The Print Jam

The prediction is we will have a 3D printer in every home within a few years.

I recently picked up the guitar again after an 11-year break. Nothing serious, more like Willie and the Wheelchairs—just a group of guys getting together. In the old days, as a youngster, I used to wear out records, playing a part over and over again, lifting the needle arm and dropping it, writing down lyrics, chord progressions, or trying to work out a lick. Most everyone, from Elvis on, seems to have learned to play rock this way.

Through the years, I progressed through using tape—which was a big improvement over gouging records, except it was never in tune—and then CDs, which were not only in tune, but also even easier to back up or fast forward to hear a part. That’s about where I stopped with ‘Learn that Song’ technology in 2002, when I quit my last band and packed the instruments away in their cases.

It’s way different now. The bass player or singer or drummer puts the tune in Dropbox, and it is instantly available to all band members. Almost every song has a digital version online to listen to, along with words, chord charts, and even tab charts for the licks and melodies. It makes the learning part a lot easier for sure—truly amazing when you compare it to how it was done only a few years ago.

But a funny thing. We get to rehearsal and actually start playing, and the members still need to use analog methods to do the real work. Pen and paper. Face-to-face talking to fix a mistake, or keep track of ideas that come up as we are working. We rely on memory of the song, our skills honed over the years practicing and playing, and the instruments we play with our hands to create the music. Sure, I could get a computer involved, and add backing tracks or loops to the sound with a few keypad strokes, but call me old school. At a certain point, my rock and roll needs to be played, not processed.

I only bring this up for discussion and comment because, in the course of the last week or two, I’ve run into some work-related instances that are very similar to the above, and they illustrate what I and many others see as one of the real challenges in these modern times: maintaining skill sets, practical knowledge, and equipment/processes that are being swept away by the rapid adaption of all things digital by our society. Are we obsessed with our digital devices and their all-consuming content, to the point we are ignoring the real world? You tell me. North Americans are very close to replacing drunk driving with in-car texting as the number one cause of accidents and deaths in traffic. This issue hardly existed 10 years ago.

I worked with a second-year design-student intern last week who had never seen a Pantone swatch book and had no idea there was a system for custom mixing specific ink colors. Print is a keystroke for her and her classmates. What I tried to impart (she was a great worker by the way, diligent, punctual, and hard working—traits that will never go out of style!) was the concept of designing for the media—that an image is only part of a bigger process that takes it off a computer screen and gets it into whatever final form it will take.

I talked to a friend who owns a busy local offset/wide-format shop. He, too, was bemoaning the sad state of affairs in design education. Students at the local college are given 16 weeks to design their major project, a record or CD package—16 weeks, like that actually happens in the real world. Then they get two days to print it after having been graded and passed by the instructor. He said of 24 files he got from the students supposedly ready to print, two worked—barely.

And so it is with specialty printing and manufacturing in the modern age. We can use the benefit of the digital workflow to take the idea from the design stage to the point of production at a speed and complexity unimaginable only a few years back. That is good. And in our little corner of the printing world, we’ve seen digital printing transform our short-run, full-color workload, saving time and offering our customers better products at competitive prices. But it still takes knowledge, skilled hands, and analog processing to make things, especially complex parts and products, or art for various media.

Sure, the prediction is we will have a 3D printer in every home within a few years. We in the industry know this is hype, but for the average schmoe checking his news feed, it’s happening now. Almost any new people I meet, when I say I’m a printer, the first thing they want to talk about is 3D printers. According to all the experts, they will soon replace offshore manufacturing and probably wipe out Walmart at the same time, because everybody will be able to make everything at home.

This is great news, really. Not only can I make the last few parts I can’t seem to locate on eBay for my flying car, but I can also manufacture a late 50’s vintage Stratocaster right on my kitchen table—all with just a push of a button. Maybe this digital revolution we are in the middle of isn’t so bad after all.

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