It was at this point that Northstar turned to ThomasTech for guidance. "Years ago, ThomasTech designed and maintained an order-entry application for us that housed all of our HTI database content on a mainframe," Bianchi Muller says. "Eventually, we wrote a SQL-based Web browser application that enabled us to manage the content ourselves, so we stopped working with ThomasTech. When we found out our system was no longer supported, we sought their input because we had that history with them and we knew they were well respected in the publishing industry."
Together, the companies brainstormed options and quickly agreed that writing a new layout and composition program wasn't viable. They opted instead to evaluate off-the-shelf solutions to see, as Bianchi Muller describes it, "how close the products could come to satisfying our requirements, how much they would cost to implement, and what business rules we would have to give up." As part of this effort, Northstar sent to several vendors a "Statement of Work" document detailing 89 requirements the ideal solution should meet. Over a three-month period, Bianchi Muller says the company considered proof-of-concept proposals submitted by CRW Graphics, Kytek, Miles 33, RR Systems, and XyEnterprise. ThomasTech also submitted a proposal recommending XyEnterprise's XML content management and enterprise publishing tools and offering its own support services.
Bianchi Muller says XyEnterprise was "the only solution that came close" to satisfying Northstar's needs. "We initially were going to try to implement the product on our own," she says of the solution that Reed Elsevier, Northstar's former parent company, also uses, "but you need a dedicated programmer to maintain it, and we didn't have that resource in-house." So instead, Northstar hired ThomasTech in April 2004 to handle the setup and ongoing maintenance of XyEnterprise. "We chose ThomasTech because the application it recommended had a proven track record, its proof-of-concept met our needs, and its pricing was phenomenal." (Both sides declined to disclose the figure.) "We also believed ThomasTech could help us speed up the time it took to produce the directory"—a key consideration, she says, given the volume of products Northstar generates each year.
Over the next 11 months, the companies incorporated HTI business rules into a fully automated and accelerated electronic composition process; created new data preparation and approval processes; wrote new layout and extract rules; communicated to sales staff the product features the new system couldn't accommodate; and conducted extensive testing. "We had to give up a few custom layout rules, and the look and feel of the directory is a little bit different," Bianchi Muller says of the compromises the new workflow demanded. Ultimately, the company found this to be a relatively small inconvenience when balanced against time and cost savings: A layout process that once took eight days to complete now takes less than two hours.
Live since March 2005, the new system allows Northstar to manage directory content in an on-site SQL Server database. When it's time to produce the next issue, Northstar extracts all ads, maps, and legends from the database for placement in an FTP directory, which is then pulsed every 15 minutes by ThomasTech software to download new files. (The process runs from 8:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. so the Northstar Web site isn't impacted during peak business hours.) Various programs developed by ThomasTech validate image sizes and file names, conduct preflight checks, and convert images from PDF to EPS format. The system rejects files containing errors and automatically notifies Northstar via email of problems requiring resolution.
Once this is done, Northstar again extracts the data listings for placement in the FTP directory, which is pulsed, downloaded, and processed using ThomasTech programs for data validation and manipulation, image validation, copyfitting, business rule processing, and mapping to composition styles. These programs then pass the final data to Xyvision for automated page layout, map and legend placement, ad placement, cross-reference processing, and index generation. Scripts grab the completed PostScript file, convert it to PDF files, and post the print-ready PDFs in the FTP directory, which Northstar editorial personnel then review. If changes are necessary, Northstar again updates the database and posts new extracts to the FTP directory for automated production processing. Scripts once again grab the PostScript files and create single-page, high-resolution PDF files for the printer, which Northstar editorial personnel and advertisers review and approve before the directory goes to press.
According to Bianchi Muller, the production team met in early May to discuss what parts of the new process went well and to identify system modifications and scheduling adjustments that need to be made for future issues. "For the first issue, we kept the same 24-day schedule—from start of extracts through layout and composition of pages to page review and final PDFs—because we were using a new workflow and we wanted to do a full review of all pages," she explains. Although she says it's "too soon to judge" the new system's long-term impact, the majority of her objectives are already being met. "Of the 89 requirements we had, 79% were met completely and 11% were met at 80 to 90%," she says. "Three percent were met at 50% and required some additional programming by us, and the remaining 7% were not met and required manual intervention after the layout was complete." Like all technology implementations, there's room for improvement, but thus far, Bianchi Muller is pleased and optimistic about how this solution will continue to positively impact the company's processes in the future.