Almost all business units in today's corporations are looking to automate their processes as much as possible. COVID-19 taught us that relying on human-dependent manual tasks made it difficult to carry on when the humans were locked down at home. The pandemic accelerated a path towards automation that was already underway, and companies are now focused on making automation the new normal.
Print/mail centers are no exception. Many tools to automate or digitize processes that have been done by hand for decades are becoming readily available. Some of these tools may even be in your print and mail production centers now.
Several technologies may be useful as modern mail centers transition to more intelligent, integrated, and automated operations. Some improvements will be easy to spot, such as robots that move material around the facility or take over manual tasks. Other automation projects are software based and data driven or built into print/mail production equipment.
Small mail centers won’t be investing in robots, but I can envision other forms of automation applying to document operations of nearly any size. Expensive software used to be available only as on-premise installations, with accompanying investments in servers and IT personnel. These solutions are now often available in the cloud as a subscription, making them affordable to a wider range of mail centers.
Robots are already in place in many manufacturing facilities, including some mail centers. Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are transporting rolls of paper inside print production centers. Carrying cartons of envelopes or inserts from the warehouse to the inserting machines and back is a manageable task for AGV devices and may replace the trips operators make to the warehouse to gather materials for the next inserting job. If a driverless vehicle can navigate through the neighborhood to deliver my pizza, moving materials around the print/mail center should be easy.
Industrial robots are also available to sleeve mail trays, intelligently build pallets of outgoing mail, and label them. This technology reduces labor costs and improves accuracy.
When I worked in the service bureau business as a production control specialist, I made sure all the production steps were performed and each was successfully completed. I ran jobs to reformat data, verify and balance totals, standardize addresses, sort the data, create print, reconcile mail inserter counts, and get the information to the billing department. I made sure we loaded the right files to process the jobs and that they processed on time. Every one of those operations required a human to know what to do and when to do it. I had to recognize problems and correct errors. Each customer application might include different variations or combinations of steps.
Maybe your shop still operates in much the same way. Workflow automation is changing all that.
Automated workflow ensures the production facility processes each customer application according to a set of pre-defined rules. The workflow software monitors the process, passing files and controls from one step to the next, and issuing alerts if the system detects an error or delay. Operations personnel can monitor the entire production environment from a single dashboard.
With the addition of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, these automated workflow systems are getting even smarter. They can anticipate workloads, consider deadlines, and match job requirements with devices that support them. In some cases they can correct errors, such as reprinting damaged documents, without human intervention.
Equipment Maintenance and Set-up
Sensors built into print and mail equipment can provide the data that allows AI-powered systems to predict when a component will fail and automatically schedule maintenance appointments or order replacement parts in advance. Wouldn’t it be great for the machine to tell you that a belt was going to start slipping or a roller was wearing out, instead of waiting until the machine suddenly failed during an important job? You probably use preventative maintenance to keep those breakdowns from happening today, relying on the skill and experience of the service technician. Most of them are great, but service professionals won’t be able to catch problems that develop between PMs. Smarter hardware can be more reliable, resulting in longer up-time and higher productivity.
Modern printing presses and finishing equipment already offer automated set-up functionality. By storing the settings and parameters in the device’s memory, operators can simply choose a job profile from a menu and the machines will make adjustments on their own. Look for future functionality here to automate fine-tuning adjustments or eliminate operator intervention. Machines may be able to set up themselves based on attributes of the job such as page dimensions, cut marks, or envelope window location. Automated set-up eliminates the chance of operator error caused by selecting the wrong job profile.
Inside and Outside Communication
Smart factories are adopting standards that allow equipment from different manufacturers to communicate with each other. A printer might alert an inserting device or bindery equipment, for instance, to be sure it is ready to accept the work when the print job is finished. External communication among systems may also be possible. A workflow platform might provide daily mail volume estimates to the presort vendor, for example, so they can efficiently schedule their pickup routes. The software could handle this task automatically. Human-originated phone calls and emails would no longer be required.
A New Way of Working
Some of these automation measures may sound far-fetched, and not every print/mail facility will implement them. However, the technology to accomplish these things already exists or is likely to be available soon. Companies that take advantage of automation and technologies like AI will have an advantage. They will do more work at a lower cost than their competitors.
Up to now, the skills most valued in mail operations employees have been associated with machine operation, productivity, people management, and planning. As document factories become more automated, I predict the most valuable employees will be those who understand how to connect processing systems, evaluate data, and manage the intelligent software and hardware running in their shops.
Mike Porter at Print/Mail Consultants helps his clients meet the challenges they encounter in document operations and creates informational content for vendors and service providers in the document industry. Follow @PMCmike on Twitter, send a connection request on LinkedIn, or contact Mike directly at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the July/August, 2021 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.