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The Automation Issue

(December/January 2016) posted on Thu Dec 15, 2016

Whether your forte is printing business cards or building wraps, this is one trend that should unmistakably be on your mind.

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By Steve Duccilli

It’s happening, right now, in print shops around the world. Customer service positions are being phased out. Job estimators, whose skill in the past meant the difference between making or losing money on an order, are becoming irrelevant. Production crews are shrinking.

These things aren’t happening because the businesses are failing – rather, they’re happening because businesses are succeeding. They are adapting to a changing market.

It doesn’t matter what type of printing business you own. Offset printers, packaging converters, and wide-format digital print specialists are all experiencing the same dynamic. Closer to home, so are apparel decorators, promotional product manufacturers, retail graphics and outdoor advertising specialists, and in-plant industrial facilities of all types.

Anywhere that printing is taking place, processes are being streamlined – and not only through technology substitution. It’s not just about replacing analog printing presses with digital ones. Today’s successful printing businesses are reimagining everything from client contact through shipping the final product.

It’s not a question of survival any longer. In the past, efficiency improvements in the printing industry often came on the heels of price erosion. Remember the auction print bids that were in vogue during the 2000s? These exemplified the race to the bottom that happens whenever buyers view a service as a commodity. Commercial offset printers experienced this in a big way after the turn of the millennium. Some estimates place the decline in those segments at 40 percent or more, yet despite the contracting market, fierce pressure on prices, and the worst economy in more than 70 years, the businesses that remained were actually more profitable. They had to learn to do more with fewer people.

The rapid technological gains that happened among retail graphics screen printers around the same time were driven by similar forces. Squeezed by wide-format offset presses on the one hand and UV flatbed inkjet printers on the other, screen printers had to learn how to produce CMYK images very well and very quickly. This led to widespread adoption of sophisticated inline multicolor screen presses with prepress workflows that enabled shops to meet previously unthinkable turnaround times as tight as 48 hours.

But the keen interest on automation throughout the printing industry today isn’t just Darwinism in action. It’s not about determining which businesses will be fit enough to survive. This time, the main cause isn’t fear, but opportunity.


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