The rise of the robots needn’t be an apocalypse for printers

Jo Francis
Monday, September 28, 2015

Potential future uses for robots in the workplace hit the headlines recently as the result of a major BBC series, Intelligent Machines, looking at advances in artificial intelligence and robots.

It highlighted a study, The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to automation, and ranked 366 different roles under the somewhat inflammatory headline ‘will a robot take your job?’

Printing industry workers unable to resist plugging in their own details will have found a mixed outlook. Printers were “quite likely” to be replaced by automation, with an 83% likelihood, while bindery workers fared the worst, with a 95% chance  of being replaced by technology at some point. 

David Nestor, managing director at Blackburn print finisher First 4 Print Finishing, says an automated revolution has effectively already taken place at his business. “Palamides equipment revolutionised the industry for us a decade ago. The operator receives a perfectly-shaped bundle, whereas that would have been a person before.”

Nestor is highly attuned to the benefits of automation, and any investment is scrutinised in order to take advantage of any automated handling kit that is available. But he also says that he “can’t see robotics taking off for the time being” due to the huge amount of job formats the company is required to handle.  

Elsewhere in the industry, pre-press operatives were ranked at 57%, and described as “too close to call”, while graphic designers can sleep easily as their skills are “quite unlikely” to be automated, with just a 5% chance of that happening. 

However, the study has not found universal favour among other experts in the field, with some believing it is inappropriate to rank different jobs in this way. 

“I’m very critical about this study because it’s misguided, this idea to put percentage figures on it. This sort of thing creates unnecessary fear,” says Patrick Schwarzkopf, managing director at Germany’s VDMA Robotics & Automation Association. 

“I’m not saying we don’t live in times that are highly disruptive, but at the end of the day higher productivity and progress creates more wealth.”

Schwarzkopf argues that it is not necessarily an entire job that is taken over by automated or robotic systems, rather it is a specific task. “Most people have a set or mix of tasks to carry out, so robots can be used as a tool,” he notes. 

Conversely, the BBC’s accompanying Panorama programme reported that some 800,000 jobs have been lost to automation in the UK over the last 15 years.  

A multitude of examples already prevail in print, where technological advances have resulted in increasing automation in pretty much every area of production, from pre-press to finishing. Some roles have effectively disappeared as a result, such as film planning. 

“We’ve gone a long way down the automation road already,” says Heidelberg UK sales director Jim Todd. “I think we can go further with presses, and it’s all down to managing the variables. One of the problems when it comes to automating print is the variables, such as a rogue stack of paper. But the application of standards lends itself to automation.”

Industrial-scale sheetfed printers, such as large packaging printers, and web-to-print specialists, are generally viewed as automation leaders. Automation is also prevalent at web offset printers using kit such as robotic stacking and palletising systems. And News UK’s giant greenfield newspaper printing site at Broxbourne was bristling with automation – including robotic paper management – from the get-go when it opened in 2008. 

Most recently, in 2014 DS Smith installed a world first with a Fujifilm Onset S40i for corrugated board printing, complete with automated media handling using a Yaskawa Motoman robot with integration by robotic systems specialist ClinchTech. 

“It’s lived up to expectations without a doubt,” says DS Smith display manufacturing manager David Atchinson. “The benefit is, once the machine is set up and running the operator can go off and do something else, such as make samples. It’s not a cheap item, but it will continue to run for years and years.”

It’s not just large print groups where robots have something to contribute, as Ryedale Group commercial director James Buffoni explains. The firm developed its own bespoke robotic system more than a decade ago, after struggling to source enough temporary workers during peak production periods due to its North Yorkshire location. 

Ryedale produces tags and labels of different shapes and sizes and thicknesses, “so off-the-shelf solutions just didn’t exist for us,” he says. 

“When I was a teenager there were eight of us on an eight-hour shift, five days a week, packing 28,000 cards a week. Whereas a robot can handle 250,000-450,000 cards an hour.”

