Gloomy, dusty, noisy, and smelly—that’s what I thought a print production floor was. It was 1985, and I was a child visiting my aunt and following my cousins around the ground floor of their home in a small town in Malaysia, where the family ran a print shop specializing in calendars, yearbooks, and stationery items. I saw pallets of paper beside dark and hulking machines bearing a mysterious-sounding name ending with “berg.” I watched my cousins learn the craft of mixing inks, assembling book blocks, binding by hand, and operating the hot-stamping machine.

Today, print production floors are still noisy—though much muted by the use of earplugs—but with bright and clean atmosphere and setup. The lighting and humidity levels are calibrated to aid visual evaluation of printed sheets and prevent paper warpage, respectively. New thinking and R&D have created these changes. Advances in technology, as well as environmental consciousness, have shifted the industry even further.

In the 1990s, two catalysts emerged to transform the front end of the print-manufacturing process: Adobe PDF made file transmission borderless and instantaneous and soft-proofing possible, while the CTP technology, which by going direct from computer to plate, allowed us to bid goodbye (and good riddance) to CRCs, mechanicals, ozalids, films, and the smelly (and harmful) chemicals used in creating these proofs. Publishers now use email attachments, DropBox, and WeTransfer to disseminate PDFs, sometimes simultaneously, to several print suppliers in different parts of the world to manufacture for global book launch and distribution.

On the floor, Heidelberg presses still dominate, but other brands—KBA, Komori, MAN Roland, and Mitsubishi, to name a few—have entered the market. These presses, mostly in neutral shades, have grown wider (to accommodate bigger trim sizes), taller (to maximize floor space), and longer (to incorporate more colors and inline capabilities). A reel-to-sheet cutter preceding a printing press with an inline UV or aqueous coating unit has become a common single-line configuration.

Increasing machine throughputs and energy efficiencies while decreasing wastage and VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, is the goal. Modern printing facilities invariably have conveyor belts, frequency counters, RFID trackers, robotic arms, and sensors to reduce manual labor and human errors while increasing efficiency, productivity, and quality.

With each new model of printing press having more built-in automation and intelligent tools than the previous iteration, much of the guesswork—and the craft in printing—has been replaced by push-button or point-and-click simplicity.

Embellishment of book covers and special inserts—aka secondary processes—including spot colors, special coatings, and vibrant foils, can now be done by digital enhancement presses, which provide faster, more affordable, and better results. This means no more make-readies, plates, screens, or dies, which leads to less waste and VOCs, and is thus more environmentally friendly. (Then there is digital printing/POD capable of manufacturing ultra-short runs down to just one copy, but that is another story altogether.)

Postpress processes, including varnishing, folding, saddle-stitching, gluing, trimming, and casing, have gone inline to minimize transfers of book blocks from one machine to the next, further speeding up the production schedule and getting the books into the hands of readers faster than ever.

While technology wins the day, it also comes with a hefty price tag, and the massive capital investment required by a modern printing business often means that mom-and-pop print shops have mostly perished. Nowadays, printing operations are housed in purpose-built buildings, with professional management offering integrated services from product development to inventory services.

And how can we not mention, at least briefly, the transformation and innovation in the paper and ink industries? Printing, after all, is essentially about putting ink onto paper.

R&D in pulp and papermaking has created stocks with lower basis weights (resulting in thicker but lighter books) and improved tensile strength (which increases runability and speed of paper machines and printing presses). Newer coatings, technologies, and ideas—
producing paper from fallen leaves and using renewable nanocellulose, for instance—are about reducing waste and toxicity, and thinking sustainably.

Many book covers now have the three chasing-arrows Mobius loop (FSC, SFI, or PEFC chain-of-custody logo) proclaiming that the stock used—or to be exact, the fiber in it—come from recycled content, certified forest, or sustainable sourcing. There are also tree-free papers and those made from synthetics and rock, but these are expensive and mostly seen in vanity projects. Whichever is used, it allows publishers and readers to assuage their eco-consciousness and tout their being responsible citizens.

While technology wins the day, it also comes with a hefty price tag.

As for inks, where to start? Ink companies have experimented with additives, pigments, resins, solvents, and varnishes to improve color performance, scuff resistance, and runability while reducing VOCs. The choice is wider than ever. Photochromic, thermochromic, blacklight, and white inks, you name it, are now available to jazz up a book and raise the novelty level (and the retail price). Then there are soy, energy curing, and water-based inks as eco-friendly alternatives.

Technological advancements aside, the role of print manufacturers have also changed. They are now bringing new paper-engineering ideas, unique postpress touches, creative ink applications, or more value-added services to their clients. And publishers are relying on their suppliers to know what is possible with the latest crop of presses, papers, and inks—and add the bells and whistles where appropriate to up the ante. Increasingly, publishers are shifting the responsibilities of inventory management, replenishment, and paper indenting, for instance, to the printers.

In short, the business of printing is less about getting ink onto paper (or glue on the spine) and more about the availability and breadth of pre- and post-printing services. That is where print manufacturers seek to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Right now, the main print-manufacturing hub is in southern China, where complex pop-ups, intricate handwork projects with accessories and customized packaging, and high-end coffee-table books reign. It seems to have come full circle given that the Chinese discovered how to make paper about 2,000 years ago, started printing on paper around the seventh century, and invented movable type in 1040 (which Johannes Gutenberg improvised in the 15th century). The continuous advances in the press, pulp-and-paper, and inks industries have made the print-manu-facturing process better, faster, greener, and shorter.

The basic concept of a print book remains unchanged—the cover, text, and spine—but what goes on, or into it, is fair game. Today, books have covers in metal, plastic, and cloth with bling-bling to go with interiors that boast all hues under the sun in multiple gatefolds, inserts, flaps, or tabs. Borrowing techniques from other industries (such as garment) and applying them (think hotfixing rhinestones onto book covers) is a part of the never-ending pursuit of the best combo of paper, ink, plush, plastic, and accessories to achieve the “wow” factor and give publishers and readers more bang for their bucks.

With newer technologies, ideas from other industries, and print manufacturers’ can-do spirit, imagination is the limit. For publishers (who wanted their orders yesterday, if not last week), there are simply too many choices, too little time, and not enough money in the budget. If savvy readers think they have seen everything on the shelves, they should brace themselves for more unique book shapes, shades, and styles.