Inside Output: A History of Disruptive Tech

A reflection on past decades shows how far the industry has come.

“This will change everything.” How many times have we heard it? New technologies are always highly touted and anticipated. Some live up to the hype; some don’t.

There’s an advantage of being an “old guy” with approximately 38 years of experience playing with digital print technology. I have personally experienced both the winners and the flops. Some were a waste of my company, Pictographics’, time and money, and some truly changed everything. If someone was smart – and probably in my case, lucky – enough to become an early adopter, he or she was gifted with a significant advantage.

What I’ll share with you are some of those historical developments that changed the face of our industry and our company. This is at once both technical and personal, and I would love to hear from you how disruptive technology in our industry has affected your companies and lives.

The Benefits of Geekdom
I have come by my “tech geek” status honestly. I began writing computer programs in 1965. I learned Fortran to make an IBM S/360 do my bidding. I bought my first personal computer in 1979 and taught myself to program in Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code (BASIC).

I believe the first really big technological breakthrough that changed everything and paved the way for digital printing was the 1985 introduction of PostScript. PostScript came installed on the $6995, 300-dpi Apple laser printer called the LaserWriter. This was part of a cluster of technological advancements that ushered in the desktop publishing revolution and set the stage for our industry. Platforms like Aldus PageMaker (later acquired by Adobe) launched simultaneously, and soon we had QuarkXPress, Illustrator, Photoshop, Freehand, and others. The LaserWriter also included the AppleTalk network, allowing the printer to be shared by multiple Macintoshes.

By 1988, we had multiple Macs with every available design program, a LaserWriter and Apple Scanner, and an AppleTalk network in our home. This amalgam of disruptive technologies allowed us to capture a number of lucrative contracts and set the stage for our leap into large-format color printing in 1993.

The World Before Inkjet
Disruptive technologies gave birth to our industry in the early ’90s, and disruptive technologies have driven its evolution since. In 1991, Encad introduced its first inkjet plotter, the NovaJet. This was disruptive for the reprographics industry because it could draw colored lines – just like a pen plotter, but up to 20 times faster. A few years later, they introduced the 36-inch NovaJet II with 300-dpi resolution. What made the NovaJet II disruptive is it could print a raster image with near photographic quality. This was made possible by a Rasterized Image Processor, or as we commonly refer to this today, the RIP.

In 1993, we bought a LaserMaster printer based on the NovaJet II. It was revolutionary in that it had an integrated RIP and a bulk ink system that held 200 milliliters per color. The purchase of that revolutionary machine marked the birth of Pictographics and many other wide-format digital print providers. I chuckle to think of it. Back then, 36 inches was considered wide.

But, these early inkjet printers were slow. The most popular print for us was a 22 x 28-inch “show card,” and each of those took approximately 20 minutes to produce – a little more than 10 square feet per hour. We used dye-based inks with water carriers, and the inks contained so much ethylene glycol that the prints were a challenge to thermal laminate because you could wet your finger and wipe off the image. Forget outdoor durability.

Raster Graphics, Xerox, and 3M came to the rescue with electrostatic printing. By 1997, we had three Raster Graphics 5442s. This did change everything. Our six LaserMasters would produce a combined 60 square feet per hour at 36 inches wide and 300 dpi. Our three 5442s would produce 1950 square feet per hour at 54 inches wide and 400 dpi. They were rockets.

Using 3M toners and media, we could offer a long-term outdoor durability warranty. We could use standard toners for paper and wet-transfer printing to vinyl, Scotchprint toners for vinyl transfer for wraps and banners, and sublimation inks for dye sublimating fabrics. Our technicians could swap toners in 20 minutes, allowing us to dedicate each printer to a specific task, or to have them all producing the same product for large runs. We once produced full wrap graphics for 60 buses in four shifts. This technology was a game changer.

