Features

Picture: BBC TV

Picture: BBC TV

HARRY MOTTRAM FREELANCE JOURNALIST – FEATURE: as artificial intelligence takes over more jobs will robots eventually rule our lives and ultimately the world?

Artificial intelligence in the printing press manufacturing industry by Harry Mottram
A driverless truck arrives at a printing works and its cargo of paper is unloaded automatically by driverless forklifts and handling robots. The paper is loaded into a press and from start to finish not a human hand touches the process as completed magazines are finished, wrapped and packed onto another driverless truck that takes them to a distribution centre. Sitting behind a desk in front of a bank of computer screens is a human being. And one day, even that person will be replaced by a robot.
Human evolution

This is not fantasy as parts of the process are already being performed by intelligent machines. In a few decades it could all be achieved without that pinnacle of human evolution being involved: the print worker. Martin Hawley of Manroland Sheetfed believes that although it may not happen in his lifetime there is every chance such a scenario could take place.

2018 WK08 01 AI 904 Industry

Martin Hawley of Manroland Sheetfed

He comments: “But it must be commercially viable so that a company can get its return on investment although with the way things are going I wouldn’t rule it out. There’s already some robotics with materials being moved around factories on pallets and in our factory there’s a certain amount of robotics used in the manufacturing process so it’s already here. Some robotics has been around for several years.” Hawley’s laid back attitude to the prospect of artificial Intelligence becoming widespread is reflected in a recent survey of UK SMEs published by Close Brothers Asset Finance extracted from a GMI survey conducted this winter.

No worries

The survey canvassed nearly 1,000 SME owners across Britain and Ireland and covered all the main industry sectors. It found the majority of SMEs are largely unconcerned about the prospect of artificial intelligence, with most seeing the potential of improved productivity and increased profits as a result. “The potential impact of the rise of artificial intelligence and the so-called fourth industrial revolution have been discussed and debated for some time now,” says Neil Davies of Close Brothers Asset Finance. “What our survey tells is that 65 percent of firms feel that artificial intelligence is either going to improve productivity or that it’s too far in the future to be worried about. The remaining 35 percent are more apprehensive, citing ethical concerns and the threat to jobs as their reasons for not being advocates of artificial intelligence.”
The survey revealed that just 13 percent of SME owners and managers were concerned by the advent of artificial intelligence taking jobs and 22 percent saw ethical issues involved. Sceptics in the trade union movement may be forgiven for wondering if the 13 percent figure might have been higher if management and executive jobs would go if artificial intelligence became widespread.
Different AIs
Perhaps it is also important to point out the difference between narrow artificial intelligence such a robotics where a machine performs certain tasks and wider artificial intelligence where machines are given a wider brief which could see them replacing some aspects of human decision making. The driverless car for instance that phones you in your office to see what time it you want to be picked up and taken to the pub before being driven home in time for dinner – but then reminds you are on the wagon and on a diet so takes you to the gym instead. As you can ethics has wide implications if we place our lives in the hands of such future changes.
Last summer the TUC commentated on a Government white paper called ‘Re-imagining Work’ to which it had given evidence. It comments: “Most important from a TUC perspective are the effects of digitalisation on those at work. Our report highlighted the German experience, where there is much less fear around the emergence of new technologies than exists elsewhere.” The white paper considered fundamental questions such as ‘will digitalisation, as far as possible, enable everyone to have a job in the future?’ and ‘If humans and machines work ever more closely in the future, how can machines help to support and empower people in the way they work?’
German workers
The idea that German workers are less concerned about the future and whether robots will eventually take over or as many believe that artificial intelligence will lead to more leisure time is an idea for debate. Hawley takes the philosophical approach to the debate. He says: “If you look back a few decades and see where the printing industry has come you might be surprised. Typesetting, hot metal and such like have been replaced and even proofs have changed with people able to look at a proof on a screen on the other side of the world. Everyone said that printing would die with the smart phone, the tablet, computer screen and the internet but it is still here. In some areas there has even been a revival as well. So I don’t see printing ever disappearing as there is something in the human make-up that demands that tactile element that only print has. I am hoping that print will never go away but then being a press manufacturer you’d expect me to say that.”
Common view
Although Manroland Sheetfed is British owned its manufacturing plant is in Offenbach in Germany where they have been making presses since the 19th century. Perhaps Manroland and the TUC have something in common with the view that German workers see artificial intelligence in the work place as something not to be feared.
For more articles on the printing idustry visit http://www.printmonthly.co.uk and for more stories, features and news visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk

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HARRY MOTTRAM FREELANCE JOURNALIST – FEATURE: as the politicians negotiate and give mixed signals over Brexit – UK industry is getting more concerned about the uncertainty (and the small matter of the economy taking a dive)

Worried about the effects of Brexit on business? Feel like your views are being ignored? Harry Mottram says Brexit will not happen—at least not in the way it was proposed.

