What is an Automated Document Factory?I, like many others, have written about the "Automated Document Factory" or "ADF" concept before. But what is it really? The term ADF was originally coined by an Xplor member who worked for Gartner about 15 years ago. The original ADF concept was comprised of four modules: input, transformation, production, control and reporting.
· Input - where all the data and the instructions needed to transform the data into documents enter the ADF
· Transformation - where the data and instructions meet and the documents are produced in the appropriate media
· Production - where documents are prepared for delivery to the recipient
· Control and reporting - manages production aspects of the ADF

Then in 2008, Gartner's ADF 2.0 concept incorporated the original four modules and added two more:
· Document design and content integration - occurring prior to input, this is where designers and design tools integrate with transformation and variable data printing tools
· Response management - after the control and reporting module, this step enables integrated response analysis
These modules "close the loop," enabling tight integration of operations floor and the enterprise content tools used by the line of business units.

ADF meet the Street
My father always said, "There is a big difference between theory and practice." So let me introduce all of these uptown, sterilized, laboratory definitions of the ADF to something known as reality or as I like to call it the street!

There is no question that the ADF 2.0 definition is the textbook way to build a "bulletproof" document factory but the reality is that it takes time, resources and a good return on investment (ROI) story to get it up and running. So in the absence of time, resources and a million dollar ROI, some industry pundits and I agree that there is a permutation of the original ADF out there on the street. I like to refer to it as an "appropriate document factory" - AppDF.

An appropriate document factory resembles its high-class, state-of-the-art cousin but it is built based on tight timelines, customer demands and shriveled budgets. It also takes into consideration the organization's current pain levels and risk tolerance. At the end of the day, the AppDF has to help organizations solve for an immediate document quality and integrity need while at least breaking even during their phased ascension to a textbook ADF, if they decide to go there at all.

Over the last couple of years on the streets, I have seen a renewed interest in the ADF concept because of regulatory pressures pushing document factories to increase accuracy and improve audit trails. I'm often tasked to help companies to develop cost effective strategies to implement an ADF, but the reality is that most organizations are taking a phased approach based on what they can afford to do. The description of afford is twofold.
1. Resources an organization has available
a. Money
b. Skill sets - Operations, IT

2. How much time they have to get it up and running
a. Pressure from customers
b. Pressure from management

The Good News
It used to be that only the largest, homogeneous document factories could afford what was available in the ADF market. The good news is that the ADF concept is starting to enter the SME (small medium enterprise) market because it has become more modular and less professional services dependant in nature. The result is the advent of the AppDF.

So what are the similarities and differences between an ADF and an AppDF?

Both require data inputs, some sort of document design & transformation and something to produce & finish the documents. Arguably both should have some form of control & reporting and content integration, although an AppDF will have more human to system interactions than an ADF which will have more system to system automation. The main differences are the sophistication and integration of the components.

To use a simple analogy, you can still hear a song on a clock radio but it isn't the same as hearing it on XM Radio in a surround sound environment with a subwoofer, equalized and balanced by an amplifier with a computer hooked up to the internet on a table beside the stereo. Besides the superior sound quality, you may not know the name of the song or the artist played on the radio until the DJ states the information at the end if they say it at all. But the question is "does it really matter"? It depends on what you, the customer, want or need. If you have the resources to afford the high-tech sound system, a computer and an iPod, and the time to scope out the right system and install it, then maybe the answer is yes. It also gets more "important" if you have pressure from other members of your household who want to create playlists or are majoring in music at college.

Now back to document production and the question at hand. Does it really matter if you have an ADF in place in your document production operation? If your answer is it does not matter, you might be doing mass mailings that are generic in nature using an inserter from the last century with no intelligence and low integrity. If your answer is sort of, then you are probably printing and mailing some variable data in an industry that is not highly regulated. If your answer is sometimes you probably have some critical applications or a few customers that have mission critical applications. If you answered absolutely, then all of your applications are mission critical and you are most likely in a highly regulated industry where you are handling sensitive personal information that if disclosed could lead to fines.

So where does the AppDF come in? If your organization is in the "sort of", "sometimes" or "absolutely" categories you should have an AppDF at minimum. The AppDF for the "sort of" category could simply be a redesign of the critical documents to include a barcode that appears in the window of an envelope so it can be captured on output by a camera system that will ensure that a mailpiece is not missing. If you are in the "sometimes" category, your AppDF could include an intelligent inserter that is intelligently accumulating pages into a set at the input of an inserter and double checking it on the back end with a camera system looking for a barcode in the window. If you are in "absolutely" category your AppDF should have information about the file you printed communicated to a database so the inserting system knows what to expect. The information from the database should then dictate the activities of the inserter and its operator by informing them if a page was misfed or if the document integrity is in question. This will provide page level tracking and an audit trail of what took place when and who was involved. It will also tell you what you need to reprint if a page was mutilated but it won't reprint it for you automatically - you'll need an ADF for that type of system to system automation.

It is my opinion that there is an AppDF for everyone and every organization should have some form it with the economical and modular technologies available today. As one vendor puts it "Ask us about our Affordable Document Factory?" Depending what you have in place already, an AppDF could cost $10,000-$300,000.

So ask yourself: What can I afford and what do I need to accomplish?

Other supporting questions:
· What are the repercussions if your operation makes a mistake?
o Reputation damage
o Fines
o Refunds or penalty costs
o Client loss
o If you are an in-plant, could your operation be outsourced?
· Are there regulatory or compliance pressures?
o Personal information breaches
o Is your company subject to audits?
· Do your customers need piece level integrity or page level integrity?
· Does your operation need integrity on 1 or 2 systems or all of them?
· Does the operation have a slower period when an implementation could take place?
o Give yourself 30 - 90 days for implementation and testing

What is your AppDF level?

Paul Abdool, BBA, EDP, CCMP, ecms is National Practice Manager, Production Print and Mail, Enterprise Solutions Delivery, Ricoh.