The Terrifying Word: Automation

Kevin Shaw | November 13, 2019

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Automation and its scary sister, integration seem to be two of the most frightening words printers know. They don’t need to be, though. Let’s take a look at the myths, fears, and realities of automation.


Myths & Realities

Myth: Automation must be lights-out: Automation does not necessarily mean that nobody ever touches a job in your shop. There are companies that do this for specific types of work, but they are very specialized. Also, their customers assume more of the risk of getting what they asked for instead of what they wanted when no humans are involved. This is not a viable definition of automation for the work and customers of most general commercial printers and in-plants.

Myth: Every job must be automated: It often does not make sense to automate every single job that comes into your shop. Attempting to do so will likely take more time to program complex, one-off jobs than to do the work. And managing the myriad of automation processes will become a nightmare if you try. However, sophisticated automation systems can automate more job types than simple ones. They can do this by integrating knowledge about the order, the customer, the internal PDF attributes, inventory, media, press availability, and so forth. However, just identifying and automating workflows for your most common job types can also deliver impressive initial results.

Myth: The entire process must be automated: Sure, automating workflow as a whole is terrific. But, so is merely automating a single, highly-repetitive step. Just finding and moving files around adds up to a lot of time and mistakes each day. Manually imposing pages or generating tabs might involve valuable designer time. Simply automating workflow fragments can be a powerful way to realize savings quickly.

Myth: Automation only applies to prepress: Most people think of file reception, ticketing, preflighting, and various prepress steps when they hear the term automation. However, automation applies to estimating, billing, data analysis, inventory management, fulfillment, shipping, and other business processes as well. Back-office managers and CSRs often spend hours each month working on tasks that could be automated and done in seconds with a Print MIS system. Automation does not just apply to production.


Fears & Realities

Fear: Jobs: Employees often fear automation because they think it will be paid for by eliminating staff. I rarely find this to be the case. Most printers do want to reduce overtime, but they primarily want to grow their business. Automation lets them direct workers to more productive tasks which grow revenue.

Fear: Accountability: People often fear that automation and tracking will highlight mistakes or sloppy work and be used against them. While this is possible, most managers use automation and monitoring to highlight areas where coaching, training, or new equipment or software is required. In fact, production staff typically find fewer surprises and issues in doing their jobs when more tasks are automated.

Fear: Implementation: Some aspects of automation implementation are significant, while others are not. You can undoubtedly implement automation piecemeal, but you should have an overall vision. Without a vision, you will likely be reimplementing workflow automation as you evolve.


“There is no doubt Print MIS implementation requires time and effort. But most of our customers spend significantly more time understanding and revising their business processes than on implementing the technology. And that’s good business management whether or not you’re changing your MIS system.”
– Patrick Bolan, Avanti Systems, President and CEO


Getting Started

Find vendors who will help you look at the big picture. This includes order entry, reception, prepress, production, inventory, fulfillment, shipping, and MIS. That doesn’t mean you should do everything at once. The best automation vendors will help you identify your critical pain points, come up with a plan of where to start, and put you on a roadmap for moving forward.