Inside Output: Automation Is Certain

Automation advances in 2017 can help your shop be more profitable.

It was first stated by Christopher Bullock in 1716, then by Daniel Defoe in 1726. But, it was most famously written by Benjamin Franklin in 1789: “… In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would posit an additional certainty in our industry. As historically exemplified by the market for billboard printing and more recently, vehicle graphics, it’s certain that prices will fall.

As a market matures and more companies enter, the competition results in reduced selling prices. It’s the American free-market way; supply and demand. How can a print-for-pay company prosper in a world of diminishing returns?

What our company has historically done is abandon the market and move on to other products and industries. But this is a radical solution and can be very disruptive to the company.

So, face it. It doesn’t matter what your gross sales are. It matters what your net profit is. If you reduce your “cost of goods sold” significantly, you may be able to maintain profitability, even in a market of falling prices. But what’s the best way to do that?

I can tell you what I have witnessed over the past two decades: Too many companies have responded by using cheaper, and usually inferior, materials. I believe this strategy becomes self-destructive because it ultimately hurts those companies’ and our industry’s reputations.

Companies with deep pockets can fight lower prices with investment in capital equipment. Faster printers, heat presses, laminators, CNC machines, etc., save on overhead and labor. As we know, speed is money. The key is having the volume to fill the queue. If you have the sales volume, this method works and has been the most replicated. The problem is that it may actually contribute to the downward spiral in prices. Let’s say a company buys a million-dollar printer that prints beautifully at 40,000 square feet per shift. The sales effort to feed a printer that fast puts downward pressure on pricing.

However, today’s evolving technology offers us another path to solve this problem: automation. There are automated solutions coming to market that affect the efficiency of every aspect of our manufacturing process. From prepress to finishing, there’s a myriad of solutions.

Prepress Automation
I recently attended a demonstration of a software that allowed the client to drag and drop a file to a web page. The software package would autonomously preflight the file 24/7, and then create and email a proof to the client and the appropriate staff at the shop. The client would click a box to approve, then the file would automatically be sent to the RIP. The company claims savings of 82 percent in time and 65 percent in cost. This level of automation also eliminates a significant amount of human error, which carries a cost, as well.

Printing Automation
UP has been the holy grail for our industry as long as I can remember. What’s UP? Unattended Printing is what’s up. I heard UP described at a meeting recently: “They send the file, turn off the lights, and lock the door.” Imagine if you had a three-shift operation, but employees were only needed for the first shift. The second and third shifts held zero operators.

What does it take to have a printer run one or two shifts unattended? Let’s start with the mundane. The first requirement is enough media. With a roll-to-roll printer, this requires a ginormous roll. Typically, only industrial-strength machines have a feed system robust enough to handle rolls that large in diameter and that heavy. You can’t put a roll that’s 18-plus inches in diameter or bigger on the typical entry-level inkjet printer. But, as their systems become more reliable, this may not be a bad idea for printer manufacturers who make machines that sell for $15,000 to $150,000. With board printing, obviously you need an automatic board feeding and stacking system of sufficient capacity.

Speed plays a role in this, too. Obviously, the faster the printer, the more speed has an effect on media capacity. One benefit of this could be image quality. Let’s say you have 16 hours to finish a job that would only take 10 hours at a faster speed. You may be able to choose a mode that’s slower but outputs better image quality.

Next, you need an ink capacity to match the size of the media rolls. Forget about cartridges. You need liters of ink.

But most of all, you must have a printer that is so reliable that it can print for 8 to 16 hours without a clogged head, head strike, media walking, or any of the plethora of other things that can go wrong. Are there any printers currently on the market that meet this criterion? Shoot me an email if you sell one of them or know of one. I’ve been told they exist by individuals whom I believe are credible, however I have never personally verified this.

I would like to add another category to UP that I like to call SUP. What’SUP? (Sorry, I liked it so much the first time, I had to do it again.) This is semi-unattended printing. SUP is where one person is responsible for the production coming off many printers. Think of the SUP operator as a media loader first and foremost. This has a number of advantages. He or she can monitor far more industrial-strength machines with their smaller media handling capability and keep them fed.

This technician can also periodically check the output of the printers and intervene if the quality no longer meets the criteria or there are any other issues with the printer.

In my 23-year career in this industry, there has been a serious debate: Do you buy one expensive “industrial-strength” printer or multiple “entry-level” printers? At different times I have found myself on both sides and have acted accordingly. I will only state at this point that semi-unattended printing supports the multi-printer argument.

Finishing Automation
Let’s say you have a UV printer with the automatic board loader and stacker. If you installed a CNC machine that had automatic loading and stacking inline to the printer, you’ve now created automated printing and finishing.

Of greater interest to me is the class of 118-inch CNC machines, specifically in the area of laser and powered rotary wheel cutting for dye sub fabric. We currently have three CNC machines in our shop, but our 126-inch dye sub is cut with rulers and hot knives. Almost anyone doing dye sub these days is doing silicon-edged graphics or SEG fabric tensioning. And anyone with any experience with SEG knows how important it is with this system to get the cut size exactly right. Automating the cutting dramatically improves cut accuracy while drastically reducing the labor to do it.

After the fabric is cut, taking it to a semi-automated sewing machine to sew in the silicon beading continues the production efficiency. The garment, contract hospitality, and other textile-based industries are heavily pursuing automated cut-and-sew. Our industry will benefit from these advancements. Automation could make digital printing competitive in garments, hospitality, and home décor. These are markets with very high volume and low margins where efficiency will be paramount.

I am confident automation will allow us, as an industry, to lower our cost of goods sold while improving quality. It may also open new, multibillion-dollar markets to our digital technology. I figure if automation can drive a car, it can autonomously operate prepress software, a printer, a cutter, and a sewing machine. I predict those who adopt this technology will make it difficult for those who don’t to compete. Our company’s choice now is: Do we abandon the markets with falling prices as we have historically done, or do we automate and compete?

Read more from Big Picture's September 2017 issue.

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