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The New Printing Industry is Based On Ink on Everything

No one predicted wide-format inkjet printing. It came in 1995, initially as a color-proofing approach, but wound up engendering a major new market for printing services.

By Frank Romano
This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, March / April 2020 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2020 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

We often do not see new products and markets until they are right on top of us.

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  • On Oct. 23, 2019, at PRINTING United, a new era began for the printing industry. It was not just a trade show; it represented an upheaval of the status quo of the "old" printing industry.

    For decades, industry events emphasized, and were supported by, off set lithographic press makers and related paraphernalia. These suppliers occupied the most space and spent the most money. As offset volume declined after 1995, the heavy metal and large booths began to disappear.

    At the same time, the SGIA Expo advanced as inkjet technology advanced. It was the go-to event for new inkjet technology.

    No one predicted wide-format inkjet printing. It came in 1995, initially as a color-proofing approach, but wound up engendering a major new market for printing services. (No one predicted the internet either, but it has been a competitor and enabler of print.) We often do not see new products and markets until they are right on top of us.

    I believe that the flatbed inkjet printer will be as ubiquitous as the offset press over the next decade. We just need to create "Volkswagen" versions for smaller services.

    New Print
    The word "print" is an all-encompassing term for many printed products, from brochures to signage to packaging. Now there is "New Print," a collection of new products and technologies based on digital technology that present opportunities for printers around the world, but also disrupt the status quo.

    The enabler for much of what is happening is digital printing. Using toner and especially inkjet in all its forms, our industry can now effectively produce short runs, personalized content, and special effects on many different substrates. We can produce value-added printing that escapes commoditization. We can print on almost any substrate.

    It used to be that long runs made the most money. Today, shorter runs are more the norm, and if there is something special about them, like special effects or personalization, then that is where the money is. When each printed piece looks more valuable, it is more valuable.

    Ink on Everything
    Printing industry growth will come from new products and services that go way beyond paper. Wide-format inkjet evolved into flatbed inkjet, which evolved into 3D printing, and even printed electronics. Flatbed inkjet can print on virtually any substrate in thicknesses of a few centimeters. This opens the door (or doors) to specialty printing in many new markets, like home décor and specialty graphics on glass, plastic, wood, metal, textiles, and more.

    Traditional printed products are changing. We are reaching a point where digital print dollar volumes are getting close to offset dollar volumes. Analysts who deal in "page impressions" miss this completely. Soon, flexo printing of flexible packaging will be challenged by inkjet, just as screen printing has been challenged. Many new digital systems now handle corrugated and folding carton printing. Th ere are more than 20 digital printing systems specifically for printing labels. We can now print on anything.

    Everything Merges
    We are seeing the merging of distinct technologies, industries, or devices into a unified whole. Different trade shows are merging because their industries are merging. Different production functions are merging as workflow becomes more automated. Digital printing often merges printing and binding. Even different printing technologies are merging into single machines (hybrid printing).

    Multiple Technologies
    Most commercial print providers now have offset litho and some digital printing in the same plant. Modern workflows link these different devices. Some web-based offset presses integrate inkjet in what are called "hybrid presses." Printed products can see full-color variable content added to fixed litho-printed content. Flexo presses have long integrated rotary screen modules.

    Multiple Products
    Some printers in the past specialized in certain printed products, such as catalogs, or books, or promotional material. Today, the addition of one digital machine can move a printing firm into a new market.

    Flatbed inkjet printers open new markets for printing services. It is all about printing beyond paper.

    Multiple Skills
    The traditional printing company has been composed of people with specific skill sets: camera work, film stripping, platemaking, color scanning, press operation, finishing, etc. Today, most of those skill sets are apps. Robotics are also advancing. We may see the self-driving press before we see the self-driving car.

    I recall a cartoon from the 1950s showing blank paper going in one end of a machine and bound books coming out the other end. That prophetic cartoon is now a reality. On-demand book printing has changed the dynamics of the book publishing industry. What began as one book at a time is now seeing hundreds at a time which changes the dynamics of warehousing and inventory management.

    It is the high level of integration that is changing the printing industry. It began in 2000 with CIP4 and JDF, and advances today with robotics and automation. Operators once ran machines; now they manage machines and workflows.

    Sign Elements Vehicle Templates

    For a long time, print communications were usually distributed by the postal service. We once thought that everyone would have a fax machine, and that is how we would get our printed content. But the internet eliminated the need for print at all. Many printing company employees now manage information more than they manage print.

    The same content can now be re-purposed for any communication channel.

    Books, e-books, websites, and social media are among the ways we connect with one another. Software is now available to take the file used to drive a computer platemaker and re-orient it for other forms of communication.

    We should emphasize that print is a tactile medium and the advent of digital embellishment is advancing quickly. Inkjet embossing, laser diecutting, coatings of all kinds, metallics, and more are changing the face of print.

    We are reaching the point where most of the things that can go digital have gone digital. And even though packaging is immune from digital replacement, the term "digital packaging" is used to describe the use of digital printing for short runs and versioned products.

    It is important for printers to maintain a diverse portfolio of equipment to create new products and new markets.

    Skill Sets in Applets
    Most of the skill sets of the traditional printing industry are now lines of computer code. That is, they are programs that do what skilled people used to do. Remember dot etchers and strippers? Skill sets keep changing ... or disappearing. A printer in Rochester, N.Y., once wrote to the president of my university to complain that they hired one of my students and the student could not do paste-up. I had to explain to our president, an economist, that we do not do paste-up anymore. It is done on a screen by the creative professional.

    I receive regular communication from printers who need an operator for a specific model of legacy offset press, as though every school has one of each offset press. My favorite request came when Adobe InDesign was just introduced - the printer wanted someone with two years' experience with the new program.

    All this brings us to the question, where will the print workers of the future come from? Secondary schools can only teach the very basics, such as creating a file, setting up a workflow, making a plate and running a small offset or digital press. University-level curricula can teach pre-flighting, color science, process control, workflow, critical thinking, and more. But only the suppliers can teach you to run a specific modern offset press, or a state-of-the-art flatbed printer, or a finishing system.

    As older workers on older machines retire, finding replacements will be near impossible. Even finding training on machines made before 2000 is a challenge. Many printers hang on to their equipment for generations. Even after the equipment is decommissioned, it is stored in an "elephant's graveyard" in the bowels of the plant, as though someday it will be dusted off and re-started like some "mothball fleet."

    There is no simple solution. Technology not only obsoletes machines, it obsoletes the skills needed to run those machines. In the old days, unions were based on specific processes like linotyping and engraving, and they could supply skilled labor. Today, no single machine or process dominates. Every supplier uses different approaches, terminology, and tools.

    In the old phototypesetting era, printers found operators by "stealing" them from other companies.

    As printing on substrates beyond paper advances, new skills will be needed. They may talk about highly automated "lights-out" workflows, but someone still has to know how to set them up and maintain them. Even robots will need maintenance and updating. (Or will they do it themselves? After all, they are robots.) There needs to be partnerships between industry associations and education at every level with suppliers to the industry. It is a symbiotic relationship. Most schools cannot afford the very machines they need to teach with, so they use old technology to teach new technology.

    Printers, educators, suppliers, associations, and others are all in this together. We need to cooperate to educate the workforce of the future. Because that future comes at us every day at one second per second.

    Contact Frank Romano at

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