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EVP, Marketing at Specialty Print Communications

Against the Grain

By Dustin LeFebvre

About Dustin

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC


Competing with Robots (Look to QuadTech and Valpak)

The topic was inventory management. Customers were frustrated, the folks from Sales were upset, and managers were gathered around throwing out ideas to make our information more accurate and available.

“Why don’t we just hire a couple of guys to get us answers quickly?” asked one manager.

“Don’t we have an inventory module in Printstream, our MIS system?” asked another.

“We do, but it’s not doing the job” came the answer.

I had a flashback to Eliyahu Goldratt’s novelized management guide "The Goal," first published back in the ‘80s. How could we still be having this discussion in 2013?

Technology has been making businesses more efficient since the dawn of time, but our relationship with it is, as it ever was, troubled and troubling. Technology can be labor-saving, or labor-enhancing, but where tasks and functions and people fall along that line can be a razor’s edge. It’s easy to be cut, both literally and figuratively.

As a 32-year-old planning on living and working for some time, I’ve naturally developed a healthy fear of being replaced by a robot. There must be some technical term for this, but I have not found it. I’d much rather make use of the robots, than be replaced by one. I, along with about 300 other people vaguely my age, travel from all over the country 44 weeks out of the year to attend The University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business to improve my chances.

Google has self-driving cars; robots perform surgery and diagnose disease. And for a powerfully disconcerting visual of the soulless future of some workplaces, check out Amazon’s massive new fulfillment center in the English Midlands. A recent report from the McKinsey Global Institute concludes that machine replacement of job categories will include knowledge work many thought would long be protected. In wealth management, offers educated investors sophisticated portfolio management at 1/8 of the cost of traditional firms.

In our industry, QuadTech is aggressively using labor-saving technologies. From the registration and color management enabling more efficient press production and reduction of crewing, to the fully-automated postpress finishing and packing systems, robots are taking over.

I recently saw a video of a Valpak plant that uses Bell + Howell equipment to finish complex mail packages in a single-step process. Imagine a plant producing more than 20 billion coupons per year using only an automated production facility. Check that. You don’t have to use your imagination; you can arrange for a plant tour and see it for yourself. Yes, there is growing chasm in our industry between those investing in automation and new capabilities, and those hanging on for dear life.

In the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, "Blade Runner"—set in 21st century Los Angeles—Harrison Ford’s character stalks replicants (robots) to kill them for wanting to be human. When artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence, our kind may be vulnerable to say the least.

Matthew Lynn’s recent Wall Street Journal article, “A Strategy for Keeping the Robots at Bay,” provides solace if not insurance. Here’s a kindred spirit. He’s aware of the situation, dedicated to finding solutions, all the while insecure about his own abilities compared to those of his robot competitors, evidenced by his assertion of his superior newspaper article writing skills.

Lynn comes up with five ideas, some more relevant and potent than others. The first, which is to be the one to make the robots, is something of a stretch for most of us. The second, moving up market, is something we can all attempt. It’s what I’m working on 44 weekends of the year. The third idea is to be creative, because robot technology will take advancement to think in such ways.

The fourth idea is to find a new industry. For many of us in printing, that’s been on our minds for a while. Lynn’s point is that new technology spawns new opportunities. Who knew social networks or smart phones would reshape our lives and livelihoods as they have? When the robots come, they’ll need to be designed, maintained, and they’ll probably even necessitate consultants to proselytize how to use them. What if the robots could replace consultants? Then robots could consult us on robot implementation strategy. Would we still lament the robot consultants as much as we do their human contemporaries?

The fifth idea, tongue in cheek, is to amuse the robots. And I thought Rosie was there to serve the Jetsons, not the other way around.

The short of it all is this—as with robots, as with technology, as with business—as change happens and closes off some opportunities, it also enables new opportunities and new industries. If we can move up market and acquire the analytical skills to identify and act upon these opportunities, then maybe we’ll be the ones with robots working for us, not the other way around. QuadTech and Valpak are living examples to us.

Meanwhile, I’d feel a heck of a lot better if we could just figure out how to use Printstream’s inventory management system.

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