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No print type is ‘safe’

Everything we do today is ripe for obsolescence tomorrow

November 6, 2023  By Nick Howard


Pharmacy packaging inserts and outserts could be replaced with QR codes soon. Phto: © liveostockimages / Adobe Stock

Just over 500 years ago, in 1450, Johannes Gutenberg first fashioned lead movable type to print the Bible in the German city of Mainz. However, to discover the real genesis of printing, we must go back to 868 AD China when the Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist book, was printed. This was followed 220 years later by the first individual clay type created by Bi Sheng in 1088 AD. Oddly, we don’t know who built the first printing press, so we must assume all sorts of gadgets were borrowed or modified from other disciplines to fashion the early attempts at volume printing.

Since the time of Sheng and Gutenberg, our industry has grown and prospered with ever-increasing demands for the dissemination of information. Speeds increased, and materials like paper improved, as printed materials became cheaper with new technologies. The desperate hunger for knowledge created a profitable market for printing until a better way cast the last 500 years aside in a flash.

The age of internet

The year 1995 was symbolized by the great transition to the internet. Drupa 1995, the lynchpin of all things prints, failed to grasp the changes soon to decimate a large segment of our world. At this exhibition, large web newspaper presses were erected, and a host of new offset machines dominated those of the upcoming digital age. Something was afoot, but other than firms discovering websites and the expanding use of email, few in print media knew how the internet would alter their livelihoods.

Print is no longer a critical information media source. Instead of being four wheels and a spare, we are now just a spoke on a larger wheel. Printing presses aren’t lifetime investments, but rather short-term solutions producing products of today and, with luck, maybe tomorrow.

Take, for instance, printing for the pharmaceutical industry. OTC (over-the-counter) medicines come with inserts and outserts, which are six-point type, virtually impossible-to-read, folded sheets of warnings and instructions. Out of legal necessity, these mini-signatures have been included in everything from cough syrup to pain relievers. But now, a movement is afoot to eliminate them in favour of the ubiquitous QR codes. Smartphones are everywhere—almost everyone has one—and getting the same information with a phone click relieves big pharma of an expensive packaging cost. It’s possible inserts and outserts will be gone from OTC medications soon.

Changes are happening with other forms of packaging too, such as CPG goods packaging. With the rapid rise of in-mould-labelling, a potentially lucrative new enhancement could be wide open to attack from those who wage war on plastic in packaging.

No one segment of the print industry is safe from the future demands of the consumer. We must be aware that everything we do today is ripe for obsolescence tomorrow.

Drupa 2024 will soon be upon us. The event is still important, perhaps not for the new devices on display, but for what ‘may’ be relevant over the next few years. 

The expo will showcase legacy offset and even more toner and inkjet, but we can no longer view a trade show as a sherpa to the mountaintop. Ultimately, the consumer will judge our future sustainability in placing ink on paper, plastics, or whatever media they demand.  

Nick Howard, a partner in Howard Graphic Equipment and Howard Iron Works, is a printing historian, consultant, and Certified Appraiser of capital equipment. He can be reached at nick@howardgraphic.com.

This column originally appeared in the September/October 2023 issue of PrintAction.


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