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By William J. Ray, PH.D, Group Info Tech, Inc.

Jul 16, 2001 12:00 AM


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In the long term, where will print be? Can an industry that uses massive amounts of forest products survive in the face of sexy, ever-improving e-media approaches? Can print survive the sea of change represented by an alteration in the very concept of “literacy”?

Let us play out some of the trends that may impact the industry in 10 years or so.

We do not control our own future. As an industry we have been “responders.” We responded to the need for inexpensive color through color electronic prepress systems. We responded to PostScript with initial resistance and final capitulation. And we will be dragged, yet again, into the future by physicists and computer scientists.

GROUND ZERO OF EVOLUTION

Print, however shrunken and altered, is going to be with us. There's no technological epiphany looming that portends the absolute end of print in the next 10 years. Change will come through evolution and adoption of new technologies and techniques. That said, our evolution will be dramatic and somewhat traumatic — especially when viewed from the perspective of 2011.

The book manufacturing segment will be the leading edge of change in our business. Ultimately, it will look nothing like it does today. Sheer economics from the publishers' perspective dictates this. Even from the manufacturing point of view, the recognition of the value of the digitized book (as opposed to the value of the printed book) has become obvious to our customers.

Today, the model in traditional publishing requires the publisher to bet on the success of a book. If I am to publish a 300-page, one-color book, I have to sell at least 10,000 copies to balance retail price, cost of manufacturing and publisher profit. This is the Las Vegas method of publishing.

The new publishing model will allow us to sell a limited number of copies — perhaps two or three — to recover our production costs. From that point, we will only produce what is demanded and nothing more. “Produce on demand” (note that I did not say “print” on demand) will sweep away the current business system.

Electro-optical and inkjet printing represent an initial phase of change. But the real change is the devastating impact of e-paper. By the middle of this decade, we will begin to see flexible, high-resolution casebound readers that will be display devices that act like paper. Slip a chip in the spine, and you will have John Milton, Charles Dickens or Tom Clancy.

To “print” the book, we will cut a ROM (read-only memory) at the cash register of the bookstore with, perhaps, a nice stick-on color label (the book cover, printed at the same time the ROM is being burned).

And by the end of the decade, e-paper will begin to appear with color — which is good news for textbooks and the like, and an interesting dilemma clouding the horizon for book printers.

For more information, check out www.eink.com or attend the Technical Assn. of the Graphic Arts (TAGA) meeting in Stockholm this October. TAGA will examine new substrates and alternative delivery mechanisms (see www.taga.org).

This sea of change will greatly impact the short-run academic printers and binders that deal with trade and casebound books. Longer-run, Web-based pocketbook manufacturers will survive a bit longer due to cost and impulse-buy considerations. But eventually the new e-book will look, act and be read like a paper book.

NEW WORLD OF BOOK MANUFACTURING

The book-manufacturing industry, however, will be alive and well and, in fact, thriving. Well, at least some of it. We will see new people enter the field, as well as a new type of book manufacturing. Smart book printers will realize they are not machine tenders. They don't simply put ink to paper. They will realize that the manufacturing process is not in the pressroom but in prepress.

The new manufacturing process will be digitally agile and allow a single-source piece to be produced by a digital “binding” process, e.g., tagged data pointed at some form of output (e-book, electro-optical or inkjet, etc.)

Other than high-volume paperbacks, there will be very little traditional ink-on-paper printing. In 2011, however, a great deal of hybrid production of short-run physical books, using non-impact processes, will be common. The physical end-product will be done by a “black box” in an almost entirely automated manner.

The book plant of the future will look a lot like the design/type shop of today, but will likely be a growing source of employment. While traditional publishers will embrace the new system for cost reasons, the construction of a new production system lowers the barrier to entry into the publishing business.

The cost of publishing is the cost of authoring and formatting. Since everyone will have a book reader that can provide a media for any book, the new book producer provides half of the book equation: formatting and digital flexibility. Even now, we see small digital publishers springing up to challenge the traditional order. There will be thousands of new titles appearing that would not have made the cut at a traditional publisher.

Good or bad, this represents opportunities for those who offer the technical knowledge and expertise that will dominate the new world of book manufacturing.

COLOR BY EVOLUTION

Commercial printing will change more slowly, due to the more complex nature of production and the economic model upon which this sector is based.

Traditional sheetfed operations are in trouble now, and the future may not be good to them. E-paper is capable of providing images that move. Think about an ad flyer that not only provides copy but rotates the product or changes color. This is probably beyond our 10-year projection, but by the time we get to 2011, the e-paper future will be obvious.

Between now and 2011, we will see traditional offset presses start to lose their dominance. Non-impact systems get better every year and, as color becomes an engineering process rather than an art, the value-add of the traditional offset operation is eroded.

What of gravure and web offset? Considering the typical run lengths and business models that these operations have adopted, nothing on the technical horizon appears to be a replacement. Color quality, which is good now, will get better and more precise with the new color models that are looming. Thus, much of the actual product will match the printed piece — no matter where it is sampled in the press run.

Press feedback control systems will become ubiquitous, due as much to personnel issues as technical. The number and experience level of pressroom employees will decrease.

Generally speaking, computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) will rule the day. This is, perhaps, the single most important trend in the industry today.

Who wins? The geeks. What is now prepress will be the heart and soul of CIM. Intermachine communication will also be common. Prepress will tell our CIM communication system what to do. Many inline manufacturing processes will be controlled by specific artificial intelligence (AI) software. Who tells the systems what AIs to use? The people who occupy what is now the prepress department.

In the end, the folks who understand and are able to instruct the bits and bytes on what to do will run the industry.

RED FLAGS TO WATCH FOR

Standards, de facto or not, are some of the keys to the future. Most are well-intended, but some are disasters in the making.

I believe there are two looming problems that will have ramifications well into 2011. One is Acrobat/PDF. PDF is a PostScript-like “carrier” that unfolds at the platesetter with as little fuss as possible. The problem is that one company owns this format. For Adobe, the printing industry represents a nice small market segment within a much larger overall market. We need to be proactive and take control of the dialog in the development of PDF.

We, as an industry, may even be better off moving to a tagged type of workflow — a la XML — that binds to whatever format is needed at the time of output. We also need to strongly support alternative vendors to achieve balance in the technical debate.

Another problem is JDF/CIP4. The industry needs to get involved with this initiative. Today, this consortium is a highly Eurocentric and vendor-dominated operation. What happens to CIP4 could be the most important development of the decade for the printing industry.

CIM IS OUR FUTURE

CIM is our future. So you have a choice: Accept what someone else thinks is good, or get involved and tell the group what you need. Not getting involved puts your company at risk. Whispered decisions today will shout at us in 2011. Whether that shout is a cry of triumph or grief depends upon printers' involvement.

Finally, there is UDEX (Universal Data Element Cross-Reference). This is a data “standard,” driven by the Graphic Communications Assn. (GCA), TAGA and the R&E Council of the Graphic Arts, that allows various software systems to communicate. This effort should rationalize both new software systems (possibly through a JDF or derivative) and existing systems.

Such rationalization will further the advent of CIM without forcing users to reinvest or scrap internally developed systems. This is a simple effort that cannot be proprietary as it depends upon the existence of multiple systems. To find out more or to get involved, contact www.gca.org.

Editor's note: William J. Ray is technical chairman of the UDEX effort.