06 September 2018 Finishing

Intelligent automation is on the Horizon

Horizon has done much to link finishing processes, to introduce digital set up and remove the skills needed to run finishing equipment. The next step will be the use of Artificial Intelligence to improve automation.

Jason Seaber imagines a post press workflow that is similar to the prepress workflow, slick, automated and driven by Artificial Intelligence. It is not here yet, but the direction is clear, according to the technical sales director of IFS.

And if the UK’s printers are not thinking in terms of automation in finishing, they risk being left behind printers in Germany and France who have been investing steadily in robots and automated technology. “We have to compete with printers from Germany, France and elsewhere: if they are investing heavily in automation, we will have to two. If Britain’s printers leave it too long, it will be impossible to catch up.”

Intelligent Finishing Systems is the UK distributor for Horizon, Tecnau and others. It has the technology to help UK printers stay abreast The company’s direction is clear: it believes that print is becoming a technology industry and that service, up time and performance will be as crucial as traditional skills. This means linking process steps in an intelligent and automated way, something that Horizon calls smart automation, in order to reduce the touch points that add cost and can easily introduce errors.

“At Igas, the emphasis was very much about smarter automation,” says Seaber. “Lots of manufacturers and digital print vendors are talking to Horizon. This demands a joined up approach to develop the automated workflows that will drive all processes from prepress to finishing.”

It will still be a few years before this kind of workflow becomes a reality across the industry. It will not take so long in some sectors, books for example, where the workflow has fewer variables to deal with.

Software will be the key to unlocking these kinds of end to end efficiencies Seaber explains. Software can already pull job settings from the production server and use this to set up a folder, booklet maker or binding machine. This is already happening: Horizon’s StitchLiner MkIII, its SmartStacker and folders have the sorts of automation that ease the set up pressure on operators and mean that the device can be made ready in a few minutes. As set up relies on reading a barcode, this can clearly be automated. It may be harder to replicate some of the movement on a human operator, but a robot will be able to do it.

“It’s about removing as many touchpoint as possible,” says Seaber. “Everything where people were opening folders and files to upload things, can be carried out in the background. Removing the touch points will improve product quality by applying consistency to the actions.” Where these repetitive tasks are carried out by shop floor workers, such consistency can be hard to achieve.

When confined to processing digital files, such automation is possible, hence prepress departments are sparsely populated while finishing departments remain heavily staffed. Seaber believes that AI will provide the way to cut the labour element of finishing. “An AI driven workflow will know that the book blocks have not been printed so there is no need to print and laminate the covers. The decisions will frequently be about repetitive tasks,” he says. “This will free up people and give them the opportunity to become more creative.”

In turn the procedures used to end up with new products can be analysed and automated in turn. “We have to remember this is about manufacturing a printed product and the best chance of success comes with the most efficient way of manufacturing,” he adds.

The way to reach this nirvana is one step at a time: printers should look to improve efficiencies which will reduce costs and deliver more quality. “Try to automate a small part of the process and see what the results are from that. If there is an improvement, there will be an incentive to repeat the process,” he says. “It is going to take another five to ten years before there is full automation in finishing. It’s an opportunity for people to get out there and to be successful to grow their business. The opportunity is there.”

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Jason Seaber

Jason Seaber

Jason Seaber, technical sales director at Intelligent Finishing Systems says automation will help product quality. He imagines a post press workflow that is similar to the prepress workflow: slick, automated and driven by Artificial Intelligence.

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