are currently implementing the system at Illochroma Haoneng Poland from Krakow, which is part of the Chinese group and produces labels in offset. It also has a factory in Belgium, where we are implementing our system in parallel. The plans are that the plant that is going to be opened in France will also use our system. In recent months, we have signed contracts with companies from Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, Serbia and Poland, as well as from Asia and Latin America. So we are growing both in Europe and beyond. It was a really good year, despite very complicated and difficult conditions, and of course, it would not have been possible without a committed, motivated team and the trust of our clients. After all, we are a relatively small company.
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Interviewed by Anna Naruszko