Commercial Printing, Lithographic

SIC 2752

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

Establishments primarily involved in preparing plates and related prepress services are classified in SIC 2796. Establishments offering photocopying services are classified in SIC 7334.

Industry Snapshot

"Lithography" describes the printing process in which ink is transferred from a plate with a level surface that has been chemically treated to make some areas ink-receptive and others ink-repellent. The term "offset lithography" was coined to describe the process by which an image is transferred from a lithographic plate onto a rubber blanket cylinder and then pressed from the cylinder onto paper or other substrates. By the late 2000s, computer-to-plate (CTP) technology had virtually replaced the traditional computer-to-film method. With CTP, an image is output directly to a printing plate, whereas previously the image had to be transferred to film and then to the plate.

Background and Development

The term "lithography" comes from two Greek words: lithos, meaning "stone," and graphien, meaning"to write." The process was developed by the German inventor Aloys Senefelder, who discovered that by treating limestone with gum arabic, nitric acid, and a mixture of soap and tallow, he could make parts of the stone repel printing ink and parts of it repel water. In 1798, Senefelder perfected his process for use in printing.

Early lithographic plates were made from limestone, and presses were made of wood. During the first two decades of the 1800s, technical advances fueled the printing industry. Cast iron plates helped improve impression quality, and steam-driven cylinder presses increased operating efficiency. The ability to print in color was developed in 1837. A typical nineteenth-century press could print approximately 600 impressions per hour.

The twentieth century brought innovations to increase press speeds and improve image resolution. Ira W. Rubel and Caspar Hermann, both of New Jersey, developed thin metal plates in 1904. Their success fostered the development of rotary lithography, a procedure in which the plate was mounted on a cylinder. By the late 1980s, advances in offset rotary press technology had produced presses capable of making 30,000 impressions per hour, printing on both sides of the paper, and receiving paper in sheets or from large rolls called "webs."

Despite its widespread use, many people find lithography more difficult to understand than other printing processes. Unlike methods in which printing plates contain raised or etched images, lithographic plates are flat. To create a lithographic plate, a plate maker begins with a thin piece of metal coated with an oil-based emulsion. A photographic negative of the image to be printed is placed over the plate, which is then exposed to a bright light. The light reacts with the uncovered emulsion so that when the plate is chemically washed, the emulsion remains only in the image area. During the printing process, water is used to wet the bare metal, non-image areas of the plate. Printing ink, an oil-based product, is able to adhere only to the emulsion in the image area.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, earnings for commercial printing by lithography totaled $32.7 billion in 1987. Of this amount, $30 billion represented products considered primary to the industry. The combined value of commercial printing by all methods in 1987 was estimated at $44.7 billion.

By 1991, commercial printing represented the fifth-largest manufacturing industry in the United States. Revenue for the industry reached $55.7 billion. However, profit margins for many establishments were down as a result of intensified price competition during the national recession.

During the early 1990s, government statistics indicated that commercial printing was growing faster than general manufacturing in all 50 states. The industry continued striving toward faster presses, quicker set-up, improved color reproduction, and better material handling procedures. One noted trend was toward shorter but more numerous press runs. Industry analysts attributed this to "just in time" inventory systems and to advertisers' ability to target markets with greater precision.

Six-color systems became the new industry standard. Previously, four-color presses were considered the standard for reproducing photographic images. Four-color process printing created shades and tones of color by employing a technique called color separation, which involved filtering an image through a screen to produce a series of single-color plates, each containing an image comprised of tiny dots. Six- and eight-color presses enabled printers to exactly match distinctive colors, take advantage of special effects such as the application of metallic inks, and apply coatings or other finishes.

Compliance with national, regional, and local environmental regulations posed a challenge to the industry. Commercial lithography depended on the use of solvents, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and other substances classified as toxic. The printing process also generated waste materials that were considered hazardous. In addition, some environmental groups criticized the industry for its mass production of newspapers, periodicals, catalogs, and direct mail items that used paper resources and congested the nation's landfills.

