Robots helping small businesses scale craftsmanship

Affordable automation has arrived for small businesses, but there's still room for humans,

You may have heard the news: The robots are taking over.

Roughly 1.2 million additional robots will be used in U.S. industry by 2025, and robots will perform about 25 percent of the automatable tasks in manufacturing worldwide in the same timeframe, according to a frequently cited Boston Consulting Group report released earlier this year. As the price, size, and operating complexity of industrial robots plummet, BCG believes manufacturers will replace 22 percent of human workers with machines.

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Lots of smart people believe that that raw analysis portends greater economic disparity and imminent societal collapse (see: Martin Ford). Other smart people, like Ray Kurzweil, are much more optimistic. While it's becoming more and more difficult to write about robots without aligning yourself with a particular camp, I'm holding fast to the no-man's land of informed indecision. What I have noted, however, is a less trumpeted development in the quickening spread of low-cost robots. Small business owners and entrepreneurs are starting to employ autonomous machines in collaborative and even artistic ways, and that may point to a new chapter of artisanal and small-batch manufacturing in the U.S.

I was reminded of this on a recent call with Miraz Manji, founder of TLAC Toronto Printing & Publishing, a 2D and 3D design, print, and publishing shop in Toronto, Canada, that creates books for self-published authors. Manji's team uses a mix of automation, old fashioned design talent, and close attention to craft to produce small and medium-sized runs of physical books of exceptional quality -- a niche market until automation increased the number of artisanal books a small shop could produce.

"The book as a product has minor details of creativity that hold high value to the author and reader," says Manji. "By merging custom-manufacturing with robotics, we're keeping those emotional and artistic aspects, such as the coloring of a photo or the kind of paper used. We need humans to do what they do at the highest level, which is design and inspection."

Publishing provides an interesting historical case study precisely because it was an industry once occupied by master printers and bookbinders who were replaced en mass with the arrival of industrial-scale publishing. The old jobs were all but eliminated.

But then the publishing industry changed. "The industry went through a major shift and a lot of people self-published," explains Manji. "The old robotic process of producing ten thousand or fifty thousand doesn't work. Now we're down to 250 books. The reaction to (and, reciprocally, a driver of) all this was a proliferation of print-on-demand services. "There were a lot of rookie mistakes. We saw that ten years ago just in creating a book. No one really knew how much involvement a customer should have in the actual prototyping process. How do you maintain those boundaries?"

Quality was all over the map, also, as anyone who's read a friend's self-published book knows. Fluorescent white pages between two pieces of card stock does not a pleasurable reading experience make. "A lot of companies went out of business," says Manji. "We survived. We did it by focusing on our formula, our workflow."

TLAC uses a robotic book binder that stitches, clamps, and glues, emulating a hand. The system is faster and more flexible than the famous Espresso book machines that still churn away in a few book stores across the nation and produce single books to order.

The secret sauce at TLAC, though, is the way they've streamlined their prototyping workflow to take advantage of software and robotic automation while preserving their allegiance to craft. "We have a background in process automation," says Manji.

TLAC's clients are matched with designers and editors, who create design files that are cleaned up using an automated process. After that they're touched up by a human during inspection. TLAC uses its book binding robot in conjunction with human labor to produce a prototype. The process isn't fully automated, and a worker can intervene and make corrections on the fly. "We throw out the first fifteen books. They're just not there for what we call 'printing that matters.'"

When a prototype is deemed acceptable, larger-scale printing begins. The pages are cut using a programmable cutter, given another quality check, and bound by the robot. TLAC developed a proprietary sensor glove that a worker can wear to count finished books -- a novel solution it may license. The client receives automatic updates as their book progresses through TLAC's 11-stage process.

The amazing thing about this isn't that the individual pieces of technology exist -- they have for a long time -- but that TLAC is a small business with five employees. By taking advantage of the best of human craftsmanship and the most accessible manufacturing and workflow automation tools, this little startup is helping redefine its market while pointing to a new way for savvy small manufacturers to deliver both value and quality. Ray Kurzweil should be proud.

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