The history of printing and printing techniques is well documented. Every schoolchild will have heard about Caxton and Guttenberg and the invention of the printing press. We’re all familiar with the way in which the expansion of printed media transformed society from the middle ages to the present day. However, printing techniques have a much broader role to play in modern society than the artistic, social and cultural role which gave rise to the techniques in the first instance. Since before the industrial revolution, manufacturing has been quick to seize on the potential of printing techniques to streamline and increase the quality and quantity of mass produced goods.
While today’s manufacturing industry has a wide variety of state-of-the-art techniques at its disposal, some of the most ubiquitous modern manufacturing applications make use of some of the oldest printing techniques. Screen printing – the use of a woven mesh screen to form a stencil allowing ink to be transferred to a printing surface – is one of the oldest print techniques known to man, yet it still forms the basis of manufactured goods from textiles to floor tiles. The technique is also used in that most modern of manufacturing processes, the manufacture of electronic printed circuits (PCBs). While direct imaging is generally used for more detailed, high resolution applications, the technique by which PCBs emerge as copper patterns – albeit from a computer driven CAM process output onto a master photomask using a sophisticated photoplotter - would be recognisable to our ancient screen printer.
Transfer printing has played an illustrious part in the history of manufacturing, first coming to prominence in the china and ceramics industry in the 18th century. The ability of the technique to cope with printing on curved surfaces was of particular use in decorative porcelain, enamel goods and tableware. It is still used in modern manufacturing in a wide range of applications from white goods to motor vehicles.
Electro-photographic printing is a much more recent printing technique which has revolutionised industry and business. Using a combination of photographic scanning and a process which fixes particles of toner to the copy paper, the process, more usually known as Xerography, nowadays, is the basis of the modern office photocopier. It is also the key process used in laser printing and in digital presses, which have largely supplanted offset printing for shorter print runs.
Modern digital printing techniques are used throughout industry; indeed, it’s difficult to envisage a substantial production process which doesn’t make use of digital printing techniques. This doesn’t just apply to the manufacturing element of the industrial process. Digital colour printing, inkjet printing and electrophotographic/thermal transfer printing techniques are utilised throughout the production chain, including the printing of the familiar product labels and barcodes which are now a ubiquitous part of everyday life. An article providing an excellent introduction to the way in which printing techniques have revolutionised the way in which in-house label printing has benefitted modern manufacturing industry can be found at http://www.manufacturing.net/articles/2013/08/smarter-label-printing-for-any-industry .
Printing in manufacturing industry goes far beyond the works’ office and the photocopying machine. As an integral part of the process, from production line to packaging, the pioneers of the printing industry would, even today, recognise the sophisticated uses to which the techniques they devised centuries earlier are now being adapted.