Picture: BBC TV
Picture: BBC TV
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.

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. 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. 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?’

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.”

Although Manroland Sheetfed is British owned its manufacturing plant is in Offenbach in Gemany 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