Print 05 & Converting 05 -- See the Unforeseen
Sometimes, the beauty of acronyms is that they can be re-used. There may come a time, for example, when CTP stops meaning computer-to-plate or even computer-to-press and begins to mean "cerebral cortex-to-press."
At least, Cal Poly Professor Harvey Levenson believes it's possible. "Imagine thinking of an image and, through electrical signals naturally generated by the brain, the image is sent directly to a digital printing press where 50,000 copies of your thoughts are reproduced in perfect color," he says. You're laughing at Levenson? Remember, they also laughed at Fulton.
Laughing or not, tens of thousands of commercial, package printing and converting professionals will turn to next month's PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05 exhibition for an early glimpse of things that will transform their business five, 10 or even more years down the road.
PRINT has a long track record for giving world-changing developments their first exposure. Remember color electronic prepress systems back in 1980? DI presses? Variable data digital imaging?
Every time a PRINT show approaches, industry executives, journalists, consultants and other would-be pundits put their minds to anticipating what surprises it will bring. Printing Impressions raised this question with a cross section of experienced industry observers: Moving beyond the anticipated, and beyond the incremental improvements of systems already well established, where might this year's "surprises" be coming from?
A few replied with some variant of "if we could foresee these developments, they wouldn't be unforeseen—now would they?" But others were willing to describe the view from out on the limb of their choice.
It's all opinion, of course. Nobody claims access to any privileged information or secret method of reading the industry's tea leaves.
By the Numbers
What's more, the show itself opens on September 9 at McCormick Place in Chicago, and visitors will have the chance to see for themselves. With roughly 750,000 square feet of exhibits staged by some 800 companies from all over the world, all of the latest and most important developments will be there.
And who knows? Perhaps the show's biggest headlines will turn out to be about something you saw here first.
"I'm struck by how seldom any more things really come out of left field," says veteran industry consultant Dennis Mason. "I think this represents a societal change, not a technological change. Companies, politicians, everyone has trouble keeping a secret today."
Information spreads through the industry faster and more widely than ever before, with the result that real surprises have become scarce, Mason feels. Nevertheless, he ventures a few projections.
"What I would look for at PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05 that might be hot five years from now would include workable demonstrations of real-world JDF applications, with JMF fed back to an MIS system to produce meaningful data and reports," Mason notes. "This will be very hot five years from now.
"I also plan to look for indications that ink-jet printing can be scaled up to the point where it might be competitive with lithography. And I will be looking for continued demonstration of the viability of flexographic printing, especially for color control that can be applied to the multiple color ink sets that the flexographers use in packaging."
Ink-jet developments are also on the mind of Bill Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting. He expects ink-jet devices to give toner-based printing some serious competition in the next few years, thanks mainly to significantly improved quality.
Lamparter has had a front row seat for many of the most striking developments of recent years because he chairs the Executive Outlook conference preceding each big show and has administered the selection of each show's "Must See 'em" displays.
This year, ink-jet printers good enough to challenge toner printing and eventually even offset are just one of the things Lamparter senses might be waiting in the wings.
Rochester Institute of Technology Professor Emeritus Frank Romano is another ink-jet believer. "Rollfed or sheetfed, look for quality and speed to reach production levels," Romano says. "Many people see the dinky desktop machines and wide-format systems. I see the future of the printing press."
Digital printing has been getting attention for more than a decade already, so it hardly seems to qualify as a "surprise" awaiting visitors to PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05. Still, the whole field of digital printing could be in for some profound changes, many of which could surface for the first time this September in Chicago.
When asked to cite the biggest likely innovation to be seen at the show, George Ryan, executive vice president and COO of PIA/GATF, predicts it will be "in-line finishing for digital printing." Ryan sees many digital press manufacturers forming strategic partnerships with finishing systems suppliers to add in-line folding, stitching and other functions to their products.
PIA's chief economist, Ronnie Davis, sees widespread interest in such an enhancement. "There seems to be a big movement in the back end—in binding and finishing to improve productivity. This is the last piece of the puzzle," he says.
Ryan cites another area in which big improvements in digital printing may be in the offing. "Look for new UV and aqueous coatings for digital printing," he says. "All of the manufacturers have products that will be at the show. This has been a big issue. How does the product stand up in the mail?"
Using coatings to improve durability of digitally printed matter means the technology may finally be ready to exploit the full benefits of personalized print—which almost always hinges on mailing the printed pieces.
Dreaming of Digital
GATF's senior technical consultant, Ray Prince, also sees printers searching for improved digital printing productivity through introduction of larger sheet sizes.
