Digital Printing and its distant origins

Laurel Brunner's picture
Laurel Brunner

Ever since archeologists unearthed the first characters scratched onto clay tablets thousands of years ago, the graphics business has been about more than the sum of its parts. Its obvious components such as inks and toners, substrates and imaging systems, add up to something much bigger because communication is fundamental to us. We have a need to share and document our experiences and for millennia we have done so using an ever growing array of printing technologies.

Gutenberg was not the first printing technology innovator, but he probably has the highest profile. When he started printing bibles and papal indulgences using movable metal types, he created the world’s first manufacturing model and laid the foundations for the publishing industry. The age of mass communications had begun and from 1436 to 1500, 1,100 printing shops were founded in 200 European cities, and they had produced 12 million books in 35,000 different editions.* Gutenberg’s innovations helped drive the Renaissance and the Reformation fuelling massive social, political and economic change.

In the centuries following Gutenberg’s invention, innovations in print improved production efficiencies, output quality and format diversity. Modern digital printing research and development must deal with the same problems that plagued Gutenberg and developers who came before and after him. The mechanical interactions of substrate, inks and toners, and the printing method have to be in harmony. Gutenberg’s recipe of soot, turpentine and walnut oil worked well enough to print 3500 sheets per day in the 15th century and remained largely unchanged for 300 years. But in 1796 or so Alois Senefelder developed planographic printing, the forerunner of modern lithography introduced in 1907, substrates and inks evolved as well. Since Gutenberg, printers had made their own inks but in the 19th century faster printing methods made this increasingly unviable. Companies dedicated to ink development and manufacture emerged and some are still around: Sun Chemical has its origins in 1818.

In the 20th century synthetic pigments and resins started to be developed. By the 1950s litho presses designed for web as well as sheet fed printing were available, creating new requirements for ink performance and cost. By the 1980s when digital technologies were beginning to impact the graphics industry, much faster litho presses were coming onto the market with yet further expectations for ink performance and interactions with substrates.

As with inks so it is with substrates. When papyrus was brought to Europe it’s relative fragility and cost meant that it was soon replaced with parchment and vellum which were much more durable in damp climates. Made from animal skins both endured for many hundreds of years, however once paper made its way to Europe from China via the Middle East, their use was largely overtaken by a preference for paper. It wasn’t until the Industrial Age that largescale paper production was possible, occuring at about the same time as the widespread uptake of litho printing. And the advent of digital printing has created new opportunities for substrate makers in all sectors.

The graphics industry has evolved as the technology that makes print possible has also evolved. Today’s industry depends on the interactions of advances in computing and materials science. Since the first writing inks were developed in China and Egypt in around 2500 BC we have worked to optimise ink chemistries for the printing method and target substrates. Today as in the middle ages advances in inks and substrates drove each new advance so that other advances could be made, in a constant dance of progress. Today the interplay of substrate, ink and imaging processes create new ways of printing and open up possibilities for new applications for print, such as textile and wallpaper printing. Today’s industry shares important parallels with Gutenberg in that technology is driving major changes in how we live. But these days those changes occur far more rapidly and have serious and far-reaching consequences for our communications models and trust in media.

For graphics industry customers the last thirty years have seen dramatic falls in the cost of hardware and software. The industry has benefited from a huge pool of intellectual resources, standards and advances in materials science, both for online and offline communications. Printing has become accessible to more and more people, and print buyers can exploit multiple communications channels in order to develop brand engagement and loyalty. The interaction between technologies and their implementation pushes developers to meet new challenges and look for different ways of doing things. As we consider the amazing progress of the last thirty years, it is to the buyers of printing systems and their customers that we can credit much of the success of today’s printing and publishing industries. Customers’ trust in the early days of Xeikon and Indigo meant that both companies were able to continue to push on with technologies that support the steady stream of new applications requirements coming from the market.

* Warren Chappell: A Short History of the Printed Word (Nonpareil Books), 1980

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