Printing continues to undergo metamorphosis

Few would question that we are living through one of the most intense periods of change in human history. “Everything changes” has become a password for everything from interpersonal relations to the state of the economy.

In the past 20 years since I began writing, the printing industry transformed. In the early 1980s, when I began selling for Federal Envelope, we still had letterpresses and rubber plates and assumed the mailing industry would last forever. When I began working for The National Press, I sold tons of software manuals, picked up art boards and took photographs to the colour separator. Back then desktop publishing companies such as Apple and Adobe sent their art layout on boards.

At Federal and National, I walked through the pressroom, smelling the old oil-based ink, heard the clatter of the presses, and exchanged stories with the pressmen. Craftsmen took pride in their work: the cameraman shot precise duotones on a five-foot-tall camera, strippers meticulously sliced film to get special effects, pressmen laboured over ink fountains, and the bindery managers perfectly lined up touchy crossovers.

In keeping with the changes, this article will be my last after 17 years as the US correspondent for ProPrint. I began working in an industry that remained little changed for decades and ended up observing a revolutionised industry.

Technology now produces everyday quality that surpasses the best of the old craftsmen. Artwork comes in separated and ready for automatic plate making. Computers control 40-inch, 12-colour presses, making press checks in a few sheets and maintaining quality throughout the run. Skill continues to be vital, but is a result of mastering the technological mastery.

Looking back over the printing articles I’ve written in the past 20 years, I find the subject hasn’t changed. Because I had a front-row seat for watching the computer revolution in Silicon Valley, I could foresee its effects on the printing industry. At times, I felt like Nero with his fiddle, banging away on the same themes.

But the themes changed. I’ve covered innumerable conferences from MacWorld to Seybold, Photoshop and Intermedia, some that no longer exist. Successful and forward-looking company presidents provided insights into new markets, waterless printing, high-bandwidth networks, automation software and using the internet to communicate with customers. Vendors provided valuable information about hardware, software, presses and quality control. Readers could learn about direct-to-plate, cross-selling, database marketing, mailing services, personalisation and training workers. I’ve examined markets, including digital printing, mailing, fine art, real estate, books, magazines, newspapers and annual reports.

A number of experts offered their opinions, including public relations and marketing specialists, product managers, graphic designers, business managers, consultants, report managers and industry standards analysts. Managers and owners of small shops, franchises and corporations weighed in on issues of the day and gave advice on dealing with market conditions. I’ve thought about combining the almost 200 articles into a book, but fear too much of it would be outdated.

Few articles came from my own experience. Instead, I learned from printers, graphic designers and industry experts, sought out printers who were mastering the change and harnessing technology to find new, more efficient ways to get better results.

Innovation, thinking “outside the box”, being inventive, exploring new ways of doing things became my soapbox. Some probably didn’t want to hear the message: the industry is changing and if you insist on sticking to the old ways, you won’t be around tomorrow.

This adage proved true. While the American printing industry prides itself on having a large number of small shops, run by often grizzled and experienced people who worked their way up through the ranks, many of them have gone bankrupt. Thousands of shops have closed their doors in the past 20 years, many forced out of business in the stock market crash, after 9/11, and the recent Bush Recession.

Consolidation swept up others as hedge funds and flush moneylenders eased credit and allowed them to overleverage their assets.

Recent improvements and the high cost of printing equipment have tested the financial shrewdness, as well as the business acumen of printshop owners. The age-old story of commodity pricing, equipment proliferation and high overhead continues to challenge printers. And they cope with new means of communication: the web, digital printing, personalisation, video, social networks and other transformative ways of obtaining information.

Despite all these changes, many continue to be successful in an industry that fascinates me. Innovators are finding niche markets, developing new ways of approaching old problems, and finding success that will perpetuate the placement of ink on paper, even as the industry changes to all about communication rather than the simple act of printing.

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