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The evolving role of printing press operators


by Paul Salmon

The printing press operator is one of the most important roles in a digital printing press setup. From their comprehensive maintenance knowledge to the multi-skilled nature of ensuring every print run is of the highest quality, the operator is very much in a partnership with the printing press itself. But how has this role evolved, what challenges have shaped it and what does the future hold?

Every member of a digital printing operation is important, but few need to be quite as skilled, experienced, and agile as the printing press operator. The contributions of such a role set the quality standards for a company’s print output, so there’s a lot of responsibility and pressure sitting atop those shoulders. From operating the press when print runs are being processed to providing comprehensive diagnostic evaluations in the event of an error, it’s a role that’s remained vital to an effective print output. We speak to digital printing press operators daily, and we see a lot of things moving and shaking. So, before we figure out what’s next, let’s have a look at what was, what is, and what lies ahead.

From flexo to digital print and the changing role of the operator

As long as there’s been a piece of complex print technology, there have been skilled operators there to understand every element of its design and ensure it keeps performing as intended. Much like printing presses themselves, the role of the operator has evolved over time to keep pace with new advancements and industry standards.

Prior to the advent of automation, the printing press was a far more manual process with everything from printing to cutting and binding performed by hand. Even the rise of flexography (or ‘flexo’) in the late 19th century - a process whereby rubber cylinders are used to stamp designs directly onto the paper or chosen media - required years of practice to perfect.

Automation and the popularity growth of the digital printing technology has seen much of that manual process replaced with automated procedures that deliver quality output. Much of the tools and instruments that would have once occupied an operator’s toolbelt have now been replaced with an in-depth knowledge of its software as well as its physical parts. The ability to both appreciate the transitions between print platforms and familiarize themselves with key software optimizations also adds to the repertoire of the print engine operator.

Why are print press operators so important?

Automation is a phrase we often associate with the idea of man being replaced by machines. However, the real genesis of the digital printing press is less on one making the other obsolete, but on the partnership between an automated press and its operator.

" An operator’s role has shifted so that they are both providing troubleshooting+maintenance & managing the process, ensuring print runs are running as expected.
- Dominique Delhees , Customer Success Manager DACH

In the same way that a flexo operator must develop specific expertise to ensure the best possible outcome is achieved, a digital printing press operator needs to know its press, operational workflow, and operating software inside and out so that even the smallest deviation can be spotted and corrected before it develops into a bigger issue, let alone revenue loss. Mind you, if automation tools and updates are maintained correctly, the press will run smoothly. But bugs happen. And it takes a sharp human eye to spot them. That intuition and expertise is something a machine cannot replace, and it’s why an operator is so crucial to the process.

The responsibilities of the printing press operator

In today’s high-speed print world, the printing press operator has plenty to keep them on their toes (even with all that automation in play). For a start, a printing press operator is responsible for seeing a print run through the queue, performing any necessary quality checks on the output to ensure it meets the company's (and the customer’s) expectations. That in itself can be a full-time occupation, as these print runs can be large in volume or complex in their design, but that all-important human oversight is a vital piece of the puzzle.

As mentioned earlier, maintenance is a key aspect to the role. Even the smallest of faults can cause catastrophic results, so daily and weekly maintenance inspections help mitigate the chance of these issues developing. An operator will normally follow existing production work procedures and log any issues, so those all-important deadlines are kept on track. Sometimes they’ll also work as part of a larger production team to ensure print runs are redirected to another press or to oversee adjustments to the overall print production cycle.

" An operator needs to be a multi-skilled professional with a technical background in operating and maintaining machinery & a practical mindset to solving issues.
- Dominique Delhees , Customer Success Manager DACH

What kind of issues do these operators often encounter?

The modern digital print press is a technological marvel, but even the best innovations need a careful eye and an experienced pair of hands to keep them working at optimal levels. Most operators tend to encounter issues that fall into three common categories:

  1. Quality - Producing a high-quality print is the main goal of any printing press operator, and that means encountering scenarios where the output is not to the standard required. An operator needs to have the experience and the intuition to review a piece of output and identify any errors on what needs to be adjusted on the press to mitigate it from happening again.

  2. Hardware - Every piece of complex machinery comes with the potential for faults, but with tight print run deadlines and customers waiting for their prints the operator has to be ready to run diagnostics and triage any mechanical issues that need to be solved for the print run to resume.

  3. Software - As we alluded to earlier, the operator also needs an intimate understanding of the printing press’s software architecture. Both as a means of running diagnostics on hardware, but also identifying potential problems with the operating system itself. Most digital print presses are designed to self-diagnose, but an operator must be confident enough to run their own triage.

What are the 3 most common requests we see here at Xeikon?

As a digital printing press pioneer, Xeikon has helped countless companies improve their print process by helping them solve both common and unique problems. These come in all shapes and sizes, but here are some of the ones we see most often in a digital printing press space:

  1. Cleanliness of the press - Even professional print hardware can run into problems related to the build of ink or dust residue. Issues can also arise when a printing press isn’t properly maintained in general.

