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Thu, Jun

Print 4.0: the substance behind the hype

Is intelligent networking really within our ken? Walter Hale explores the possibilities.

Brace yourselves print service providers, yet another revolution is in the offing. At Drupa this year, there will be much talk about a topic called Print 4.0. Although it behoves us to be sceptical about big concepts with media-friendly tags used as an over-arching theme to promote a mega-exhibition, there is, for once, plenty of substance behind the hype.

One of the reasons for that is that Print 4.0 is already with us. While politicians, consultants and technologists have been touting the virtues of something they variously call the Internet of Things or Industry 4.0, the digital printing industry has been doing this for years.

The best place to start is to define our terms. Claus-Bolza Schünemann, chairman of the Drupa committee and chief executive of Koenig and Bauer, describes Print 4.0 as “an end-to-end digital workflow made possible by the intelligent networking of our machines and systems.” As he goes on to say: “Industry 4.0 is on everyone’s lips, but what is only in the very early stages in many industries is already being put into practice in modern print shops, intelligently networked machines and systems are linked to form continuous process chains. Quality is monitored in the production line itself by sophisticated sensors. Standardisation is already very advanced.”

In this brave, but not so new, world, the entire process - from concept to end product - can be digital. With technology, printers can minimise downtime, utilise their machines more effectively, proactively service their systems (sensor-based remote monitoring solutions will raise the alarm before a component fails) and, through closed-loop colour management systems, highlight the fact that colour is starting to drift before it is visible to the naked eye. Put all this together and, as Schünemann says, “the intelligent networking of machines and systems has advanced to a point where automation is economically viable even for small jobs.”

If you want to see where all this is heading, you could do worse than head to Drupa, Hall 7A/B13 and see what the VDMA, the German engineering association, is developing: a manufacturer-neutral digital interface that is designed to create a seamless process from prepress to the finished product.

Digital print technology, with its ability to vary and personalise print and use a wide variety of substrates, is in the vanguard of this revolution – and studies suggest that the digital print market will grow by 7.5% a year for the next decade. Schünemann has a point when he cautions that “Analogue printing will remain the method of choice for high-quality, cost-effective printing in large volumes” but is he right to add that analogue “remains the guarantor of sales in our industry?”

The latest report on global print trends from Drupa suggests that might not always be the case. The fastest growing technology in global print is digital printing (up 28% on the previous year) which represents more than 25% of turnover for 35% of commercial printers. The same proportion of commercial printers said that variable print content accounted for more than 25% of their digital revenues. And looking ahead, it seems conventional printers are finding it harder to grow their business: 32% said there was a lack of demand, compared to 10% of digital printers.

The one thing that doesn’t quite fit into this seamless, automated, high-tech world is Web-to-print which only 26% of printers offered in 2015 (compared to 25% the year before). Yet volumes of Web-to-print work did grow significantly in North America, where the use of digital technology is probably most advanced and more widespread than in any other region.

Such findings would probably not surprise Professor Johannes Schilp who has been working on concepts for digital factories since the 1990s and has been heavily involved in the VDMA’s preparations for Drupa. Although he says that Industry 4.0 is an industrial revolution “the implementation in practice at companies can only be an evolutionary process.”

In his view, the printing industry has made a pretty good start although “digital production planning and control for flexible job handling, condition monitoring and collecting quality-related data still need to be optimised.” He also admits there is a lot of work to be done to develop “a fully integrated digital process chain in which machines and equipment for peripheral processes can be integrated so you can plug and play.”

Standards will help, says Schilp. The Job Description Format (JDF), which is slowly making headway in wide-format, is a start, but could be improved. Part of the problem is that the printing industry is so diverse - many print shops only have a handful of staff, while a few larger groups have a global reach - but Schilp is optimistic that it will be possible to “refine the standard so that compatible solutions can be generated that are independent of the manufacturers.” This has already been achieved, for example, in the agricultural industry where nearly all manufacturers subscribe to a standard which makes tractors and farming equipment compatible.

The future, as the novelist William Gibson famously remarked, is here - it’s just been unevenly distributed. And that distribution will remain uneven. Yet at some point, as Schilp suggests, Print 4.0 could transform the industry’s prospects. With a universal standard, it will be much simpler to tailor a print solution to a particular customer. Data will enable the printer to track quality at every step in the process. Innovation will be easier and faster.

Print 4.0 does raise some strategic issues that print service providers could start mulling over now. In this fast, automated, digital marketplace, where does your competitive edge lie? Traditionally, printers have sold on one, two or all three of the following: quality, price and service.

No matter how much data you throw at the process, print quality can never be completely standardised. Yet the gap between good and bad - or good and excellent - will probably narrow. Maybe the industry needs to broaden its definition of quality - should it have less to do with old school technical definitions and be more about the ingenuity, creativity and complexity of the solutions you tailor, offer and deliver to customers? Some PSPs have already created a niche by doing work so complex that rivals struggle to compete. Not every company can do that but that approach may work for an enterprising minority.

The latest Drupa global print trends report shows that many companies are already fretting about their margins. Even in an increasingly automated industry, price will always be a factor in winning business. Traditionally many printers have been reluctant to be early adopters, as they don’t want to incur the cost of innovations that take to bed in, yet more may choose to invest relentlessly in new machinery that can produce more print per hour and enable them to compete at a lower cost.

Service is already more important than it once was and is likely to become even more so. It won’t just be about ensuring you deliver what you promised, it may be offering them advice, other services (design, database management, marketing services) and answering that question: why digital? As Schilp says: “The present co-existence and multitude of different printing sector brands leaves much to be desired for the user.”

Revolutions can be expensive. McKinsey, the world’s most famous management consultants, estimate that the coming of steam and the rise of robotics, led to 80-90% of equipment in the manufacturing sector being replaced. The good news is that they don’t think Industry 4.0 will be that intensive: they estimate that only 40-50% of machines will need to be replaced. The simple question for many print service providers will be: can we afford that kind of capital expenditure?

The upside is that Print 4.0 should benefit the bottom line. How fast - and how big - the rewards are will vary. McKinsey predicts that, just through intelligent analytics, most companies will be able to improve gross margins by 30% in two years. This sounds a lot but, to give just one example, better sensors in one African mine revealed fluctuations in oxygen levels during the process which, when fixed, saved them £13m a year.

There’s no point in having all this data unless it is put to use. Management information system suppliers often bemoan the fact that as little as one in three of print service providers are using their systems to anything like their full potential. Yet companies that make the most of the information they have could develop an enduring competitive advantage.

The shape of the industry in the world of Print 4.0 is uncertain. As Schilp concludes: “I don’t think we can comprehend the full potential of Print 4.0, because completely new business models may emerge in future.”