In the late ’90s, 3M introduced the Scotchprint 2000. This single-pass electrostatic printing technology is strikingly similar to a currently disruptive technology: single-pass inkjet printing. It had excellent 400-dpi print quality on 54-inch media, and our three 5442s couldn’t match the speed of one 2000.

There was another disruptive technology around this time period: digital laser exposure onto traditional photographic paper, better known as silver halide printing. The standout printers were the Durst Lambda and Cymbolic Sciences’ LightJet. These became the industry standard for continuous-tone, ultra-high-resolution, and backlit photographic prints.

Silver halide and electrostatic were ultimately killed by the persistent evolution – some may call it a revolution – of inkjet technology. In some instances we may fail to notice how revolutionary it has been; it’s kind of like the “frog in the pot” analogy: You put a frog into a pot of boiling water, and it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of nice comfortable water and then turn on the heat, the frog will complacently let itself be boiled. If a company has legacy equipment on their floor and there is this incremental improvement to printing technology, they may hold off on upgrading because they aren’t aware of how far they’re falling behind. The result: boiled to death, or something like that.

Solvent over Static
Since the ’90s, there has been dramatic and disruptive development of every aspect of large-format inkjet printing. One sea change resulted from ditching the old thermal and airbrush printheads and embracing piezoelectric heads.

The physical characteristics of piezo printheads have evolved to increase firing frequency and layer-line width, which translates into speed. Equally as dramatic have been the decrease in droplet volume and the ability to have a variable drop size. Combine this with more nozzles for higher resolution, and these developments have made inkjet printing more photographic in appearance and contributed to the obsolescence of silver halide printing in most arenas.

Ink chemistry has played an equally important role in the evolutions and revolutions in our industry. In the late ’90s, solvent inkjets began to dominate printer sales. Brighter, expanded gamuts with light cyan, light magenta, and even reds, oranges, greens, and blues gave solvent printers outdoor-durable print quality the electrostatics simply couldn’t match. And as electrostatic printers remained locked at 54 inches wide, inkjet printer widths expanded to 120 and 180 inches, while still maintaining excellent print quality. The electrostatic printers were history.

The Ultraviolet Revolution and Beyond
Along came UV-cured digital printing. This spelled the end for heavy-solvent printers. I remember attending a conference in Orlando, Florida, sometime in the late ’90s and hearing one of the industry’s prominent experts say that UV-cured ink would never be jetted through a printhead. It was simply too viscous. Then someone thought about putting a heater in the printhead to thin the ink down, and UV-cured ink has been ejecting nicely ever since.

We bought our first UV printer in 2001, and it took us to a new level of efficiency and versatility. The first units were four-color with no white ink, but that came soon enough. (What would we do today without white ink?)

Matching the impact of UV-cured ink on our industry has been dispersed dye inks. Walk any tradeshow, sporting event, or mall, and it’s clear that sublimation to fabrics has become a huge segment of our industry. We began developing a dye sublimation capability in 1996 with one of our Raster Graphics printers. To my knowledge, we were one of four companies in the US who were working to adopt dye sublimation at the time. We were in full production by mid-1997. Shortly after, we began working with a RIP and ink manufacturer to beta test inkjet dye sublimation. We’ve never looked back, and it’s not an exaggeration to say that whatever staying power and modest success we’ve had has come from these last two disruptive technologies.

What does the future hold? My money is on textiles. Approximately 334 billion square feet of fabric was printed worldwide in 2014. Approximately 2 to 3 percent of that was produced digitally. 2015 was an even bigger year for the digital textiles market, and print volume is expected to continue increasing by about 17 percent year-over-year until 2019, according to WtiN Intelligence. Much of this growth will be in garments, contract hospitality, and the healthcare industry.

What technology will we need to keep up with this demand? I promise you, it will be jaw-dropping and disruptive. Think more than 12,000 feet an hour. Stay tuned.

Read more Inside Output from Craig Miller or check out more from Big Picture's April 2017 issue.

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