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Jul 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Quick vs. small commercial and why it matters

A friend of mine does $300,000 in annual sales. “I'm not a quick printer!” he insists. “I'm a real printer.”

Conversely, I know a commercial printer with $9 million in sales and web equipment who proudly calls his company a quick printer. And then we have industry pundits who categorize any shop with less than 10 employees as a quick printer.

Do you remember the 1960s?

What is a quick printer? Let's review a little U.S. printing history. Until the late 1960s, letterpress was the dominant commercial printing process. Lithography first came on the scene in the 1950s, and as stone lithography gave way to superior offset technology, litho gradually usurped letterpress.

So, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, offset printers with their high-tech 25- and 36-inch presses were the upstarts. The offset printers could reproduce artwork and line drawings for significantly less cost, and they began to make a dent in the marketplace.

In the early 1960s, Itek Corp. paved the way for quick printing when it introduced the first self-contained camera and offset plate material processor for printing. An unlikely player in the graphic arts, Itek developed cameras for use in outer space and equipment for U.S. reconnaissance efforts. Legend has it that Itek wanted to leverage its lens manufacturing capacity — at the same time, Kodak, a company Itek had worked with on some government projects, had some direct-plate material it had developed but had not commercialized. Around 1963, Itek made printing history when it launched the Itek 1015 at the U.S. government in-plant printing show in Washington, DC.

Itek set up a national printing dealer network, and several people saw the business potential of marrying the Itek 1015 with the small-format duplicator. The combined machines enabled people to buy quick and inexpensive reproductions of line copy in black ink. Plain-paper copying machines were in their infancy, and there was a pent-up demand for simple black-and-white work.

So, quick printing — the user's ability to print quickly what had required weeks — was born sometime around 1963. Franchising started soon afterward.

Distinctive equipment

Back then, quick printing meant printing done on small-format presses using masters from the photo direct, typically from a customer's original. At first, this was line copy in black ink with no heavy solids. Later, developments brought us better plates and direct screens that would allow colored ink and halftones.

In those days, equipment was the key distinction between quick and commercial printing. Typesetting equipment, metal plates and larger presses were the hallmarks of commercial printing. Many, if not most, quick printers even then did commercial and quick printing. We did. We bought typesetting equipment, used metal plates and even purchased more heavy-duty small-format (Davidson) presses. But that's what quick printing was: black-and-white reproductions.

The second revolution in quick printing came as the Apple Macintosh was set free from the dot matrix world when it was paired up with a laser printer. What could be created on the Mac could be printed out and then photographed for reproduction.

Press manufacturers also saw the logical move to the 12 × 18-inch format and gave us more capable presses, a trend that continues today.

Today, we use direct-to-plate technology from computers to produce reproductions on small-format presses, offset or digital. And we're quick, but everyone is quick. Book printers, commercial printers and everyone else is quick. Quick by itself has not been a marketing niche since the 1960s.

The heart of the matter

What is quick printing? It is printing work of 50,000 or fewer pieces on small-format presses, single-color or multicolor, digital or offset. The supporting prepress and binding equipment is geared toward small format. We could be called small press printers, but that has never stuck; rather, we are today's quick printer. What's a commercial printer? That's a printer producing on something other than small-format (digital or offset) presses, of course.

Does it matter? Yes. People who don't know who or what they are buy equipment that is not suited to their work or their market. And that's the main reason many printers fail.

Tom Crouser is president of CPrint, Certified Printers Intl. His most recent book is “Prospering: Putting the Business to Work for You and Your Family in 5 Basic Steps.” Prior to founding Crouser & Associates in 1985, Tom operated his own print shop for 20 years. Contact him via

What's the dif?

What's the difference between a quick printer and a small commercial printer?

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