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Print automation: A look at what’s emerging in the printing world today

Modern presses try keep operators out of the printing process as much as possible, and it’s now ‘push to stop’ rather than ‘push to start’.

Modern presses try keep operators out of the printing process as much as possible, and it’s now ‘push to stop’ rather than ‘push to start’.

Ever since Gutenberg’s printing press, improvements in print have stemmed from automation. The latest wave of technology impacting the printing industry – autonomous presses and high automation – is no exception, accelerating production for a typical offset printing press from 20 to 30 million sheets annually to closer to 40 to 60 million sheets.

Doubling utilisation with little room for error

Instead of an operator having to actually start a process, autonomous presses will always be on, organising their own workflow and prioritising jobs in the most resource-effective way possible. Follow-up orders can be put into the job queue while production is in progress, and the operator can change a job order with a mouse click. While this innovation will drive even greater increases in efficiency, the result is a much reduced margin for error.

Currently, printing presses have utilisation rates of around 20 to 30 per cent but peak figures of 50 per cent or more can be achieved. To realise this productivity increase, however, every step in the complete process needs to be tightly coordinated. Consumables will need to be standardised and systems and process calibration will need to be both standardised and self-improving. Maintenance will also need to be intelligent, scheduling tasks outside of peak demand times.

Essential nature of printing changing fundamentally

Those raw numbers don’t tell the whole story, however. The nature of the printing business is fundamentally changing, with increasingly automated printing presses reducing the number of touchpoints requiring human involvement – all in the interest of avoiding errors and increasing efficiency. Presses have even got to the point where they order their own supplies and schedule predictive maintenance.

One of the ways automated printers are doing this is by using the latest generation of raster image processors (RIPs) as control centres for the production workflow. Often integrated with a web-to-print portal, RIPs are being used for functions such as page layout, preflighting and colour management – significantly increasing productivity and efficiency.

This efficiency is becoming increasingly necessary as print runs become smaller, with more and more jobs being run in the one shift on the one press. Ten jobs per day used to be the norm, then it became 10 jobs per shift – now some of the really big industrial print houses are running 10 different jobs per hour.

At these rates of production, human operators start to come up against their limitations. Even when allowing that much of the pre-press work to be done by the customer with templates and files uploaded via email, Dropbox, FTP and so on, physically it is barely possible to do a make-ready on 10 different jobs per hour.

‘Push to stop’ the new paradigm

Some printer manufacturers, however, argue that just automating presses isn’t enough. Moving from the traditional ‘push to start’ approach, ‘push to stop’ is the evolving concept for the future of printing. Automated and autonomous presses will work through their job queue automatically, ordering the jobs in the most efficient way possible, and operators will only stop the press if there is some sort of exception that needs attending to.

A further extension of the ‘push to stop’ concept is a cloud-based assistant that places tools for planning, scheduling and performance management online and effectively available to managers and print shop staff anywhere and from any device.

Print automation aims to make printing presses self-managing units, which promises a massive increase in productivity, especially if also combined with efficiencies elsewhere such as streamlining of logistics and the redesign of print floor layouts.

Taking advantage of these opportunities will give print businesses the time and resources to focus on the business instead of production. Ultimately, autonomous printing presses present a brave new world for printers.

There are, however, risks. Printers who fail to take advantage of the new technology place their business in jeopardy if competitors forge ahead in adopting autonomous printing. But by the same token, printers that do adopt the new technology need to ensure the entire chain of production is optimised to realise the available productivity gains.

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