As mentioned in a previous article, the sad reality is, technical advancement often results from conflict. So, it comes as no surprise that World War 2 would spawn its share of innovative technologies.

Advances in radio technology gave us RADAR and SONAR, satellite navigation we now call GPS and higher bandwidth broadcasting for television. Jet engines took aviation to new heights (pun intended) and the advancement of mass production methods made the United States a dominant world power.

But the most significant innovation came from a British Postal worker who was assigned in secrecy to a hut on the grounds of Bletchley Park near Milton Keynes. His name was Tommy Flowers and the machine he invented was called Colossus. Today, we call it the computer. I wonder if Mr. Flowers realized that, like Gutenberg 500-years before him, he was about to change the world forever.

Colossus was designed to solve a mathematical problem and used to break coded messages during the war. Colossus was commissioned in 1943 and its history so top secret that information of its existence was kept secret until the mid-1970’s. Sadly, Flowers was never allowed to discuss or take credit for any of his accomplishments. After the war, he was re assigned to the Post Office to continue his duties as a telephone engineer.

Tommy Flowers’ work at Bletchley Park laid the foundation for what we now call Industry 3.0. During the latter half of the twentieth century we digitized and computerized anything and everything we could. For the printing industry this would have profound benefits.

Computer controls provided increased accuracy and repeatability to our processes. Timers became repeatable and with the addition of light sensors we overcame exposure fluctuations for film and plates, reducing waste, increasing print quality and consistency. Sensors and computer controls found their way to the press as well, measuring ink densities faster and with greater accuracy than we could by eye. This allowed the press to run faster reducing costs and providing increased print yields.

The computer also allowed us to bring new production machines to the industry. Step and repeat machines, digital typesetters, color scanners and page make-up workstations, all relied on computer technology. The latter part of the century saw the introduction of digital print devices using inkjet and toner technologies begin to take their place in the print arena. The plate-setter and on-board plate imaging allowed us to go from computer-to-plate or press without having to make film.

Let’s not forget the finishing departments, where electronic controls now control the cutters, sensors provide an accurate count and allow more flexibility in folding and binding solutions. Even sorting and labelling became automated and programmable, speeding the process and ensuring accuracy.

All of this change came at an astonishing rate, the business at the end of the century bore little resemblance to the industry in 1950, in fact, each decade saw the introduction of major disruptive technologies that altered the course of the print industry. Still, our job remained the same; we just did it with different tools.

The computer allowed us to produce shorter runs, more economically, opening the business to a wider customer base while providing more options for graphic communicators to reach their intended audience.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the computer has become a staple technology in the print industry, as we use it to design, communicate, transport, schedule, produce and invoice our work. The next step in the 1,000-year history of print evolution is to integrate the technologies we use as tools, making them a seamless, automated production system. We call this Industry 4.0.

Bio: Stan Carmichael is a photographer by trade who found his way into the pre-press automation business from 1981 through 2005. During this time he directed Canadian sales and customer service efforts for a variety of pre-press technology manufacturers including Crosfield, Indigo, and Xeikon.

Stan remains active in the graphics industry providing sales mentoring and coaching to select individuals as well as sales and marketing consultation to technology suppliers.

Image Source: Unknown authorUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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