An increasingly pressing challenge for the industry was training and retaining qualified employees. The industry was revamped during the 1980s and 1990s, and traditional mechanical printers' skills were not sufficient in leading shops. From electronic prepress to digital presses, the new standards of commercial printing equipment were redefining the craft in terms of the electronic era. New technology was a two-edged sword. According to a 1996 study by the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, the cost of staying "state-of-the-art" with regard to new software and hardware was the leading threat to overall profitability for the industry. Interestingly, the same survey identified the key strength of the industry as having state-of-the-art equipment that could handle a broad range of work. The second most serious "threat to profitability" was a close kin to the first--the learning curve of keeping current with new technology and converting to new systems.

In the late 1990s, the dominance of six-color presses was being challenged by eight-color sheet-fed "perfectors" that could print both sides of a sheet of paper during one pass through the press. At prices ranging from $2.7 million to $4 million dollars, these behemoth machines were considered expensive but incredibly productive. By the late 1990s, they had been widely adopted by printers in Europe.

Another important development within commercial lithography was the growing impact of environmental regulations. Systems that were used to produce proofs (samples made before printing to exactly depict the finished product) were criticized because they relied on solvents associated with air and water pollution. Many local ordinances regulated waste water discharges from printing establishments by defining acceptable pH levels, restricting the discharge of ignitable substances, and banning the presence of heavy metals. Worker safety regulations mandated chemical exposure limits, and the storage and handling of hazardous substances were controlled by legislation. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required companies to obtain permits for press equipment, and some states also ordered permits for vented prepress equipment. In some places, local governing authorities restricted the number of hours a day certain types of presses were allowed to run and limited the acquisition of additional printing capacity.

In 2005, approximately 13,570 establishments were involved in commercial lithographic printing; 7,096 were classified as "quick printers." The commercial lithographic printing industry shipped approximately $51.1 billion in goods in 2006, according to Supplier Relations US LLC. Advertising products accounted for the largest share, followed by magazines and periodicals, catalogs and directories, labels and wrappers, financial and legal documents, and other products.

Employment in the printing industry underwent a decline in the mid-2000s. According to Graphic Arts Monthly, printing employment fell by 5,100 jobs in the first three months of 2004, with 3,100 of those in commercial lithographic printing and 1,000 in quick printing. One of the major factors causing the decline in employment was the increase in Internet publishing.

Despite the advent and increased use of digital printing, in 2006 the commercial printing industry achieved its highest results in eight years. A 6 percent increase that year brought industry volume to nearly $88 billion. The NAPL, formerly known as the National Association for Printing Leadership, correctly predicted an industry-wide slowdown in 2007, due to a general economic downturn. Commercial printers rely heavily on advertising and marketing expenditures by other companies, many of which are vulnerable to even the slightest shift in economic conditions. Reduced spending by these companies translated to reduced sales by commercial printers. "For every one percentage point slowdown in the gross domestic product, print sales drop by more than $1 billion," reported Printing News.

Current Conditions

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 13,197 establishments operated in the commercial lithographic printing industry in 2007; 6,157 of these were classified as quick printers. Total industry shipments for commercial lithographic printing reached $53.4 billion. By 2008, industry revenues for commercial lithographic printing had dropped to $50.3 billion, according to a report by Supplier Relations US LLC. The same report estimated that the industry used about 69 percent of its full production capacity in 2008. If operating at full capacity the industry could have seen total shipment values of $72.9 billion.

According to figures from Dun and Bradstreet's (D&B) 2009 Industry Reports, the top five states in terms of employment in the industry in the late 2000s were California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Texas had the highest percentage of the nation's revenues in the industry, followed by California, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut. D&B figures also showed that although about 95 percent of establishments employed fewer than 50 workers, 46 percent of the nation's total sales came from firms had more than 50 employees.

Industry Leaders

R.R. Donnelly & Sons Company is a Chicago-based printing giant founded in 1864. It became the largest commercial printer in the United States when it acquired Moore Wallace, a leader in forms and labels, in 2004. Operations include commercial printing, financial printing, forms and labels, and content and database management. Combined annual sales reached $11.5 billion in 2008, when the company employed approximately 62,000 individuals.

World Color Press (formerly Quebecor World Inc.) is one of the world's largest commercial printers. The Montreal-based corporation was also a leading U.S. commercial printer headquartered on the East Coast. Quebecor's principal products include advertising inserts, circulars, flyers, magazines, catalogs, and books. Other divisions offer specialty printing, directory printing, securities printing, newspaper printing, and other printing services such as prepress support, circulation fulfillment, and list management. In 2008, revenue for all company operations topped $4.0 billion with 22,400 employees.

