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1904 - The Discovery of Offset - Part 2
How offset sprung to life amid printing syndicates
and press innovation


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By:  Nick Howard  |  Date: March 2016  |  Contact the Author
Part 1 | Part 2

Today Print Is Not Needed, but Must Be Wanted!
Major segments of the letterpress era started to disappear by the 1960’s, as more printers sought out the benefits of the offset process. One should remember that prior to photo-typesetting, copy was actually letterpress proofed and then shot on a camera. With constant new technologies in the new pre-press segment, electronics provided the final nail in letterpress’s coffin.

But, as we all know offset’s early days meant incredible skills of the operator dealing with new problems such as paper stretch, static electricity, constant re-packing of “hard” blankets and the still mysterious concept of using water and ink at the same time. This created new divisions within the printing community. There surfaced the “fine lithographers” those pushing the envelope on quality and the rest that struggled with even rudimentary techniques such as duo-tones and “pleasing color”.

The battle between letterpress and offset raged on. Offset had the ability to replicate higher quality 4 color and take advantage of the growing film technologies. The rigid composing skills, massive amounts of heavy type, expensive labor of letterpress and cheaper costs gave offset the advantage that could not be disputed. In North America strong unions employing hundreds of thousands of people, fought hard to destroy offset. In the end better technology as always won out just as it is about to with todays emerging digital devices.

What was once an industry that had important services such as stationary, catalogues, books and magazines is not essential any longer. Much more time needs to be put into the growth of Print as a want not a need. Letterpress is still alive albeit a tiny fragment of the overall volume of print but its growth is driven by "want". Beautiful greeting cards and personalized stationary are expensive and not considered a commodity like much of offset is. The idea of want is also behind some of our most successful offset printers as they spend more time creating than chasing everyday work trade shops do for less.

Offset and its major impact celebrates 112 years and up until recently grown and prospered. The machine builders have done amazing things furthering its impact and encouraging printers to re-invest. But UV and LED instant dry as well as, soft touch coatings and strike-through varnishes still involve the same technology of over 100 years ago. Harris Corporation once the world’s largest offset press builder, is today a billion dollar company but the closest they get to print is changing a toner cartridge in the file room. VOMAG is gone having been caught up in the manroland bankruptcy a few years ago. Miehle went on to sell the Faber & Schleicher Roland offset presses (also an early innovator), and all but forgotten now.

It’s All about Content and Control
The giants of our industry know that the pie is getting smaller. They continue to devour smaller printers to survive. Content is more important than ever. The offset press today has matured but still relies on expensive labor and is a major investment. That’s a reason why press sales continue a downward trajectory. Profits are thin for the process alone. It must be combined with other services. One sure sign of the demise is the ease of which on-line trade printers can draw work away from a traditional printer. These shops do it even cheaper which furthers the argument for not investing in an offset press.

Time For Something New
The exciting days of offset have faded. Time for the next process to take hold. Digital on-demand, short or long run technologies are well implanted in print shops. Some show glimpses of what may be next. What we print today is much different and unlike any time in our history, changing exponentially almost by the month. When a new faster more robust platform comes – and it will, then people like Charlie Goes will be snapping it up. It was the printer who found the offset solution and it was the printer who pushed for offset’s development.

Digital’s ongoing emergence into higher quality, faster more robust machinery will end up ruling the day. One surmises that day is very close. Goodbye offset. Since 1904, you have done fantastic things for the industry.

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