As trade show season kicks into gear, with the SGIA Expo in Las Vegas September 13 to 16, LabelExpo in Rosemont, Ill., at the same time, and Graph Expo in Orlando at the end of the month, attendees will be looking for the latest products and technologies. When it comes to wide-format and specialty graphics printing, it’s tempting to focus on the printer and other related ancillary hardware, like finishing equipment. (Cutting tables rightly get a lot of attention.) Last year, we started to see more attention paid to software, and while software may not seem as sexy as a big UV printer (but, hey, chacun à son goût), it’s becoming vitally important for today’s—and tomorrow’s—wide-format workflow.

Not that software is routinely ignored; color management has long gone hand-in-hand with wide-format printing, and the wide-format-specific software found in RIPs from EFI, Onyx, and Caldera have powerful and useful features for wide-format applications from vehicle graphics to textile printing. The next big step is to bring workflow automation to wide-format.

Automation is the hot topic virtually everywhere, inside and outside the industry, from self-driving cars to the Internet of Things, which will supposedly allow all our appliances and other material possessions to live our lives for us without our needing to be involved. (The John Lennon lyric, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” suddenly takes on a whole new meaning. And one is dubious about hailing a driverless Uber when after 15 years the Roomba still keeps banging into the wall. But I digress...)

Automation has become an integral part of general commercial printing, with more and more parts of the printing workflow more or less completely automated. Drop a file in a hot folder and off it goes, untouched by human hands—and with technologies like JDF and Ultimate Technographics’ Ultimate Bindery, jobs can even go straight through to finishing without any (or at least very few) human touches beyond shlepping things. At the front end of the workflow, Enfocus Software’s Switch has allowed a seemingly infinite number of small, repetitive tasks to be automated, and now through their new App Store, unique or specialized Switch features and functionality can be crowdsourced.

Wide-format printing finds itself in a similar position to one the general commercial printing industry found itself at the dawn of workflow automation: how do we take what we like to think of as a craft-based, almost artisan-like process and automate it? Specialty printing companies don’t like to think of themselves as “commodity printers”—but isn’t that what automated production would make them?

It’s common to hear complaints like “All of our projects are one-offs.” “All our jobs are unique.” “There is no such thing as a standard job.” After all, isn’t that what us analysts have been saying for years: “the opportunities in wide-format and specialty printing are to offer customers unique products and print applications”? So doesn’t that mean the workflow can’t be automated? Not necessarily. (But, yes, if you’re trying to print, for example, on a sheep’s pelt, an automated solution may not be the answer to your production problems.)

The thing is, a lot of wide-format projects actually are standardized in some way. There is no reason why—and many companies do this already—wide-format products can’t be part of an online storefront that links to a web-to-print workflow. A customer wants, say, a banner, pop-up display, poster, etc. They go to an online store, pick from a selection of standard sizes and any ancillary installation hardware, upload their graphics, sign off on an online proof, hit “send” and away it goes. The production can conceivably be completely automated, which is more efficient than processing jobs and files by hand, saving time, money, materials (if it’s standardized, there is less risk of errors and thus make-goods), and employees’ time. This frees skilled employees to spend more time on those truly unique, creative, sheep-pelt-like projects.

The question then is, what software solutions enable automated wide-format production? Last year, Enfocus and Caldera teamed up to link Enfocus’ Switch to the  Caldera RIP (using a Nexio connector), and Enfocus also teamed up with Tilia Labs to link Switch to its Phoenix wide-format imposition and planning software. (Estimating has long been a bugaboo of wide-format printing. If every project is unique, how do you price them properly?) Ultimate Technographics has added the Nesting Optimization Engine to its Impostrip suite of automated imposition software, which automatically nests or gangs as many images on a page or board as possible, helping keep materials costs down. Front ends from EFI, Onyx, and Caldera also offer nesting and other automation features, as does Tilia Labs’ forthcoming Griffin.

Preflighting is another area that is now largely automated in the commercial printing world, but not so much in wide-format, if wide-format preflighting is even done at all. Even in commercial printing, preflighting often falls into the “coulda woulda shoulda” category, and yet missing fonts, missing images, color space issues, inadequate resolution, trapping issues, and other problems have all followed printers to new printing technologies. In wide-format printing, these can be literally big mistakes. Think about a five-meter Courier substitution (yes, I’m dating myself, we don’t see too many Courier substitutions anymore, but you get the idea). If you are printing on specialty items like laptop computers, golf balls, guitars, or other “found” objects, you may only have one chance to get it right. (Preflighting for wide-format will be the topic of an upcoming feature.)

Whether it’s individual tasks or entire production workflows, automation is becoming increasingly important no matter what type of printing you’re doing. Automation has the potential to streamline production, quicken turnaround time, generate less waste, and make better use of skilled employees’ time. The trick is understanding how to make it work, and an important first step is knowing that it is in fact possible. This should be one of the hot areas of inquiry if you make the rounds of the trade shows this fall.