Frankly Speaking: No Printing Process Dies

Frank Romano
Oct 4, 2012

These are the three devices that replicate paper-based documents in quantity: copier, printer, and press.

The difference between a copier and a printer is that the copier requires a hard copy original and the printer requires an electronic file. My guess is that very few, if any, copiers are manufactured any more. The light lens system has been replaced with a scanning system connected to a printer. A Multi Function Printer (MFP) is called that because it can copy, scan, print, and fax. Old habits die hard so they are still called copiers; although, most are really MFPs.

Printers evolved from souped-up typewriters to character printers to dot matrix printers to Non Impact Printers, which ushered in the age of electrophotographic and inkjet printing. Monochome yielded to full color, and desktop versions were joined by production-level multi-ton units.

Printers are ubiquitous in all shapes and sizes. Most of us have one on a desktop nearby. If we work in an office, there is one or more down the hall. The office printers do more and more; color and advanced finishing are now commonplace.

Indigo and Xeikon gave us production color in 1993 and gave us the term “digital press.” Presstek would probably argue that they introduced a digital press in 1991.

In fact all analog presses are digital to some degree. Plates are imaged digitally. Litho and flexo presses have digital controls and quality feedback systems.

Now we all know what a press is. Or do we? The process does not matter, whether it uses offset lithography, flexography, gravure, or even letterpress. The size and speed may not matter because there are small offset duplicators up to giant web presses. And sheet or web feeding do not affect the definition. I contend that a press is a press because it uses a removable and consumable image carrier (a plate).

The image carrier is a key point. Printers re-generate the image for every sheet. Technically, every sheet can be different and this gives us variable data printing or versioning. Even though most digital printing is short runs of static content, each page is re-generated. On a press, the image carrier is unchanging and every sheet receives the same content.

We are seeing many new B2 (4-up) sheetfed inkjet or liquid toner printers. They are big, print full color, and some perfect (or duplex if you please). Are they printers? Yes. They accept files and put drops of toner or ink on some substrate by re-generating the page or sheet impression without a consumable or removable image carrier.

But they weigh tons and print signatures, not pages. When does a printer become a press? The easy answer is when speed, size, and functionality reach a certain level the printer metamorphoses into a press. A roll-fed wide format inkjet printer is a printer. But a sheet-fed flatbed inkjet printer is getting close to being a press. The Agfa MPress prints on a sheet the size of Bolivia with automatic loading of thick and thin materials using UV inkjet. It is aptly named–M for Mega press.

Presstek is a good example. It takes files and produces the plate on press. It is a printing press because of the plate. Its speed and productivity go beyond a printer.

Now you could argue that electrophotography, using dry or liquid toner, does use a photo-conductive drum or belt that eventually must be replaced. Landa’s nanographic printing is liquid toner delivered via jetting to a heated belt.

In fact, Landa’s and HP’s Indigo uses a blanket so it is an offset system. Offset is not a process. You can have offset flexo. There is offset letterpress. And most electrophotographic printers use a transfer belt or cylinder to protect the organic photo conductor. You could say that almost all toner-based printers use offset techniques.

But the world keeps changing. At Drupa 2012 we learned of partnerships between major press manufacturers (Heidelberg, Komori, and manroland) with Landa. So here are three press makers who will adapt digital printing to their “mechanisms.”

Why would these competitors apply the same digital imaging technology? They all use offset lithography and compete on the basis of their mechanical and electronic innovations. Thus they will all use Landa nanographic printing and compete on the basis of their mechanical and electronic innovations.

Lastly, almost all reproduction devices are moving beyond paper to board for folding carton and point-of-purchase printing. They will be called presses no mater what technology they use.

The interesting point about all this is that no printing process dies. Letterpress is still in use. The RISO digital stencil duplicators are really modern Mimeographs. Screen printing may be losing ground to inkjet, but it is still a viable process. Gravure still has small markets in packaging, products, and publications.

So we are doomed to deal with a multiplicity of printing methods… forever.

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