The divide between printing and digitization seems to have roots in the much-publicized narrative of online media wiping out physical media. With the battle lines drawn between the print service providers and the digital options for marketing, records storage and other processes, it can be hard for print shop owners to commit to greater software usage within their own walls. Rather than giving into the trend that is destroying an industry, however, tech adopters that embrace tech are potentially boosting their relevance and chance to thrive.

Making greater use of digital processes such as automation could be a major boon for print service providers. The proven, work-saving solutions that have done so much good in other sectors can also make a positive mark on the printing industry, once companies commit to using them. The journey from concept to execution may take careful planning and effort, but getting optimal results on the production floor can be worth it.

Hesitation is the enemy
A recent Printing Impressions report took in a panel at the PRINT 17 industry conference which focused on finding ways to increase automation's presence in the printing business. The panelists pointed out that one of the factors holding service providers back is a fear of change. This worry, that committing to a new idea will break processes that already work, is relatively universal. Only by acknowledging and moving past the fear, however, can leaders find ways to innovate.

PrintIQ Director Mick Rowen acknowledged that implementing new software has its risks. Printers' fears are often based in past experience rather than mere supposition. However, as long as printers and their partners work together to carefully implement the new technology, they can dodge the dangers. This may mean taking more time to implement the new solutions – Rowen's plans last 12 weeks – but it is much better than quickly automating processes that then break down.

Collaboration and customization can also make the process of adopting automation better and more feasible for service providers. The members of the panel explained that new, automated workflows typically have a high degree of customization built in to accommodate companies' needs. Leaders who are worried that new offerings may change their processes for the worse or force them into ways of working that don't suit them don't have to keep these concerns to themselves – they can reach out to software vendors for collaboration and assurance.

In the end, Printing Impressions noted that automation can have tangible benefits for companies that make themselves ready. Getting prepared to automate means being comfortable with both internal team members and software providers. Accepting that change will have to occur for a print provider to grow and adapt to present market conditions can represent an important breakthrough.

Exploring the wide-format possibilities
In late 2016, WhatTheyThink contributor Richard Romano confronted automation's progress into a particular corner of the printing industry: wide-format production. He explained that hesitation among these printing businesses goes beyond the usual concerns. Since jobs in this larger format usually involve short print runs and unique requirements, it's easy to say that automation is less useful – why automate processes when they'll only happen once?

Romano countered that image of the one-and-done standard, however, explaining that the similarities between one print job and the next are often significant enough for automation to help. He suggested that there is room for greater standardization in the field, with web-to-print options potentially expanding the appeal of the industry. A heavily automated workflow getting those jobs into production could quickly and effectively take care of that templated work, with more specialized jobs still being overseen by employees.

Companies that don't want to automate whole production workflows can use software options that just digitize parts of their processes. Romano stated that when wide-format printers want to ensure they're moving more quickly and efficiently, they can examine their automation options. The challenge they face may mirror the issues facing print shops in general: A fear of weakening processes that can hold organizations back from making technological leaps.

Evolution is essential
Thinking of print as an industry that doesn't need to evolve in step with other kinds of companies – or can't – is a counterproductive attitude for leaders to take. Shop owners who assume they don't have a place in the heavily automated future may be issuing a self-fulfilling prophecy, with their operations getting left behind, when they don't have to be.

The quest for automation is a great way to make a company more compatible with business in the present, digital climate. Even as a time-saver for the areas of an organization that can't be automated, this approach has the potential to help print shops improve their overall performance. At its heart, the printing industry is about relationships between service providers and their customers. The former should be unafraid to use the same level of tech available to the latter.