Automation: the Other Side of the BBC StoryWhat is the real impact of automation? The BBC is quick to highlight the downsides. What it doesn’t do, is tell us about the value of automation to large format printers, and the opportunities that automation presents for the print industry...
It’s only natural to worry about a rise in automation, particularly if our only perception is it’ll affect our lives negatively. Think back to the Luddites in the 19th Century: workers sent threatening letters to employers and broke into factories to destroy the new machines, such as the new wide weaving frames. Recently, the BBC picked up on a new Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, which captured statistics reflecting the potential for automation in the 21st Century.
So, can automation be a positive thing?
Yes. Definitely. In large scale operations of any kind, of course there may be an impact on headcounts when automation is rolled out business-wide – and this is the focus of the BBC’s report. But a much more likely scenario is that automation today – in the form of software, robotics, or any kind of technology – will free up human beings to do more of what they’re good at: interacting with each other (selling) and focusing on uniquely creative talents (such as developing innovative products or services, the arts, or even advancing technology), or more focused activity (like scheduled maintenance).
In the world of large format printing, we see automation as a journey. Some businesses will stay the distance and make the journey to full-blown automation – lights-out production, Industry 4.0 across the board. Data in, product out; minimum intervention on a massive scale.
Most SMEs, however, will make the journey one step at a time. For these businesses – signage, wraps, general large format print – automation actually means using technology to resolve day-to-day challenges.
Things like computer-driven file corrections, for example. Or – instead of creating the same customers’ job, over and over again – using a template to handle the work far more efficiently.
On the BBC’s webpage, there’s a link to an ONS bot (you can try this) showing the probability of automation in England, in 2011 and 2017. Or in other words, what percentage of each trade could expect to experience a move towards less manual intervention within that period of time. (Which is not the same thing as “how many of these businesses became automated”).
Automation means many things
The Office for National Statistics’ work shows that, in theory, 50.48% of a printer’s hands-on skill-sets could be replaced, one day– although we might say better assisted, some day – with some form of technology. Automation, in other words. The concern is, this means job losses. We say the opposite.
(In fact, of late, the print industry has been struggling to find skilled workers, which means it’s even more important to make good use of the talent it does have, in-house. What’s important, is that those operators are put to good use – rather than standing around, waiting for unnecessarily long, convoluted processes.)
By automating the elements of a large format printer’s operation that unnecessarily take up time, and lose the business money in the process, business owners have an opportunity to redeploy the manpower involved … getting the team to focus on things like maintenance instead, for example. Building the business. Doing more jobs, better, faster – for more customers.
Automation is a good thing. And everyone’s at a different stage of the automation journey, whether they realise it or not. What we’d really like to see, is some statistics showing how many of today’s large format printers aren’t using technology to automate their workflows – and how many of their competitors are.