The 21st Century printer: as much a craftsman as his Renaissance predecessor

When I think of printers, I don’t think of equipment in the first place, but of craftsmen like Christophe Plantin, Jan Moretus (Museum Plantin-Moretus), Aldo Manuzio and Henri Estienne. True, printers rarely publish polyglottal bibles in Hebrew, Latin, Greek, Syriac and Aramaic these days. Equally, few of them count world-famous painters and cartographers among their friends. However, they are every bit as much experts in a range of disciplines as their famous predecessors were. Although the terminology they use and the problems they encounter these days has changed a fair bit — from colour management to colour registration errors, a problem that appears to occur even with colour laser printers — printers or printer operators are multi-disciplinary craftsmen as the Renaissance printers before them.

Image copyright Plantin-Moretus Museum (Click the image to visit their site).

The printer who operates the machine has to have expertise with mechanics, chemistry and the behaviour of the elements involved (media, ink, physical characteristics of moving parts, etc.) in the various printing processes that exist today. In that respect, printing has become more complex. In the past two decades, however, companies like EFI and Agfa have been developing and manufacturing equipment and systems that automate a great deal of the printing process itself. Even as equipment, media and ink behaviour has become more predictable, there is still enough left skilled printers should know about in order for them to have knowledge in a multitude of subjects.

Printers must know the physical and chemical laws that govern the printing process. Equipment on display at large events such as FESPA and Label Expo have been set up by vendors’ own experts and are run by vendors’ own printer operators. These men and women often have had intensive training on the machine at hand before they can show what it is capable of. Based on such near-flawless demos, a printing company or individual printer may decide to invest in a machine only to find out the results at the event differ quite a bit from what they are capable of getting out of it. In some markets a less-than-perfect result is acceptable. An ad banner that will brighten up your local grocery’s window for a day or two may not have to be as colour-accurate as a glossy brochure.

Often an incorrect machine setup or poorly maintained equipment makes the results look much less attractive than what you saw at that demo. Demo prints are what they are, so when the ink starts falling apart after a few months, nobody will notice. In real-life, however, customers will not be happy when their print shows ink peeling off for whatever unclear reason. And frankly, and as far as I can tell from talking to the many printer operators I have interviewed over the years, I can’t see any of them being happy when that occurs either. Printers are among the few professions who still take pride in what they do — creatives usually do.

When it comes to a breakdown in adhesion of ink to the substrate or deterioration of the ink film, the search for the cause of the problem can quickly turn into a nightmare of its own.

White ink, carefully UV cured on special media. It would knock Plantin off the socks he probably didn’t wear.

Companies like EFI and Agfa have supercharged support teams and training potential for printer operators to tap into. Part of these companies’ attraction is their substantial product portfolio that covers multiple markets. EFI is a market leader in this respect, due to the many acquisitions of companies specialised in vastly differing printing types — ranging from ceramic tile over corrugated box to textile printing. This has resulted in a vast body of knowledge that bridges these different printing types and their markets, the associated media, ink types and techniques to prevent problems from happening. While a company like Agfa has know-how across — by lack of a better word — “traditional” printing markets such as newspaper, commercial and inkjet printing, EFI bridges the gap between such traditional markets and textile printing, ceramic tile printing, thermorforming, etc.

EFI VUTEk’s monster printer…

The knowledge the company has collected over the years is reflected in the different versions of its Fiery offerings — enabling printer operators to control VUTek, Jetrion, Cretaprint and others from the same user interface, dramatically decreasing training requirements. That knowledge is also available through its forums and training programmes. Even then, problems with printing results will arise. Many of these will revolve around ink-substrate bonding, necessitating printers to have at least a basic understanding of the science of chemistry. It’s a problem Renaissance printers would not commonly have had to face. Their “substrate” was paper, while their inks were of natural origin and made to deliver the exact result a printer was after without worrying too much about toxicity or waste disposal.

In our era, we no longer accept printers to become ill because of fumes regardless of their origin, nor do we readily accept our rivers to be used as open sewers. And again, companies with large product portfolios like EFI, Agfa and others either make their own or have chemical companies make their inks specifically for them, to their specs. While 100% non-toxic inks probably don’t exist (inks used for food packaging becomes non-toxic only after curing), established ink manufacturers such as 3M ensure they are as safe as they’ll get — which is a good reason not to use cheap ink from obscure Asian suppliers.

3M me fieri fecit (“3M made me”)

Problems with ink adhesion can usually be avoided by following these general guidelines (Source:Kiddell Peter, “When Science meets printing”, FESPA, 16 Dec. 2015):

  • Make sure the substrate is clean before printing. Ensure that the substrate is at the temperature of the print shop before printing.
  • Mix the inks precisely by weight.
  • Try to use as many of the forms of adhesion as possible to form the final bond. The two most predictable are dispersive and mechanical adhesion.
  • If pre-treatment is required to achieve chemical and dispersive adhesion be aware of the characteristics of the pre-treatment methods. Take advice from your ink supplier.
  • Never use inks that are out of date.
  • Ensure that drying and curing methods are set correctly and the time required for a complete cure is kept to.
  • A roughened surface will provide a better bond than a gloss surface.
  • Generally the application of heat will improve adhesion.
  • Where solvents in the ink can dissolve/soften the surface of the substrate a better bond is likely.

But when these guidelines fail, it’s the printer’s training and especially his craftsmanship that should kick in. That’s not to say he’ll be able to fix things from the top of his head, but at the very least he’ll know where to look for information and how to use it.

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