The Covid-19 new normal has brought the future forward

Richard Stuart-Turner
Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Six months have now passed since the UK went into lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of Covid-19, and while this resulted in a large and well-documented drop in work almost overnight for many printers, one of the few upsides of the situation was perhaps the rare chance to work on the business rather than in it.

Many businesses used the downtime as an opportunity to look at their processes and assess how they could increase automation and run more efficiently.

This has been especially important over the past three months, as work has started to ramp back up following the gradual reopening of the economy.

And with social distancing measures required to be in place in every business, and many staff still on furlough across the industry, or in some cases sadly laid off, companies have had to find a way to manage their increasing workload in a physically different manner and often with a smaller team than before.

Nearly half of respondents to a recent Printweek poll that asked ‘Has the pandemic accelerated your use of automation?’ answered yes, with 19% saying it has even though they were already highly automated and a further 29% saying that they are now seriously looking at automation.

Only 17% said automation was not crucial to their business, while 35% reported no change in their use of automation since the start of the pandemic.

Hard and soft options

Automation comes in many different forms in print, from hardware such as intelligent print and finishing kit, robots and media handling systems through to software that helps a printer to manage its workflow, pricing, accounting, e-commerce platforms or customer deliveries.

Trade supplier Where The Trade Buys, which has facilities in Dagenham, Sunderland and Worksop, has recently rolled out what it claims is a UK first system that uses automation at the point of order to split its customers’ deliveries across a maximum of 10 addresses, enabling customers to more closely mirror commercial print services while simultaneously benefiting from bulk pricing and faster distribution.

On the hardware side, robots are becoming increasingly popular. One early adopter was Leicester-based Data Image Group, which installed an Esko Kongsberg C64 automated robotic production system – a world first – in 2016.

A year later it installed an Esko Kongsberg C66 cutting table with robot, and chief executive Robert Farfort says “the pandemic has forced us to use it more”.

“Having been a little bit quieter and with people on furlough, we’ve been able to automate some jobs or materials that we wouldn’t have normally maybe run on that machine. During lockdown we were struggling with a particular material so some tweaks were made to the machine that enabled us to use that material, so that we could run that job unattended.”

He adds: “Automation is absolutely top of our agenda across the business; we’ve done a lot on it in our accounts department already with software. We always strive to look at how we can automate and use technology to do a task.

“I think particularly with software, people have suddenly become switched on to automation since the pandemic began, as people look to lean up a bit. Hardware is still perceived as being quite expensive to do, although we think it can be quite cost-effective. The project with Esko has opened our eyes to what you can and can’t do with a robot.”

Gloucester-based Severn runs a range of automated processes, including Enfocus Switch workflow automation to link in with customer systems. Managing director Ian Smith says its already quite mature automated approach has benefited the business and assisted with its resilience against the current market conditions.

“Severn started its drive toward automation around three years ago alongside the introduction of significant investment in inkjet printing and other tech driven production tools. This has accelerated over the past 12 months, but not specifically as a result of the pandemic,” he explains.

The firm has recently bought a new Canon VarioPrint iX-series B3 sheetfed inkjet press, which Smith says “is already operating in a sophisticated and mature way, both integrated and automated”.

Birmingham-based Central Mailing Services (CMS) has also undertaken an investment drive in highly automated technology, including a CMC 250 enclosing line that can automatically pick-and-place, as the business looks to replace people power with machinery including robots.

Managing director Mitesh Chouhan says the coronavirus pandemic “has scared us into becoming really efficient”.

“When you think you’re efficient, but then you’re scared with something like Covid and it makes you scrutinise everything, you realise that there’s always room for improvement and you weren’t as efficient as you thought.”

He says that while the CMC machine will require fewer staff to operate, the investment was also partially made because of current social distancing requirements, “because it is quite difficult to maintain two metres when there are four of you at the end of a machine”.

Chouhan adds CMS is also automating, or looking into how to automate, tasks such as outputting proofs, data processing and warehouse stock control, while it has already automated its phone system so that only one receptionist is required.

He says that while the business will always remain people-heavy, with a mix of automation and dynamic and creative staff, “as someone needs to be telling the automation what to do,” automated processes and robots will make it more competitive.

“If a robot can run a press five times faster than a person, it means a printer with automation is going to be more competitive, while the more traditional printer with slower presses, more manual labour, no automation and a slower setup of the press won’t be able to compete with the companies that have invested.”

The industry’s equipment and software suppliers have been helping printers with their drive towards greater automation and increased productivity, with IFS reporting a higher call for automated kit since the start of the pandemic.

Technical sales director Jason Seaber says: “Investment in more automated and intelligent print finishing and bindery machinery has been ongoing for many years now as our industry increasingly faces a skills shortage and, due to the pandemic, we have seen increased demand for these solutions, in particular for our popular Horizon range of saddle stitchers, folders, perfect binders and three-knife trimmers.

“Enhanced automation helps improve production planning, increase capacity, speed up production and throughput, eliminate errors and reduce costs. It can also support a broader range of applications.

