Following on from my piece in Print Week...

Recently Jo Francis asked me my thoughts on robotics following on from a BBC series on intelligent machines.  You can see the original article here:

Iqraa Hassan – invited me to expand on the theme:

As early as 2000 I had installed robotic systems like the one below into factories at St Ives and before that we had significant investment in Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGV’s)– which were basically un-manned fork trucks that ran on a track in the floor.


(Image courtesy of Rima System)

So robotics is not necessarily new, what is exciting however is that technology today is getting much more sophisticated and less expensive. So that in the future they will be easily justifiable.

Here is a video demonstrating a robot being used to print on a builder’s hard hat using industrial inkjet applications: xenniatechnology -  Full colour digital 3D product printing

I believe that robotics do have a place in modern printing facilities – many of our manual processes are repetitive loading and unloading of products or components.  These functions can easily be performed by robots in the future it is just a case of financial justification. (TED - Marco Tempest: Maybe the best robot demo ever)

The development of sophisticated robots in all aspects of manufacturing has become commonplace especially in the car industry, but we are not that far behind - in essence a sheet feeder on a printing press is a form of a robotic device some will remember when sheets were fed by hand. (I’m far too young).

As machine vision (the use of high definition video cameras), pickups – (grippers or hands that have the sophistication to handle complex products) and intelligent software develops, equipment manufacturers will seek to incorporate this technology – Why?

Firstly - printers and customers love technology.  I remember when we had just installed an £8M printing press with a robot handling system and the customers spent all their time watching the robotic system rather than looking at what the press could do.

Secondly labour is still a significant cost to any manufacturing organisation. My belief is that we are some way from fully automated factories but anything that removes repetitive strain injuries, and unskilled labour from our businesses the better things will be. Robots do break down (occasionally) but they don't take holidays/ sickness and my experience is that most people working in a factory do not want to do the repetitive jobs anyway. (It is very boring stacking products onto a pallet for 8 hours).

There is still some way to go in the artificial intelligence dealing with interaction with customers, having just spent 2 days talking to an automated telephone system I doubt that intelligent human interfaces are sophisticated enough yet. Customers will always want to talk with someone who can make things happen.

Some other technology that may or may not become part of our industry but are worthy of keeping an eye on are drones – we have heard that Amazon and others are looking into this technology for distribution. So how about in a printing facility? (Especially a very large one)

Here is a video of how intelligent devices can work together:

The Dmel - A Swarm of Nano Quadrotors

They can even work co-operatively:

Federico Augugliaro - Building a rope bridge with flying machines

Watch this space for implementations of this fascinating technology it has the potential to change things dramatically or it could just be another technology looking for an application.

Finally just to give some perspective – I remember several years back at one of the robotics conferences, before the recession put an end to people considering capital investment, there was a heated discussion on the practicalities of a lights out printing factory.

Traditional printers were horrified that automated colour and inspection systems removed the need to “eyeball the print” and that robotics and materials handling systems were able to transport components around without intervention so the big debate was could we have a lights out facility?

The debate raged on – eventually a 50 something printer took the microphone and said that it was impossible to have a lights out factory - he said “in the corner of the factory there would be a light on and in the illuminated corner would be a man and a dog.

The man, he said, would be there for security and the dog was there, he paused, to make sure that the man didn't touch anything”

That concluded the debate.

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