How intelligent automation can deliver flexibility and growth for the printing sector

Ahead of Drupa 2024, Gershon Alon, head of software solutions at HP Indigo, discusses how a modular, platform-based approach can help customers make progress towards full automation

19 Apr 2024 | By Noel D'Cunha

What are some of the challenges that printing is facing today?
Printing is complex — and becoming more so due to the growing variety of non-standard print media and a large number of SKUs. The need for personalisation and customisation drives these changes in response to consumer and brand demands. As a result, the number of smaller print jobs has increased. Even slight variations can pose a challenge for print planning and production. While high-volume low-mix (HVLM) manufacturing can use in-line production lines, print and packaging require offline or near-line processing and manual intervention.

Can you give an example?
A simple A4 brochure can require at least a dozen steps ranging from quotation, order confirmation, paper procurement, pre-flight, job preparation, approval, printing, lamination, cutting, stitching, and folding to packaging and shipping.

What are some of the demands of brand owners, and how are they affecting the printing industry?
Local and multinational brand owners want faster turnaround times, as they have more small and medium-sized brands to sell, with sophisticated marketing campaigns targeting different audiences. Parallelly, the creator economy and the growth of on-demand and eCommerce print services are also increasing the demand for commercial print jobs. This trend is resulting in a steady decline in the average length of print runs across all sectors, even in applications that have historically used more repetitive processes to deliver larger product quantities. However, digital technology and automation can help printers and converters increase efficiency and flexibility and shift more volume from analogue to digital. Our data shows that digital technology and automation can still drive business growth for printers and converters in these market conditions.

More orders, higher volume, faster growth
What data did HP analyse to understand the impact of automation?

To understand the impact of automation, HP has analysed data from 185 print businesses with a high level of automation compared to a baseline control group of 3,000 customers of varied sizes from different industries and locations around the world. Over the past five years, from 2018 to 2023, the 185 highly automated customers delivered 80% more orders with 51% higher volume and grew 27% faster than the control group.

What were the results, and what do they indicate about the benefits of automation for print businesses?
The results speak for themselves. Automation is the way to go to achieve higher volume and growth and address challenges like the shortage of skilled labour. However, designing and implementing automation is also complex, especially since most printers use a mix of analogue and digital production equipment and processes that are difficult to integrate.

So, what can be done to help print businesses operate more in a more agile manner, making the most of their current equipment investment while meeting these changes in demand, thus helping them prevent an overall decline in revenue or profitability?
The answer is 'intelligent automation'.

A modular 'Lego block' approach to print automation
What is intelligent automation? Are you referring to HP Intelligent Automation? If so, how does it address the pain points of printers and converters?

Yes. HP Intelligent Automation helps printers and converters address specific, separate, or connected steps in their production line to solve the most relevant pain points. It does this by using a single software platform — called HP PrintOS — to offer a range of modular solutions (like Lego blocks) for automating different tasks. Each solution can work as a standalone and — because they're all integrated into PrintOS, can also connect and work with the others (again, like Lego blocks) to automate more steps in a printer or converter's production process where suitable.

What are the advantages?
This means that printers and converters can take a flexible, customisable approach to automating only what will work best for them, and chain solutions together to build a more automated production line. Plus, because intelligent automation uses a single platform and offers modular solutions, it can meet the needs of print businesses of every size, in any industry.

What types of pain points does it address?
Whatever the pain point, from reaching and maintaining a certain colour standard, minimising areas of pre-press time and pre-flight, or monitoring job and equipment status – there's a solution for that. If customers don't want one solution because that part of their production line is working well but need another where they have to do a lot of manual intervention, no problem – they can mix and match one or as many as needed.

Helping customers win in the real world
How does intelligent automation work in the real world?

While PrintOS offers a wide range of HP solutions for multiple printing production line challenges, intelligent automation must work in the real world with other solutions and systems that customers are already using, which will be from many different vendors.

How does HP collaborate with the ecosystem to help its customers?
To achieve this and offer HP customers a complete ecosystem of print automation tools, we partner with leading vendors to either embed their solution in PrintOS or integrate it. This, for example, was with HP Direct-to-Finish, an automated setup application for finishing equipment from Ultimate TechnoGraphics in Canada. Or we can work together to create a solution that integrates HP and partner applications, like JDF-based order submission and pre-press automation through Cerm MIS, Esko Automation Engine and HP DFE. For customers who have developed their automation solution, we offer a range of APIs to help them connect with HP systems and PrintOS.

Can you share an example?
Customers can use a PrintOS Jobs API to collect costing data and automatically assess and manage profitability across all their jobs and clients. It's also essential to offer integration support, which we provide through our regional teams of customer service experts.

What are the essentials?
For intelligent automation to fulfil its potential to transform the print sector, platforms must combine proprietary solutions and partner apps and offer easy integration. Customers need open, collaborative ecosystems that accelerate their journey towards automation while still enabling them to go at their own pace, step by step, solving one problem at a time.

Let's switch off the lights
HP has been advocating automating factories and lights-out manufacturing. What does this mean? How does it help customers switch off one light after another, and how does it benefit them?

'Lights-out manufacturing' describes a factory or production line that is so fully and reliably automated that on-site human supervision isn't even required. This is still a fictional scenario in the print sector. We aim to keep releasing solutions that help customers switch off one light after another, increasing efficiency and reducing total cost of ownership (TCO).

Finally, you compare PrintOS to Lego in terms of its accessibility and flexibility. Can you explain?
The power of PrintOS, like Lego, is that anyone can start with a basic set, test its effectiveness, and gradually add more solutions, building a more extensive and sophisticated production floor. We envision a print industry where every solution is compatible, flexible, and interchangeable, one where digital technology delivers all the agility and quality businesses need for growth.

Tags : HP Indigo;