Wide Format Printing

All about automating your print and business workflow

by FESPA | 08/04/2020
All about automating your print and business workflow

Ton Rombout discusses the influence that Industry 4.0 will have on sign and wide format printing in preparation, printing, finishing and delivery, and the impact this will have on the companies currently involved in the industry.

Looking at the definition of Industry 4.0, it is considered to be the subset of the fourth industrial revolution. Industry 4.0 factories have machines that are augmented with wireless connectivity and sensors, connected to a system that can visualise the entire production line and make decisions independently. Are these systems already available, can we buy them or do we have to build on our own systems?

Where we came from

Last year, we talked about the situation in our sign and wide format printing industry describing it as an industry striving for integral automation. It started in the prepress area with the preparation of files that needed to be printed and then finished. People learnt a lot along the way, but there remains a lot to be desired in terms of structural automation.
Automation is a ’lean and smart’ process that analyses the different consecutive stages of the workflow, proceeding from one stage to the next without having to continually retrace your steps because of mistakes made along the way.

Caption: Repairing the files of your customer.
In our industry, however, handling the entire printing process is still an issue because of its complexity. For instance, we have to deal with not just one media type, as is the case in the offset printing sector, i.e. mostly paper, but with many different media and consequently many different inks. These elements are making the overall workflow even more complex. Handling all these different files is extremely difficult for both large and small companies. When making decisions regarding the purchase of a wide format printing system, people tend to consider only the printer and not how prepress ‘communicates’ with the interface that handles the files intended for the printer.

Status quo

Even in 2020 many companies still struggle with files they have received from their customers. The reason being that you cannot manage your customers’ business model; you can only try to show them the best way to deliver basic files for your system.
Last year I attended a customer meeting for a company that produces finishing software and equipment. Handling files submitted by customers was still a major issue for the delegates of print production companies. In fact, the problem is that more automation is needed in the prepress department, i.e. receiving and checking files, correcting or changing them into files that are compatible with the subsequent printing process.
The logical next step is that print companies buying a wide format printing system will hopefully also look  at the cutting and finishing solutions that come after the printing process. Last year I faced this question with many companies in Europe that I visited. They were very much aware that cutting and finishing is closely linked to the printing system, and the way they can interface has to be an important argument for buyers. In fact, they need an overview of the entire system. But an overall system is also about how your print production environment is linked into your business and administration environment.

How do vendors approach this?

Interfacing a company’s production management with its administration is an exhaustive, but very useful task. Managing the administration and costing jobs is time consuming but very profitable in the long run. It will give you a grip on your organisation and any potential mistakes.

Caption: If something went wrong, you have to pick up the pieces.

Vendors of larger printing systems are increasingly aware that they have to sell not just a wide format printing device, but an entire system around it to manage the files. The reason being that a system of this kind can deliver large numbers of prints that all have to be managed. Not just for one customer either, because jobs from different customers can be handled together and later separated in the next stage of production.
Using this kind of system you will know exactly how much it costs to make your product, rather than merely looking at competitors. . Moreover, you could look at a vendor of business administration systems that are able to constantly make connections between the production and the business administration workflow.
These systems can interface production and administration and advise an optimum price for a particular customer.

Industry 4.0

But can you refer to all this preliminary automation as Industry 4.0 already? Firstly, let’s explain the term ‘industrial’. The term ‘industrial printing’ became popular about seven years ago. On the one hand it implied that the printer and printing process were situated in a factory - an industrial environment - and became a part of an entire product manufacturing process, i.e. not a printing product but with printing as a part of it. In such cases the printer is an integral part of the factory’s production system.

Caption: With Industry 4.0, you’ll have an overview from start to finish.

Trend towards full automation

In essence, Industry 4.0 is a trend towards full automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies and processes, including, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence.
With terms such as smart manufacturing, smart factory,  (also referred to as dark factories) and the Industrial Internet of Things, you could imagine that some people are working hard to convince workers in the printing industry that they can help us to do our work better than before.

Caption: And when the system goes down, take care for well-educated staff.
Industry 4.0 fosters what has been called a ‘smart factory’. Within modular structured smart factories, ‘cyber-physical’ systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralised decisions. Cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans via the Internet of Things in real time, both internally and across organisational services across the entire value chain. In my own words, we are going to use the digital world to communicate with all the elements of the production and administration systems we use, even with our whole ecosystems of companies delivering basic components to us and our customers buying our products.

Customisation will be the future

The correlation between the speed of technological development and the resulting socio-economic and infrastructural transformations in our human lives could be considered a qualitative leap in the speed of development, which marks a transition to a new time era.
The discussion as to how the shift to Industry 4.0, especially digitisation, will affect the labour market started only a few years ago and is still ongoing.
Industry 4.0 is based on four design principles that help companies identify and implement Industry 4.0 scenarios.

  • Interconnection: The ability of machines, devices, sensors and people to connect and communicate with each other via the Internet of Things (IoT) or the Internet of People (IoP).
  • Information transparency: the transparency afforded by Industry 4.0 technology provides operators with vast amounts of useful information needed to make appropriate decisions. Interconnectivity allows operators to collect immense amounts of data and information from all points in the manufacturing process, thus aiding functionality and identifying key areas that can benefit from innovation and improvement. We could also mention the production environment systems of some of the larger printer building companies in terms of questions concerning the workflow, perhaps Agfa (Asanti), EFI (Fiery FX) or Durst (Durst Workflow).
  • Technical assistance: firstly, the ability for support systems to help humans make informed decisions and resolve urgent problems at short notice by comprehensively aggregating and visualising information.
  • Decentralised decisions: the ability for cyber physical systems to make decisions independently and perform their tasks with maximum autonomy. Only exceptions, interference or conflicting goals will lead to tasks being delegated to a higher, human level.

Caption:  The author behind the window tries to sort out the real important things.

Industry 4.0 also has a higher purpose, not inherent in these systems, but very worthwhile nevertheless, because it envisages sustainable manufacturing on the basis of green manufacturing processes, supply chain management and products. All of us - vendors, printers, customers, (nearly) everyone in the world - are ready for this to happen.
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