What's the printing industry like these days?
August 5, 2017 6:56 AM   Subscribe

My first career was in the printing industry. I started at a Service Bureau in "Electronic Pre-Press" in the early 90s. I mostly worked there but eventually moved to working at a small RIP manufacturer by the early '00s.

Over the course of my career, I wore many hats. I ran film, plates, etc. I did AGFA Proofs and helped produce blue lines. I did design and publications, manuals, boxes, etc. I worked with and in advertising agencies, service bureaus, and full printing plants. I performed a lot of troubleshooting both on the materials I needed to produce but also on the technology surrounding the print shop: networking, RAID management, backup management, etc. Most of this provided the route to working for a RIP manufacturer and then into IT.

I left wholly in 2001.

When I left, the following things seemed true:

1. Direct-To-Plate was becoming much more affordable.
2. Digital Printing was a thing, but was still quite limited and unusual for anything but small runs.
3. Impositioning was becoming a bit easier to learn and manage. (Still bends my brain, though. lol)
4. Manual stripping was definitely still around but was also definitely fading.
5. Printing, in general, was becoming much more affordable.
6. Mac OS X had creating some disruption but was gaining rapid adoption. Windows was a far second.
7. QuarkXPress had angered a lot of people with their OS X version pricing and Indesign was taking full advantage of that.
8. Freehand was dead.

I am asking mainly because I sometimes get nostalgic for that world. Also, firmly in middle-age, I think about lost opportunities and how a headstrong attitude mostly driven by insecurities led to my not appreciating what I had. I like my life now, but sometimes I want go back to that industry in some way.
posted by tcv to Work & Money (8 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I left the printing industry ten years ago. It was all direct to plate at that time with little to no chemicals left in pre-press. The platers jobs were basically load up the job on a computer, put the plates on the belt to the machine that them imprints them, bring the plates to the press.

This was at a commercial direct mail print shop that also prints things like the Bergdorf Goodman catalog.

Electronic Pre-press involves a lot of Adobe products and some color scanning for specifical product colors to print in high end catalogs.

If you have more specific questions, MeMail me and I can ask a friend who still works there.

(I was more in the data processing for direct mail than the printing, so only in the same office area as Pre-press)
posted by jillithd at 9:07 AM on August 5, 2017 [1 favorite]

Pre-press is still around, but there's a lot less going on with it these days. The RIPs are so much more advanced now, and pretty much everything's coming in as PDF anymore. There's still fixing and tweaking that needs to be done here and there (I swear most new designers nowadays have never set foot anywhere near a production class) but for the most part, your files just need some preflight and maybe some color conversion, etc. You'll get very few live files anymore. Now if you're working with something different, such as a sign shop or screenprinter, there's still a fair bit of work there due to the requirements of the equipment. So...

Direct-to-plate is pretty much everywhere now.
Digital printing is often short run stuff still just because plates are more economical on larger runs.
Imposition is still a thing. (Quark InPo drove me nuts)
Manual stripping means you're at a shop that still runs negatives and that's getting rarer and rarer; mostly small shops that still have old equipment.
Printing is indeed more affordable. Direct-to-plate makes things a lot faster and cheaper. The digital printing options for small runs mean no plate charges for small runs.
OSX is everywhere. Windows is common but OSX rules the roost.
Quark Xpress... well, it still exists, mostly because of people who don't want to learn InDesign. But I very rarely get a PDF created in Quark anymore. It's probably been a couple of years.
Freehand is something a lot of newer designers have never even heard of. It's long dead.

One of the biggest things that's going on is Adobe Creative Cloud. You can't buy a copy of Photoshop or InDesign or any of the other programs anymore (unless you find some old stock somewhere.) It's all a subscription based service now. You can pay $10/mo for Photoshop, or $50/month for every creative program Adobe has. That includes audio and video production tools. For professionals this is quite the deal if you're upgrading on a regular basis anyway. For people starting out, though, it can be onerous. I remember when $10/mo would have been something I couldn't commit to. There are some very capable programs out there now that are starting to get traction that don't require a subscription. I'm expecting in the next year or so I'll start getting files created in Affinity Designer or Photo. But if you could pay $50/month and have access to everything Adobe offers, or buy Quark Xpress, well, the market has spoken on that one.
posted by azpenguin at 5:30 PM on August 5, 2017 [2 favorites]

Service Bureaus are getting rare, since most print shops produce plates or film in-house, now. Screen printing has gone through 2 transitions in that time frame -- 1st, away from traditional film to re-purposed inkjet, or cheap low-res thermal imagesetters that basically behave like desktop laser printers from your apps, so long as you have the rip software. Cameras are dead, dead, dead.

