Digital Printing History

By Definition

Digital Printing͛ refers to methods of printing from a digital-based image directly to a variety of media. Although most commonly experienced by many people when they use a personal printer in their home for printing out simple documents or family pictures from their computer, it usually refers to professional, industrial level printing where small-run jobs from desktop publishing and other computer controlled digital sources are printed using large format or high-volume laser, LED, or inkjet printers. Digital printing has a higher cost per page than more traditional offset printing methods, but this price is usually offset by avoiding the cost of all the technical steps required to make printing plates. It also allows for on-demand printing, short turnaround time, and even modifications to the image (variable data) used for each impression. The savings in labor and the ever-increasing capability of digital presses means that digital printing is reaching the point where it can match or supersede offset printing technology͛s ability to produce larger print runs of several thousand sheets at a low price.

A Brief History and Notes of Interest

The history of digital print is relatively short compared to printing as a whole, which dates back to 1439, when Mainz (Germany) goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg developed an adjustable type mold and the press to use it. It was cemented into popularity when Gutenberg, his creditor Johann Fust and his own workman, Peter Schoeffer collaborated under a Papal request to complete the first mass-produced Bible in 1455. The printing industry grew and evolved globally, moving from stencils, seals, woodblocks and movable type to such innovations as Lithography in 1796, Offset Printing in the 1870͛s, modern Screen Printing in 1907, Xerography in 1938, Phototypesetting in 1949, and Inkjet Printing in 1951. The introduction of the Pantone Color Matching System came in 1963, Dot Matrix printing in 1968, Laser Printing in 1969, and Thermal Printing in 1972. Many more advances would be introduced with the new digital age of computers. The first digital print was released on watercolor paper in 1989 when a pre-press printer, the Iris 3047, was modified for ink-jet printing an art reproduction for the very first time, thanks to the interest and backing of Graham Nash, co-founder of the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young music group. In 1993 the world͛s first digital color printing press was launched called Indigo. This was the same year that saw the invention of the Portable Document Format (PDF), and only 2 short years after the launching of the World Wide Web.The name of the printing press series comes from a company formed by Benny Landa in 1977 to develop the world͛s fastest photocopier. Landa later discovered that the ink developed for the photocopier, called ElectroInk, could also be used in printers. ElectroInk uses small color particles suspended in imaging oil called Isopar that can be attracted or repelled by a voltage differential. The ink forms a thin and smooth plastic layer on the paper͛s surface. In 2000 the Hewlett Packard Company invested in the Indigo, and a year later acquired the remaining shares. Digital print had risen to account for 18% of all printing by 2016.HP predicts that digital printing will continue to move beyond commercial printing to publishing and packaging, becoming faster and designed to handle more types of printing in the future.

Processes and Methods

Digital printing assembles each image from a complex set of numbers and mathematical formulas. These images are captured from a matrix of dots, called pixels, and the process is called digitizing. The digitized images are then used to control the deposition of ink, toner or exposure to electromagnetic energy to reproduce the data. Digital printing uses a color management system to keep images looking the same despite where and when they are printed. Images are essentially flawless, alignment and registration issues are non-existent, and the color is vibrant. Digital printers can also use the entire length of a printable item. The greatest difference between Digital Printing and traditional methods such as Lithography, Flexography, Gravure or Letterpress is that there is no need to replace printing plates in Digital Printing, whereas in analog printing the plates are repeatedly replaced. This results in quicker turnaround time and lower cost when using Digital Printing, but typically a loss of some fine-image detail by most commercial digital printing processes. The most popular methods include inkjet, LED, or laser printers that deposit pigment or toner onto a wide variety of substrates including paper, photo paper, polymers, canvas, glass, metal, marble and other substances. In many of the processes, the ink or toner does not permeate the substrate, as does conventional ink, but forms a thin layer on the surface that may be additionally adhered to the substrate by using a fuser fluid with heat process (toner) or UV curing process (ink). While color matching is not as exact as screen printing due to the current lack in variety of inks, the digital process can print multiple colors at once, rather than one at a time. Digital inks do have a tendency to fade more quickly than offset inks when exposed to direct sunlight, and the opacity isn͛t quite up to par with offset inks because digital ink is naturally thinner. However, the difference between the two is only noticeable when dealing with clear or metallic media, and there are laminations available to prevent problems from occurring.

Technology and the Future

The printing industry has always walked hand-in-hand with technological improvements. Better inks, specialized substrates, updated software tools and improved control over color range, accuracy and resolution of ink placement will all open doors in traditional and emerging fields like nanotechnology, 3D, biometric, biomedical, security, and light printing. Today͛s regulatory challenges for greener print solutions with low VOCs, lower power consumption and less waste and consumables will lead to tomorrow͛s unexpected and amazing processes. Screenprint/Dow looks forward to bringing you the future!