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Thursday, 06 August 2015 | By Bob Boucher, Senior Copywriter

Graham Nash (R) and his Iris 3047 printer

Did you know that the history of digital printing technology was written in small part by Graham Nash, he of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young fame? To be fair, neither did I. An avid photographer, Nash had begun playing with digital photography on his Macintosh computer in the 1980s.

To his frustration, however, Nash couldn’t find an output device to match the color on his computer screen. After a few fits and starts, he came across the legendary Iris printer, a new inkjet, continuous-tone device for creating pre-press proofs. To reproduce digital photographs, Nash bought his own Iris press (for a cool US$126,000) and went on to host critically acclaimed photo and art exhibits around the world.

The Humble Origins of Digital Printing Technology

Before the arrival of digital printing technology, short runs required one-off reproduction by hand, and later by ultra-low quality mimeographs or stenciling. Next came the storing of text in digital form on magnetic tape or punch cards, which were used for printing with line printers.

With advances in technology, digital printing evolved from an industrial pre-press proofing and fine art device into an office and desktop publishing tool – and a monumental game changer for business and consumers.

High quality, color output, however, was still the elusive Holy Grail of digital printing – little more than a dream.

Digital Color Makes its Debut

It was just a few years later that production level, color digital printing made its splashy entrance at IPEX in 1993, i.e., with Benny Landa’s introduction of the
E-Print 1000 digital press. That watershed moment (has it really been 22 years?) presaged a tidal wave of new applications and profit opportunities that were embraced by a struggling print industry.

Tailored to virtually all forms of print and packaging applications, digital printing rose to stake its claim as the go-to solution for short-runs and variable data printing. The nascent technology quickly drew a distinct line in the sand, separating itself from traditional print modes like lithography, gravure, flexography, and letterpress.

The Digital Print Process Makes its Case

And, as it has been often said, “Vive la difference!” Digital presses required no printing plates, compared to offset presses. Digital print processes also eliminated the need for a range of chemicals common to offset production. The resulting lower costs and quicker throughput quickly endeared digital printing to print providers worldwide – as well as their customers.

The current methods of digital production involve inkjet and laser technology for applying pigment or toner directly onto the substrate surface. In traditional offset production, the ink permeates the media. The digital print process, in comparison, forms a layer that requires an additional fuser fluid along with heating or curing.

VDP Makes it Personal

Short runs weren’t the only darlings of digital printing. In its earliest incarnation, variable data printing (VDP) usually meant changing the salutation or name on each printed sheet. That changed when production digital print technology came along and propelled VDP into a new realm.

Oftentimes, VDP inserts different content to adjoining static elements on a sheet. Or, it can output entirely different pages from one sheet to the next. With the power to version each and every page with different sets of images and personalized text, VDP enabled providers to deliver a new portfolio of products and services. Now, customers could have pieces customized to different market segments, regions, seasons, and even individuals.

Digital Printing Shares on the Rise

According to a Smithers Pira report, the digital printing industry will grow to US $187.7 billion by 2018. As offset print production remains mired in flat to declining usage, digital printing’s share of the overall printing market is forecast to hit around 20% – not bad for a technology that in the recent past accounted for single-digital market share.

In terms of value, digital printing expects to be 50% of that of offset in the next few years. Even more exciting for print providers and converters, digital technology is helping them shed the label of print as a commodity. It allows them to offer value-added services, like data management and multi-channel outreach to customers.

What’s next for digital printing? How about an entirely new category that merges the flexibility of digital with the quality of offset? It could happen sooner than you think. (Can you say, “drupa 2016”?) Stay tuned.

Image source:,1545-4.html

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