What Took Us So Long?

Laurel Brunner's picture
Laurel Brunner

When we look at what’s possible with today’s digital presses, it’s tempting to wonder why it took so long for digital printing to arrive.

Since the inception of the Xeikon DCH-1 and the Indigo E-Print in 1993 it’s taken several decades for digital presses to become viable options for many print applications. Maybe we’re just impatient because looking back conventional printing processes have matured even more slowly. So have application requirements driven technology developments, or have applications emerged to take advantage of new technologies?

A bit of both it seems. Early examples of mass produced print were religious texts produced by Buddhists to ward of evil spirits. By the seventh century such texts were used in rituals and were revered rather than being widely shared. The technology of the time, woodblock printing, wasn’t particularly quick or convenient but, along with the invention of paper it worked for producing such work. The introduction of movable type in the eleventh century created an opportunity to prevent counterfeiting using special characters and helped drive the development of paper money.

In Europe Gutenberg’s movable metal type made it possible to produce books economically as an alternative to hand written manuscripts. The Gutenberg Bible was printed in 1455 on a modified wine press with a flat bed to hold the printing form, which was pressed into the paper. The modified wine press’s highly torqued screw exerted considerable pressure onto the paper and the inked printing form beneath it to produce the printed page. The relative ease and convenience of this form of document reproduction led to a rapid rise in the use of pamphlets printed and distributed to the general population. Although literacy rates were pretty dire in the early days of print, ideas could still be shared helping to drive massive social, political, spiritual and economic upheaval throughout Europe.

Digital printing technologies have also enabled powerful change in communities wanting to share knowledge. One of Poland’s leading newspapers, the Gazeta Wyborcza, has its origins as an eight page newspaper printed illegally in the early 1980s at numerous sites throughout Poland. Press runs were from a few hundred to 10,000 copies, varying month to month at each site, and often using digital printing technologies smuggled in from elsewhere.

The role of print is still to inform, share and inspire and this does not change because of new technologies. The growth of digital printing and its markets illustrate that what makes for a viable business model changes as technology advances. But sometimes it’s the other way round and unsatisfactory business models drive invention.

Actor and playwright Alois Senefelder invented lithography in 1796 because the costs of printing one of his plays had driven him into debt. By the late eighteenth century letterpress printing had dominated print for 500 years, but Senefelder was acutely aware of the need for a cheaper reproduction process that could be available to more people. His invention, the lithographic press, could be used to produce all sorts of material, from newspapers to works of art.

Planographic litho printing dominated the graphics industry for fifty years and in the mid-nineteenth century rotary drum printing expanded the range of substrates that could be printed. Since its introduction the digital press has taken a mere twenty-five years to start chipping away at litho applications. Like their forebears digital printing technologies provide cheaper reproduction processes accessible to more people, who are producing a growing range of publications and printed products. This vast range of applications reaches out to as yet unimagined print options.

Digital printing’s scope, its simplicity and convenience makes it an ideal candidate to eventually replace all printing methods. There is not a single printing application that digital printing technology cannot tackle. It will take time before the tradeoffs between speed, quality and cost disappear, but economic and application demands are driving improvements in all three. The only certainty is that the next jump forward will happen sooner rather than later.

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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.