And robots deployed for tasks of this ilk have another key advantage: they don’t get repetitive strain injury, or bad backs. 

However, even though robotics can effectively do the work of many people, Buffoni’s focus isn’t headcount reduction. “Added-value roles are not going away,” he states. “We are looking to give people careers with skilled roles and maximum contribution per person.”

Any implementation of robotics also needs careful scrutiny of the cost versus the benefits. What may be technically possible, might not be economic. “You’ve got to be careful you don’t just swap depreciation and maintenance costs for labour costs,” warns BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold. 

But, despite the caveats, we could be on the cusp of a new era of human-robot collaboration. “Not humanoid robots that sit next to you, it’s more likely to be robots on wheels that can be moved about,” says Schwarzkopf. 

“However, we must also be mindful of Moravec’s paradox,” he notes. “Things that are very easy for humans are incredibly difficult for robots. A child can get a carton of milk out of a fridge, but to get a robot to do that would be insurmountable or very, very costly.”


Robots will help create better jobs for humans

mike-wilson-abbMike Wilson, sales and marketing manager, ABB Robotics

The ability of robots to work quickly, accurately and cost-effectively means they have found their way into a growing range of industries, and it seems the world of print is no exception. 

Given the expanding capabilities of robots it’s understandable that people are alarmed about the potential risks to their jobs. Negative publicity has done little to help. 

It’s therefore high time to introduce a little balance and take a look at the bigger picture. 

Firstly, the improvements that robots deliver invariably make organisations more efficient and competitive. Jaguar Land Rover’s manufacturing plants are among the most heavily automated in the UK, with over 1,000 robots used on its various production lines. Rather than destroying jobs, however, the robots have created thousands of new ones, with people needed to keep pace with production. 

Secondly, look at the types of jobs that robots are taking over. Many of the roles that are being automated are arduous, repetitive and physically demanding. Is it sensible in this day and age for people to be deployed in such tasks, especially where training or apprenticeship programmes exist that could help them to be put to better use?

Consider also that robot manufacturers, ABB included, are spending millions on developing collaborative robots, such as our own YuMi robot, to work side-by-side with people. Would we be doing this if we didn’t believe in the future of human employment?

It’s hard to understand why people believe that robotic technology will continue to develop but that our own abilities will stand still. 

Humankind has thousands of years of experience in inventing and using new tools. There may well be 100 types of jobs at risk of automation – but it’s not beyond us to create the next 100 that will see us making best use of it.


Are printers’ jobs un der threat from advances in robotics?

steve-whiting-sub-omicSteve Whiting, director, Sub@omic

“No matter how intelligent the bots become, someone still needs to train them. Robots navigate the world around them by using conditional logic to work through algorithms, and it’s these that form the basis of their programming – their training. Printers that have spent the last decade or so building rock-solid, automated workflows and documenting their business with quality processes will be in the best position to export this business logic into robots as and when they arrive. Future printers may well be robots and, in this future, future printers will be expert programmers.”

richard-krawiec-cplRichard Krawiec, print sales and  pre-press support, CPL Print

“Of course future presses will incorporate more automation. The skill needed to use them will diminish and the press minder, as we understand the term, will be no more. Minders would do well to retrain as engineers because as the complexity of presses rises, so will the requirement to maintain them. I think it’s more feasible that robotics will become part of the press rather than ‘Robbie the Robot does printing’. An extension to existing workflows seems logical. On my wishlist would be an objective quality controller to resolve perception of colour disputes between client and printer.”

john-charnockJohn Charnock, director, Print Research International

“There are loads of opportunities to use robotics in the printing industry and I’m amazed that people haven’t done more with it. I think the recession put paid to some possible projects. People should look at it again, especially for materials handling, for example between digital lines. Anywhere where you need to move stuff quickly and remember where things are – robots are good at that! I’ve also been thinking that drones could be used in large factories for delivering things quite easily.”

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