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Technology has affected every industry in some shape or form, and in many cases it has completely revolutionised sectors. In the printing industry this has been manifested in the machines becoming more sophisticated as a result, with continuous improvements in both hardware and software.

But will the new high-performing machines that have become available, mean that printing companies need staff with a new skill set? And for smaller businesses that aren’t using the latest machines, will other advancements in technology mean they need to upskill staff too?
One thing is for sure – the single biggest factor that has affected the printing industry from a technology point of view is automation.
Heidelberg’s product executive Paul Chamberlain, who himself trained as a printer, explains that with the latest presses, it’s the stop button that the operator is required to push, rather than the start button, because automation has meant that the machine is automatically ready to begin its work.
He points out that while as recently as the mid-80s a big offset press would require two operators, these days automation means only one is needed, perhaps backed up by an assistant moving between a number of machines.
The sophisticated style of these machines means that there is actually less for a printer to do – Chamberlain says that colour management within presses that can control and measure colour were another leap forward in the industry – again that was an area that had to be managed by humans in the past.
As Epson’s UK sales manager Phil McMullin says, the days of a print operator having to babysit the machine constantly while it was running to ensure it was performing as it should do, are long gone.
“The mechanism is so accurate now that you can guarantee your output is going to be on the roll ready for the next stage of operation, and you can connect the printer to the internet for remote monitoring or put in a CCTV camera to ensure it’s still running from your home,” he says.
But new types of machines – no matter how much they improve the ease of use, still require training; something that the likes of Epson, Canon and Heidelberg all provide.
Epson train people within their partner eco-system who then train end users, while it has an academy where people can directly get training on how to make the most out of Epson machines. Chamberlain explains that Heidelberg’s training involves teaching the printer how to make things more automated.

But those who do get training on the high-performance machines may find that competition for jobs becomes significantly sharper, according to George Thompson, joint managing director at recruitment firm Harrison Scott Associates.
“It might be that you have five separate machines with five employees all earning £8 per hour, but you would also be able to get two bigger machines and two employees, who are better qualified and higher paid,” he says. So while there are fewer employees, the wage bill will go up along with expectations of a worker’s capabilities.
So what skills do you need to be considered highly qualified?
Thompson explains that those who have managed, or have worked to lean manufacturing standards are considered to be the cream of the crop; and these principles neatly tie in with automation, he says.
But there are a range of other skills too – and while understanding automation is key, Steve Wilson, Inca’s director of research and development, suggests that the qualities that stand out are the printers who can carry out the occasional specialist work on these sophisticated machines.
“If 80% of the printer’s work is repetitive, then you could get someone external to optimise that for you, but the 20% that is for occasional speciality work requires in-house intel and training to understand how to use the machine, and if you don’t have that 20%, then someone else is going to go and get it,” he states.
While the 80% may make up the base-line profitability, the main profit comes from the ‘unusual’ types of jobs, says Wilson, because those come attached with a higher margin.

Data management
For these more unusual jobs, Anthony White, marketing specialist at Canon EMEA suggests that staff need to develop data- and database-related knowledge to manage the increasing requirement for personalisation of printed materials. Expertise in extracting and re-purposing data from legacy systems will also be at a premium, he says, as customers seek to extract content from old mainframe systems to use for new strategies.
Inca’s Wilson agrees, stating that the ability to interpret data and use it to optimise operations is a “key competitive edge”.
White also states that a greater understanding of different technology platforms is now required, for example, knowledge of marketing automation or multi-channel campaigns that will typically comprise print, email, SMS and web content, all with data-driven content are valuable skills. While software can help with this situation, White believes that at least one technology specialist is required per business unit.
3D CAD and general design skills are another skill required, he says, for 3D prototype development and testing as 3D printing adoption grows.
Meanwhile, Inca’s Wilson says that the Internet of Things (IOT) phenomenon, which is the buzzword for internet-connected devices that communicate with each other and transmit data in real-time to an end-user, is something that Inca has been testing this year. He says that the only barrier to this are the politics and commercial deals between various parties. But the skills that printing staff would need as a result of IOT, he says, are less technical and more cultural.
“It’s a cultural change; printers are used to making their own decisions, thinking on their feet and handling chaotic situations – but if these bits of equipment have the right information and it’s a clever system, printers are going to have to trust it because it’s accurate,” he says.

The IT crowd
In the majority of global companies, the IT department procures the technology that it needs to make the business tick, and give it the competitive edge over its rivals. However, as Simon Lewis, business director of HP’s graphics solutions business says, unlike other sectors, the printing industry doesn’t usually have a chief information officer to lead these strategic decisions.
“CIOs give a level of intelligence, seniority and strategy but only the top guys in the printing industry have one. Companies with £1m to £10m turnover can’t afford a CIO, and they seldom have an IT director,” he says.
“There is a lot of technology in printing, but it is not a technology industry,” he adds.
But Lewis emphasises that technology still plays a big part in the industry, and that companies should be embracing new types of tools. He says that younger people within the industry are much more aware of the likes of cloud computing and IOT and how they’re affecting the industry – but that the majority of workers in the sector are middle-aged staff who don’t share the same interests.
Lewis believes that printing firms will start hiring more of an IT-savvy business manager to replace network managers in the coming years.
“They’re going to need the confidence and curiosity to forever be exploring how technology can help, and ultimately there will be fewer IT people dealing with the hardware and connecting the pieces, and more of those that are building out the cloud eco-systems and using data intelligence,” Lewis states.
According to Lewis, the IT-savvy business manager will also be required to help introduce a new culture within the organisation of using smaller agile technology suppliers who can provide solutions as and when the firm needs them.
Harrison Scott Associates’ Thompson says that the ultimate goal for many organisations is a “lights-out plan”, that is that all that will be required are robots to run the machines, in a world where everything is automated.
Indeed, Epson is one of the companies that is looking at putting in robotics into its high-end £400,000 UV printer, while other big press producers are also innovating in this area.
However, few within industry are planning to welcome in the new robot overlords any time soon.
“I firmly believe that you need a printer to operate these presses,” says Heidelberg’s Chamberlain.
He says an experienced printer will always have a better understanding of issues such as inks and better instincts for rectifying production issues without having to take any drastic measures.
“Intervention is still needed. What we have seen with the latest equipment is a lot of areas that the human would normally been looking at is done by the machine. They may not have to do those things, but it enables them to spend more time planning, which is key because automation has meant that jobs get completed quicker, so you need to ensure you have your printer plates in order and that you have the right stock put through – you have to be forward thinking,” he says.