I believe in the power of print media. I also believe in its longevity. Despite some futurist’s assertions, I do not think we are nearing a print or paperless future.[1] That said, I do not know if I believe in the viability of the Printing Industry as it currently exists. American Printer and industry experts tell us that we are in a time of transition. The question is:

What does the future of printing look like? What will be the next instantiation of the Print industry be? Are we rapidly approaching a time of new industries that use print, but are not necessarily printers?

What will follow in the days, weeks, and months to come is a meditation on these questions. I do not want to present what I write as a definite or final view of the future. These writing are simply a dialog with myself, with the industry as I observe it, and with anyone else who chooses to contribute to these posts. (Click on the More below for the full article)

It was Frank Cost’s book The New Medium of Print that first got me thinking about the tensions between automation and craftsmanship within the traditional print industry. This tension only became more pronounced when I began to research the history of print for my Principles of Printing course.

Before proceeding, let me ground how I will use the term craft with an excerpt from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Craft (noun – sense IV: A branch of skilled work) 6. a. An art, trade, or profession requiring special skill and knowledge; esp. a manual art, a HANDICRAFT; sometimes applied to any business, calling, or profession by which a livelihood is earned.

c897 K. ÆLFRED Gregory’s Past. i. 24 Se cræft {th}æs lareowdomes bi{edh} cræft ealra cræfta. c900 Bæda’s Hist. IV. xiii, Seo {th}eod {edh}one cræft ne cu{edh}e {edh}æs fiscno{th}es. c1040 Rule St. Benet 94 For ingehide his cræftes. 1340 Ayenb. 178 Wone make{th} maister, ase hit ssewe{th} ine {th}ise o{th}re creftes. c1386 CHAUCER Miller’s T. 3 Of his craft he was a carpenter. 1463 Bury Wills (Camden) 34 Prentys to a craft. 1480 CAXTON Chron. Eng. cclvii. 336 Aboute this tyme the craft of enpryntynge was fyrst founde in Magunce in Almayne. 1532 G. HERVET Xenophon’s Househ. (1768) 14 Suche craftes, as be called handy craftes, they be very abiecte and vile, and lyttel regarded and estemed. 1611 BIBLE Acts xviii. 3 And because hee was of the same craft, he abode with them. 1758 JOHNSON Idler No. 31 {page}12 He has attempted at other times the crafts of the shoemaker, tinman, plumber, and potter. 1868 FREEMAN Norm. Conq. (1876) II. vii. 120 Famous for his skill in the goldsmith’s craft. 1882 A. W. WARD Dickens iii. 67 Political journalism proper is a craft of which very few men..become masters by intuition. (automation, n., 1989; craft, n.1, 1989)

So we can see that long before Gutenberg and his press (circa 1440AD) craft was already being used to describe a mode of production in which special skill and knowledge is required to execute the task. I think it is also important to note that, especially here in the US, craft is also used as a verb:

Craft (verb) 2. To make or construct skillfully. Chiefly U.S. >The sense in the isolated quot. c1420 is uncertain.

c1420 Pallad. on Husb. I. 428 Have a cisterne..Let crafte it up pleasaunt as it may suffice.

1963 Listener 14 Feb. 290/1 Performances such as ‘Lycidas’ were essentially public events, monuments crafted out of a shared language. 1967 Boston Sunday Herald Mag. 26 Mar. 13/3 (Advt.), An exciting collection [of furniture]..crafted of butternut and pecan. 1970 Yankee Nov. 208 (Advt.), This beautifully crafted antique-pine replica. (craft, v., 1989)

This demonstrates the description of the mode of production and the specific action of production (and as an extension the results of production) are all conflated into this single word. Also wrapped up in craft is the notion of skill and the related value assumptions that brings. A quick visit to http://www.answers.com provides the following antonyms for skill: ignorance, inability, incapability, incapacity, incompetence, inexperience. I think we can all agree that, in general, we consider skill to have a positive connotation. Further, I also think its safe to say that we see the addition of it to a good or a service as denoting that item has “more value,” by that separating the “home made” artesian product from what’s spit off the assembly line.

But what of that assembly line, or a bit more focused for this discussion, what of automation? Again, I return to the OED to ground us:

Automation (noun) Automatic control of the manufacture of a product through a number of successive stages; the application of automatic control to any branch of industry or science; by extension, the use of electronic or mechanical devices to replace human labour.