The European Parliament where Brexit may or not be at the top of the agenda

The European Parliament where Brexit may or not be at the top of the agenda

Brexit, but not as we know it

When Theresa May emerged triumphant from the post-Brexit referendum Tory leadership battle, she declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. It has been her mantra ever since following the decision by her Government to trigger Article 50 to signal that the UK would leave the European Union (EU) and begin negotiations. In late April 2017 all seemed secure and only a matter of time before the country negotiated its way out of the European club. Yes there were concerns and the 48 percent who had voted to remain in the EU voiced their anger, pointing out that Scotland, Northern Ireland, and London voted to stay in the EU, and there were concerns over the economy in the short- to medium-term as the Pound fell against the Euro.

David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister alongside the EU’s man Michel Barnier during talks

David Davis, Britain’s Brexit minister alongside the EU’s man Michel Barnier during talks

Then came the June general election when the Government lost its overall majority and the Prime Minister was forced to make a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in order to remain in power. Since then the problems for number 10 Downing Street increased to the point to which there were doubts that the Prime Minister could remain in office much longer. That was until the first week of December last year, when after a marathon session, and an early morning press conference in Brussels, it was announced the EU and the UK had reached a deal in the first phase of the Brexit talks. Sufficient progress has been made to move discussions onto other matters including trade and the transition to a post-Brexit world.

Divorce bill

The industry breathed a sigh of relief as it meant clarification of how trade would be affected might be revealed in the forthcoming talks. However, the deal to move to trade talks involves Britain paying a ‘divorce bill’ of around £35 to £39bn, the avoidance of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and it also provides reciprocal protection for EU citizens and their families in the UK and the EU, as well as the European Court of Justice continuing to oversee the rights of EU citizens in the UK for eight years after Brexit. Before Christmas 2017 the Government was defeated in the House of Commons by members of its own party joining the opposition in voting through an amendment to the Brexit bill that will give MPs the final say on the deal. Some feel this throws the eventual deal into doubt, as no one will accept a ‘no’ deal. So could this spell the end of Brexit if the Commons cannot accept the final settlement? Indeed, is it really going to be worth it if the economy takes a hit? When it comes to industry it really is all about a genuinely ‘strong and stable’ economy.

The British Chambers of Commerce’s (BCC) Dr Adam Marshall, director general, comments: “The bigger picture is one of slow economic growth amid uncertain trading conditions.” And more damning he continues: “Even the best possible Brexit deal will not be worth the paper it is written on if the Government fails to address the many long-standing and well-known barriers to growth here at home. Ever-rising upfront costs, a labour market at capacity, growing pressure on land use, and a physical and digital infrastructure in need of investment and expansion, all prevent UK firms from reaching their potential.”

Worried industry

The wider graphic arts industry also has some real concerns at the state of the economy as Charles Jarrold of the British Printing Industries Federation (BPIF) observes, and in particular over the hike in exchange rates which has already hit business. He says: “The immediate short-term impact has been an exchange rate-driven-increase in costs of paper and board—now consistently a ‘top three’ concern as shown in our quarterly survey. Longer term, access to labour is an increasing concern—many companies have seasonal and short-term peaks in work, seasonal for instance in the run up to Christmas, and outside that, needs to meet particular client requirements—for example on a major promotion.

Charles Jarrold of the BPIF has concerns about labour shortages

Charles Jarrold of the BPIF has concerns about labour shortages

“The UK economy has high employment, and short-term needs are being met by employing EU workers. Our members are concerned that this availability may change. We measure sentiment towards Brexit on a quarterly basis—with the slow progress on the negotiations, and opacity about the details of the final destination, it is not surprising to report that sentiment about the impact of Brexit on the sector has become increasingly negative. Going forward, the sector wants to see greater certainty about what the actual destination is, we want to see continued good access to EU markets, and, ideally, the adverse impact of the decline in sterling fall away.”

