First Impressions

It never pays to resist or deride innovators especially in the world of print. The clerics and inquisitors who warned us about the dangerous innovation of Herr Gutenberg (himself a pious man) ended up on the losing side of that technology argument. William Morris decried the industrialization of the printed word, and even went so far as to make his own type and paper, and print his own books by hand, but the giant printing factories of his day thrived.

You get the idea. Innovation always has is detractors. Print is certainly no exception. Lets take a true-or-false quiz:

  1. Offset will never replace gravure.
  2. Phototypesetting will never match the quality of hot type.
  3. Desktop publishing will never replace typesetting (or anything else).
  4. Nothing can replace the color quality of film.
  5. Nothing will replace real printing presses.

At some point in time, most people would have answered true to any one of these statements. These days, however, the certainty of these denials is eroding in the face of technology innovation, combined with relentless economic pressure.

This brings us to the last statement. Printing presses as we know them offset, gravure, and flexo are still the dominant way to put images on multiple sheets of paper, plastic, or whatnot, but that is changing. At this years Graph Expo, for example, I counted only four or five offset presses on the show floor, while the new upstarts digital presses were everywhere. Buying a new offset press is becoming rarer; buying a digital one is becoming the norm.

On the quality issue, digital is now meeting (and in some cases exceeding) the quality levels of analog print. Speeds are increasing, as are the paper handling and finishing aspects of digital print. Long run lengths are still the domain of regular presses, but that too may be changing over time. Most important: the per-sheet cost of digital print is falling, which will eventually put offset on the same road to obsolescence as letterpress.

Of course this will take a lot of time. Even the unchallenged advantages of digital print, like incredibly low make ready and variable data printing, will not make offset or flexo obsolete overnight.* Offset will be with us for a while, as will flexo. Even gravure will survive, if only to make printed electronics instead of long runs of magazines or catalogs.

The point is that digital print is emerging from the onus of professional scorn, and is becoming part of the acceptable norm. Many of the scorners will go out of business, while some will create new business models and learn how to thrive. Innovation, however disruptive, will survive the early failures and shortcomings to become the accepted way of doing things.

Now, if only we could refrain from ridiculing the next new thing. Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, digital toner and inkjet presses may be the hidebound technology, the old school approach.

What will you be doing when that happens?

–John Parsons

* This has a lot to do with business practices. We may have the digital technology to create a customized run of one printing process, but we really don’t know how to manage or profit from it yet.