The Innovators: Firehouse Image Center's Purchasing Whim Pays Off in Achieving Automation
Ask Firehouse Image Center CEO Terry Corman his biggest career passions, and he’ll answer with two words: culture and automation. With this emphasis on people and innovation, it may not be surprising that Firehouse has retained a core group of employees for the majority of its years in business, and is continuing to hire and acquire new business even amid the pandemic.
Firehouse was founded in 1989 when Corman and his wife purchased a photo lab located in a fire station. Today, occupying 30,000 sq. ft. and with 45 employees, Firehouse is a broad-based, print-for-pay operation that still offers photo output along with fine art reproductions and printing for display, retail, and in-store signage. While its local customer base is growing, its business is primarily national.
During the Wide-Format Summit Series, Corman shared how automation has been at the forefront for Firehouse. “That was the genesis of me saying ‘One of these days, there will be a path for wide-format to seek automation,’” he said. While Firehouse had a second plant in Europe for nine years, where the business got its feet wet in automation, it was the eventual availability of an affordable software solution that has been a game changer.
Improving the Customer Experience
In 2018, Firehouse had a first look at Durst’s LiftERP software — the 2020 PRINTING United Alliance Product of the Year winner for “Software – Workflow/MIS/CRM” — and bought it on the spot. “I saw that it had an automation module to it,” says Corman. “It’s almost impossible in the printing industry to be a lean manufacturer unless your information — the order writing, order data, file data — is lean.”
Being among its first users, Corman and his team have continued to learn the software’s benefits through their implementation, finding the most significant value is in the customer automation. “Customers can save a lot of time and money using LiftERP as an ordering portal. I had never heard that in the industry anywhere, but we have clients that are giving us rave reviews, and we just landed two new clients,” says Corman. “It’s something we never could’ve predicted, and we’re only now discovering how impactful it can be.”
As Firehouse acquires new customers and more business from current clients, what’s noteworthy, Corman says, is how these decisions are coming from CEOs and leaders who have seen the software package’s benefits and the cost savings of ordering and managing all their information in one place. “Lift allows clients to be notified of anything they would want to be notified of,” says Corman. “‘Where is my job in-house? How much does my job cost? Where’s my bill? How does it ship? Where is it?’ All of those things are there.”
When placing orders, customers can also add any information they might need and receive a generated PDF for inventory purposes. It’s these tracking communications and inventory efficiencies that are offering customers peace of mind.
Corman emphasizes that implementing automation is not seamless. “During this COVID period, there was an opportunity to change, and we did, but it was still a very difficult time for us,” he says. “The challenge has been to get people to think differently. It’s been a shock, and we had to completely change the layout of the building. It used to be printers were here and there, but when the information only comes from one spot, it has to be lean.”
While Firehouse is operating at 60% automated, the business is working toward putting together more equipment and software to further automate, with the current focus on prepress with Durst’s Workflow Plus software. This also includes its recently installed Durst P5 printer that can run different jobs simultaneously, and only requires two operators to run what used to require four.
“It measures the operator, the shift, and the company, and gives you a grade. We got permission from Durst to write that in; it’s a great tool,” says Corman.
Though automation takes work, Corman attests to its value in achieving a lean business, sharing, “If you use the product right, it forces you to become a lean manufacturer; you have to. It forces you to go paperless; it forces you to be incredibly disciplined because all the information is in one spot. It’s not easy, but it’s doable.”