Health and safety

The more statements that are made from the industry, the more the same worries about Brexit are aired. That £39bn divorce bill, the slide of the Pound against the Euro forcing up prices, fuelling inflation, and the concerns over what sort of trade deal will be struck. The much talked about transition period will see the UK disentangle itself from the other 27 members over a period of a few months with the likely end date of December 31st 2020. During the transition the UK will have to accept the full jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and all four freedoms, including the freedom of movement of people. The EU says the UK will remain in the single market and the customs union during a transition, while the UK insists that it will leave both on Brexit day—giving rise to a potential road block in negotiations.

No one can say with 100 percent accuracy what the trading terms will be after 2019

There are also other factors in the agreement so far that could bring the whole thing to an impasse including the ‘full alignment’ over the Irish border. Nobody appears to agree what this means in practice, while the concern over the border is linked to the leverage the Democratic Unionist Party has over the Government. Their veto almost put a kibosh on the deal in the first place and the Irish Government could still veto any planned settlement if it felt it would lose out. Manufacturers on both sides of the border do not want physical barriers, or tariffs and red tape that will add costs to production—with many businesses crossing the border with deliveries several times a day.

Glass half empty or half full?

Any trade deal the UK thrashes out with the EU may take longer than expected to agree on with potential vetoes from any one of the member countries. One thing most agree on is it will be more expensive to trade with the EU after 2020 and there lies a problem for many. Business it seems is lukewarm about Brexit because of the financial implications. So far, so pessimistic. How about a bit of optimism? The CBI obliges as Josh Hardie, deputy director general, comments: “It is now time to focus on the true prize of a new relationship and a deal that starts from 40 years of economic integration. With the same willpower shown today and jobs and living standards at the heart of every negotiating objective, these talks can set the UK up for the next 40 years of close alignment.

The UK faces a so-called ‘divorce bill’ of up to £39bn from the EU

“There are two things that are top of the list. First is the final step for those EU citizens working here, and UK citizens abroad. It must be unequivocal that they are welcome, whatever the final deal. This cannot be their second Christmas where their rights are dependent on negotiations. Next is transition. Concrete assurances will build confidence and help firms across the UK and Europe to pause their contingency planning.” However, his colleague Paul Drechsler is not so positive and is unimpressed by Theresa May’s bickering cabinet members. He says: “Can you imagine running the board of a company, you evaluate a big investment decision, your board walk out of the room and then they all tell a different story? You could not run a business that way, and you certainly cannot lead the most complex, challenging commercial negotiation ever taken on unless there is one voice behind that negotiation.”

Labour in waiting

Another more obvious critic of the Government is the Labour Party, which could conceivably be in power before the nation leaves the EU if things go awry in 10 Downing Street. Shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, says: “If we crash out of the EU without a deal, it will destroy what remains of our industrial base, and fire the starting gun in a race to the bottom on wages and workers’ rights.” That sounds like they might tear up any agreement and start again with Sir Keir Starmer as their negotiator already hinting at a possible second referendum on the final deal. Labour’s vision could not be more different from the Conservative Party’s plans for the economy with their National Transformation Fund. Pumping money in building council houses, opening new railway lines and roads, and injecting cash into the NHS and schools would be welcomed by everyone in the print and signage industries, although there is a doubt as whether it would happen. But Theresa May, for all her Corbyn baiting, is not against borrowing ideas from Labour, and if the economy remains robust, the EU does agree to everything she demands, and the Conservatives see a poll bounce, then Brexit could happen without too many tears.

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer has already hinted at having a second referendum if his party take power

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer has already hinted at having a second referendum if his party take power

Kick it into the long grass

The industry is clearly worried about the present situation, the low growth expectations, and rising inflation. If the economy was to slide badly this year then some in business would not object if the Government pulled the plug on the whole thing, kicking project Brexit into the long grass until things improve. A run on the pound, a hike in interest rates, and inflation hitting double figures could change everything. A seasoned observer of the machinations of Government and the way things pan out for the economy over decades rather than months is Sidney Bobb of the British Association for Print and Communication (BAPC). He comments that when Brexit eventually happens our industry will adapt: “It will be a while before we are affected and whatever advantages Brexit throws up we will make the most of them.

