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Commentary & Analysis

Reinventing Printing

By Gene Langlais of Presstek If you want different results,

By WhatTheyThink Staff
Published: September 7, 2004

By Gene Langlais of Presstek If you want different results, you have to think differently. September 7, 2004 -- In the wake of Presstek receiving its fourth GATF InterTech Award representing seven different products—this one for the process-free Applause thermal printing plate—I have spent some time reflecting on the future of the printing industry, and the role that Presstek and other technology innovators in the industry must play to ensure that print remains a viable communications option in a dynamic environment that offers an increasing array of alternative means of communication. Being relatively new to the market, one of Presstek’s founding principles was our ability to think about the future without the baggage of a large portfolio of heirloom products to protect. We believed that in the printing process, the equipment and the materials—in our case, plates—had to work together as a system to deliver different results. Let’s face it: If you want different results, you have to think differently. You can’t simply use the same materials and processes the graphic arts industry has used for decades and expect them to produce different results—you can’t use the same aluminum plates and expect them to act differently. That, in my opinion, has been the biggest barrier to process-free platemaking becoming a de facto industry standard. When Presstek first began its journey toward the development of process-free plates, we saw the value of using silicone as a plate coating. While silicone was not a new material by any means, we just put it to a new use. Putting plates on a roll and the imaging system inside the press, opened up the possibility of a pushbutton-simple press. It took a while to get to where the coatings were thin enough to deliver the high resolution needed, but we ultimately were able to achieve it by blending old and new materials in new and different ways. We took an old horse and taught him new tricks. It was a matter of thinking differently. Meanwhile, there was still the imaging system to refine. By configuring diodes and lenses differently, and by ensuring that the plate materials and laser system work hand-in-hand, we have been able to achieve high-quality 300 line-screen printed images. And the technology can be pushed even further, especially for off-press applications. My perspective is this: As technology providers, we need to enable printers to produce new applications that they simply can’t produce today. And we have made progress in that regard. The resolutions we can deliver today—in both on-press and off-press applications— can produce a wider range of applications, including security printing and high density bar codes. I have seen some amazing examples of lenticular—or 3D—printing produced on Presstek-enabled DI presses. As innovative new technologies we are working to develop become more pervasive in the market, the creativity of the printing professional will be unleashed, and more new applications will be developed and produced by users of the technology. This will help keep printing as a viable communications option far into the future. There will always be someone in the audience that can break the rules or raise the standard. Presstek will continue to deliver innovation, using materials and structures in new and different ways, together with laser packages that are a matched set, and in a chemistry-free environment, removing steps from the process and increasing the predictability of the process. But it goes even farther than that. And it requires different thinking—all of the time. I remember sitting in a conference room about 15 years ago, listening to a presentation on microelectronics. The speaker, an intelligent man, was insisting we had reached the threshold in terms of our ability to deliver a smaller spot in microlithography. I was sitting in the audience with a unit in my hand that could deliver a spot half the size he cited, thinking, “Well, I guess he missed an assumption somewhere along the line.” My belief is that there will always be someone in the audience that can break the rules or raise the standard. As technology providers and producers of print, we must step outside that box and think beyond the traditional. Like many other technology companies in our industry--Presstek is working hard to break the rules. For example, we are working on thinner organic coatings and more effective vacuum coating processes because thinner coatings mean finer resolution—and less pollution, too. We are working to make our plate materials tougher, to withstand both longer runs and the stresses that new inks and substrates can place on presses and plates. At the heart of it, though, we know the graphic arts industry is not really about printing but about communications. The traditional view of printing is a limited one. While applications have expanded to include such things as printing credit cards and CD labels, it is still basically ink on paper. As technology providers and producers of print, we must step outside that box and think beyond the traditional. I believe printing, over time, will become much more industrialized. For instance, as traditional printed applications begin to go the way of the printed encyclopedia, one thing that won’t go away is packaging. You can’t put a box of cereal or a carton of milk on a CD-ROM! But we are increasingly moving to “smart packaging”—high density barcodes, even electronic circuitry built right in to the packaging and labeling, and this is only the beginning. Presstek’s history of Intertech Awards: 2004: Process-free thermal plates 2001: Presstek Dimension CTP system using Anthem chemistry-free thermal plates and ProFire imaging 1997: Presstek PEARLgold thermal plates 1996: Presstek PEARL Ablative Thermal Lithographic Plates & PEARLsetter Series 52, 74, plus 1995: Heidelberg computer to press digital imaging technology At Presstek, we are looking at all methods of communication, trying to understand how our technology—what we already have or are thinking about doing—can merge into the needs of the future. We believe we have technology that is applicable to new forms of printing, and we are going to do our best to push that technology forward. We will continue to use different materials and processes in different ways to get there, while keeping the process as simple for users as possible. The one thing we can count on in the future is that things aren’t going to be the same. But why should they? Fifty years from now, maybe there will be no newspapers, but there will be new types of printing to take their place. Despite the predictions of doom and gloom, I don’t believe printing will be going away anytime soon. But I do believe it must change, and it must continue to deliver new and innovative value to the customer. Think about it—today, a farmer may be working in a rice paddy or a cornfield, not really worrying about what type of packaging the final product will go in. But 50 years from now, they may be worrying about what kind of label to put on the package even as they are harvesting the product. The key is to face the future with our eyes and minds wide open, understanding the real value we are delivering and working hard to make it even better. Presses must get more efficient; plates and ink must change and improve; imaging systems must break new barriers. Is there a limit to technology? Yes, of course. But as those limits are reached, new and different applications will emerge to replace those that are becoming obsolete, and to push us to reach new and different limits. The key is to face the future with our eyes and minds wide open, understanding the real value we are delivering and working hard to make it even better. Think about this: A press is much cheaper than building a new fabrication operation for microelectronics. Maybe presses won’t be able to do everything a fab operation can, but presses can produce simple antennas and simple conductive paths, using not only lithography, but flexography and inkjet as well. Today, printed circuitry can embed kilobytes of memory; in the future, megabytes and gigabytes may be possible. At Presstek, and at other innovative technology companies in our industry, we are starting with the applications that don’t excessively stress existing technology and moving on to new and different concepts, just as we did with the integration of plate materials and imaging systems to deliver the DI press. As with any new technology, costs and quality won’t be where they need to be in the beginning, but we will get there over time. Printing an electronic circuit for low cost electronics or to make a throw-away cell phone is still printing. Placing an antenna in a package to be able to more quickly and easily check inventory on store shelves is still printing. It is only by embracing the possibilities of the future, and by thinking in new and different ways, that we will be able to ensure that printing—and the graphic arts industry—remains viable, and adding real value, far into the future. The world of printing will most certainly change. And Presstek will be there on the forefront of that change. Will you be there with us?



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