During my years in the photographic industry, I bore witness to a business workflow that went from laborious hand work to near total automation. Prints used to be produced by skilled craftsmen in darkrooms with enlargers. They would frame and focus and expose and tweak—often manipulating the light with filters and dodging and burning to achieve the optimum result. That changed rapidly to an all-digital production with photos imaged to paper with lasers. Both methods produced photographs on photographic paper.
Once the automation hit full stride, we saw pricing drop from around $25.00 a square foot to $1.00. Automation of this printing process devastated all but a few tech-savvy survivors. The entire size and structure of this area of the printing industry was altered in a brief period of time. As photographic labs disappeared, so did the suppliers and the trade associations.
The ultimate question for each area of the current printing industry is “what will the effects of automation be in the future?”
We see two major innovations coming our way—software and robotics.
The software written, to date, to automate processes in printing companies has come primarily from the equipment manufacturers to make their machines work better. It gives them a competitive edge. But these are all stand-alone solutions. Very little has been done, to this point, to create a total, integrated workflow solution or to reduce total cost of ownership of equipment offerings. However, now, the printing industry is beginning to see software solutions that will eventually eliminate many front-end workflow processes. For clients willing to integrate more closely with their print vendors, a total solution is near. This goes beyond a front-end order entry portal. That’s where the process starts. The magic will be tying the output from the front end into fully customized software that will direct those source files through the workflow (order writing, preflight, proofing, prepress, tracking, etc.) and land it in the proper print queue. It’s coming!
The use of robotics in printing has been limited to a very few large flexographic and specialty printers. Robotic solutions for material handling at all stages of the printing process are either now, or soon will be, available at a reasonable return on investment. Firehouse will have a robotic arm solution for taking sheets from our flat bed printers to our large digital cutters eliminating the labor in that process. Further, robotic carts with preprogrammed destinations will be carrying ‘work in progress’ from cutting to our quality control and packaging department, eliminating that labor. Both of those automated labor-saving solutions are a worthy automation investment.
What can be automated, will be automated. As this happens, the structure of the printing industry, just like the photographic industry, will change quickly. Will large-format print companies react in time?
The final and third segment of this blog post will contain some predictions for the future, as promised.