Sidney Bobb of the BAPC is relaxed about Brexit and believes printers will adapt to whatever happens as they have done in the past

Sidney Bobb of the BAPC is relaxed about Brexit and believes printers will adapt to whatever happens as they have done in the past

“The print industry is reactive rather than proactive and so we will wait and see what happens first. It may not even happen in which case we will react to that. If there is a downturn in the economy well, the print industry is one of the first things to be affected but it is also the first out when things pick up. Prices will rise whether we stay in or come out but in my view the printing industry has seen worse times than this and the culture of the industry has changed so much.” Bobb says compared to the slumps of the 1970s, the early 80s and 90s, and the credit crunch of 2008, the concerns over Brexit should not be exaggerated. If Brexit does go ahead and somehow Theresa May stays in post and sees the whole thing through and even wins the next election, she will inherit the Margaret Thatcher prize for political achievement—but not everyone will be applauding her. The arch Brexiteer and arguably one of the most influential politicians of our age, Nigel Farage, will not be impressed. He has already called the current negotiations and concessions ‘a betrayal.’

The Prime Minister Theresa May had a tough 2017 but could still see Brexit through as planned

The Prime Minister Theresa May had a tough 2017 but could still see Brexit through as planned

Following the December breakthrough in talks he denounced the prime minister at the European Parliament: “Now we enter into what perhaps may be the biggest deception yet played on the British public. Theresa May is seeking a transition phase and there are one or two comments here about whether the Brits will get that phase. Well, of course, they will because we are volunteering to go on paying the membership fee to accepting all the existing rules, all the new rules. We will effectively, once transition is granted, have left the European Union at the end of March 2019 in name only.” In other words it is Brexit, but not as we know it, or were promised it. Or even no Brexit at all if the ill winds of politics conspire to blow the whole thing of course.

More stories on the Sign and Print industries at http://www.signlink.co.uk/NewsStory.aspx?i=5809

And more features at www.harrymottram.co.uk

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Litho 540 Industry

HARRY MOTTRAM FREELANCE JOURNALIST – FEATURE: Back to the future in 1992 when there was rising inflation, firms going bust and an unpopular Conservative Government (plus interest rates were at 15 percent)

As the new year begins with the potential of new technology, new products and new innovations within the printing industry, it is worth a moment or two to reflect on what was in the minds of printers a few years ago.

By chance, I came across a copy of Litho Week (published by Haymarket) from November 1992 and flicked through the pages to see what caught the eye then. It was the era of the John Major Government, high interest rates and a time that was largely before the arrival of email and the internet. Some senior members of the industry will tell you that before the internet, the printing industry was an agreeable way to make a living with profits somewhat higher than they are today. But in many ways not much has changed – at least as far as news is concerned, as the issues reported back then are not much different from those of today.

Litho week

Bracknell Magazines had gone into receivership leaving printers, repro houses and paper suppliers with unpaid bills of more than £2m. There was also considerable anger in the press over the demise of Falcon Litho, because as Karen Buchanan reported at the time, the boss Bob Frost simply set up shop ‘with a clean slate’ a week later. In her comment column, she wrote: “We feel strongly that the case of Falcon Litho illustrates the plight of small creditors and will campaign vigorously to see creditors are treated as more than second class citizens.”

Although there have been some changes to the laws regarding insolvencies sadly unsecured creditors are often still left unpaid.

Another perennial of the print trade press that sees little change is the continued hike in prices for consumables. Back in 1992, David Pryke of the National Association of Paper Merchants defended an increase in paper prices in a letter, following criticism of the increases planned by Colin Stanley. Stanley had reacted strongly to the rises, as inflation hit more than 3.7 percent having been nearly 10 percent just two years earlier.

 

Inflation

This year prices are again expected to go up by more than inflation, putting pressure on margins and the bottom line. Pryke’s argument was that there had been a huge investment in paper mills to improve quality and increase product range, and he said that the huge fluctuation in the value of the pound had aggravated the situation. This, remember, was just weeks after the then-chancellor Norman Lamont pulled the UK out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) as interest rates hit an eye watering 15 percent. The ERM was a system created in 1979 to bring stability and reduce variability to currencies within the European Community, ahead of the eventual union and introduction of the Euro. And it was not just paper that was seeing inflation, the cost of plates and ink were also on the rise, as Anthony Savvas reported. Kodak announced the increases would be between five and 10 percent with the devaluation of the pound getting the blame. Similar increases were also reported to take place from Agfa and Du Pont-Howson, with inflation blamed for the hikes planned in the New Year. The New Year, that is, of 1993. It could easily have been 2018.

To read the original article visit: http://www.printmonthly.co.uk/News/Business/6278/back-to-the-future-in-1992 For more articles and cartoons from Harry visit http://www.harrymottram.co.uk/?page_id=1956