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"Once the Pandora’s box was opened they forgot to close it and now every Tom, Dick and Harry are 'able.' You can become a printer by buying your way in..."

Feb 6, 2008 12:00 AM

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Time marches on

American Printer is celebrating its 125th anniversary in 2008. Even in the past dozen years, the printing industry has changed dramatically:

  • DTP technology got more sophisticated.
  • Film essentially vanished with the advent of CTP.
  • Digital presses improved.
  • DI presses matured.
  • The dotcom boom went bust.
  • We asked participants at to comment on the most significant changes they had seen in the industry (good or bad). Apple computers, Adobe’s PostScript and desktop publishing in general were the most frequently cited developments. Several posters noted that while computers ushered in greater process efficiency, the Digital Age has democratized prepress, spawning new challenges in the quest for good customer files.

    See the full thread. Selected highlights follow.

    “The biggest change has to be CTP replacing photomechanical. In terms of old technology I wish hadn’t gone away, I sort of miss having control of color/images from start to finish. This was before artists took over with then-new tools like Kodak PhotoCD, desktop scanners and Photoshop. We used to make a good living on scans, color corrections, retouching and masking. Not so much any more.”
    ­—Born 2 Print

    “I sure do miss my days in the dark room making half tones.”

    “The biggest and worst change I’ve seen in my time was taking the work away from qualified professionals and giving it to anybody with a PC and a couple of bucks for some software. I guess it was bound to happen once the process went from mechanical to digital, and now the customer gets what he likes (sometimes) for as much as he is prepared to pay.”

    “The winners are those that have left the trade with money in their pocket. The remaining souls are the losers--we are working harder, for less and more stress.”

    “You gotta love PostScript and the computer revolution. On the negative side, even with all the positive things and all the new and great things we’ve learned, you lose a little of the craftsmanship that came with doing some of these things by hand. Cutting color on a light table, using a horizontal (or vertical) camera, tray developing the film, adding the different lays in stripping, trapping via chokes and spreads, cutting rubylith, turning screens, setting individual process cuts by eye. All of these things required a skill that is going the way of the Linotype. For some of us this may bring back a few glowing memories. Others will call them flashbacks.”

    “PostScript allowed the whole process to have some digital standard, forcing the closed shops to become open. It wiped out some shops allowing the Mom and Pop to grow. Once the Pandora’s box was opened, they forgot to close it. And now every Tom, Dick and Harry is 'able.' You can become a printer by buying your way in, which is both good and bad. Prices tanked and quality rose. Good or bad depends on whether you are a winner or loser.”
    “The only old technology that I really miss is the Apple Extended Keyboard II--a keyboard made for typing, not for looking flashy (even though it did look nice).
    “Maybe the saddest evolution in our market: 10 to 15 years ago you used to have quite a lot of companies making a decent living or even earning lots of money. That percentage seems to have dropped significantly.
    “But why bother looking back? I am more interested in looking forward, wondering if the print world will catch up with the trend in Web publishing to rely on free open source software. The web has Apache, mySQL, Linux servers, Joomla, WordPress, In print we moved from having to buy a single vendor solution to an open environment back to a single vendor setup (Adobe InDesign, Illustrator & PhotoShop stuff being imaged using an Adobe RIP). Will the GIMP, Alfresco, Scribus or GhostScript ever become more than niche products?”

    “We were talking about the old skills at our shop, and agreed that there is no way we could pump out the necessary volume using the old technology these days.”

    “Film [made it] easy to check traps and teach about traps. A proof made from film, would match the plates made from film, no question. It could be reused over and over. You could fix little things quickly with some opaque. It was easy to check for quality, screens, angles and screen values. All the things that made film great, but film also had problems such as dot gain, scratches, storage and dust, etc.
    “I love my Kodak Approvals, Inkjets and CTP. But there are plenty of days I wish I had a nice set of film for quality assurance or to  check over a digital file.

