If you have ever looked at a catalog or read a newsletter you may have wondered how they are produced. These types of marketing materials certainly do not just appear out of thin air, and many people have at least a basic understanding that some sort of printer was used to produce them.
The reality is that the origin and history of the printing press is filled with enough drama and social upheaval that a movie could be written about it! Modern printing presses are at the cutting edge of technology.
Early history of the printing press
You may think that the history of printing started with the Gutenberg press, but transferring material from one object to another was practiced even in ancient civilizations.
Early printing used wood blocks, and often printed images and text onto paper or cloth. This method was used throughout Asia to produce prints of Buddhist texts and patterns on textiles, but most famously was used in Japan to produce woodblock art prints.
The creation of a movable type system in China began to change how rapidly text could be printed. Initially the characters were made of wood, then clay and ultimately in Korea metal movable type was developed.
Invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 1440s, the creation and dispersion of the printing press led to the beginning of mass communication and changed the structure of society. By the beginning of the following century presses had spread throughout most of Western Europe and were critical to many social events occurring at the time, including a drastic rise in literacy.
Lithography is a printing method that was developed in the late 1790s and is still used today to produce things like posters and maps. The reason for mentioning this particular method is that this was the beginning of the use of chemical processes in printing. The current technology for this printing method uses photosensitive emulsion and a negative of an image on metal plates which are exposed to ultraviolet light which helps to produce or develop the image.
Offset printing was developed from the late 1800s into the early 1900s and continues to be one of the predominant printing methods used today. In this process an inked image is transferred from a plate onto a rubber blanket and then transferred again onto paper. This process draws from the lithographic process, relying on the repulsion of oil and water.
The modern offset printing process begins in the prepress area where any images that are going to be printed are formatted to be put onto plates. Images are converted to the CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Key (black)) color model so that the colors can be accurately reproduced on the final product. One plate per CMYK color is created and then put onto the press where the final product is printed.
The two systems used on an offset press are the inking system and the dampening system. The inking system is responsible for placing a uniform amount of ink across the printing plate through the use of ink rollers. The dampening system makes sure that the non-image areas of the plate remain uniformly moist so that ink is repelled from these areas.
Printing presses have continued to evolve over time. The H-UV press is the latest in printing technology, and has drastically reduced turnaround time to the consumer. Use of ultraviolet light to instantly and completely cure ink allows the print job to be sent forward faster. Finishing work, such as cutting or folding, can start immediately, rather than needing to sit and cure for as long as a day. The H-UV press can run as many as 16,000 sheets per hour, on both sides of the paper, saving an incredible amount of time and energy.
The most advanced printing press is now the digital press, which does not require printing plates allowing for on-demand printing and shorter turnaround times. Inkjet and laser printers are commonly used in digital printing which place pigment onto a number of different surfaces, rather than just smooth paper.
In addition to being able to print onto more than just paper, digital printing allows for text and graphics to be changed from piece to piece. This is called variable-data or mass customization, which is often used in postal mailers where the same basic layout is used but a different name and address are placed on each piece. The ability to personalize printed materials without having to adjust plates on a press reduces production time and allows companies to connect more closely with their clientele.
As technology continues to move forward at breakneck speed, the printing industry continues to incorporate it into printing presses and create printing processes that are changing the way that things are manufactured.
3D printing, or additive manufacturing, has gained a lot of publicity recently, as it presents the possibility for objects to be manufactured in limited space. Applications for this technology include medical uses, food manufacturing, clothing and even space travel.
Needless to say, given all that printing presses as we know them have been through over the years it is a safe bet that they will continue to evolve with the times and fill an important role in society.
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