Industry Insights

Digitalisation of Print 4.0

“Print 4.0” - What it is, and what does it mean for companies in the print industry?

What exactly is Print 4.0?

For those working in the print business, the buzzword “Print 4.0” has been common currency some time. But what it is, and what does it mean for companies?

Literally speaking, Print 4.0 is the fourth industrial revolution as applied to the printing industry: that is, the evolution from the basic automation that was Print 3.0 into a fully interlinked system. Print 4.0 is, however, more than that. It’s a vision – of print transformed for the smart era.

Seamless integration

Print 4.0 is based on the assumption – which is fast becoming reality – that manufacturing and delivery processes can be integrated inside and outside the company. Key to this is the Internet of Things, which makes it possible to integrate all internet-enabled components into a worldwide network.

Applied to the printing industry, this entails printers that can communicate without human intervention, both inside and outside their own companies. At its simplest level, this means printers ordering their own cartridges from suppliers when their ink runs low. However, it is fast coming to mean something that will transform the industry.

Print 4.0 envisages that this level of seamless integration will apply to all processes along the print chain, from customer order to full-service processing and delivery. That includes acquisition, procurement processes, administrative tasks, merchandise management, customer care and more.

Networking and availability

Print 4.0 will increase efficiency, then, not through ever faster presses, but through a higher degree of networking and availability.

Not only will computer-controlled production plants be able to communicate with one another, but they will also be able to incorporate data analysis tools. The result should be networks of machines that can learn from big data and other smart programmes to become self-enhancing and run processes themselves.

Everyday reality

In many respects, Print 4.0 is already here – the process is an evolution rather than a revolution.

There has long been a gradual process of merging analogue production and IT. The first steps were automated prepressed workflows, such as computer-to-plate production.

Another step along the road was the interlinkage with calculation systems, which have matured into management information systems. Some forward-thinking companies, particularly online print providers, are already well onto the next stage.

At an industrial scale, Heidelberg’s Push to Stop concept and Koenig & Bauer’s AutoRun are already enabling virtually autonomous print production.

However, this smart technology is only really being used on the companies’ own products and processes. The next step is bidirectional external communication – linking to customers and suppliers. It will mean transforming rigid value and supply chains into a dynamic, flexible networked.

Printing Industry 4.0 – the future

Integration of suppliers should be relatively straightforward.

Paper logistics for Print 4.0 would involve, for example, an automated Management Information System to book paper supplies in and out; and sensors to detect stock levels and trigger order processes independently. All these would be dynamically integrated into one seamless process between paper supplier and printer. Robots would also play a part, in prepress, printing, and material handling. Nonetheless, a pressroom without staff is unimaginable.

Integration with customers is in many ways trickier. They do not necessarily want to invest in new hardware or software. Instead, companies must find ways of providing them with smart services that simplify the process of ordering print products.

Online providers are already taking the lead here. Not only are they making it easier for customers to order print products, but they are also offering a more tailored service. This is driving the trend towards smaller print runs to shorter deadlines, with several studies now finding that around 75% of all four-colour jobs are for fewer than 5,000 copies.

Therefore, the next buzzword that those in the print industry will be hearing, if they’re not already, is Mass Customisation. That’s the topic for a further new series, and a later blog.

You might also be interested in