Go fourth and automate

Simon Eccles
Monday, July 4, 2016

At Drupa we saw the future and its name is Print 4.0. It is a ‘mega trend’ all about automation and integration. Here we look at what this paradigm shift in printing practices may mean for the industry.

Anyone wandering around Drupa last month, or reading the megawords of coverage in print or social media will have noticed the number 4.0 cropping up. Messe Düsseldorf, the Drupa organiser, pronounced Print 4.0 as one of the ‘Mega Trends’ at the show.

In a Drupa pre-show statement Claus Bolza-Schüneman, chairman of KBA and also chairman of the Drupa committee, attempted an explanation: “Print 4.0 enables individualisation and personalisation in digital printing. In the face of high-quality packaging and the rapidly diversifying range of solutions in industrial and functional printing, this digital networking of machines and systems offers the solution and guarantee for efficiency and competitiveness.” So that’s clear then.

Actually Print 4.0 has been developing for years, it’s just that it’s now gained a snappy label. It’s a catch-all term for ever smarter automation in the industry. It draws together strands of development in automation and roboticised machinery and predicts they’re reaching a critical mass where the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Humans won’t be completely out of the loop, but they’ll be needed less and less for mundane or easily predicted tasks, and more for dealing with the unique or unexpected.

Another term for this is the Smart Factory. As Jo Francis pointed out in PrintWeek on 16 June, Komori was already talking about this in the mid-1990s, with its concept for Printroom 2000, a robotic printing factory. It hasn’t fully happened yet, but the same idea has also been termed the ‘lights out print factory”. That is, with humans no around so you can turn the lights out and keep running.

Print 4.0 and all this automation is linked to another set of buzzwords, including the Internet of Things (IoT) concept, where all sorts of machines, factories, vehicles and even household items are constantly on line and able to transmit and receive status reports and instructions. You’ve got it in your smartphone, you may already have it in your car, and if you use Google, Facebook or Amazon, they’re watching you.

Inevitably, the nebulous Cloud is involved, as a central repository for this data, which can be aggregated and number-crunched by analytics programs to detect patterns and generate actions.

What Is industrie 4.0?
The Print 4.0 term has roots in a German federal government initiative called Industrie 4.0, to promote computerisation across all manufacturing industries. In 2011 it set up the Working Group on Industrie 4.0 which developed recommendations which it presented to the government, and published its final report at the 2013 Hannover Fair.

It defines Industrie 4.0 as a combination of four main trends: interoperability (people and machines working together plus the Internet of Things); information transparency (using lots of sensors to build up a big picture); technical assistance (a mix of data analytics to suggest future actions and mechanical systems to handle tasks that are too strenuous or dangerous for humans); plus decentralised decisions (the computers decide how to do tasks and then oversees the machines, with humans only needed to make decisions in unusual or unique cases).

Industrie 4.0 proponents rather grandiosely claim these collectively represent a fourth industrial revolution, following steam/water powered mechanisation, electricity and mass production, then computers and automation.

We’re now starting to live with the fourth. This is “cyber physical systems,” a catch-all term for a combination of robotics driven by interconnected smart and self-learning systems. Not quite R2D2 yet and hopefully never HAL.

Open data initiative
At Drupa the big German engineering trade association VDMA had a stand that among other things was explaining its take on Print 4.0. It’s woven this into a programme it has snappily named “printing technology in a networked production environment,” intended to facilitate production of personalised print products in small batches.

Rather ambitiously it’s talking about developing a manufacturer-independent standardised open information exchange standard that will allow customers to use it “on existing equipment independent of manufacturers”.

Don’t hold your breath as this standard is only at the “talks about talks” stage. The VDMA and a group of its member companies initiated the project, which is being co-ordinated through one of the Fraunhofer Institute research operations based in Augsburg (specialising in mechanical automation), working in co-operation with Augsburg University. The initial goal is the scientific analysis of process steps of print production “in order to develop
a solution that is as widely applicable as possible”.

The list of participating VDMA member companies include big names such as  Adolf Mohr, Bauman Maschinenbau, Heidelberg, KBA, Kolbus, Manroland Web Systems, MBO, Müller Martini, Canon Océ, and Wohlenberg.