    “I loved working on the camera, in the darkroom, making pretty pictures. Liked being a stripper, hated being bent over a light table for 12-14 hours a day. Liked it better being a CAD operator, hated the plotter/cutter (always had something to wonk it out).
    “Just glad I don’t have to dig through piles of old-ass film that’s all cracked and brittle to find that 10 year old job to reprint.”

    “I started in the bindery and got an apprenticeship in stripping. I really enjoyed learning and doing as much as I could but everything was so segmented. I did stripping, another guy ran the camera, another guy did the etching and another guy did proofing. With the advent of computers, you could basically be a one-man band, bad for the niche guy, but good for the well-rounded and easily trained person on the digital end.”

    “Sure printing used to be a lot bigger field, but we aren’t the only industry that’s doing more with fewer people.”
    —G Town

    “Remember the step and repeat plate makers? They became boat anchors pretty quick.”

    “What about ‘whirlers?’ Before pre-sensitized plates you had to coat your own deep etch plates in what was basically a centrifuge.”
    “Worst development? Two words: supplied artwork.”

    “I remember working at an old DC printer near the GPO. It had a custom roof for plate making. The roof was slanted towards the morning sun with large windows built in to hang plates outside [for solar exposure]. I never saw this done, but my understanding was in the early days of offset, 1920s or 1930s maybe, they did just that.”

    “El Sol, a pressboard, a pane of glass and two clamps was our first plate exposure device. And it wasn’t the 1930s!”

    “CTP [has been the best development]. I spent some torturous times at the light table pasting up tiny slivers of paper with wax onto a messy artboard for the camera. This was quite recently, in 2005, when I worked at a chop-shop that had all sorts of crappy artwork filed from the past twenty years. Sometimes it was just faster to paste some dude’s halftone PMT mug shot from 1992 onto a new laser print.”
    “The only true major changes in the printing industry were hot type to cold set, then Apple Mac and Adobe PostScript. The Mac allowed everyone to become a publisher. Working at a coldset commercial printer in the 1980s, we had so much work from new start up publications we ran 24/7 on two large newspaper press lines. It was the best of times. It was also the worst of times, as the entire prepress skill set started to disappear. And those of us still in prepress suffer from it everyday when we deal with customer files.”

    “In the late 1960s, I taught stripping with hand-cut roll mylar, just about the time when Rubylith was introduced, and I think the same year Kodak introduced high-speed duplicating film. The first HELL DC-300-a scanner on the West Coast was installed at our shop in 1973. A few years later, the Gerber mask and vinyl cutter arrived.
    “In 1982, I was introduced to the Scitex Pixet work station that ran a HP 600Mgb HD. To work on really big files we multi-packed two or three of them together.
    Finally, I moved off the light table and went Desktop Publishing in 1989 with a Mac Quadra 950 running Quark 2.8.
    “Now I run a Presstek 34DI digital 4-color offset press with [built-in] CTP.I think the only thing left is to develop a way to close my eyes and imagine my project directly to the paper.”

    “Back in the day I used to scan lots of agency work on a Crossfield Drum Scanner. The agencies were VERY picky about detail, color, sharpness, etc. Yeah,  most of you remember them. Well, now the same ones go out and buy themselves a Umax flatbed scanner from Walmart for $89 and supply the scans. You guessed it.  Some how they don’t care about the quality anymore.”

    “I framed my tools when I sat down to a Mac. No more scissors for cuttin’ film. No more $50 brushes for spottin’ film negs. No more goin’ blind using my 20 power dot glass for register.  No more Arthur H. Gaebel stainless steel ruler (made in good ol’ US of A).
    “After seeing a lot in 35 years at this I would have to say that the  PC or Mac has to be the most important development in our trade.”

    “I still remember the story of a Canadian trainee coming over to Belgium around 1985 for a two-week training course, which included a week on our three drum scanners. The training was overbooked, so it was arranged that he would get his training directly from Hell. The guy arrives on Monday and is told, ‘We’re sorry but there’s no room for you here. You can go to Hell.’”