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Printing and Printers

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Data-Mail employee operating an Admark machine, 1991.

The commercial printing industry in the U.S. includes around 36,000 companies, with about $112 billion in annual revenue from ink on paper printing alone. There are several very large, highly diversified printers, but the majority of printers are small or midsized businesses that operate one production plant, employ fewer than 20 people, and have annual revenues of under $5 million.

Source: Printing Industry of America

Printing is Consequential

Printing has had a major impact on society since Gutenberg completed his printed Bible in 1455. Scribes and clerks, once positions of significant importance in the courts of Europe, declined in importance as documents shifted from luscious and laborious illustrated manuscript to printed documents that could be standardized and produced more quickly. The widespread availability of documents helped engineer religious, scientific and social change. Today, even with the ability to read documents on a computer screen or a mobile device, some 45 trillion pages continue to be printed annually. Studies indicate that many people simply prefer to read documents on paper, especially if they are longer and more complex documents. Studies indicate that ink on paper material can be better for learning for most students, and printed material still captures reader attention and generates responses.

Early Printing in America

If Gutenberg had come to colonial America, he would have recognized the equipment and would have been able to use it. Printing was a specialized craft, and not much had changed in 200 years. While the first printing press in the New World was set up by the Spanish in Mexico City in the mid-16th century, the first printing press in what would become the United States was brought to New England a century later by Reverend Joseph Glover. For decades printing and printers were controlled by local governments, the church, or a few universities. This changed during the 18th century. William Penn of Pennsylvania fame brought William Bradford to Philadelphia in 1685 to produce religious tracts. Before long, however, the state’s strict religious code kept Bradford from producing the news as he wanted. So in 1725 he moved to New York City, where he began printing the New York Gazette, the city’s first newspaper. Other colonies bragged of printers and newspapers through the 18th century. Georgia was the last of the original 13 colonies to host a press and printer when James Johnson established his press in Savannah in 1762.

Many colonial printers also served as postmasters. Being the first one to get incoming newspapers allowed postmasters to add the latest news to their publications. Postage rates were low for newspapers and exchanged for free between printers.

Waves of Technological Improvements Changed the Industry

As in other industries, new technologies changed not only how items were printed, but who did the work as tradecrafts evolved.

In 1813 the first all-metal press replaced the standard screw mechanism with a system of levers that allowed presses to operate more smoothly and easily. In the early 1830s Stephen P. Ruggles developed a press able to print enameled cards. Later, George Gordon invented a platen job press mechanism based on Ruggles’ work, calling it “the Franklin” because he said Benjamin Franklin had described it to him in a dream. It was strong, well-built, easier and safer to operate. Also called the Gordon Jobber, it allowed a single operator to print small jobs for a growing business community that needed forms, specialized stationary, promotional flyers, business cards and other material. Variations of this form of letterpress printers are still in use today.

Another important piece in the evolution of the printing industry was the introduction of a new method of powering the work – steam. In 1843 Richard Hoe added the steam-powered rotary printing press to the industry, followed by James Gordon’s invention in 1862 of the two-sided printing press. The industry continued in that vein until well after the Civil War when Ottmar Mergenthaler, looking for a way to speed up the typesetting process, created the Linotype composing machine in 1886. This remarkable advance allowed machine operators to enter text by keyboard. A line of metal type known as a slug was then created by pouring molten lead over the line of typed text. The “line-o’-type” system sped up the printing process and reduced costs and helped drive an explosion of publications in the late 19th and early 20th century. The linotype machine, with incremental improvements, dominated the market for about 100 years. The photogravure process developed in 1878 by Czech painter Karel Klíč helped bring photographs into the previously staid publications, helping bring text to life and encourage a bigger audience for printed materials.

Technology Drove Improvements in Speed, Precision, Flexibility, and Quality

In 1903 Ira Washington Rubel invented the lithographic offset printing press. Rubel’s press replaced the stone plate with a rubber impression roller that provided a much clearer image, making it easier and faster to produce higher quality photographs and print. By the 1930s the offset process dominated the printing field. After the Second World war, two Frenchmen, Louis Moyroud and Rene Higonnet, took printing a step further by creating the first practical phototypesetting machine, the Lumitype. The machine created photographic images of news type that then became printing plates on round printing drums.

Inkjet and laser printing, supported by digital technology has become the dominant technology. Computers and powerful software enable highly flexible, accurate and low-cost operations and brought low-production printing to companies and organizations that had no previous printing experience. For professional printers, new folding, cutting, binding and finishing equipment that could be installed online with printing systems, and computer process controls ensured quality control throughout the process.

Color printing, personalization and other printing capabilities provided new opportunities for printers and their customers. Printers can now embed digital applications on a piece of mail, a magazine, catalog or an envelope that takes printed products into a new realm by connecting them with the Internet. People with mobile phones can scan a printed document and open up sound, animation, and other applications. Advances such as 3D printing offer further opportunities for printers and the print industry.

Back to the Future Again

Desktop publishing opens up a new field to innovative small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Small but powerful computers, equipped with sophisticated but easy-to-use software is changing how printers and customers approach print jobs. The Internet offers possibilities to expand business as local printers, once restricted to local markets, can work on a regional or national scale on a per-job basis or by continuing cooperative arrangements.

Graphic Designers Continue to Favor Print

According to surveys of graphic designers, print remains crucial as to how professional graphic designers make a living. More than 9-in-10 designers work in print as part of their mix and roughly 3-in-4 projects involve a print component. They are intimately involved or control a large part of the process, operating to very exacting customer requirements.

Designers appreciate its classic strengths. Foremost is touch — sensual, physical, real, permanent, credible, human connection that is missing in the virtual world. As one respondent states: “People are people. They want something tangible.”

These classic strengths are amplified by context. In the digital clutter of 2015, print can be special — fresh, surprising, novel, welcome, personal, revealing, even a statement that a brand values itself and its customers. In the last year, for example, many online businesses have established print magazines. Examples include C/Net, Airbnb and Uber, WebMD, Paperless Post and Angie’s List.

Print’s evolution to a smarter and leaner profile — think digital printing and sustainable paper making — are helping keep the medium a relevant option when hard choices are being made about effectiveness, economics, and ethics.

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