1948 Amer. Machinist 21 Oct. in McGraw-Hill Encycl. Sci. & Technol. I. 676/2 Automation, the art of applying mechanical devices to manipulate work pieces into and out of equipment, turn parts between operations, remove scrap, and to perform these tasks in timed sequence with the production equipment so that the line can be put wholly or partially under pushbutton control at strategic stations. 1953 Manch. Guardian Weekly 3 Dec. 15/2 Many factories are spending large sums on ‘automation’, that is, the adoption of automatic machines working together with little labour. 1954 Economist 29 May 712 Mechanisation{em}promoted to the exalted station of ‘automation’{em}now consists essentially in the use of bigger and faster machine tools. 1955 Times 3 Aug. 8/7 The group of resolutions on automation..says the technological advances will present the trade union movement with new opportunities, but these opportunities will be attended by new and complex human, social and economic problems. 1957 Technology July 182/1 Automation is now well known to be the automatic control of mechanized systems, although the term is used somewhat vaguely to cover many different aspects of control and communication, especially in the industrial situation. 1964 Ann. Reg. 1963 181 The demand for skilled labour and the substitution of unskilled labour by automation was increasing faster than the training and education of the Negro. (automation, n., 1989)

Proceeding from these various definitions, I think it is easy to see the fundamental opposition, and tension, between these modes of production, craft[2] and automation. We need go not further than the OED’s final etymological citation for automation: “1964 Ann. Reg. 1963 181 The demand for skilled labour and the substitution of unskilled labour by automation was increasing faster than the training and education of the Negro.” Antiquated racial terms aside, contained within that quote is the struggle between skilled and unskilled. From a structural standpoint, it would be represented as skilled:unskilled::craft:automation. The other critical point to extract from the quote is that at the heart of this issue was speed, and by proxy, return on investment.

This takes us to the final definition of the day – automate:

Automate (Verb) 1. trans. To apply automation to; to convert to largely automatic operation; to introduce automatic control to (the manufacture of a product, etc.).

1954 N.Y. Times 4 May (heading) Huge Sums to Be Spent to Automate Plants. 1959 Listener 5 Nov. 762/2 In theory..management in steel has the right to automate the mills without interference. 1961 Times 3 Oct. (Computer Suppl.) ii/5 The first stage in ‘automating’ a production plant is to increase mechanization. 1962 Listener 17 May 855/1 It is natural that we should try to programme, or automate, part of the teacher’s work [by the use of teaching machines]. (automate, v., 1989)

At the end of the day, printing is a manufacturing process[3]. And, since the industrial revolution, like most manufacturing processes it has been focused on becoming better, faster, and cheaper (essentially improving speed and return on investment). And, since 1814, when Koenig and Bauer sold the first steam press to the Times of London, this has been largely accomplished through automation. The steam press increased the speed of the process from 250 impressions per hour, to 1,100 impressions per hour (iph). In doing so it ushered in the beginning of the age of mass media (note that the Koenig and Bauer’s first client was a newspaper). From that point on, significant effort was made to identify the “bottlenecks” in the production process and resolve them.

At the time, perhaps the greatest craft area of the Printing Industry was typesetting. While the Times of London’s press might be capable of 1,100 iph, every page first had to be hand set, upside-down and backwards, from individual pieces of type, by a skilled typographer. It would take more than seventy years before mechanical typesetters, such as the Linotype and Monotype, would automate that task. And even then it was a partial automation, as the line of type (hence Linotype) produced by these machines would still need to be collected and plated before going to press. Even with that remaining prep time, these devices significantly reduced the amount of time needed to lay out a printed piece.

By proxy, they also eliminated the number of people needed. Until their introduction, the only way of speeding up the typesetting process was through sheer manpower. Making each individual more productive through automation also meant that you didn’t necessarily need the same amount of workers, especially if your demand didn’t rise to meet the increase in capability.

The story of the last century is a story of rapid innovation within the Printing Industry. With each wave of new technology, the overall level of automation increased. Letterpress, hot lead, and stone lithographic imaging gave way to offset lithography (and Gravure and Flexography) and photo imposition. Film based assembly methods in turn gave way to digital. And, generally speaking, with each round of innovation, more and more of the repetitive tasks within the industry were taken over by automation.

This is a key point, what we consider skilled labor is a culturally[4] defined. Or perhaps more accurately, the value of skilled labor is culturally defined. I have a hard time saying that knowing how to set type by hand isn’t a skill. But, it is not necessarily a skill that is valued by the modern Printing Industry[5].

So, in this somewhat vulgar telling[6] of the last two hundred years in the US Printing Industry, a cycle emerges. Sandra Rothenberg, a colleague from the School of Business here at RIT, came up with a perfect title to describe this cycle – killing the craft. From 1814 forward (and most likely before that) each wave of technological innovation has “killed” parts of the preexisting craft in the name of better, faster, and more return on investment[7].

