Automation is a Journey, Not a Destination
At PRINTING United Expo this week, a lively panel got together to talk about automation, in the session “The Automation Audit: How to Identify and Streamline Your Operation’s Weakest Points." Editorial director for PRINTING United Alliance, Denise Gustavson, was joined by Jason Hamilton, president and CIO of Innovative Displays; Ted Corman, global accounts manager, Firehouse Image Center; and Buddy Kramber, vice president of operations, The Bernard Group.
The single biggest takeaway from the session, that all three emphasized, is that automation isn’t a simple process, or something that has a start and stop date. Rather, it is a continuous process, and when one element is automated, it will highlight a bottleneck in another area that will then need to be addressed.
“I had the pleasure of working with my parents, and my father has been saying since the beginning of time, ‘what can be automated, will be automated,’” said Corman. “That was repeated over and over and over again — any time you can make something go faster, you will, that was his point. There is no end, just a constant reminder to keep your eyes open.”
Rather than think of automation as an end point, Kramber suggested a better way to think of the process is to take a look at a problem, and then find a manual way to solve that problem. Once you have a detailed understanding of what is needed to have a real solution, then you start looking for ways to automate that solution.
“Automation won’t fix your problems,” Kramber said. “You have to solve the problems yourself, and then find a way to automate the solution. But automation won’t solve anything if you don’t know what the real problems are.”
That was a way of looking at automation that Hamilton echoed, noting, “Nothing is utopic in our industry — it isn’t a single step process. If you think automation is done and over, then you haven’t accomplished anything. You have to decide there will always be continuous improvement, and then be committed to doing it.”
That said, the panel did have advice for those looking to embrace change — including automation. First and foremost, they agreed that you can’t be afraid to “fail forward.” Go through your entire system every year, look at new presses, new processes, new steps, etc., and then look at what worked and what didn’t. Learn from the failures, and use that information to make new decisions about what problems need to be prioritized, and what automation is working. “In some ways, you get more impact when you fail, said Hamilton, “since you see the progression, and that has value. Tell your operators that it’s okay for them to fail, just to show you how they’re going to fix it.”
Also, noted Corman, don’t think of automation as a linear process. “Once you get one part done, the next part comes up, or you thought it was fixed, but then you have to take three steps back to get to where you wanted to go. And then someone says they can get you there, but it will take more time. The only constant is change — if you’re not good with change, you shouldn’t automate.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t have goals to measure success, Kramber said. “Timelines are important to me, its how I get things done,” he said. “So when thinking about automation, look at what you want to gain in a week, two weeks, and create a goal. Then you have something to measure against. Make decisions about where you want to go, and then let the business drive you there.”
Another great tip the panel agreed will help other shops find the right automation solutions is to find the vendors that take the time to really learn about your business before trying to sell a solution. “Are they coming in to understand you, or coming in to tell you how their tools work,” asked Kramber. “That’s how you know if you should work with them.”