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50th: Long Road to Automation — From High Touch to Hi Tech

June 2008 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
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FIFTY YEARS would constitute a long career, but it's just a flash of time for an industry that traces its roots at least back to the introduction of the Gutenberg press, circa the early 1400s. While each generation probably thinks it has seen more changes than any other, this has been a dizzying half century for the printing process.

Letterpress has given way to offset and now digital printing. Composition has gone from hot metal and manual paste-up through phototypesetting, color scanning, color electronic prepress systems and desktop publishing, then on to computer-to-plate and Web-to-print. Bindery equipment now boosts more computer power than Apollo 11.

Along the way, once venerable names have faded from the scene even as some of the technology persists. Gone are Harris, Hell, Linotype, Royal Zenith, Polychrome, Crosfield, Scitex and Compugraphic, to name just a few.

From a technology standpoint, there's an added touch of symmetry in June 2008 being the 50th anniversary edition of Printing Impressions. Volume 1 carried a story titled "Drupa (1958) Exhibit Is Successful." By the time this anniversary edition is in print, Drupa should have completed yet another successful run, the 14th in a series that was launched in 1951.

The report noted that the show featured a number of American manufacturers, but mostly European vendors. "Selling features stressed by equipment manufacturers were automation, quality and time-saving methods. American visitors discovered that the industry in Europe is moving into high-speed printing equipment at a more advanced rate, perhaps, than in the United States."

Among the products said to have grabbed the attention of visitors were:

o A line of high-speed letterpress equipment showing a new 15.5x22.5? format with extension high-pile truck delivery exhibited by Albert Frankenthal.

o The new Rotor-Binder for perfect binding from the Mueller Bindery that increases in speed from 3,000 to 3,500 books per hour.

o Dr. Ing. Rudolf Hell showed the new Vario-Klischograph for both color and black-and-white, producing electronic engravings in sizes up to 12x16?, fully automatic.

To get a further sense of the industry's state of technological development in 1958, here's a sampling of headlines and excerpts from stories published that year.

"New Photocomposing Machine for Low Cost Production of Type Matter"--A new machine, the Optype, which uses a photographic principle for copying lines of type and justifying the right hand margin. . . is said to compose type at speeds up to 16 lines per minute. . .will sell for $6,950.

"Letterpress Forum Earns Praise with New Development Program"--Nine firms showed more than 2,500 graphic arts workers a dazzling array of new developments in the application of photographic techniques to letterpress printing. . .By closed circuit television, viewed at the New Yorker and Statler hotels, the companies unveiled the fruits of their research labor for an amazed and receptive audience.

"How Research Pays Off: Color on Newsprint"--RIT's Graphic Arts Research Department has been conducting research for years leading to the development of a system of web offset process color newspaper printing, which would be low-cost, high quality and economical.

The passage of 10 years didn't warrant doing a big industry retrospective in the June 1968 issue. Instead, PRINT 68 was the lead story. It reported that "automation is the watchword of the printing industry today," and cited advances in computer typesetting, electronic controls and platemaking as examples. On the press front, a "massive sales drive" by Japanese manufacturers and a "very pronounced tendency to the in-line production approach" were noted.

o Printing in Space

Catching the space race fever of the time, PI also carried an amusing article titled "Printing Method Developed for Use by Lunar Astronauts." The piece only owned up to being a spoof in its last line: Editor's Note--Of course, you are now aware that this "new product" story is all in fun.

The story began: "A method for printing in space has been developed by the Emca Corp...It will function in satellites and space platforms, but is particularly suitable for operation in a lunar environment. Press speeds can reach 250,000 impressions an hour because of low gravity."

It may not be entirely sporting to pick apart a technology forecast with the benefit of hindsight. Still, a major ($100,000) printing industry study that purported to forecast technological developments for the next two decades is too good to pass up. The December 1970 edition of Printing Impressions included a recap of the Comprint 90 convention, which reviewed and analyzed the results of the study conducted by the MGD Graphic Systems Div. of North American Rockwell.

o Offset to Dry Out

According to the report, "After 1980, offset's relative importance is difficult to predict. (A current imponderable is driography, the rate of development and acceptance of which can be expected to have profound effects on process popularity.) For gravure, a larger share of the market is unlikely before 1975 or 1980, since development of laser or other low-cost electronic/optical engraving methods is not likely before 1975." Waterless printing never quite fulfilled that promise.

