PI's 45th ANNIVERSARY -- From Art To Science
BY MARK SMITH
To those outside the graphic arts, the end product of printing probably hasn't seemed to change all that much since the days of Gutenberg. It's still text and images reproduced on paper.
The industry generally hasn't been thought of as a hotbed of innovation, at least not until lately. From the mid 1980s and carrying into the '90s, digital technology was said to be revolutionizing printing. But as Printing Impressions magazine marks its 45th year of tracking the industry, a look back over the decades shows an industry in a constant state of change. Some big, some small.
It also reveals a few surprises. Not all the developments were as new or revolutionary as one might think. As the saying goes, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."
The 10th anniversary issue noted the release of a GAMIS (Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service) study on the future of the printing market. "As the study sees it, the major challenges to printing as we know it today will come from the combination of such technological development areas as: computers, copying and duplicating, micro-imaging and electronic transmission.
"The new competing technologies will not eliminate printing or even necessarily stunt its future growth. Rather, they will cause present methods to be modified and will likely change the emphasis on what is printed and how."
The year also brought the launch of PRINT 68, billed as the first truly international printing trade show held in the United States. Some 50,000 attendees visited the exposition, but that fell far short of the preshow projections of 100,000 attendees and more than 500 exhibitors. Show promotions proclaimed, "The graphic arts industry is going through a period of astonishing inventiveness." Computer typesetting and electronic press controls were among the specific developments cited.
In commenting on the event, W.P. Jaspert identified a trend of manufacturers touting the "Total Concept" in manufacturing and supply for the graphic arts industry with in-line production on web offset presses. He was struck by the "sheer number and range of offset presses on display," while there were few letterpress machines to be seen.
In his "Cold Type Production" column, Dorsey Biggs marveled at the razzle-dazzle on display at PRINT 68. "It's a dizzying thing to contemplate. . . $20,000 for the Photon 713-5 Textmaster. A prototype of the Compugraphic 7200 keyboard-operated display unit was shown. . . It sets type from 14 to 72 point and sells for $4,950."
In what may come as a surprise to many, the 10th anniversary issue also carried a story on the use of facsimile equipment by Billboard Publications to speed communications between its offices in New York City and the printing plant in Cincinnati, some 800 miles away. The system was said to be used to send proofs, dummies and drawings in minutes.
Other interesting developments reported on during the year included:
* British printers took a step toward adoption of the metric system; and
* microwave energy was undergoing testing as a method for drying inks.
Having since become a recurring theme in the industry, Charles Alessandrini, director of cost and financial services at NAPL, in the 20th anniversary edition wrote an article with a headline that asked, "Where Are the Profits of the Good Old Days?" Alessandrini noted that while investments in technology had seemed to greatly increase the sales contribution per factory employee per year (which rose from $12,000 in 1950 to $52,000 in 1977), inflation was really behind the dollar growth.
One of the biggest technology stories of the year was the introduction of "digitized text" in phototypesetting. Varityper created a stir with its "floppy disk" (quotes original to the story) link between one of its phototypesetting systems and an advanced word processing system. The ability to capture keystrokes in the process of text creation on a word processor was considered a major development in page composition.
In the pressroom, the economics of half-size web offset presses were seen as now challenging full-size machines and creating a new market niche. At the other end of the spectrum, the possibility of using a gravure press for commercial printing work was being suggested. The down side was that with prices of $3 million to $4 million, the presses cost at least twice that of a web offset machine.
The all-digital workflow was already being envisioned in the gravure segment, enabled by the Helio-Klischigraph cylinder engraver introduced in 1962. The Dr. Ing. Rudolf Hell company reportedly provided the first demonstration of "the digital storage and retrieval of complete continuous-color reproduction data, coupled with automatic engraving of gravure cylinders... and offering the future potential of laser imaging offset plates."
The author undoubtedly had no idea it would be almost 20 years before computer-to-plate technology was adopted on any kind of large scale.
Computerized database management systems were seen as bringing innovation to production and sales management, but the desktop computer and laptop were still the stuff of science fiction. As one article reported, "An estimator can simply sit down at an online CRT terminal, call up the estimating program and fill in the blanks on-screen."
Later in the year, GATF issued a report—titled "In-line Operations: 1978-1983"—that noted "progress seems inevitable. Over the next five years, in-line operations will become increasingly more practical for sheetfed and web application." Among the processes mentioned were UV curing, numbering, folding and cutting, along with segmentization and personalization (the forerunners of one-to-one marketing).
Having only just been launched in 1975, the 1978 edition of GRAPH EXPO was expected to attract more than 30,000 attendees and some 400 exhibitors. The event organizers introduced innovations of their own, including automated attendee registration and the use of custom imprinted plastic cards as admission badges.
In other news:
* Growth of non-impact printing—including electrostatic, ink-jet and thermal—was among the critical trends cited for the year.