2nd, In the last 3 years or so, screen making has started to move to "Direct to screen" which eliminates the film positive, & is basically a big inkjet printer that images a photo-opaque ink directly on to the unexposed stencil. This was evolving rapidly for a while, but has been mature enough to be 99% reliable for the last couple years, at least, so now the color seps go from the rip to a computer in the screen room, much like direct-to-plate.

Illustrator & Photoshop are still very much a thing. I rarely get InDesign files, since t-shirt images are necessarily single-page, but Quark is as dead as a door nail & InDesign is actually a quite nice program. It looks like Illustrator, but it does all the things Quark did, but better. The type control is granular & amazing. Open type fonts rule the roost if you're typesetting books, magazines, etc.

For what you're wanting to do, you'd need to be expert in InDesign for sure.

The "hybrid" digital/offset presses like the HP 5000 (there's probably a newer model now, it's been a couple ears since I ran one) are definitely dominating the short-run business now, but the trickiest thing about them is color accuracy, so you'll want to understand your custom cluts & be sure you understand how your Pantone-CMYK conversion is functioning. Read up on digital color management & color profiles if you wind up working with digital stuff. Telling InDesign to create a PDF based on a custom clut was a pain in the butt for a while, which caused me much vexation with a certain cancer foundation that was very fond of their exact Pantone yellow. The time of day was actually a factor. Proofs produced at 8 am looked very different from proofs produced at 4 pm after the machine had been running nonstop most of the day. Being able to edit color profiles & look-up tables is a valuable skill. Getting computers to talk to digital printers using the correct versions of same is a valuable skill. Knowing how to run a darkroom won't get you a cup of coffee.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:50 PM on August 5, 2017

I'm not a print person but I'm working as a PM in a content development department that hands off significant volumes of content to printers. We typically go with offset printing due to the large volume of content we get printed as it's more cost-effective but still use digital for smaller pieces, smaller print runs, samples, etc.

We work exclusively in InDesign. The only time we might see Quark is if we are unarchiving older legacy files but they're still the exception.
We create InDesign templates and then prefer to use InDesign/InCopy/IPS for our authoring and page creation. We also use vendors to do composition work and prepare the printer PDFs. Those are handed off to the printer and then go into Kodak InSite for prepress, soft proofing, and approval before the book is printed.

During the earlier stages of the development process we may have various combinations of bulking dummies (blank samples) as we determine our trim sizes (size of the actual page), binding, and page counts if it looks like we're not going with one of our default options. Those preferred/default options hold for the most case e.g. a 8-1/4" x 10-7/8" workbook with 60 pages will most likely be saddle wire/saddle stitch or perfect bound. We'd also get colour-accurate proofs before going into full production in case designers need to update the colour palettes.
posted by irishalto at 5:02 AM on August 6, 2017

I never played around with Quark InPo. I used ScenicSoft's Preps. I was sent to their HQ for training on it. It was still mind boggling. The next job I took used it, but the next job I took had an imagesetter that had it's X/Y flopped away from you'd normally expect. (X around the drum vs. across.)

I think that if I were to move back into this world, it would not be as it was. I don't think it could be. Rather, it'd be something like IT for a place that produces matter for print production and consumption.
posted by tcv at 6:12 AM on August 6, 2017

Thinking about QuarkXPress vis-a-vis InDesign, it just seems like Quark finally burned away all of their goodwill. I remember entering the industry and I knew people who were very bitter over how they felt Quark treated them. At the time, the big issue was bugs in the current version and how they were so late getting a new version out. So, when they moved to OS X and Adobe had a real competitor, they couldn't ignore what was being offered anymore.
posted by tcv at 6:50 AM on August 6, 2017

Quark had indeed burned their goodwill. There were some other factors that led to InDesign taking over, though. One was simple: cost. You could pay several hundred dollars for QuarkXPress... and you still needed to buy Photoshop, Illustrator, etc. or you could buy CS for close to the same price and have everything. Then there was features. You could import live PSDs with transparency into InDesign with no plugins, and InDesign can read the transparency as well. You can apply effects such as shadows or glows directly to objects in ID, and it will apply it with respect to the transparency. You can turn off individual layers in a Photoshop file from InDesign (same with Illustrator.) PDF options galore built right in. You can put a stroke on live text. Object boxes are much more flexible. So many things are easier to handle in InDesign. But Quark did have the alien Easter egg going for it, so there's that...
posted by azpenguin at 12:59 PM on August 6, 2017

Late to this thread, but my dad still works in printing (direct to plate machines). Memail me if you have any more specific questions and I could pass them along! :)
posted by theRussian at 1:10 PM on August 14, 2017

« Older coder or liar?   |   Should I call the police BEFORE I confront the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.