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Automation: A Challenging Yet Somewhat Attainable Proposition

Margins are getting tighter while customers are raising the bar on expectations.

By Michael Robertson, President & CEO, SGIA

Graphics producers need to keep pace with the marketplace and ensure profitability.

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  • Automating large-format graphic production is a hot topic these days, and rightly so.

    With the effective development of digital imaging, graphic production has shifted from being a "craft" to being a manufacturing process. In fact, several of the larger graphics producers have told me that the shift continues to be rapid and quite dramatic. Their customers are looking to them for more than imaged materials. Printing is just a part of their revised service structure. The most successful SGIA members are taking full advantage of this expanded opportunity by determining the needs of their customers and responding effectively. At the same time, they are molding their production capabilities into streamlined manufacturing processes.

    Successfully driving production as a manufacturing process requires substantial changes to the business model. In manufacturing, there is little room for error; every step needs to be managed for efficiency and profitability. And perhaps most important, the cost of employee interaction within the process needs to be minimized. How do we achieve this?

    Welcome to Automation
    Now, I am about to complain about the challenges of automation for large-format graphic producers, but before I do, let me say that even with all its challenges, we will get there. There is a light at the end of this tunnel. Step-by-step, hair pull by hair pull, and with substantial effort by many, we will reach a level of automation that supports graphic production as a manufacturing process. Okay, let's peel this onion.

    Understanding the "want" in regard to automation of large-format graphic production is easy. In basic terms, it would be a system where the specific needs of the job are selected; a cost/pricing model is activated; inventory is verified, designated and replenished; production is scheduled and completed; fulfillment is scheduled then completed; and an invoice is created. Basically, by entering the specification of the job in an ERP/MIS system, all aspects of the job would be initiated, monitored and managed through completion, all obtained with an absolute minimum of human intervention.

    So, what's the catch? The answer is product diversity. There are too many variables to fit into today's automation systems. Large-format graphics producers create a wide range of products with different sizes, media, inks, product uses, etc.. I recently asked a new SGIA member what his company did, and he replied, "rarely the same thing twice."

    Diversity and Automation Are Like Oil and Water
    If graphics producers offered a limited number of products, say products 1, 2 and 3, automation would be easy. Pick a product, put in the specifications, cue the automation and stand back. A service set with a limited number of products and only a few variables is well suited for automation. But most graphics producers have almost an unlimited number of products. If they offered products 1, 2 and 3, the next customer would ask for a special version that combined aspects of 2 and 3, but in a different size and on an unusual substrate. It's just the nature of the business.

    However, there are exceptions. We do have some SGIA members that offer a limited product set as a substantial part of their business where they specialize in specific areas. Some of these companies are automating as much of their order management and production as possible. They are not only streamlining their businesses, but helping the SGIA community by pushing the limits of automation. Firehouse Image Center is one such company. Terry Corman is president of Firehouse, and he is a strong proponent of automation. They not only manage production, but also ensure quality and consistency through automated procedures. Corman recently spoke at SGIA's SPIRE Automation Summit. SPIRE is a group of the largest graphics producers in North America, and this year's meeting revolved around all things automation. Says Corman, "Anything that can be automated will be automated." It's a just a matter of effort and time.

    Terry Corman is right. At the SPIRE meeting, we heard from seven software companies that offer solutions to manage the production process. All are working toward more complete solutions, and all agreed that the variables associated with graphic production make automation a real challenge. So what's the next step?

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    Start in the Shallow End
    For many graphics producers, the best approach may be to look at their operation as a collection of vertical markets. Some vertical markets have almost limitless variables, but others can have a manageable amount. Automating the vertical markets that have limited variability is an option worth exploring. This is what Firehouse has done, and very successfully.

    Other companies are automating part of the process such as inventory control and production scheduling while using other systems to manage variable-heavy steps such as pricing. One SPIRE member said, "I love my ERP/MIS, I just don't use it. For pricing, anyway."

    Many successful graphics producers are employing a series of automation applications with each addressing one aspect of production. In many cases these applications don't communicate with each other. This approach requires careful management because it can lead to bottlenecks and other production problems. While the application-specific solution certainly isn't ideal, for many, it's the best they can do right now. Connecting the "silos" is their next step.

    The software developers who participated in the SPIRE meeting were well aware of the challenges of automation. Some said they were gaining ground on managing the variables, but it was an uphill battle to develop a system that could address the variables without being so complex that it created its own challenges. In a complete automation system, every variable would need to be specified. An unusual size requirement or an unusual media wouldn't fit existing pricing models. Other aspects of production would also be affected. These variables are complicated to manage any way you approach it.

    Careful What You Ask for - You Might Get it
    One evening during the SPIRE Automation Summit, a few of us speculated on the differences between today's marketplace and a hypothetical marketplace where full automation systems were readily available. One viewpoint: "As much as I want to automate the process, our ability put together complex projects effectively and accurately is a value to our customers. It's a competitive edge." Another SPIRE member presented the question: "If graphics production was truly plug and play, would we have companies like Amazon with massive software budgets entering the marketplace?"

    It was an interesting discussion, but after considering the alternative, we all agreed that automation was the future and automation will probably play a key role in a future phase of change in the marketplace. It will be better to be leading the way than playing catch up.

    Just When You Think You Have it Figured Out
    I've been with SGIA through three Association ERP/MIS changes. Like any organization, SGIA needs to stay current with applicable capabilities. The differences in the structure and operation of the three systems over the past 30 years are striking. It leads me to wonder if we might see a dramatic breakthrough with data-management technology that provides better ways to address the variable dilemma. Stranger things have happened.

    Based on the discussion at the SPIRE Automation Summit, I believe that more interaction between software developers and graphics producers would be beneficial. A couple of the leading graphics producers in North America eagerly encouraged the participating software developers to spend more time in their production facilities. There's nothing like seeing the challenges first hand. I'm sure many graphics producers would welcome this type of interaction, as would many of the software developers.

    Nobody Said it Would Be Easy
    While there clearly isn't a total solution to the automation challenge today, graphics producers and software developers are eager to improve the situation. Graphics producers are doing all they can to streamline their operations and maximize profitability, and software developers really want to provide a workable solution.

    We are on the right path, but automation is never-ending process. It will continue to get better and offer efficiency and profitability to those willing to work toward solutions.

    Michael E. Robertson has been on staff with the Specialty Graphic Imaging Association since the early 1980s, constantly striving to move the industry forward. As CEO of SGIA, Robertson is a proponent of investigating and supporting new technologies. The growth of the industry, he believes, rests in its acceptance and development of new markets based on new technologies, and he is dedicated to helping SGIA members understand and prepare for the challenges and competition inherent with new technology.

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