There wasn't much hedging when it came to developments in digital printing. The researchers appear to have been extremely bullish in their predictions, depending on how one defines "press" in terms of production speed.

"Field trials of electrostatic [digital] printing by single-color presses before 1973 will lead to commercial availability by 1977 and development of multi-color equipment will mature before 1980. By 1990, conventional book industry platemaking will be eliminated by direct or digital input belt presses, using image-production technologies such as ink-jets, electrostatic and photographic imaging. Those developments will affect commercial and newspaper printing, as well as book manufacturing."

An interesting aspect of the study is how it didn't get past the technological conventions of the day, even as it forecasted revolutionary changes. In the case of page composition, for example, it still spoke in terms of hot/cold type and CRTs (cathode ray tubes), even as it conceptually envisioned the rise of desktop publishing software and laser imaging.

The recap included a look at developments that it even labeled as "blue sky." Among the more interesting:

o Computer-controlled paper manufacturing and demand printing will be accomplished in-line at the same site. Tanked substrate fluid would be converted into a printing surface at the feeder end of the press and the printed product would be delivered at the output end, bound and wrapped, ready for the truck. [Wow, on-demand printing is one thing, but on-demand paper? That falls into the category of a solution in search of a problem.]

o Ink-jet printing "could be the most significant new imaging technology in the next 15 years, emerging from 40 to 55 years of experimentation to become as revolutionary as movable type." The process could mass produce newspapers, periodicals and books. [Doing the math puts the ink-jet revolution as having occurred by 1985, but 2008 has brought predictions of this being "The Ink-Jet Drupa."]

o Electrostatic and powder-printing methods may eliminate printing plates and couple into computer and facsimile transmission systems. They would adapt to new, flexible printing applications such as on-demand book printing or satellite newspaper printing. [OK, this development took more like 30 years to become commonplace, but that's pretty good for a "blue sky" prediction.]

For the 25th anniversary edition (June 1982), Printing Impressions asked more than a dozen industry notables to provide predictions for the next 25 years. Again, not to poke fun at people asked to do the impossible, but a few of the answers are entertaining for how far off they are, while others are surprisingly right on the button:

Joel Shulman, editor, Flexographic Technical Association: Flexographic printing technology will overtake all other printing technologies because it has color process capability equal to gravure and offset, prints on more substrates than any other process, is less costly for average and short runs in web operations, and is environmentally more acceptable. [Shulman at least gets points for being such a strong advocate for his industry segment.]

Michael Bruno, executive director, Technical Association of the Graphic Arts: By the time another quarter century has passed, we will have seen development of totally computerized systems from original to output, which will mean ink-on-paper, toner-on-paper or display terminal--which itself will not necessarily be a cathode tube, but a flat plasma display. [Kudos to Bruno for mentioning flat displays, but he probably would have been surprised that it took about 20 years for such displays to become commonplace.]

o Doing More with Less

James Niesen, executive director, Binding Industries of America: Continuing mechanization will be the single most influential factor (in the bindery). Through the use of robotics, the industry will continue to increase volume and, consequently, there will be more printing produced without an increase in the number of employees in the industry. [Good as far as it goes, but doesn't anticipate the trend of printers bringing postpress in-house.]

Gilbert Bassett, executive director, Graphic Arts Technical Foundation: Prepress will all be done in a system that will output directly to the press without going to film, or any other assembly. It will all be combined to an in-line function, electronically powered, somehow. [Not bad, but given that the year was 1982, the "somehow" is awful vague.]