“With remote reporting and diagnostics, any downtime can be minimised and maintenance planned when necessary. However, we are still at a point where some human intervention is essential in ensuring the best service delivery.”

Seaber expects the accelerated push for automation in print to continue, partly due to the job losses caused by the pandemic.

“This sadly will result in even more of a skills shortage and the need for investment in more automated and intelligent print finishing and bindery machinery so that companies can have the flexibility to employ operators with little or no experience or low skills as and when required,” he says.

As well as helping businesses to navigate their way through the pandemic, being more automated will also enable them to reduce or remove repetitive and mundane tasks, and the associated physical effort and fatigue, from their workforce.

Automatic for the people

“We’re all seeking bigger fulfilment in our jobs, more autonomy and less process. Employees want to be developed and nurtured to grow, they want to be given tasks that motivate them and give them a sense of achievement,” says Tharstern managing director Keith McMurtrie.

“Automation cuts out the other stuff, and allows us to focus on the stuff that makes us feel fulfilled – coming up with new innovations, chatting to a customer and forming a bond, working out how to do something cool for a customer.

“Those companies that have focused on automating the mundane, and are letting their staff concentrate on innovation and customer experience instead, will be faring much better than their competitors.”

He also notes print will still want and need humans to produce unique printed products and that the smart print factory of the future will need to be something of a hybrid.

“It will need to take the best of technology and combine it with the best of humans to create a sort of bionic print factory where humans and machines work together.”

In the past, McMurtrie has said that, in the long term, automation could actually create more jobs in the printing industry than it eliminates.

He says that while he still believes this will be the case in the long term, “everything has changed” in the short to medium term, with the pandemic set to result in job losses in every industry, regardless of automation opportunities.

“What I’ve said previously is that in order to grow, you need to differentiate from the competition, and the key to this is customer experience. But very few companies are in growth mode right now – most are in survival mode.

“In the long term, those companies that survive the recession will emerge a different machine, one that does more business remotely and online. The traditional face-to-face nature of engaging with customers will probably become a thing of the past, or at the very least minimised.”

He concludes: “But what this will do is create a requirement for more technology focused roles, and this is where I believe future job growth will come from.”

Drupa 2021

Automation and digitalisation have both been increasingly hot topics at the last few Drupa shows, and while this trend would have undoubtedly continued at the 2020 expo, following the pandemic they will now play an even bigger role at the rescheduled event in Düsseldorf in April 2021.

“Covid-19 has pushed the print industry – like most other industries – to rethink,” says Drupa director Sabine Geldermann. “Many companies are bridging their communication with online formats – including Drupa.

“We will offer an extended online service for our exhibitors and visitors until April 2021 and turn Drupa 2021 itself into a hybrid trade fair. This is important in these days to counteract existing travel restrictions and to give the entire printing community the opportunity to be part of the event and stay in touch.”

She adds: “Furthermore, the pandemic has also underlined the need for digitalisation and automation within process flows. Digitisation is causing ever faster innovation cycles, and the corona crisis is acting as an additional catalyst, driving companies to intensify their development.

“This will also be a major topic at the trade fair. We will see new developments that have now become an integral part of business processes and we will drive this development forward together with exhibitors and industry experts. Drupa is all about visions, ideas and future trends – bringing them forward is more important than ever under the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.”


Yes, capex costs, but it will reduce expense elsewhere

John Charnock, director, Print Research International

The human is the one moving part in any system that is most likely to fail, which is why automation is so important.

A typical print business will have certain costs, these ratios change constantly for every company (the pie chart shown below is just an example).

Generally, paper is the biggest expense of which about 5% is waste. With the exception of the waste there is little we can do to change this figure.

The next largest is labour, followed by capital equipment and consumables. Digital printers may well see a much larger proportion of consumables because maintenance and clicks increase the consumable proportion.

The best way of improving the business, and hopefully margin, is to consider how effectively we use our resources. Labour is the biggest resource that we have control of (usually about 30% of turnover). Automation requires investment and so the capital equipment portion increases, but can have a significant impact on the labour side.

By focusing on labour efficiency and utilisation we have a mechanism for improving margins and bringing down the cost base.

As we come out of this pandemic, automation and systems that enable remote operation of equipment will become increasingly important. However, we shouldn’t automate just for the sake of it, the benefits need to be carefully analysed before investment. I have seen projects where automation was put in without proper analysis, ROI or due diligence, resulting in failed outcomes.

The cost of automation is falling. Around 20 years ago my first swing-arm robot took weeks to install and even longer to program. Today, robots cost significantly less and the intelligence of these machines and the sophistication of the sensors and machine vision has continued to improve beyond anything we could imagine in 2001.

And remember that automation isn’t just in the print room. Think about sales process automation, workflow automation, marketing automation, automation of paper and materials receipt, storage and preparation, finishing automation and logistics and fulfilment automation.

Anywhere where there is a high labour cost, whether casual or permanent, would be my first place to investigate.


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