4play in action
Muller Martini is embracing the 4.0 idea in a big way and calls it Finishing 4.0. It showed this as a theme at Drupa last month on nine interconnected systems that were examples of the concepts at work. The company said this provided “a glimpse of the future finishing of hybrid print products” that will inspire new business models.

Speaking at the show, CEO Bruno Müller said “printing is a good industry to explain how things change, from producing many things very fast, to just a few. We build robots to produce and trim books. This means automating all the little things in the machine so it will change over by itself. At Drupa we are showing that we can change more than four book signatures in four minutes. Ten years ago this would have taken 30 minutes.”

What Finishing 4.0 encompasses, he said, includes “automation, connectivity, variability, touchless workflow and hybrid systems processing both offset and digitally printed products.
“That calls for a seamless workflow, a high degree of automation and precise machine construction. We optimally coordinate those three components and ideally enable a touchless workflow, allowing graphic arts businesses to keep their production costs low despite shorter runs and increased product variety.”

Pioneers like Lightning Source and CPI Antony Rowe were doing continuous digital printing and finishing of individual books from online orders years ago. What Finishing 4.0 holds out is the degree of “touchless” automation that will be possible, with less need for human decisions or waiting to group together books of the same cover size, for instance.

Push to stop
Heidelberg has been less explicit in its use of the 4.0 term, but its Drupa demonstration involved fully automatic and hands-off job startups and then job changeovers on a new generation Speedmaster sheetfed offset press, incidentally proving that Print 4.0 isn’t just for digital presses.

Stephan Plenz, director of equipment at Heidelberg, explained the philosophy. “Automation on its own is not enough to exploit the potential for greater productivity on a lasting basis,” he said. “Therefore we needed to rethink the operating philosophy of the printing press, and the handling of the digital information generated by the workflow. It became clear that we were on the verge of a paradigm shift.

“We are evolving from a ‘Push to Start’ approach to a ‘Push to Stop”’ philosophy. Whereas today the operator must actively start processes on the machine, in future the machine will, wherever possible, do this itself. It will automatically work through the queue of print jobs. And it will do this using the ideal, shortest makeready operation, with maximum net productivity as the result. The operator then only has to intervene if the process needs correcting.”

The idea is that not-so-dumb machines handle the routine work all by themselves, while expensive flexible humans stay in the loop for decision-making, planning ad overriding the automation for unusual work, or re-prioritising job queues.

Precision Printing in London recognised the need for this some years ago, when it became apparently that humans could never handle the processing of several hundred or even thousand small low-value jobs per day. It commissioned the development of a highly automated factory automation system called OneFlow, which has since been spun off and redeveloped as a Cloud based system offered to other printers via HP’s new PrintOS online app source.

“Most PSPs are doing 40 to 50 orders per day,’ says MD Gary Peeling. “As you start moving into print-on-demand you start to see 100 to 300 orders per day. It isn’t very long before printers are looking to manage 1,000 a day. Once you get up to 200 to 300, old human intervention in terms of traffic on the shop floor just doesn’t work.”

Another trend linked to Industrie 4.0 is “analytics.” This currently has a somewhat sinister reputation thanks to the efforts of companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to suck up as much information as possible from their users, analyse patterns and then sell the results to advertisers.

So far analytics for print production seem relatively benign: the idea is that feedback data is constantly gathered from operating machinery, pooled centrally by the manufacturer and aggregated to assess trends that can predict potential problems.

This is likely to be non-controversial as long as the report is something like “there’s a vibration on a bearing in unit 3 that may become serious in 100 operating hours, so we’ll send an engineer out now with the correct parts to fix it before it fails.”

However if the data also reports that operator A is on average 5% less productive than operator B, then people may be less welcoming of what they’ll regard as robo-spies.

So, is Print 4.0 just an attempt to impose a trendy buzzword on things that are happening anyway, or will it be the trigger for the long predicted and faintly sinister lights-out print factory? We’ll probably know by 2020, if people start to talk about the Print 4.0 Drupa.


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