Many people have asked me, “Does the industry need another DCA?”. My response is, “It depends on your expectations.” If you are interested only in collecting less-than-accurate meters and are willing to tolerate being knocked off the network 10 to 15% of the time, then I can see your point. But, if you’re expecting to support your accounts with continuous improvement, or if you recognize the need to improve tools to help employees become more productive, or you realize that fading pages and price concessions mean you need to be capturing every opportunity to improve profitability, then the answer is a resounding yes.
All men are created equal, but all data collection applications are not. At the turn of the century, the DCA evolution for the gathering of meter readings was a blessing. It became a reasonably inexpensive way to capture meters without the tedious phone calls, unreliable RF devices, flimsy web portals and, heaven forbid, meter cards that preceded the new process. The collection of meters was painful for everyone. This technology reduced the pain and was a welcomed improvement. It helped make people more productive and customers less frustrated with meter collection. The popular DCAs in the U.S., however, did little more than that.
What we didn’t know was that, around the same time, there was a company setting out to find a way to extract the MIB data in print devices with another purpose in mind — managing the whole account. The architecture for these devices is as different as night and day. The old systems were dumb data collectors; they only saw data as data. The new technology wanted to understand what it saw before the process was completed, using a more analytical approach versus a data dump. The newer DCA’s objective was to find a way for one person to manage 8,000 to 10,000 print devices. With the older process, you are lucky to support half that, and actually, a third is more likely.
EKM Global was the company that developed this newer approach. What made the difference was that they didn’t build it to sell; they built it to use. At the time, they were a consulting company helping corporate enterprise organizations manage their infrastructure. They wanted to administer print and IT the same way. Their quest was for knowledge, not data, and so, “the intelligent DCA” was born.
It’s been six months since Shawn Cashmark, and I launched Predictive InSight. I must confess I wasn’t out there on a quest for a new DCA. I was, however, as many of you know, looking for a way to improve the back office and service processes through predictive analytics. For more than a decade, I have been discussing how technology changes the office process that impacts the importance of print. The only way to prosper under these conditions is to improve our internal processes and adjust. The unforeseen has accelerated that transition, and so here we are. Shawn had been looking at all the developing technologies, including the many other DCAs introduced. It put us on a collision course with the right answers.
Let’s look at a few of the problems that an intelligent DCA solves and its impact on that critical people to process ratio.
Falling Off the Network
The most common complaint we hear from dealers is that the DCA falls off the network and essential billing data is lost. There are a multitude of reasons this can happen. Perhaps the DCA is located on a local computer that gets shut off, or there is a power outage or network issue. While these things can always happen, they are not the primary reason for the connection failures.
It is the architecture of these non-intelligent DCAs that is at the root of these issues. All of these older systems used a .NET framework. This framework is acceptable for convenience applications, but not for mission-critical applications that impact customer service and billing delivery.
There are a couple of issues with .NET. First, anything developed in .NET is subject to Microsoft’s plethora of patches, each capable of disrupting the network connection. Patching vulnerabilities are a common source of cyber attacks, and according to a study by Alert Logic, 75% of missing patches are more than a year old.
Then, the only method of data transfer is over port 443, a target port for hackers. Alert Logic also found 65% of all port vulnerabilities are through just three TPC ports: 22 (SSH), 443 (HTTPS), and 80 (HTTP). In short, the architecture itself is an issue. More importantly, it is something that is going to get worse and never better. In 2020 we saw a significant increase in cybersecurity events, and it appears that we will see more. The result will be more scrutiny of this traffic resulting in more disruptions.
Insight from EKM is the only DCA that does not use the .NET framework. The intelligent DCA is built on enterprise-class development and communicates over port 5222 using XMPP. The algorithms are SHA-256 cryptographic hash algorithms, the same used for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The store and forward built into the system means that data is never lost even in the face of a power or network outage. Once power or the network is restored, the information is transmitted as if nothing ever happened. Additionally, the intelligent DCA from EKM is self-healing, meaning automatic detection of stalled connections (internal and external) with automatic restart and full integrity checking of configuration and operating parameters periodically during the day, including automatic rollback to the last good backup. Anyone that has had to restart a DCA understands the enormous advantage in self-healing.
