Every inkjet press is a mechanical and IT wonder. Think about the computing power required to get a file to the Digital Front End, RIP high-resolution files, and wake up the press to get it printing. Add requirements for managing nozzle health, managing registration, and monitoring the systems that control the rollers, gears, feeders, and dryers, and you have an impressive requirement.
That isn’t all. On top of the computing requirements, there are the mechanical realities of print devices. They require care and maintenance. There are not only cleaning but sometimes parts replacement or adjustment.
These can be big, complex machines, and at the moment, they don’t take care of themselves. There are people in the process. Trainers come in when the machine is installed and walk the team through startup, purging, and shutdown procedures. They explain the role of the DFE and how to integrate it with the workflow. They may spend a day, a week, or a month, but at some point, they leave, and the team responsible for daily operation are left to remember if tab A goes into slot B or Slot C. Does this piece go in this way, or should it be flipped around?
Even with the training and documentation at hand, the processes, procedures, and parts orientations can be confusing. All the vendors know that their best efforts aren’t enough to prevent phone calls and emails asking for support, but as the number of presses installed grows, that support is harder to provide in person. Even if they have a dedicated tech in the building or nearby, there may be a gap between what that tech has been trained in and the problem facing the customer.
Enter the Wizards
Every vendor is aware of the challenge, and each has been building capabilities to bring solutions to their customers. In 2015 HP launched their Virtual Remote Guidance (VRG) program using some internal technology and Google Glass. Working with select customers, HP provided Google Glasses for use by the press operators. When they had a question or a problem, they could log into their HP MyRoom environment where they were met by a technician trained to handle their queries. When the operator activated the glasses, the technician could see everything the operator saw and guide them to the correct action.
In 2015 this was innovative technology, but sadly, Google ended the initial edition Glass program just as it got traction. It was a spark, though, and it set many programs in motion. The low-hanging opportunities included predictive maintenance – using machine data to track everything from nozzle health to registration and drying to predict when a machine was heading for some problem-related downtime. For machines that either phone home regularly or are always connected to the OEM’s systems, the ability to alert a customer that there is a need for a part replacement ahead of a failure can be a game-changer. As the speed and capacity increase across all sizes of inkjet presses, knowledge ahead of a maintenance requirement that allows work to be scheduled so that downtime is minimized, if not avoided, is a clear requirement.
Beyond predictive maintenance, there are also times when something breaks. Not every potential failure will be caught ahead of the event. In those cases, OEMs should be moving to offer customers as many options for remote guidance as possible. Part of the original HP VRG story was the comfort and confidence the program brought to press owners outside of major cities. Many printing companies set up shop in rural and semi-rural areas to serve their target customer segments. With some training to develop confidence, VRG set the standard for enabling operators to handle parts installations and repairs with the help of their virtual guides.
Since 2015 technology has been moving forward at a fast pace. Today, virtual systems use everything from the Oculus headset to a smartphone. The challenge on the vendor side of the equation is to ensure that their teams are trained to interact using the virtual remote guidance systems, and they continue enhancing their data capture to increase available uptime. The technology is in the market and growing in use. Every major vendor has some program in place to enable virtual conversations and guidance, so ask your vendor how they can bring this option to you.