Don’t Touch That File!
If you did double trade show duty and attended last month’s PRINT 17 in Chicago, you know that automation was one of the hot topics. Automation has become a necessary part of commercial printing, with as many parts of the printing workflow as possible automated. Files enter at one end — through a web-to-print portal, email, Dropbox, etc. — and are automatically shunted through the entire prepress, printing and even finishing processes.
Thanks to technologies like JDF and Ultimate Bindery from Ultimate Technographics (Booth 2719), jobs can even shoot straight through to finishing, with human hands needed only to carry printed pieces to the finishing line, or finished pieces to fulfillment. But now robotic arms are starting to even replace those human hands.
Wide-format printing now finds itself where commercial printing found itself several years ago (and many printers still find themselves): needing to take what was thought of as an artisan-like craft and turn it into a manufacturing process.
It’s common to hear comments like “all of our projects are one-offs” or “all our jobs are unique,” but are they really? We call it “specialty” printing and tout the opportunities to be had producing unique products and applications. How can you automate that?
First of all, let’s define what exactly “automation” is. An obvious form of automation is robots. Zünd (Booth 333) and Esko (Booth 1321) have introduced robotic arms for their cutting tables that can move boards far faster than a human operator can. There are even robotic arms (and other automated and semi-automated loading and unloading options) for the Inca Onset X series of wide-format flatbed printers being shown by Fujifilm (Booth 1529).
But goosing the hardware is only half the equation. It turns out that once you remove the bottleneck from production, it then moves — and prepress is where it ends up. So software automation solutions are starting to appear. Esko’s Automation Engine is targeted at sign and display shops and not only automates such processes as preflighting, but allows users to plug in all the job specs and the file will automatically be sent to the devices — printing and finishing — it needs to go to.
An important component of wide-format automation is nesting optimization, or strategically ganging as many images on a page or board as possible to help keep materials costs down. Ultimate Technographics introduced its Nesting Optimization Engine to its Impostrip suite of automated imposition software, and front ends from EFI (Booth 1501), Onyx (Booth 2435), and Caldera (Booth 345) also offer nesting and other automation features. Nesting optimization was (and often still is) done manually in programs like Adobe Illustrator, but automated approaches take the grunt work out of the process.
Another growing part of automation is akin to production management or planning. All the information about a job can be entered at the time of file intake, and every portion of the workflow can be planned and scheduled. These systems can also take into account UPS and FedEx pick-up times to ensure that a finished job is ready to go when the driver shows up.
Whether it’s individual tasks or entire workflows, automation is now essential no matter if you’re doing small- or wide-format — and everything in between. Automation streamlines production, speeds turn time and reduces waste. As you make the rounds of the SGIA Expo show floor, captivated by the latest printing hardware, don’t neglect the software side of the equation.