"Digital presses are here to stay well into the distant future," adds professor Levenson. "However, they presently exist as standalone systems tied into the technology and software of individual companies. The industry will insist that this has got to change. Companies will want digital printing devices from two or more companies with the capability of the devices to communicate with one another."
What some people would call "ordinary" printing presses may also be in line for some extraordinary boosts, experts say. Prince sees a trend to larger sheet sizes as a means to get dramatically more product out of the same number of cylinder rotations. Further, he foresees more interest in combination presses, bringing litho and flexo processes together in one machine.
Ryan won't be surprised to see "UV ink set systems for web presses." Web presses, such as the typical newspaper press, represent a lot of unused capacity nationwide, Ryan observes, and their owners would like to fill that capacity by printing some of the high-quality ad inserts they stuff into their newspapers each week.
The key to this market, he adds, is quality, and the key to improved quality is coating. "We'll see UV cured inks from Flint, Sun and others—all new," Ryan says. "These inks will be at the show."
Coating without heat-setting means "you don't need the real estate for the dryer, don't need to buy lamps, attachments for the cylinders, and so on."
Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) is another technology getting lots of ink these days, though conventional industry wisdom holds that actually printing RFID tags on offset presses is still quite a ways in the future. "RFID could end up after this show with more credibility than before," Lamparter says. "It's going to happen. At PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05, you may be surprised by how fast it's happening."
But there's no reason to wait, says consultant Clint Bolte, who sees RFID development as just one aspect of a very promising arena.
"Keep in mind that the low hanging fruit in 2005 as far as RFID revenue streams to printers are concerned is postpress," Bolte contends. "Applying these labels, programming them and QC'ing their application. Printing of RFID may not go mainstream for another year or two. But those who wait for the ink to flow could miss out on some interesting beta testing and credibility building. This year's home run will be in postpress," he concludes, "and I have no idea yet who will hit it! I'm nearly giddy with anticipation at more in-line finishing 'specialty' apps for digital printing that, again, may not necessarily come from the big-name finishing suppliers."
This year might see the beginning of the end of proofing, Lamparter suspects. Creating quality proofs for client review and final job contracting has long been an industry preoccupation, but the concept of "reverse proofing" may turn all those hard copy and soft proofs into relics.
With reverse proofing, the client does all image prep work except imposition and possibly trapping, Lamparter explains, noting these functions aren't usually addressed in a proof in any case. The client then provides the printer with the job file accompanied by a set of spectral data. As long as the printer matches that data within agreed-upon tolerances, the client says, "I don't have to see anything," according to Lamparter.
Other major trends likely to create excitement at the show include the ever-expanding integration of production processes and the continuing exploration of JDF implementation. "JDF is still not well understood in its long- and short-term benefits," says Prince. "Can you envision automatic scheduling of 500 jobs?"
Both Davis and Lamparter also see a big geopolitical dimension to this year's show, specifically, a larger Chinese role than ever before. To Davis, China presents increasing off-shore competition for American printers. To Lamparter, the Chinese are emerging as possible suppliers of equipment for those same printers at significantly lower prices than present suppliers.
"There may be more things at the show from China and India than most people expect," he says.
Want to look further down the road? Cal Poly's professor Levenson is your guide. "The new technologies that will impact the printing industry in the immediate future will likely be invisible," he contends. "They will be vast improvements to the internal components of equipment that will enhance speed and accuracy, and miniaturize the internal parts of equipment."
Also, look into "wetware," as Levenson has. "Wetware involves harnessing the power of living, organic components to build and use technology," he notes. This is the path that leads to the cerebral cortex-to-press future. "The graphic communications industry is entering the realm of uncharted territory in this area."
Of course, once upon a time getting a completely new, personalized color page with every turn of a press cylinder was uncharted territory, too.
All this speculation does more than pique interest in a big trade show. It also gets people thinking about what the industry needs most, and when those needs are likely to be met.
Bolte suggests visitors to the big show should take pains to look beyond the biggest booths. "Smaller exhibitors are increasingly coming up with innovations to significantly impact printers' operations, particularly in the value-added services areas of fulfillment, mailing, wide-format and now RFID," he says. "Be patient and scout out the fringe booths because many suppliers are not on the main aisles."
For the printer who just wants a way to fold and stitch his digital output, professor Levenson's single-atom switches and "wetware" may sound more like a fantasy than a forecast. But the day may yet come when we find ourselves reminiscing about when we first saw products based on these technologies—and the show that brought them to market.
Right up to opening day, many questions will still hang in the air. Recalling Heidelberg's introduction of the Quickmaster DI press at PRINT 91, Ray Prince says, "I was told that a month before the showing there were doubts about going forward. We will know when the show is on."