It must be stressed that these cycles of innovation also did more than simply killing the existing craft. In many cases they created[8] new crafts within the transforming industry. Each new wave of technology required operators to learn new tactical skills in order to operate given equipment. But as in the case of the shift from hand typesetting to hot metal, most of these technical innovations, through automation, also increased individual worker productivity – which meant that while new skills might have been created, less people were needed to perform these crafts.

And, in many cases, certain skills were beginning to become consolidated. Perhaps typing is one of the earliest examples of this. The Linotype and Monotype machines operators would receive their copy to set, often typed, and then would key in their lines of type using a keyboard that was affixed to their machines. Thus the same piece of copy would be typed at least twice before it was reproduced on press. Flash forward to today when reporters type their own stories. The result of each individual’s typing, packaged in an electronic file, is then circulated to the various editors who make the necessary revisions on the file without having to re-key it from scratch. Said file is then sent to a layout person who copies and pastes (again without re-keying) the file’s contents into the master layout. Thus the typing responsibility (one might say the craft) has, for the most part, been placed further up the chain production. One might say that craft now resides at the point of origination (of the latent printed piece) rather than at the point of reproduction (printing).

With each cycle of killing the craft it seems that more and more traditional “printing” crafts are moving out of the print shop. Not only is the client doing design and layout, but they are fulfilling many of the traditional prepress stripping roles[9]. And, ever since the introduction of the photocopier clients have been able to bring certain short run printing in house[10]. Today’s digital presses make this even more of a possibility.

And even in the remaining roles, it seems that everyone is doing significantly more with less. As previously mentioned I was completely blown away watching the Goss press run here at RIT at speeds well in excess of 1000 feet per minute. That press, the size of a warehouse, only required a handful of pressmen to run it (I think I counted five maximum).

Nothing contained above should be news to anyone familiar with the industry. And, as I said, this is primarily a mediation on how to conceptualize what is going on within the industry. With many of the traditional functions (ie crafts) of a printing company shifting out of the shop, and with a reduction in the size of a staff necessary to complete what remains, where does that leave today’s Printers. Further, with automation replacing traditional craft (and by proxy, skills), it becomes increasing difficult to compete on the value of craft (at least in a traditional sense). Said a different way, in theory, your competitors can print just as pretty as you do. So where does that leave the shops of today and the shops of the future.


automate, v. Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50015185?query_type=word&queryword=automate.

automation, n. Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50015193?query_type=word&queryword=automation.

craft, n.1. Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50053051?query_type=word&queryword=craft.

craft, v. Oxford English dictionary. Oxford University Press. 1989. cited March 28, 2006: available from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50053052?query_type=word&queryword=craft.

[1] It is useful to separate paper and print. As anyone who knows the Flexographic printing process will remind us, there are many other available substrates to print on. More importantly, one should understand that Europe was a paper based culture long before it was a print based culture. The first European paper mills were founded nearly a century before Gutenberg began experimenting with movable type and a wine press.

[2] Artisinal is in many ways a better title for the “craft mode of production,” however craft is a preferred term for the points put forth in this essay.

[3] For evidence of that on need look no further than the US Department of Labor’s classification: http://www.bls.gov/oco/cg/cgs050.htm. It should be noted that Printing is ranked #1 in terms of total number of manufacturing plants within the US.

[4] I am using this an umbrella term to include technological, economic, social, and even temporal concerns.

[5] At least not typically beyond a wistful sense of nostalgia. There are still many out there for whom the mention of “hot lead” invokes fanciful images of “the good old days.” Often I’m one of them.

[6] It is important to note that this is only one possible reading of the industry’s history and its future. It is not necessarily the right one. Rather it is the one I am interested in telling right now.

[7] At this point, I need to stress that this is not an anti-automation or anti-capitalistic critique. That is neither my project nor representative of my personal beliefs. The simple fact of the matter is that these factors, along with others, fueled the rise of automation across all walks of life.

[8] And, in many cases they revived, or transformed the value, of certain crafts. One needs look no further than the numerous artesian letterpress operators who are serving rather lucrative niche markets.

[9] How well they are currently doing that is an entirely different issue. Though, I’ll argue that it is mainly one of technology and time. Either way I have a feeling (completely gut mind you) that we have less computer prep people than we had strippers a few decades ago.

[10] It is also safe to say that the copier and subsequent reproduction devices also facilitated the creation and circulation of new forms of print media.