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Commentary & Analysis

Graphic Arts Staffing Crisis: Using Technology to Offset Skills Deficit

By Tom Leibrandt In recent columns on WhatTheyThink,

By WhatTheyThink Guest Contributor
Published: July 30, 2007

By Tom Leibrandt

In recent columns on WhatTheyThink, Frank Romano has been writing about the lack of replacement workers for those who leave the printing industry workforce, for whatever reason. He points out, "…the printing industry needs 60,000 new employees every year to replace those who leave the workforce… Where do replacement workers (new hires) come from? About half come from other printing companies because it is far easier to hire someone who already has the required skills than expend the time and cost of training someone from scratch. The other half come mostly from schools. About thirty percent come from high schools and fifteen percent from 2-year and 4-year colleges. The last five percent come from trade or manufacturer schools and other sources."

Manufacturers can play a role in alleviating this deficit by increasing the amount of automation in the offset printing process and by simplifying the overall workflow associated with print production.

He continues, "For the most part, high school kids do not want to be printers. Printing rates just above fast food and just below farming in the minds of high schoolers. Thus, they do not enter the industry and they do not pursue printing at the college level. At one time we graduated over 4,000 Bachelor's and Master's degree students; today it is under 1,000."

There is much that all of us in the industry can do to promote exciting industry careers to high school students, and we should be doing that--all of us. But correcting this deficit will take time. In the meantime, printing companies need skilled employees. And while I can't personally claim that we are in crisis mode, it seems to me that we either are, or will be soon.

The Role of Manufacturers

That being said, manufacturers can play a role in alleviating this deficit by increasing the amount of automation in the offset printing process and by simplifying the overall workflow associated with print production. There is some progress in that direction, of course, including increased implementation of JDF to automate workflow. But offset printing is still a complex process that requires a skilled operator.

One of the most elegant descriptions of the wet offset printing process I have ever read comes from Dr. Helmut Kipphan of Heidelberg in the Hand Book of Print Media. He says, "In the offset printing process, the printing and nonprinting areas of the plate are practically on one level. The printing areas of the printing plate are oleophilic (ink-accepting) and water-repellent; that is, hydrophobic. The non-printing areas of the printing plate are hydrophilic, consequently oleophobic in behavior. This effect is created by physical phenomena at the contact surfaces. The dampening system covers the non-printing areas of the printing plate with a thin film of dampening solution. This dampening solution (water plus additives) spreads over the non-printing areas. To achieve good wetting, surface tension has to be reduced by means of dampening solution additives. In extreme cases, reducing the surface tension of the dampening solution too much can result in too great an emulsification of printing ink and dampening solution, leading to a situation where an exact separation of printing and non-printing areas on the plate is not achieved when inking. The perfect offset printing process depends on many chemical and physical specifics of the materials and components involved in the process." 

No wonder skilled press operators are in demand!

Allow me to digress for a moment to describe the waterless process used with Presstek's DI technology. I'll get back to how it relates to skill issue.

Offset Print Simplified

One of the things Presstek has worked toward since its inception is the simplification of the offset printing process. And with DI presses now in their fourth generation, we have a lot of experience under our belts. One of the first decisions we made was to use a waterless printing process. When printing with the conventional wet offset process, the requirement to balance fountain solution with the ink is naturally detrimental to the quality of the printed piece. Besides the struggle a press operator faces in keeping ink densities in control and edges of the sheet clean, the fountain solution dilutes the ink and causes the printed dots to soak into the paper and spread, creating physical dot gain. By removing dampening solutions and their associated problems from the printing process, operators can concentrate on the task at hand--producing the highest quality work in the shortest amount of time.

The intaglio construction of the waterless Presstek Digital Media is designed to reduce dot gain. This media features "ink receptive wells" rather than a flat, ink receptive surface. These wells provide supportive walls for the ink as it is transferred from the plate to the printing blanket.

With the elimination of the need for ink and water balance, one of the largest variables --and the skill required to maintain that balance--is removed from the printing process. As a result, printing without water offers a much higher degree of color consistency throughout the press run.

Staying in Register Can Be Complicated

Another major variable in the printing process that affects print quality is sheet transfer. The typical four-color printing press has eight or more sheet transfer points for the sheet as it moves through the press. At each of these transfer points there is another set of challenges presented to the press and operator that can cause quality issues and require operator intervention.

In conventional offset, as most of you know, the top sheet of the feeder pile is lifted by suckers and routed to the feed table where it is guided between rollers, belts, and brushes. Each sheet is aligned before it is fed to the printing units. In the printing units the sheet is fed to the impression cylinder. While being held by the gripper systems it passes under the blanket cylinder as the cylinders continue to revolve and the image is transferred onto the sheet. It is then passed on to the transfer drum to be conveyed into the next printing unit. The transfer from cylinder to cylinder, from gripper system to gripper system, must be completed after a cylinder rotation of only a few degrees of angle. The sheet is held for a short period by two gripper systems on the two cylinders at the same time. If this movement is not in perfect timing the effect on the printed sheet is apparent in marks at gripper edges, registration fit problems, slur and excessive dot gain. In addition the sheets lie on the transfer drum of the next printing unit with the freshly printed ink directly on the drum surface. Since the ink is not yet dry, ink may be transferred to the surface of this drum during. Ink may collect there and smear subsequent sheets.

Despite what kids might think, these jobs offer a lot more opportunity and challenge than flipping burgers or plowing fields.

With Presstek's Zero Transfer Printing (ZTP) process the variables associated with sheet transfer are eliminated. With ZTP, all four colors are laid down onto the sheet without sheet transfer between colors. This eliminates operator intervention, providing first sheet register and precise registration, sheet to sheet, job to job. The process, combined with the efficiencies of waterless printing, produces saleable color within 20 sheets, excellent ink coverage and reduced waste.

A Two-Pronged Approach

While offset printing, whether produced on a DI press or conventional press, still requires a skilled operator, Presstek has done a great deal to make it easier for a less skilled operator to produce quality printing through the technological developments and automation represented in the current generation of DI presses.

This is one part of the solution to the shortage of skilled printing graduates entering the industry. The other part of the solution is for all of us to rededicate our efforts to supporting graphic arts educational institutions and organizations who offer scholarships. Most importantly, we must all work to encourage more talented young people to seek careers in our industry by making them aware of the exciting opportunities available during this period of dynamic change.

As Frank Romano points out, for a student graduating from a graphic communications program, with a focus on printing--rather than graphic design--there are plenty of jobs available. And despite what kids might think, these jobs offer a lot more opportunity and challenge than flipping burgers or plowing fields. Invest a little time in visiting local high schools. Set up tours to enable high school kids to visit your plant. Begin to make a difference in how the next generation thinks about our industry.

Meanwhile, let's be aware of the technologies that can help us through this shortage of skilled workers.



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