Key Roles Printers Need for Industry 4.0

7 min read
27/03/18 11:56

At our last user event I shared with our customers some important insight about what we at Tharstern believe printers need to do to survive industry 4.0 – the much talked about journey towards an automated, ‘smart’ production floor. This insight was taken from our own experience working in the industry and a realization about what separates our most successful customers from the rest.

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The reason why these customers have achieved this level of success is because they realize that they are selling much more than just the printed product. Clients are now demanding a complete end-to-end experience from their print service provider. Not only are they looking for increasingly complex pieces of print, but they are also looking for services such as data processing, self-help portals, website development, mobile apps, automated approvals and real-time data feedback. Services that are perhaps more closely aligned with a technology company rather than a printer.

But it’s those PSPs who have embraced this and made technology a part of their business that are now flourishing.

Gone are the inky fingered trade shows of old

For those of you who have been in the industry as long as I have, you’ll know how different the big trade shows of the past were compared to the modern-day shows I visit now. Traditionally, shows were dominated by the big printing vendors and their machinery and they were all about the print. Today’s exhibitions, on the other hand, are full of LCD panels and touchscreens and software presentations - a very different experience indeed.

The reason for this is that print technologies have evolved, and they’ve now collided with other technologies outside of the typical print value chain.

Now it’s not just about producing print, it’s about manipulating orders, data and content. As the manufacturers make their hardware increasingly easier to operate and more automated, they rely on software to drive these modern-day output devices.

Technology is the key to providing an exceptional customer experience

This evolution towards the complex experience that customers are seeking has created challenges for the industry. It has increased the demand for low volume jobs with proportionally high administrative costs. That’s why it’s essential that printers work to streamline every aspect of their workflow. So, I’m not just talking from web-to-print to MIS, I’m talking from the moment the customer places the order right up to delivery and beyond and there are many technological pieces of that puzzle to fit together. Touch points like online portals, courier tracking and all the other examples I mentioned above.

Because the customer wants these complex technological solutions it’s more important than ever that the touch points throughout your whole organization are streamlined and that there’s a robust and consistent stream of information and data from one stage to the next. This doesn’t necessarily mean by automation though - you will still need those human checks and balances in certain places. We know that Industry 4.0 doesn’t literally mean that the production floor lights can be turned off – our industry isn’t like that.

The human factor is still hugely important and at certain points is downright essential, particularly regarding customer experience. Identifying which touch points can be improved by adding a personal element and which can be improved through automation is the key to providing an exceptional customer experience in the printing industry.

My fundamental point

Just as there has been a shift in bias towards software and technology platforms, so should there be a shift in bias towards technology people in the organization. If a PSP wants to meet the increased demands of their clients and provide an exceptional customer experience, it’s essential that they hire their own technical people to join them in-house.

The 3 key roles

At our user event I expanded on this to provide some further insight into the type of technical people that you need to compete with the big boys.

In a nutshell, you need people who will fill these 3 key roles: The Visionary, The Executor and The Developer.


1. The Visionary

The Visionary knows where they want to go and where they want to take the business. They understand how vital it is to deliver more than just print, and they understand how critical a role technology plays in that.

Typically, the Visionary hands their vision over for others to deliver, but they still need to be involved to drive the inevitable change that will be required to achieve their goals. For any technology project to be successful, you almost always have to make changes to the way a business works. These can prove unpopular and create an obstacle to achieving the vision. It’s the Visionary’s job to remove these obstacles and to drive change from the top.

2. The Executor

Automated workflows need to be robust and predictable and achieving this takes time and it takes skills. It is possible that the Visionary and the Executor are one and the same (we all know those companies out there that have such a person at the helm), but most of the time the Visionary lacks both time and technical skills. And that’s why the Executor role is so essential.

The Executor understands how to fuse together print technology with external technologies. They will work with the business owners to deliver the company’s vision and will also add their own technical vision to this. They are the ones who will go to market and identify the technologies that the company needs, and they will understand it in a print context too.

The modern printing industry is a very complex one and jobs are becoming more and more complex too. Technology is almost always playing catch up with the innovations that are coming from the customers themselves and so printers need to be incredibly agile and enhance their workflow to accommodate those changes. That might mean using products like Enfocus Switch or similar or even developing custom in-house solutions. The Executor can use a blend of tools to get around any obstacles.

It’s important to point out that the Executor needs to be given sufficient authority within the organization to make the necessary changes that may be required e.g. agreeing on how certain products will be quoted or how other products will be finished.

3. The Developer

The most successful businesses that we see have internal software developers in place, sometimes just one, sometimes a team. We’ve seen third party IT firms used to some degree of success, but it’s those companies with their own in-house teams that are really smashing it. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting your own developers.

You really do need all three roles, here’s why

We’ve experienced projects and companies that have one or more of these roles missing and this is what tends to happen:

  • No Visionary – An Executor that isn’t given a vision will achieve good things, but not great things. They will increase efficiencies and streamline workflows, but they won’t deliver the exceptional customer experience that I talked about above, because they won’t realize that they need to.

  • No Executor – A Visionary without an Executor becomes hostage to the needs and wants of individuals within the company. Because they have to rely on their staff to decide how the technological vision should be delivered, the project becomes centered around how that department or members of staff WANT to work, not how they SHOULD be working. A project where an estimator is dictating what success looks like for an MIS integration project, for example, almost always results in extra development work and bigger bills.

  • No Developer – The Executor normally has enough technical knowledge to know what needs to be done and how, but they aren’t usually developers themselves. Without their own technology team to help them, Executors must rely on their technology suppliers instead. But the suppliers will never be able to dedicate the desired amount of attention onto just one project (without a big bill for staff time) and the Executor will get frustrated when obstacles are encountered, or additional costs are accrued.

If you can’t hire new people just yet, here’s what to do

Most companies aren’t able to go out and hire a bunch of new technical bods, so what can they do? Well it’s unusual for a business not to have a Visionary in its owner, so they generally don’t have to worry about that one. But the Visionary will have to also take on the role of Executor and they will need to lean on their technology suppliers for advice on what they can innovate and how.

The Developer role will need to be taken on by either a third-party IT company or by the technology suppliers themselves, which will unfortunately result in a bigger bill and slower progress. This is exactly the reason why I recommend hiring your own in-house resource as soon as you are able to.

If you are in this position and you want to avoid any of the situations I’ve described above, then you will need to be a true leader and inspire everyone involved in the project, to encourage your partners to such an extent that they will feel excited to be part of your journey, and they will go that extra mile to help you achieve your vision.

Some final advice for Industry 4.0

A successful technology project all hinges on the attitude of those involved. Technology is not infallible and the difference between one company’s success and the other is their attitude towards it. Time and again I have seen two companies running the same software and equipment and printing the same types of jobs and one company will be massively successful in what they achieve in automation and the other company will not.

In this situation the successful company will be the one with the positive attitude and pragmatic approach and they will create a great relationship with their suppliers and secure their buy-in. Other companies will often blame the technology or the suppliers every time they encounter an obstacle. To use a metaphor, at every pothole in the road, they stop and wait for the road to be repaired. It is these companies that get left behind while others build technological bridges over the potholes, or even drive around and find another route.

So, if you’re embarking on an automation, integration or other technology related project, please be aware of the metaphorical pothole in the technological road. Every printing company needs to realize that obstacles WILL present themselves and that you need to be prepared to navigate around or over them. Don’t wait for someone to come and repair it – build a bridge or choose a different route and you’ll be one of the first to get to the finish line.


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