* Stung by the energy crunch, web offset printers sought new ways to monitor and control web temperatures.
* While the GAO (General Accounting Office) issued a "grim" outlook for USPS Parcel Post service, the nine-digit ZIP code system was introduced as a way to cut mailing costs.
The pace of innovation in the 1980s makes it hard to do the decade justice by taking a snapshot of just one year. The introduction of the first Macintosh computer in 1984 proved to be a pivotal link in a chain of developments that "revolutionized" the graphic arts.
The very language of the industry was transformed with the introduction of terms such as desktop publishing (DTP), WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get), PostScript imagesetting, RIP, bleeding edge technology, good enough color, high-fidelity color, stochastic/frequency-modulated screening and sneaker net. How many people in the industry today have even seen a Syquest disk?
An article published in 1988 noted that graphic arts machinery manufacturing was moving out of the United States. The web press marketplace, in particular, was undergoing a transformation as the segment struggled. And yet, MAN Roland reported it was now targeting the U.S. web press market and seeking to open its first North American facility. At the same time, the article noted that in the past year AM International had sold its web press business to Heidelberg, Rockwell had acquired Hantscho and APV Holdings took over Baker Perkins.
Reflecting developments in technology and marketing, Printing Impressions carried a "Large Printer" demographic section. Publishers led the way in adoption of demographic binding capabilities (now called customization), but it was the catalogers and direct mailers that pushed the envelop with use of ink-jet messaging (variable data printing). Following a flurry of testing and experimentation, these forerunners of today's marketing technologies ultimately ran up against the same barriers. Ink-jet printing of addresses proved to be the most widely adopted application, but chiefly because of the costs savings.
By 1988, the introduction of high-end flatbed color scanners had kicked off the great image quality debate, with discriminating print buyers still looking for drum quality. A similar argument was waged about the merits of capstan versus drum imagesetters, with drum systems again seen as the top-of-the-line technology.
The launch of USA Today had turned the newspaper segment on its ear in 1982, and the publisher was still leading the way technologically toward the end of the decade. It was now implementing satellite transmission of files to remote printing sites.
Other items of interest:
* When Printing Impressions' 30th anniversary issue came out, waterless printing was still about a year away from its roll-out for sheetfed printing applications. It quickly became a hot topic of conversation to close out the decade, though.
* Aqueous coating and drying systems had grown in popularity with conventional printing, but UV also was getting attention because of improvements in its application.
With the discovery of a hole in the ozone layer of earth's atmosphere still fresh in people's minds, environmental compliance remained a recurring topic of conversation in the early 1990s. Non-attainment areas and VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions had become part of the industry lexicon, as pollution control systems and alcohol-replacements were now standard in the printing plant. Recycled stocks—and the need to distinguish between pre- or post-consumer waste—became a hot button, before the realities of cost, quality and availability overwhelmed good intentions.
In 1993, the need to diversify to survive was already a topic of conversation in the industry, but CD-ROM publishing was considered the threat (or opportunity). The Internet was still the domain of researchers and computer geeks, although CompuServe forums had already become an industry resource for dealing with issues related to the Macintosh, desktop publishing and electronic prepress in general.
PostScript was driving prepress, but DTP gateways were keeping proprietary CEPS (color electronic prepress systems) in the mix. Trapping was the big sticking point with customer-supplied files, along with the issues of fonts, RGB images and resolution that still dog the industry today.
Printing Impressions still tracked the "Top 50 Color Separators" at that time, but by 1998 it was looking toward the next big thing with the "Top 50 On-demand Printers" ranking. People seeking a "killer app" for the technology had already locked onto variable data printing.
Flatbed scanners had become the standard for capturing hard copy originals, but high-end digital cameras were seen as a practical alternative to film. Digital color proofing was displacing analog systems, giving rise to the halftone dots or no dots debate.
Computer-to-plate technology also was a hot topic, but story headlines were still asking, "To Buy or Not to Buy?" as early adopters often didn't even bother to calculate a traditional ROI for their systems. However, later in the year another article asked, "Why Buy an Imagesetter?" The answer was that direct-to-film was a logical first step toward CTP.
High-speed file transfer was largely seen as coming down to a choice between ISDN and a managed network like Wam!Net, but Internet proponents noted that this option "was far too often overlooked—or ignored." The dotcom bubble had yet to inflate, but cloned sheep did already roam the earth.
CIP3 (now 4) introduced a vision for linking prepress, press and postpress as the industry began to talk of computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM), rather than just prepress workflow.
Which brings us back to today. Future anniversary issues of Printing Impressions will probably note 2003 as a turning point for CIM, thanks to advances in the development and adoption of JDF (Job Definition Format). Actually, it's more likely that DRUPA 2004 will be given that distinction.