Charles Alessandrini, president, National Association of Printers and Lithographers: From the management side, the proliferation of computerized management information systems, especially as related to time and materials data collection, will be the significant development. [Unfortunately, the industry has a spotty record of fully utilizing this technology, even among users.]

o Down Memory Lane

There's a degree of pride that comes with being one of the two Printing Impressions editorial staff members who can lay claim to actually having lived the last 25 years (and then some) of the industry's history. From a technological standpoint, among the firsthand memories that stand out are:

Hearing from a Hell Chromacom operator about the benefits of being a second-generation American with German parents, since the manufacturer opted not to do an English translation of the controls on the color electronic prepress systems it sold in the United States.

Laughing at the story told by a conference speaker of how he called together his company's entire prepress staff and ceremoniously cut in half the power cord on the typesetter to drive home the point that there was no turning back from desktop publishing.

This time at a conference on graphic arts training, hearing how immigrant workers in a bindery used a set of strings marked with black lines to set the trim length for books because they didn't know how to read a ruler. An innovative solution, admittedly, but still disheartening.

Wrestling with the tough questions, such as: "Is good-enough color good enough?" "Mac vs. PC, which will win the platform war?" (Does anyone still have a NeXT computer?) "Do we need halftone dots in contract proofs?"

Being on-hand at RR Donnelley's plant in Indiana for Creo Products' first big public presentation of this new thing called a digital platesetter (strictly speaking, it may not have been entirely new). From the outside, it looked like a backyard storage shed with lights added around the roof line.

Witnessing the printing industry's 15 minutes of fame in 1993 when the mainstream news media, video cameras in tow, packed the press conference room at Graph Expo in Chicago for Xerox's introduction of the VerdeFilm product, a dry processing film that eliminated silver halide. Apparently, there was a misconception about the film being suitable for consumer photography.

Who can forget the near urban legend status that developed around the story of Indigo digital press early adopters having to buy two machines and getting a live-in engineer to go with them. This was followed by people gleefully demonstrating how the ink could be easily removed from the paper using a standard pencil eraser.

Then there is the colorful language--Evolutionary, not revolutionary. Ransom-note typography. Computer-integrated manufacturing, come lights-out manufacturing.

Speaking of colorful things, WAM!NET's purple sneakers promotional giveaway may be better remembered than its managed broadband network for large-

volume file transfers.

o Millennium Fever

Discussing and writing about the pending disaster that was to be the Y2K bug. Did all the hard work pay off, or was it just much ado about nothing? Maybe it was a vast conspiracy perpetrated by the computer industry to reap a windfall.

Oh, and last but definitely not least, living through the dotcom bubble. Traditional printing is dead, long live e-commerce. E-commerce is dead. Wait, it has been reborn as Web-to-print.

Printing Impressions' current and past editorial staffs have been privileged to chronicle this exciting time in our industry's history. However, technological advances now make it possible for our readers to share their own stories from whatever portion of the past 50 years they've witnessed.

Please surf over to the online version of this story at ( and click on the Comment function at the bottom of the page to post memories that stand out for you. PI

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Most Recent Comments:
Erik Nikkanen - Posted on June 21, 2008
Lots of amazing technologies have been developed over the past 50 years but the Industry has also been wearing blinders for that period of time.

Offset presses still have problems with density variation and ink water balance. The industry has long approached this problem as being a chemical problem when in fact it is a mechanical problem with the design of the ink feed of the press.

Inexpensive and simple technology could have corrected this press design problem over 50 years ago and the development of press performance and knowledge would have taken a much different path.

I hope over the next 50 years, the blinders will come off. Then things will start to make more sense and also more dollars for printers.
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Archived Comments:
Erik Nikkanen - Posted on June 21, 2008
Lots of amazing technologies have been developed over the past 50 years but the Industry has also been wearing blinders for that period of time.

Offset presses still have problems with density variation and ink water balance. The industry has long approached this problem as being a chemical problem when in fact it is a mechanical problem with the design of the ink feed of the press.

Inexpensive and simple technology could have corrected this press design problem over 50 years ago and the development of press performance and knowledge would have taken a much different path.

I hope over the next 50 years, the blinders will come off. Then things will start to make more sense and also more dollars for printers.