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Shop Talk: Print that Does Stuff

(April/May 2017) posted on Tue Jun 20, 2017

Screen still reigns in the kingdom where print serves a specific function – if we can keep up.

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By Andy MacDougall

With apologies to Bob and Doug McKenzie of SCTV’s “Great White North,” “today’s topic” is industrial printing. Sometimes called “functional printing,” it’s the latest, greatest buzzword in the print world, next to 3D. A lot of the traditional offset equipment manufacturers such as Heidelberg and many of the inkjet press makers are working to join the fray.

Why? Because along with packaging, it represents one of the biggest growth areas in the wide world of print – today and in the years ahead. While traditional offset printing of paper declines, applications related to the manufacture of consumer goods climb. And not just in Asia. It’s also happening in the US, Canuckistan, Mexico, Brexitainia and the EU, Africa, South America – the list goes on. Humans make a lot of stuff worldwide, and more of it every year. Each product needs a container, or graphics on the casing, or both, so there’s the packaging and the part decoration (a hybrid of industrial/graphic print). Then there are the operational guts, with printing of everything electronic. You might not see a subway full of people reading newspapers anymore, but every bozo staring at their cellphone means that some printers got work and took home a paycheck. One press shuts down; another starts up.

Screen printers have known about industrial for a while. And we should. We invented it in the 1930s, with printed circuits and the application of ceramic and specialty inks onto and into glass, metal, and that marvel of the age, plastic. The other print technologies were busy fighting it out making automated paper printing machines. The loser technologies in the battle that waged into the 1960s were letterpress/flexo and gravure, but the also-rans found niche dominance in packaging. Think cartons, cans, and labels. Multilith, A. B. Dick, and Heidelberg, along with other printing press manufacturers, helped build a worldwide printing industry – on paper – that became the largest employer in the US by the end of the 1900s. We’ll never see those employment numbers again as traditional print-on-paper moves away from offset and splinters; the small-town offset printer was a victim of online ordering and the dominance of digital communications.

Meanwhile, screen printing ruled electronics and the mass production of things, and continues to build on that tradition today.


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