  2. Color control - Brand colors are monitored through the color control options on the printing press. Xeikon offers the XCS Xeikon Color Control option for automated color control, under the condition that the press is always cleaned and well-maintained. If this is not the case, the settings might be askew, and the print output colors will deviate from the brand guidelines. Causing reruns that waste precious time and materials.

  3. Registration issues - When there’s a problem with registration, this usually means overlapping colors are out of alignment, which can produce a blurry print quality. A feature like the Automatic Registration Control on a Xeikon press will prevent this from happening.

To help identify and solve many of these issues, Xeikon launched the RIH (Remote Issue Handling) approach. This remote management platform enables our engineers to triage a problem and potentially fix it without the need to send out an FSE to visit on-site. In fact, up to 60% of logged issues can be solved remotely, which means a minimum of downtime for the operator and customer.

" Customer service is all about making it as efficient as possible for the customer. When something is off with the press, the pressure is on.
- Johanna Dekeyzer , Global Director of Services

“Workflow gets compromised, stress levels soar, margins are threatened. We noticed a lot of downtime issues could be fixed quite rapidly and easily. But time and money were wasted while waiting for the FSE to arrive on site. Enter the RIH option allowing our tech team to take over the press remotely and fix it from the inside. This high and direct connectivity enables a quick intervention and almost immediate press uptime. We’ve matured this approach over the years to a “solution first, intervention next” service that characterizes the Xeikon approach to customer service.” – Johanna Dekeyzer, Global Director of Services, Xeikon.

How can we all contribute to keeping printing press operators happy? Our five best tips.

The role of an operator is a demanding one, so making sure they feel valued and represented is of the utmost importance. Here are five changes your organization can make to keep your operators happy and performing at their best:

  1. Review your one-shift vs multi-shift balance - Look at your current shift model. Is it set up in a way that avoids overloading or burning out your operators? What changes can you make to attract more female workers into this space? Would you consider automating the workflow and proactive maintenance flow to reduce their workload?

  2. Activate the media assistant for built-in scripting - These tools are often underutilized by operators, but they’re essential for optimizing your print output for the highest possible quality.

  3. Motivate operators to perform daily maintenance checks - Maintenance checks are quick or easy, but they’re essential to keeping a digital printing press at its best. Fostering the need to conduct these daily reviews ensures the operator is always validating the process.

  4. Briefing on software updates - New updates and patches for the digital printing press software are a common occurrence, so it’s your responsibility to make sure your operators are fully briefed on what these updates are and what changes they bring.

  5. Improve margins by reducing waste - Include operators in the process of reviewing wastage levels. The operator has first-hand experience of wastage on a day-to-day basis and involving them in the process makes them feel more integral to the process.

Who are the printing press operators of the future?

Digital printing press technology is evolving all the time, and so the operators themselves are finding their role grows along with it. And while we don’t know exactly what that role will look like in 10-15 years’ time, we do know some of the ways it will likely change.

Remote problem solving through tools such as RIH will become more commonplace as the software and ‘always connected’ nature of digital print presses continues to improve. Customers want ongoing support, especially when working to tight deadlines and margins, so the onus will be on operators to further deepen their knowledge. This could also extend to having technicians on helpdesks to provide a more personalized support experience for the customer.

Growth for an operator will also likely come from expanding their knowledge and skill set across the print process. This could extend to discussing any potential training options with the Production Manager, becoming a ‘color expert’ (which will inform their ability to solve color and registration issues) and taking on more responsibilities on prepress tasks and production planning.

And while we may not have a crystal ball, maybe ChatGPT has the answer. So, we launched the prompt:

Q - Who are the printing press operators of the future?

A - The printing press operators of the future will likely be individuals with a strong background in digital technologies, particularly in the areas of computer programming, automation, and robotics. As the printing industry continues to modernize and integrate digital technologies into their processes, the need for skilled technicians who can manage and maintain these systems will increase.

Additionally, with the rise of 3D printing and other additive manufacturing technologies, printing press operators may need to possess specialized skills in areas such as CAD (Computer-Aided Design) and materials science to effectively create and produce complex objects.

It is also important to note that while automation and robotics will play a significant role in the printing industry's future, there will still be a need for human operators who can oversee and manage these systems, troubleshoot issues, and ensure quality control. Therefore, individuals with a combination of technical skills and critical thinking abilities will be well-suited for the printing press operator jobs of the future.

Sounds about right. Right?

In short, while the printing industry technology will continue to evolve in the coming years, printing press operators will remain an essential part of the industry. Their skills, experience, and knowledge will prove invaluable in ensuring that printed materials are produced efficiently and to the highest quality standards.

Are you a printing press operator? Let us know – did we get it right? What did we miss?
Are you a production manager? Let us know – how are you keeping your operators motivated?
Are you a printing house owner? Let us know – were you aware of all of the above?

Let us know via our website / contact form or via our LinkedIn Print Heroes post.

Thanks for weighing in.
Paul Salmon – Global Customer Success Manager, Xeikon