Manufacturing automation is a big deal. As advances in both material handling systems and robotics progress, we're seeing higher efficiency with less labor input across the entire manufacturing and distribution sector. If you want to see real world examples of this, take a look at Volkswagen’s "Transparent" factory
in Dresden, or the amazing Kiva robots
that Amazon uses in its order fulfillment centers.
The payoffs for all this investment (and much of it is substantial) are varied. The most obvious is lower labor cost. But "deep" automation usually yields a faster, more streamlined, and more efficient workflow with fewer defects, all reflected in a lower unit or process cost.
Most of us in the finishing world are familiar with machine-level automation, which has made enormous progress since the early 1990's. Craftsman-level machine adjustments and makereadies have been largely automated and can now take only a few minutes. But finishing material
workflow has been a more difficult challenge. In the majority of binderies, material is moved by people, from machine to machine. I recently ran across a system that I had heard about (from third parties) some years back that proved to be intriguing. Invented by a mechanical engineer and a mathematician, it's a complete material transport system for "on-demand" finishing environments.
An unloader is installed on all of the digital printers. This module accepts and identifies each job coming from the printer. It then loads the work onto a special book block carrier which can hold multiple book blocks and covers. The carriers are then routed on a special conveyor system to the right area of the bindery, i.e. hard cover, PUR binding, sewing, hot-melt, etc. In effect, this system takes over all of the in-process material movement from the printers, to the finishing area. As you can imagine, the investment is not small, but the longer-term payback in labor savings is huge.
For me, this is an example of thinking beyond individual machine automation, and addressing the "bigger picture" of the entire print-to-finish workflow. It shows me that there's still lots of room for creative thinking in our industry.