Automation and other lessons from drupa 2016

 

Workflow GearsInkjet drupa, digital packaging drupa, special effects drupa, B1 digital drupa, what do you want to call it? This being my first Printfuture blog since drupa 2016, I want to highlight the challenge of automation.

But first I must scream as loud as possible – It was a good drupa!!!! The global print industry has found its mojo again. Yes, digital communications are changing the way we all live and many print markets will never be the same. But markets and marketers are discovering that consumers like newspapers, magazines, books, leaflets, brochures, truly personal direct mail, innovative packaging and that by combining the best of print with the best of digital communications, then the overall value is enhanced.

Nevertheless as we reported in the 4th drupa Global Trends report this spring, around the world print runs are shortening and prices are falling. How can the industry respond? Smarter litho presses have an important role to play – Heidelberg demonstrated three x 300 print runs within 5 mins at the show. Wider use of inkjet – too many examples to list, will also help fill that challenging run length that is too long for toner and too short for many litho presses. Greater equipment automation in finishing is a major contributor.

But and it is a big but, most suppliers are addressing the need for automation within individual pieces of equipment. Perfectly reasonable given it is what they can control directly but with ever reducing value per order, it is only part of the solution. The other half of the challenge is to automate the workflow – from enquiry to invoice, from design file to printed copy in the hand of the consumer. We summarise this complex series of processes as ‘workflow’ and so it is but it is actually at present two workflows for most organisations – the commercial ‘back office’ cycle and the actual ‘production’ process. Furthermore in most printers these are two fairly loose bundles of processes that communicate to each other very little and fitfully and often by manual intervention.

We worked with a UK publishing printer last year who needed to automate their digital print workflow as their workload was swinging very fast to digital print, yet they were following their traditional litho print processes to manage a lot more orders that were a fraction of the previous order value. Devising a combined commercial and production workflow that would meet their needs was not simple but was soon successfully completed. Then came the hard ‘grunt’ work – rebuilding their MIS and prepress platforms for each detailed step in the complex process. That has taken them over a year and counting… In the end it will be worthwhile, but the effort will have been enormous.

The problem is that to achieve this goal we need to combine an MIS, a prepress platform and probably half a dozen other subsystems and teach staff to let go; when a] initially many things may go wrong [‘told you so’] and b] they may perceive right or wrong that you are undermining their role and even threatening their job security.

Some suppliers who offer a more complete suite of services and software eg Heidelberg with Prinect may have the apparent advantage of having more control over all the elements. Yet smaller players if prepared to collaborate effectively may offer more agile solutions. What ever the preferred solution, there needs to be a very firm hand at the individual printer’s ‘tiller’ – someone with authority who is prepared to take the time to climb into the detail, otherwise the bullshit quotient will rise and the printer will be disappointed in the end.

Finally I make one practical suggestion arising from my drupa visit. I had read about Enfocus’ Switch software, but not seen it demonstrated. If you have not yet considered it as a reasonably priced complement to ease your automation task then please do have a look at it. And no, I have no financial interest in saying so.

 

Richard Gray – Print Tribe

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