Quad/Graphics Inc. was founded in 1971 by entrepreneur Henry Quadracci in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. In the late 2000s, Quad/Graphics was one of the largest privately held printing companies in North America. Quad/Graphics also operates extensive digital design, gravure, book publishing, mailing, and fulfillment centers. Sales totaled $2.0 billion in 2008, and the firm employed about 11,000 people.

Workforce

Employment in the industry continued to decline in the late 2000s, with number of workers in the industry falling to 314,819 by 2007, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Workers within the commercial printing industry faced rapid changes as new production methods and materials were adopted. Changes resulted in the elimination of some job classifications but created shortages of experienced labor in others. The prepress and postpress areas were expected to yield the greatest gains in employment opportunity, while traditional jobs such as those of "strippers" were being eliminated by computerized prepress.

Research and Technology

Evolving technology played a vital role in the development of the commercial printing industry. Analysts estimated that printers invested more than $2 billion in new technology in 1991 to maintain their competitiveness. The development of high-quality copying machines drove printers to adopt presses capable of offering more benefits. Innovations brought improvements in color capacity, press speeds, and automation.

As press speeds approached 2,500 feet per minute, automated equipment became increasingly important because of human physical limitations. New methods of feeding paper into the press and taking printed matter away from the press were developed. Researchers designed computers to help achieve optimal results by automatically monitoring press temperatures, plate register (how images fit together), and web tension. One device that facilitated the development of higher speed presses was a densitometer. A densitometer was a device used to insure color integrity throughout an entire press run by automatically making adjustments to the ink fountains. Prior to the development of densitometers, ink fountain adjustments were made by an experienced pressman based on visual perception.

As the industry sought ways to decrease production time and increase efficiency, commercial printers turned to the International Cooperation for Integration of Prepress, Press, and Postpress (CIP3). This digital technology was embraced in 1999 as an answer to the quick electronic media. Half-size webs also became more popular as a quick alternative to the larger webs.

Other technological changes were aimed at improving the ability to set up a press quickly and to reduce paper waste. One area under study was the automatic setting of press variables from prepress operations. For example, if computerized color separations could be used to directly set press ink keys, exact color reproductions could be made without wasting time and paper in experimental attempts to duplicate the required visual results. Other evolving technologies included faster plate changes, reductions in the amount of blank space required to lock plates onto press cylinders, additional in-line finishing capabilities, optimized material handling at the end of the press run, and better photographic reproductions.

One system that gained acceptance was called dry lithography. Dry lithography used waterless ink systems. In traditional lithography, water was necessary to dampen the plate. A precise ink/water balance was essential for superior quality. Systems printing without water achieved higher-quality results and operated more efficiently. Waterless printing also enabled printers to work with higher resolutions. For example, commercial printers traditionally reproduced photographs using screens of 150 lines per inch. Using waterless technology, printers could employ screens of 300 to 500 lines per inch. However, the investment required to "retro-fit" presses for dry lithography delayed the penetration of this technology into the market. The technology required special inks and special plate materials able to repel the inks from non-image areas. In addition, press temperatures were more difficult to control. Using traditional water systems, the water served not only to keep ink away from non-image areas but also to cool the press. Waterless systems required chilling rolls to carry off excess heat or ink adjustments to compensate for higher temperatures.

In 2009 a company called JP Imaging applied for a patent for what it called "the most important technology breakthrough since the introduction of thermal CTP." Using ultra-fast lasers, which pulse 100 trillion times a second, the company created, according to Print Week, "a method of laser exposure on uncoated standard grained and anodised aluminium that will switch it from its normal (oxidised) hydrophobic state to a hydrophilic state." The technology would have implications for the environmental impact of lithographic printing, as such a plate would cut out the use of coating chemicals and coating solvents as well as reduce the amount of energy needed for plate manufacture.

Technological advancements in digital prepress and printing were expected to continue to define the market for many years to come. Digital technology offers better quality products and decreased production time and allows the industry to remain competitive with fast-growing electronic media.

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