06 February 2019 Business

Print's rise of robotics and the 2019 technology shift

Print Business Editor Gareth Ward thinks robotics and automation will play ever greater roles in 2019 as printers continue to face skill and labour challenges.

Printers will continue to face skills and labour shortages in 2019. Recruitment of suitable apprentices will continue to be challenging. Skill shortages have been mentioned in the BPIF’s Printing Outlook reports. This will be compounded by a lack of unskilled labour as restrictions on immigration come into place.

Printers in some parts have been unable to take on staff and have invested instead in robotics to handle the mundane matters of moving work in progress around a factory. In the coming year more printers will be looking at and investing in robots, either as autonomous guided vehicles or co-robots to take on the heavy lifting in collaboration with a human operator.

This leads on naturally to increased levels of automation. This is equally the logic of faster turnarounds and shorter print runs, demanding more jobs in the same amount of time with no increase in staff numbers. Very few printers can claim effective end to end automated workflows. Through the year more printers will be starting out on this journey.

The same combination of trends will also stoke interest in different forms of digital printing. In many locations there is no distinction between litho and digital. It is simply print.

With automated workflows, jobs can flow to whichever technology is best suited to handle that job. This may be based on run length, proximity of delivery date, availability of paper and equipment to process a job. And that decision is likely to be taken by some kind of artificial intelligence, or at least a combination of algorithms that resemble artificial intelligence decision making.

The information flow about job, machine and people status, the assets available to do the job will need to be collected using sensors and direct machine feedback. This will be made easier with the roll out of 5G networks, either opening the way to intrusive management or to insight that can lead to greater efficiencies. This is unlikely to be in place before the end of the year, but it will become a live subject.

Online printing will expand to cover more and more complex products. Just as Amazon started out with books, a product that consumers understand and where colour and size is not the critical factor it is in clothes. Once Amazon had built consumer trust with books, the company could move on to the more complex and demanding products. Amazon’s book for online printers has been the business card.

The value of orders placed online is edging upwards, and what is specified and sold online is also becoming richer. Printers need to understand how to work with and how to compete against the online print giants, perhaps by offering this in-house or in partnership with a group of like minded printers. Amazon’s own print operations will expand and the company could become a major provider of print.

The rise of informal networks ought to be a major trend for the year. It is easy and logical to predict this will happen, but personalities and vested interests are likely to get in the way.

Gareth Ward

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For printers unable to take on staff investment in robotics to move work in progress around a factory is an ever likely option. More printers will be looking at and investing in robots during 2019, either as autonomous guided vehicles or co-robots to take on the heavy lifting in collaboration with a human operator.

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