A Tale of Two FESPAs

A look back at the editor's first FESPA, Amsterdam 1992.

At this writing, I’m still shaking the last vestiges of jet lag from my trip to FESPA 2015. I realized this morning that the show, held in May in Cologne, Germany, was my ninth so-called “big” FESPA (not including the association’s regional events or off-year, digital-only exhibitions). My first was 1992 in Amsterdam.

When you’ve attended as many printing exhibitions as I have, it changes you. Swag claims more of your closet space. The odor of UV ink becomes as unmistakable as the smells that wafted from certain Amsterdam coffee shops I passed 23 years ago. And it’s harder to appreciate the progress of technology you’ve witnessed or avoid the sense that you’ve seen it all before. This morning, I went back to my notes from Amsterdam to better appreciate the change that has taken place – and I realize now that it has been overwhelming.

For starters, I’d forgotten the disdain with which T-shirt printing was once treated, particularly in Europe. The 1992 show was the first time FESPA dedicated a pavilion to textile printing. It was a controversial move, which may explain why the pavilion was small and located in a remote part of the exhibition, as though it needed to be sequestered. In sharp contrast, textile printing took up more than a quarter of the Cologne show and included not just garments but a full spectrum of roll goods that were nowhere to be found in Amsterdam.

But in Cologne, none of these roll textiles were screen printed. The most obvious difference between the two shows is that 1992 would be the last time FESPA was innocent of inkjet. The earliest billboard and CAD inkjet printers were on the market by then, but in Amsterdam, screen printing represented virtually all of the technology on display. In contrast, it commanded only one of the four halls in Cologne. Inkjet has even dominated prepress for screen printing, displacing the projection and laser systems that offered the strongest alternatives to process cameras in 1992. Inkjet has not overtaken screen printing in the volume of goods produced – the subject of another column – and there were interesting analog developments that we’ll detail in future issues. But the division of floor space between the two technologies in Cologne speaks volumes about future capital budgets.

I’d also forgotten that in-line multicolor graphics screen printing had not yet taken off in 1992. In retrospect, as sophisticated as these systems would be, they played exactly into the hands of offset and inkjet. They de-emphasized screen printing’s unique ability to handle spot colors, metallics, and everything except CMYK images. They put screen printing in the inevitable position of being attacked on two fronts – on the high end as offset adapted to shorter runs and on the low end as inkjet grew more capable.

But the good news for everyone in Cologne, regardless of the technology they were buying or selling, is that print itself is very much alive. FESPA reports that Cologne was the largest exhibition in the association’s history, which also makes it the biggest specialty printing event yet held in the world. More on what we saw there in our next issue.

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