The Automation Issue
Whether your forte is printing business cards or building wraps, this is one trend that should unmistakably be on your mind.
It’s happening, right now, in print shops around the world. Customer service positions are being phased out. Job estimators, whose skill in the past meant the difference between making or losing money on an order, are becoming irrelevant. Production crews are shrinking.
These things aren’t happening because the businesses are failing – rather, they’re happening because businesses are succeeding. They are adapting to a changing market.
It doesn’t matter what type of printing business you own. Offset printers, packaging converters, and wide-format digital print specialists are all experiencing the same dynamic. Closer to home, so are apparel decorators, promotional product manufacturers, retail graphics and outdoor advertising specialists, and in-plant industrial facilities of all types.
Anywhere that printing is taking place, processes are being streamlined – and not only through technology substitution. It’s not just about replacing analog printing presses with digital ones. Today’s successful printing businesses are reimagining everything from client contact through shipping the final product.
It’s not a question of survival any longer. In the past, efficiency improvements in the printing industry often came on the heels of price erosion. Remember the auction print bids that were in vogue during the 2000s? These exemplified the race to the bottom that happens whenever buyers view a service as a commodity. Commercial offset printers experienced this in a big way after the turn of the millennium. Some estimates place the decline in those segments at 40 percent or more, yet despite the contracting market, fierce pressure on prices, and the worst economy in more than 70 years, the businesses that remained were actually more profitable. They had to learn to do more with fewer people.
The rapid technological gains that happened among retail graphics screen printers around the same time were driven by similar forces. Squeezed by wide-format offset presses on the one hand and UV flatbed inkjet printers on the other, screen printers had to learn how to produce CMYK images very well and very quickly. This led to widespread adoption of sophisticated inline multicolor screen presses with prepress workflows that enabled shops to meet previously unthinkable turnaround times as tight as 48 hours.
But the keen interest on automation throughout the printing industry today isn’t just Darwinism in action. It’s not about determining which businesses will be fit enough to survive. This time, the main cause isn’t fear, but opportunity.
It’s being driven by profound, fundamental shifts in buyer needs that apply to every market segment, without exception. Run lengths have been falling in all types of printing businesses for years, but people are beginning to realize that this isn’t bad. It doesn’t mean that buyers are abandoning print, only that they are moving away from mass-manufactured printed goods toward solutions that meet increasingly narrow sets of expectations.
Retailers want P-O-P displays that are customized to each store location. Brand marketers want packages with unique special effects, personalized messages, functional elements that interact with the consumers – sometimes all of the above. Home buyers want front doors with specific textures and colors that match their tastes or the architectural properties of the house. Apparel manufacturers want to buy smaller lots of fabric with a greater variety of decorations. They want them delivered on demand so they can stock their shelves with product they know the shopper wants and avoid the endless discounting cycle of unpopular merchandise that deflates their margins.
And these are just a few examples. In virtually every sector of printing, buyers have clearer and more tightly defined objectives that call for greater specialization from their suppliers. And that means buyers, whether they realize it or not, aren’t looking at print as a commodity any longer.
It will enable you to leverage these market forces to grow your business. Slowly but steadily, markets that were long ago lost to foreign countries where labor is cheap are beginning to return to America. Licensed products requiring sophisticated special effects can’t always be done offshore. Products sold at retail that need to be replenished quickly based on consumer demand cannot be produced months in advance, half a world away.
Customized products manufactured in quantities as small as one don’t fit the mass manufacturing model that caused this business to slide to foreign markets in the first place. Printing companies that streamline their operations will further subtract labor cost as a buying consideration, and those that can develop the nimbleness to identify and quickly act on new opportunities are going to succeed.
It’s going to escalate. The market trends that are prompting these new manufacturing strategies seem irreversible, and technology developers are responding. Concepts that have been discussed for at least 20 years – fully connected workforces, remote ordering and approval, distribute-and-print scenarios in which jobs would be produced in an infinite number of locations instead of at one central plant – are finally happening because data speed and integration are no longer impediments. We’re even beginning to see robotic technology designed for mainstream printing applications.
At its drupa 2016 press conference, Fujifilm showed a video that demonstrated just how far this concept may lead us. Takuo Ito, director and corporate VP of Fujifilm Global Graphics Systems, discussed the company’s 5D print strategy, designed to leverage Fujifilm’s latest offset-quality digital print lines with what Ito described as game-changing automation supplied by its partner, EPAC. The video showed an entirely mechanized book printing plant that employed industrial robots run by EPAC’s algorithms to perform printing, cutting, binding, trimming, and sorting. The technology can produce a finished book in six seconds, all with zero human intervention. And this isn’t a futuristic concept. Facilities have already been installed in the US, Europe, and Latin America.
It’s the most important trend in the printing industry today. If you haven’t considered how automation will affect the future of your business, it’s time you did.
Explore the rest of The Automation Issue:
Killing Your Top 5 Time Wasters, Mike Ruff
Going Digital: Automating Sales and Marketing, Mark Coudray
The Benefits of Screenroom Automation, Johnny Shell
5 Steps to Take Control of Your Printroom, Marshall Atkinson
MIS: Whipping Your Data into Shape, Eileen Fritsch
An Automation Wish List for Your Printroom, Marshall Atkinson