AI is a Bit Like Having Kids (part 2)


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AI is a Bit Like Having Kids (part 2)
Coming soon to a print plant near you

By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

You stroll into the warehouse. Robots are pulling stock from the shelves and taking it out to the printers and presses on the shop floor. You have to be careful. The mobile bots “know” you’re there, but at 285 pounds each it would hurt if one ran into you. Out on the shop floor other bots load the presses and printers while still others move completed jobs to shipping. This used to require more than a few people. It was painful letting folks go but you have to admit, the bots are pretty efficient.

At the same time, even one of them seems smarter than any of the people they replaced. And they are there for two shifts a day with no breaks, complaints or sick days. All are enabled by AI. Their software is updated one night each week. Sort of like the EV your spouse thinks is great.

SKU to the Rescue
Some of this happening now. Some is a couple years in the future. But not much further. This is way beyond the old sheet-fed trick of matching a book block to its cover: that was really just automation. Software company Covariant has developed software called Covariant Brain that works in conjunction with RFM-1 software (Robotics Foundation Models) and are trained on a dataset similar to the LLM (Large Language Model) used by ChatGPT, Gemini, and others. RFM learns from bots in warehouses around the world. This network helps the bots learn what works in other places to make them all smarter, much in the way that EV cars can be updated when charging and while you are sleeping.

Assuming you have the appropriate bots in your shop a fresh stack of paper (yes, it has a SKU) arrives at the presses a shortly before it’s needed. This not a fantasy: finishing systems provider Bowe already has bots that will load a 25 x 35-inch stack of paper. Loading a fresh web onto an inkjet press is next, more a matter of physics—the weight of the web—than robotics. Would such a capability let you reduce head count or put people in different roles? Maybe.

Thinking a couple years ahead, if the advance programming were done so the bots “knew” how your plant differed from the one across town that makes say, windows, robots that are essentially the same will soon be configured and programmed to pick up and move virtually any SKU in your warehouse. The upshot is that you may need to hire someone who can understand and write code. Yes, technology again rears its head in your once-analog business. Even Google’s Gemini will soon be available in a workstation version so your resident geek can devise the necessary code.

Technological acceleration
I bring this up because printers need to be ready now for the changes that will start happening in the next couple of years. What is happening here is the inter-relationship of robotics and artificial intelligence overlaid on the largely analog process of printing. It will not be perfect, especially in the early days, but it will happen. Because technological advances tend to build on each other and accelerate, these changes will come at you a lot faster than did digital printing. Printers who begin integrating (or at least preparing for) these changes now will have a competitive advantage a few years out. They may find themselves needing fewer people per shift, having smaller facilities with higher productivity, perhaps even fewer presses. All equate to lower costs.

You may already have several digital presses on your shop floor, a digital plate maker, and maybe do automated plate changes. But you still have people running the presses, loading paper, and moving printed sheets to finishing. But suppose those jobs were run directly off the electronically submitted job ticket and bots did the heavy lifting. Then you’d come to work each morning to find presses were locked, loaded and ready to run. Or already running. This is what AI is going to do. You don’t have to like it.

Color is color is color
Your customers’ brand police don’t always appreciate that “their” color can be mathematically defined but no one outside the brand really cares. Like it or not, the world is gravitating toward so-called “pleasing color.” Does it really matter if Home Depot Orange or FedEx Purple are a shade off? No. Same for Coke Red. Over a beer or two the brand cops admit there is a tolerance for branded color accuracy.

The color wonks on this site will disagree, but color is color is color. Color accuracy is already being measured on press. Sure, specially mixed and spot colors presently require extra attention, so the PMS colors in two stations of your eight-color press are being manually measured. But an AI-enabled press will be able to nail those colors every time. Even the brand police will be happy. A print shop without the technology to do that automatically will have a hard time competing with one that does because the automation can help reduce head count and costs while increasing accuracy.

Have a good answer
Adopting AI is not like when your kids insisted you had to take them to Atlantis in the Bahamas so they could swim with the dolphins. That was optional, as was Disney World, and you saved a big hit on your credit card by avoiding those junkets. But your business will not survive ignoring AI. While AI is not quite ready for prime time, getting started with it now can begin making your company more competitive and more valuable. This is important when you decide to spend more time golfing, fishing or whatever else floats your boat. Begin now so you can find how to make the best use of AI in your business.

There should be a third or even fourth part to this but I am going to let the development cycle breathe for a few weeks before taking the next plunge. I am a long way from trusting anything more than the rudimentary aspects of artificial intelligence, but it is coming at us and will change many things. One of these is printing. You probably wouldn’t consider your business being competitive if your newest press was made in 1975 and you lacked any type of digital printer. The same goes for AI. In less than five years prospective customers are going to preface their initial discussion with you by saying, “Tell me how you are using AI in your shop.” You’ll need to have a good answer.


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