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What Impacts Have Computers Had on Printing?

A reader of this column in England recently asked what impact computers have had on printing. This is how I answered him.

I began my publications career in the late seventies as a writer. Then I composed all my text on a typewriter; now I use a computer and can write and rewrite before printing a clean copy. I don't need to write from beginning to end; I can work on whatever part of a paragraph I feel inspired to at any time.

In the early eighties I learned to set type on a dedicated typesetting machine. I then pasted up the "galleys" (long strips of type) into pages. Unlike the "WYSIWIG" copy of today (visible on the monitor exactly as it will print), I couldn't see the accuracy of the typefaces or sizes I had specified until I had developed the typesetting paper. (This was a photographic process based on a bright light projected through film images of letters. A typesetting machine I used several years later was based on a laser that exposed images of letters on resin-coated paper.)

In the late eighties the Macintosh II was developed along with PageMaker, the Linotronic 100, and the first generation RIP (a hardware raster image processor). Although copy processed in PageMaker lacked the quality and precision of type set on the prior generation of dedicated typesetting machines: Mergenthaler, Compugraphic, etc., one could compose an entire document on-screen and immediately see whether the words and design were accurate. Scanning was not yet an option, nor was color. And the monitor was not yet even gray-scale. The job eventually was still exposed by a laser on photographic paper and then pasted up (in one piece). Tissue overlays showed color breaks. The final step was cropping and sizing photos.

Jumping forward fifteen or so years, today one can scan transparencies and reflective media into the system with accurate color, and hand off to the print shop plate-ready electronic files. One can even send these over a network. Once the printer has checked (preflighted) these files, he/she can impose them and directly expose full eight-page flats. These files no longer need to be printed to film as an intermediate step. It is possible to image directly to plate, and on some presses (such as the Heidelberg Quickmaster DI), you can even expose plates directly on the press.

Computers also run the presses now. An operator can automatically hang the plates and preset ink fountains based on computer profiles, drastically reducing waste and make-ready time. Once the paper is running on press, computers provide feedback and then self-correct to ensure the mechanical accuracy of the job.

So in every area from controlling ink and color fidelity to making sure the mechanics of the process run smoothly, computers play an increasing role. I think the influence of computers started in writing, moved to design and then prepress, and then moved to press work. Now computer automation and control are gradually migrating to the finishing processes.

Unlike many of my peers, I do still believe that printing is an art and a craft, not a commodity. I consider the computer to be nothing more or less than a tool used by skilled artisans to facilitate the production of quality presswork.

Using More Than One Black Ink

Let's say that you have designed a book cover with a few black and white photos knocked out of a solid black background. If you run the ink heavily enough to get smooth, even coverage on the background, the halftones look muddy. If you run the ink light enough to bring out the detail in the halftones, the background looks anemic. What do you do?

Consider running two press units of black, separating the photos from the background and putting each on its own plate. It will cost a little more, but you will be able to control the different amounts of ink needed for a rich, even background and the detail of the halftones.


[Steven Waxman is a printing consultant. He teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.]

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