Looking at the printing industry today, what most people take for granted was not even in our foresight 30 years ago. While major developments were on the distant horizon, the breadth and speed of change that ensued in the subsequent years was “mind-boggling” to many industry veterans and, at the same time, “mind-opening” to those enchanted by the unforeseen methods of print communications.

In 1986, most printed marketing communications materials were prepared on paste-up boards as camera-ready art, sent to a commercial printer to be transformed into photographic negatives, carefully hand-stripped into flats for both the type and photo images, transferred onto an offset aluminum printing plate (one for each process or PMS color) and skillfully positioned on a conventional printing press, so that each printed sheet was an exact copy of the previous sheet. That’s the way it had worked since offset replaced metal type in the mid-1900s.

During the past 30 years, we’ve witnessed the introduction and evolution of computers, the Internet, digital photography, electronic files, digital printing, online proofing and online store fronts for commercial printing. Add to that the development and progress of email, smart phones, text messaging, international Internet access, social media, one-to-one personalized marketing, and on and on. Our world of commercial printing has changed seismically. If the rate of change could be measured like the weather, a “1.000-year storm” occurred.

It’s no secret that the changes brought about by new technology (which alone can up-end an industry), combined with the economic meltdown that began in 2007, created major industry trauma. Technology changes and the economy have a habit of doing that.

Today, national statistics show there are 35% fewer commercial printing companies in operation than 30 years ago. Many colleges and trade schools have dropped print production from their curriculum. Locally, the venerable “Printing Companies” category has been removed from the Puget Sound Business Journal’s Book of Lists. But this is not gloom and doom.

Change and trauma also create new visions and opportunities, coupled with increased innovation. We’ve traveled through an exceptional period  of new inventions that have transformed “printing” from simply ink-on-paper static images to an industry that is a vital part of an entire communications process—more effective, more productive and more creative than we ever could have imagined.

Electronic files and direct-to-plate technology virtually eliminated the highly skilled, labor intensive “prepress department” in every offset-printing plant. Online PDF proofing substantially reduced the entire proofing process, as well. Digital presses brought variable-data capabilities, where each sheet off the press can be different than the  previous sheet, opening up new dimensions of creativity for personalized printed marketing collateral.

New economies of scale, allowing the cost-effective printing of short runs, opened the door to print-on-demand—the printing of the exact quantity the customer needs, when they need it. In-line versioning on the press introduced the ability to print multiple versions of marketing literature in one press run.

For the first time, books could be fully printed in page order, ready for binding in quantities as low as one copy, launching the custom photo-book industry. And consumers can now design their own print jobs, online.

The quality and speed with which typical print jobs can be produced, the choices for customer and, moreover,  the ease of placing a print order are all superior to anything in the past. And this is just a sampling of some of the more visible changes of the past 30 years.

Yes, the printing industry has changed significantly—and for the better. Last year, nationally, out of 18 manufacturing industries, print ranked No. 1 for new orders, production and employment. Spurred by the extremely high level of technological innovation, printing has found its new “sweet spot.”

It’s a viable, continually changing, active form of visual and touchable communications—with many new and exciting developments still on the horizon. It continues to be “a great ride!”

Industry veteran Gary Cone is the vice president of Lynnwood-based Litho Craft and the author of Price Doesn’t Count— Getting Customers To Want To Buy From You and Why Marketing—Building Momentum and Profit. You can reach him at gary@lithocraft.com.