FESPA Technical Support Manager, Graeme Richarson-Locke discusses the importance of automation in the print industry.
Standing on the brink of a new decade, a predictable host of articles are flooding the business media, assessing the tech trends likely to reshape our ways of working.
One topic that surfaces wherever I look is automation. Research company Gartner even goes as far as putting ‘hyperautomation’ in first place in its Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2020 analysis, saying that “hyperautomation refers not only to the breadth of the pallet of tools, but also to all the steps of automation itself (discover, analyse, design, automate, measure, monitor and reassess).”
Automation isn’t new. The print sector has been harnessing process automation enthusiastically over the last 20 years, with clear benefits for productivity and reduced time-to-market. But speciality printers served by FESPA have arguably been slower to embrace the potential.
Maybe that’s because our roots are often in more craft-based techniques like screen printing, and it’s only with the rise of digital wide format printing that we’ve become a more tech-driven industry? Perhaps it’s linked to the diversity of print stock we handle, which makes standardisation more challenging than printing on paper alone. Is it down to the typical size of the businesses in our sector and their propensity to invest? Or are we just affected by a tendency to focus on product quality and client service at the expense of manufacturing efficiency?
Follow the automation pioneers
Whatever has challenged progress so far, the truth is inescapable. For most speciality print businesses, buying patterns are changing, run volumes continue to reduce and we need to manage increasing quantities of small and individualised orders, together with escalating customer expectations of lightning-fast 24-hour turnaround. That means challenging every received wisdom about how we work and building new processes for the economics of an evolving work mix.
There are many inspiring speciality printers who have recognised the opportunity in automation and used it to turn their business model on its head, for example with streamlined online ordering enabled by web-to-print solutions. I blogged about three remarkable UK examples earlier in 2019.
Where these automation pioneers have led, I believe that our sector as a whole will quickly follow, or suffer the commercial consequences. It is worth bearing in mind that your business may be in a position to match the pricing of a web-to-print competitor by reducing margin. However, getting fast processing of online proofing and ordering without the laborious tasks of going through estimating, prepress and booking in of suppliers can present a great benefit only achievable with automation. Looking ahead to FESPA Global Print Expo 2020 and beyond, it wouldn’t be out of place to suggest we’re on the cusp of a forward leap in automation.
From my perspective there are two strands to this: production automation using hardware, and software automation to link the ‘islands’ in a production workflow, either using individual software tools or with an end-to-end production ecosystem from a single vendor.
The ‘pallet of tools’ described by Gartner certainly exists for speciality printers today, from planning and estimating, through pre-flighting, file preparation and colour management, to load balancing and job nesting and so on. The solutions are available now to automate and streamline virtually every stage of production from ordering to dispatch, and I see more evidence of this at every successive FESPA exhibition.
Modest changes, measurable benefits
While hardware upgrades are often front of mind for printers when visiting a major technology exhibition like FESPA Global Print Expo, visitors to Madrid should keep a close eye on the innovations happening in software and carve out time to seek these out.
It’s often a neglected area in a printer’s overall investment planning, but a good rule of thumb would be to think in terms of allocating 10% on top of your capital expenditure budget to achieve production efficiencies through a more streamlined overall workflow.
It may seem daunting if you’ve yet to explore the automation potential for your business, but you can make modest changes and still see measurable benefits on the road to more comprehensive process automation. If a task is repetitive and a logic can be identified, it can be automated, so your starting point is to look for those opportunities.
A word of caution, though. Making a success of automation is not all about the products. While many of the tools are pretty intuitive to use, integrating them does require a mind-set shift. And for printers steeped in the craft of print, new levels of process automation can feel a bit overwhelming. It can certainly feel like a whole load of ‘new’!
But there’s plenty of guidance available from vendors too, and from organisations like FESPA and our national Associations. At FESPA Global Print Expo 2020, the Trend Theatre will run regular free seminar sessions on automation hosted by independent experts from Keypoint Intelligence, and if your focus is on boosting your colour management practices, book your free guided tour of Colour L*A*B*. For garment printers, Print Make Wear is the place to explore the latest in automated workflow and manufacturing.
My advice is: don’t be intimidated by automation, embrace it. The printers that have done so are already counting the commercial gains that come from faster production, better use of capacity and staff resource, reduction of errors and waste, and improved overall consistency. Isn’t it time for you to join them and unlock your full potential?
For free entry to FESPA Global Print Expo 2020, use code FESM210 when registering your attendance at www.fespaglobalprintexpo.com.