Invention and invention

Laurel Brunner's picture
Laurel Brunner

The nature of invention is hard to pin down. History is littered with tales of serendipity and luck, such as the invention of the can opener 50 years after canning was invented. And let’s not forget that the first plastic, invented in 1862 by Alexander Parkes, was made from specially treated cellulose. Celluloid, an early iteration, was invented for use in billiard balls instead of ivory but was more widely used as the first flexible photographic film.

Digital imaging and printing technologies have evolved in a similarly unexpected way and today drive all sorts of end-user products, from photo books and bespoke packaging to cocreational projects between brands and consumers. As with all great advances, digital printing benefits from discoveries that haven’t always been intentional but which drive evolutionary change.

Take the Iris, an early inkjet colour printer. It was originally designed for high-end colour proofing in repro shops, but was far more successful for producing fine art prints. It helped create a market for bespoke digitally printed one-offs printed on various substrates, and laid the foundation for a market for hard copy proofing systems for the likes of Canon, Epson and HP. They continue to serve this sector long after Iris has been forgotten.

Unintended consequences
And so it was with application development for the early digital presses. When introduced in 1993, the Xeikon DCP-1 was expected to provide full colour printing of runs from one to 5,000 impressions in the commercial printing sector. At the time a conventionally printed colour print run of 5,000 was considered to be short, and it was expected that the most common run length for a digital colour press would be 200 copies. In those years it was expensive to make colour separations and image, via film, sets of CMYK plates. High costs, process complexity and the time in prepress required meant that only really long run lengths justified the costs involved. But these days imaging direct to press means that a run of 200 copies is a long run for many digital print applications, particularly in the commercial print sector. In making possible full colour printing for tiny runs, early digital presses have helped create new markets for print, as print buyers embraced the technology and its possibilities. The combination of enthusiasm and imagination has further fuelled growth in applications, production innovation and market share. It has also unexpectedly helped the graphics industry to more than hold its own in the whelm of electronic media.

Time to step up
But it’s a curious thing that printing companies in the commercial sector are so dependent on their customers for innovations. With a few clever and usually high-end exceptions, printing companies tend to wait for someone to present them with a problem they want solved. Take photobooks for example. They’ve been around since the early days of photography, and yet the term is a recent invention. Someone somewhere wanted one and wanted it to be based on their own photos uploaded to a website or more likely handed over on a disc or CD, and thus was an amazingly fertile and profitable application invented. Software developers came up with online tools for print ordering and cajoled printers into making them available on their websites as cobranded tools. Web to print workflows evolved to support a new market and digital front ends evolved in kind. The photobook application has splintered into all sorts of different kinds of photobooks, from high end commemorative albums for wedding and anniversaries selling at €1000 a pop, to Facebook diaries (yes, really). An ever expanding market, along with aggressive selling from manufacturers keen to expand their reaches, continues to drive page growth in this application.

Another high profile example of how technical innovation can drive new applications is label printing. Conventionally produced with a range of analogue printing processes, such as gravure and flexo, label printing was not the original target market for digital colour printing systems. And yet labels have become a huge market for digital printers. This is due in part to the proliferation in SKUs over the last twenty years, up from 7,000 in the 1990s to 45,000 today. But it is also down to the unique ability of digital presses to vary the content on each label, say for a numbered run of medical labels or for language specific ingredients lists. Packaging print benefits in much the same way, particularly for bespoke and very short run work.

… and take to the floor
These advances are in many ways down to the technologies and applications support that digital press manufacturers have provided for their customers. Through workshops and hosted events digital press manufacturers have helped to encourage confidence in the process alongside awareness of what can be achieved. When digital printing was still in its early days printers were reluctant to embrace it, so these initiatives on the parts of manufacturers were necessary to gee up the market. Printing companies, often wary of the technology and its inherent risks, preferred to stick with offset because of its superior colour quality and the fact that they knew how to get good results. They mostly were cautious, reluctant to take a risk or to be proactive. With a few exceptions, printing companies in the early days of digital printing rarely took the trouble to understand the technological changes taking the graphics industry by storm. It was repro houses, clobbered by the collapse in the prices they could charge for prepress services, who first embraced digital printing. They were desperately searching for some premium service they could offer in the hope of surviving the transformation of traditional craft skills into software. They had to do something to compete with process automation and the coming digital storm.

There of course were plenty of exceptions to this, and those companies who stepped forward into the wider unknown survived, thrived and reinvented themselves. But the reluctance to explore new technologies and ideas, along with resistance to risk still characterises the graphics business, made up of as it is of small and medium sized risk averse businesses. However printing companies willing to partner with their suppliers and customers are creating new approaches to how the graphics business works. Many of these new models are largely unanticipated and spring from sudden insights into better ways of achieving the desired results. Often it’s an accidental meeting of minds, so we should remember the words of Albert Szent-Györgyi, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist: “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind”. Prepared minds are those minds open to new ideas and innovations. Such minds create new ways of doing things to change our world for the better, and this is what Benny Landa and Lucien de Schamphelaere started all those years ago.

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The Verdigris Project investigates the environmental impact of print media and provides information about sustainability initiatives for the international printing community. Keep up to date with the weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner.