The shrinking world of prepress

By Ron Ellis



Over the past five years many of us have witnessed great changes in the printing industry. Perhaps no segment of the industry has seen more change than prepress. These changes have made the prepress department almost unrecognizable for those who have been around for the past 10 or 20 years. These same changes foreshadow equally dramatic shifts that promise to do the same to the pressroom and rest of the manufacturing process.



There are a number of indicators that point to the compression of prepress. The most obvious one is the reduced level of staffing. Many of us remember departments full of individuals, each with a stripping table. Those days have been gone for a while, but even in the past few years the exodus has continued.

“In the mid 1980’s into the early 1990’s, 50 percent of our placements were prepress operators and prepress sales reps,” said David Clark, president of Sprout/ Standish, Inc., a national search firm that specializes in the graphic arts. “Now prepress placements are almost non-existent.  I feel so badly for these craftsmen who spent a lifetime becoming experts in their field only to see their industry melt away into oblivion.”

For example a department that used to have three individuals a few years ago now has one. A large department that recently had 10 operators may now have two or three. There is no slack, no extra capacity, and everything in the contemporary prepress operation runs extremely lean. While everything is running lean and efficiently, there are both benefits and drawbacks. With time so tight, operators have no time to learn extra skills or take on new responsibilities. One outcome of this is the outsourcing of tasks that were previously performed in-house.

In the past, when a proofing system was installed, most prepress departments wanted to learn how to use and how to control the color themselves. Now most prepress departments do not have the resources to learn these skills and simply want it ‘done.’ The end result of this is a loss of control over their color and the manufacturing process.

Prepress departments no longer have the same level of skill that prior prepress departments had. While some prepress departments still have skilled operators from the “old” days who understand dot gain, calibration, and process controls, just as many have younger operators who have never been exposed to the same level of knowledge about the printing process — referred to by many as “the lost arts.” Newer operators simply open files, fix them, and print them. They are good at it and are very productive.

So while the prepress department is much more efficient, it is also often dependent on outsiders to set up the very underpinnings that allow the department to function and run so efficiently.


The good and the not-so-good

On the positive side, a fully automated prepress environment requires less labor, means owners can finally cut losses in a cost center that typically has been thought of as a loss leader. Automation also means greater consistency and less human error, which results in greater quality, speed, and lower costs. These are great benefits to the printing industry.

While the printing plants face this problem internally, at the same time they face degraded support from dealers and manufacturers. Both dealers and manufacturers have less staff and fewer resources available for support. This is compounded by mergers.

Often dealers and manufacturers merge and then lay off staff, leaving a skeleton crew behind to attend to customer needs. With prepress staff being so stretched these external resource becomes more important than ever. While these resources often function correctly within certain configurations, any customization stretches these already thin resources.


Reasons for change

Why have these changes taken place? Sept. 11th and the economic problems that followed required many printers to lay off staff, and often these staff were never replaced as personnel learned to work leaner.

“Nine-eleven really thumped the printing industry,” said Tony Gilmore, chief architect of “Right after 9/11 a large number of individuals exited the printing industry.  Many printers had to shave their payrolls, which meant massive layoffs.  Disenfranchised printing professionals, tired of the roller-coaster nature of printing, left the industry and aren’t coming back.

“For many, the printing industry is not an attractive industry to work in anymore,” he said. “The trade associations and employers are doing a poor job of attracting the next generation of printers and as the baby boomers retire, one of the biggest challenges facing the printing industry will be attracting qualified personnel.  The talent pool is becoming dangerously shallow.

“Despite the production gains due to increased machinery capacity, companies will still need skilled operators to run the machinery and the competition for those will drive up wages dramatically and will make these people very hard to locate and hire,” Gilmore added.

At the same time many new technologies have enabled printers to automate and perform more functions without use of additional staff. Computer to plate and digital proofing systems are good examples of these technologies, and along with imposition software these cut to a fraction of the original numbers the amount of personnel needed to operate.

Better RIPs, software, and PDF technologies are also making prepress more efficient. The PDF workflows and new RIPs easily handle jobs that were problematic a few years ago. And while customers still make problem files, standards are lower and customers will accept lower quality on the components they provide such as scans and artwork rather than pay to have them fixed by a skilled technician. The files created by newer applications are much improved and most software can create a print ready PDF file.

Partly because of the reduced services and staff available at printers, customers have been taking on more and more of the process. For example many agencies and corporate marketing departments create their own proofs and print-ready PDFs. As these departments do more and more, it means there is less for prepress to do. There is little for the printer to do except proof and print the job when PDF files are prepared correctly.


The future and what it means

The future of prepress and the manufacturing process will continue to be changed by these trends. “Forecasts predict that by 2010 an astonishing 25 percent of printing will be digital and that most of this will be sent in via web portals,” said David Clark, president of Sprout/Standish. Inc. “Just think about how this will change the face of our current print model. For example, a print buyer at an insurance company logs in and orders a print job via the web. The job is based on a predetermined price matrix and is submitted as a PDF file over the web and moves directly to a digital printing engine. There is no estimator, customer service rep, prepress operator, the job just runs and prints, with none of the staff we currently associate with a print job. The customer submits and drives the print job themselves.”

If the customer interacts directly with the manufacturing process they effectively remove the CSR, the prepress department and the nearly all staff that are currently part of the printing industry. It may seem far-fetched but these systems exist. The implications are huge and will further transform the printing industry.

Several trends will continue in the near future as PDF files become better suited to automation, workflows improve, and staff continue to become more efficient due to software improvements. Among those trends are:

·        As automation increases, quality of reproduction will increase and costs will continue to decrease. While the quality of scans, type and art provided by customers is generally low, the mechanical aspects of reproduction continue to improve as technology advances.

·        More outsourcing of services. As the expertise continues to move out of the printing plant and into the software, less staff will understand the fundamental technology of printing. More and more services will be outsourced, and more tasks will be done by software. When the system breaks down it will take an outside service provider to keep it running, make changes and adjustments, and make sure the system is stable.

·        Less prepress, and more IT staff will be required as systems depend more and more in software. If files run most of the time, and systems are truly automated, then connectivity and maintenance of the system will become more important. The staff required will be more like a system manager than a prepress manager.

·        Automation will increase and files will require less and less touching. RIPs, press results due to auto adjustments, and digital systems will mean that there is less winging it and more predictable results. Skills will be lost and the knowledge that used to be a fundamental part of prepress will be embedded in RIPs and software.

·        The changes will not be limited to the prepress department, but will move to the pressroom and other parts of the company. Expect to see similar automation in the pressroom as software automatically adjusts the press and plate curves.

·        The customer will continue to take more and more of the work in, as prepress departments become less and less able to service customers. As desktop software becomes better at producing a consistently good PDF file, customers will complete more and more of the prep work required to produce a usable file.

·        Printing that is not time sensitive will be sent overseas to Asia or India.

The printing industry continues to change from craft to automated manufacturing process. This means different opportunities for staff. For management, the future means a chance to gain consistency, lower manufacturing costs, and a chance to profit from the changes.


About the author: Ron Ellis is a prepress consultant who specializes  in workflow training and integration. He worked in the commercial printing industry for 18 years and brings a strong background to all aspects of prepress. He has consulted on numerous CTP installations and he provides color management, integration, training, workflow development, and troubleshooting solutions to the graphic arts community. He can be contacted at 603-498-4553 or through his web site at