The value is that there is less disruption to the back office, eliminating frivolous use of service technicians’ and administrators’ time. There may have been a time when the aftermarket’s high profitability enabled us to tolerate this level of inefficiency. Still, those days have been sliding away for many years, and with the changes we are now going through, they are entirely intolerable. Only a proper enterprise-level application is worthy of our consideration today. Billing, supply chain management and service performance are not convenience items; they are an essential part of our mission and business.
Turning Data into Knowledge
Intelligent data collection starts by collecting the right data in the correct priority. The older systems go out and get everything the printer MIB has available and then leave it up to the service provider to decide what has priority. Before a line of code was written to create Insight, the team at EKM asked crucial questions: What do we need, and how will it enable us? What are we trying to track and why? How can this information help us manage the assets? Can it increase efficiency? Not all data has the same importance. Evaluating priority is critical to arriving at information that leads to knowledge. At EKM, we created self-timing multiple loops that adapt to network performance. These “loops” have priorities assigned to them.
The loops are:
- Heartbeat lets us know the printer is online and reporting.
- Alerts are fully processed via the rules engine. They are normalized and categorized, then triaged according to the level of severity.
- Meters are not only collected, they are analyzed and cleansed at the point of collection. These are fully reconciled and formatted to the service provider’s specification, including tiered meters, to be ERP and invoice read. We don’t just collect the data, we apply it to the rules engine using MRPII resource planning rules, including a fully populated product database bill of materials with SKU and yields for every make and model, and detailed specifications. This information is then compiled into reliable predictive reordering using established algorithms based on 20 years of development. Zero duplication of consumable notices eliminates duplicate orders.
- Trays. We check each printer to ensure that the media is in place in each device.
With the data categorized and cleansed, algorithms start creating the tools to enable account management. The proactive asset management now tracks moves and changes of the assets, allowing us to see the account’s activity. When a device appears on the network that is not under our management, we are notified. We are also told if one of our managed devices is taken off the network—useful information for flagging competitive activity. Most dealers turn the non-managed machines off with their legacy systems because of the monopoly holder charges for those units as if you were making money on them. Predictive InSight only charges actively managed devices, but we give you the tools and information to help you capture those competitive devices not under your management. We don’t charge money unless you’re making money.
Consumable management is key to the profitability of any account. While everyone claims active supply management, much of the information or misinformation you can receive from these non-intelligent systems is more of a hindrance than a help. You’ll often receive more than one notice of low toner only to realize you already shipped that supply item a few days ago. These older legacy systems get a message every time a printer makes a print after it reaches the targeted threshold. Insight has the intelligence to know that a consumable alert has been sent and knows to ignore the MIB message. The result is the complete elimination of duplicated supply orders. This action alone can put thousands of dollars of profit back in the dealer’s profit. It also goes a long way to elevating the customer’s perception of your ability to manage their account. Further improving the people to process ration. Let the software do the heavy lifting not your staff.
Algorithms also analyze and adjust rapid use consumables to ensure that the customer can continue to make prints and take the pressure off your staff trying to trace erratic page printing. This problem has increased in recent months with the impact of COVID-19. Many have been trying to achieve “just-in-time” supply chain management of supplies. EKM Insight makes it a reality.
A Final Thought
After a demonstration the other day, as we were recapping our meeting, one of our technical people stopped and commented, “During this meeting, it struck me that we are truly an enterprise-level platform built on enterprise architecture, which means we are fully scalable from the smallest to the largest of resellers. Insight now has the ability for multiple messaging servers to serve one portal, which offers load balancing and redundancy. The back end SQL is very scalable and resilient. Our self-optimizing DCA ensures the best performance and efficiency no matter what network they are deployed in without the need to keep turning them. We truly are a ‘set and forget’ platform. It’s not just the DCA but the whole supporting ecosystem.” I wish I could have said it better myself, but I can’t.
Some would still say that changing out a system is time-consuming, and unless they are experiencing real pain, they are happy to put it off. I would only say that the legacy monopoly system has introduced a new DCA to consolidate the many they acquired, which makes sense for them. However, I’ll suggest an end of life is just around the corner. Why not experience a better way?