The printing process

I did have a good and productive time at the printer’s. From my arrival until around 1:30 I took a tour with Dave, one of the business managers. After that I was given helpful tips and tricks in various software packages by the job planner, Tim.

The tour of the facility was my favorite part; I wanted to ask if I could take pictures of everything, but I was too busy taking notes. I saw

Account Management, where sales reps/customer service reps take care of client business;

Preflight, where client files are received from the Account Manager and checked for completeness, image quality, and whether or not the files on disc match the client’s proof;

Planning/Management, where jobs are received, set up and scheduled;

Quality Control, where images are evaluated based on how they will appear on the type of paper required for the job and edits are made as necessary;

Processing, referred to as “the Mac Operators”, where the jobs are meticulously assembled–I was told this was frequently unnecessary on jobs from the company for which I intern, as we do most of that work ourselves;

Imposition, in which the pages are laid out–this is tricky, as you don’t always print the pages right next to each other. It depends on the binding how everything will flow;

Proofing, where a regular printout is made to check that everything is set up properly (and there are two types of proof, a low res version that is cut and assembled the way it will look as a finished product, and a high res version that is printed on the paper that is to be used for the job, to check how the ink will look);

Plating, in which literal plates of metal are created from the job files after the proof has been approved by the client; and

The press room, where it all happens. There are 2-, 4-, and 8-color printing presses, and each of them has a “perfector” unit that flips the paper over so that one run through the machine can result in printing on both sides. The plates are wrapped around cylinders inside the presses. Ink is ferried down to the plates by the inking rollers, a set of cylinders that begins at the very top of the press. (The ink levels have to be just right, or the color will be incorrect. This is not an exact process, meaning that workers must constantly check the color output and adjust the levels. Temperature and humidity are both key factors.) By the way, printing ink looks like this:


That’s the one and only picture I took at the printer’s.

The plates are moistened with water. Only the spots on the plate where ink is to go do not hold water; the rest of the plate does. This ensures, for the most part, that ink won’t get where it’s not supposed to be. The plate cylinder rolls up against what’s called a “rubber blanket”, which absorbs/deflects the water and catches the ink. The rubber blanket then rolls across the actual paper, leaving the imprint of the ink.

There is one plate for each spot color. As you may know, there are four of these: cyan, magenta, yellow, and black (CMYK). So only one color goes onto the page at a time. A 2-color press only has two plates in it at a time and is used to run monotone or duotone projects. A 4-color press can do 4 colors at a time, and an 8-color press can do 8. While I was there, the 8-color press was being put to work on a 3-color project because that particular project was on a tight deadline; paper was whizzing into that thing.

Once the page has been inked, it passes through an infrared dryer before landing in a stack with the other pages. This dries the ink and keeps the pages from sticking to each other.

As you might have guessed, the printing presses are the coolest part. They are controlled by a computerized apparatus that looks fresh from the 1960s (okay, maybe the 1980s): a long bay of red LEDs (or maybe they’re just regular lights, I’m not sure) is spread out along the bottom of an easel upon which the printed pages are laid by the operator; he can then check the colors against his handy-dandy Pantone chart to make sure they’re correct, and if they’re not, he uses buttons beneath the red lights to increase or decrease the ink levels on any portion of the page. I find old computers like that to be incredibly funky and cool.

Beyond the presses, there were areas for storing printed pages to await the next step in the processes, cutting the pages with dies, and storing old jobs. Adjacent to the presses was

Binding, where machines sort the pages and stack them, then score, fold, and bind, then finally chop away the excess paper, first top and bottom and then along the side.

All in all, I left the tour mildly wishing I could stay and work in the press room.

My software tutorial thingamajig went fine, although I yawned rather too much and felt very sleepy towards the end. Tim gave me some good tips and some definite things I needed to know about sending files to the printer, which of course was the purpose of the visit. Here are a few things I learned:

  1. monotone: a picture in a single color other than black
  2. duotone: a picture done in a single color plus black
  3. InDesign rules, QuarkXPress drools
  4. Turn ON facing pages if you’re doing saddlestitching (staple binding); turn them OFF if you’re doing perfect/square binding.
  5. If you have 96+ pages, staple binding doesn’t look nearly as good as perfect binding, due to creep.
  6. Keep content at least 3/8″ away from the binding; 1/2″ is better. When you have more pages, stay even further away.
  7. Extend bleeds 1/8″ past your cutlines.
  8. The Control Palette is your friend.
  9. The best way to view Pantones is under a 5000K light, or outside in the sun.
  10. Don’t color grayscale images in Quark; do it in Photoshop or InDesign.
  11. Don’t mix paper types in your color swatches!
  12. Drop shadows (and other effects, presumably) act like raster images.
  13. CMYK rules, RGB drools
  14. Never use a stroke width less than .0028″.
  15. Always set your document raster settings to 300 dpi.
  16. Never use the color swatch “Registration” for anything! This swatch contains 100% of all colors used in the document and will easily oversaturate the paper.
  17. Ink saturation should be below 320% for glossy/treated paper, 280% for uncoated paper, and 220% for newsprint.
  18. Always package your fonts and support files!

Hope that wasn’t too boring for those of you with no interest whatsoever in graphic design. It was a nice review for me, at least ;>

On my way out of the building, Dave showed up again and introduced me to some more people, including Mike, a manager. When Dave told Mike who I was, Mike said, “Oh, I hope I didn’t say anything bad! I thought you were a new employee.” So it would appear that either:

  1. My outfit choice made me look like someone who would work at a printer.
  2. My outfit choice did not make me look like a client.

Or, you know, it could be both of the above! I was wearing sneakers as well as the khakis and white shirt, so I didn’t look particularly professional, that’s for sure. It was nice to think that my clothes made me fit in, though! (I totally obsess about what I wear…;P)

In any case, it was a nice, educational trip. I had fun.