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Archive for November, 2014

Catalog Printing: A Spectacular Clothing Magazine

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

I was out shopping in the mall yesterday with my fiancee. In one of the clothing stores I came upon a catalog. I was surprised and pleased with the quality of the printed piece. First and foremost, I was pleased to see print collateral in a digital age. I strongly believe in the efficacy of multichannel marketing. After all, something has to drive people to websites. I could see that in this clothing store there were catalogs to help visitors take with them a bit of the shopping experience, as a stepping off point to the Internet, to another visit to the mall, or as an introduction to the clothing brand.

A Description of the Print Catalog

What struck me first was the rough surface of the catalog paper. This felt right, since all of the clothing in the magazine had texture: wool with patterns, layered outfits, and macrame and other knotted effects.

It seemed a perfect choice to have what felt like an uncoated cover as an introduction to the print catalog. The lack of a cover coating made the paper seem to absorb all light, and it gave a soft and muted look to the cover model, her clothing, and her surroundings.

I looked at the interior paper under a bright incandescent light and noticed that it did have a bit of a sheen. It looked as though the designer had chosen a matte sheet to give a less polished look than a dull sheet, but still had opted for a coated paper to give the photos a crisp look. Since a paper coating provides a harder surface on which the ink can sit, and therefore keeps it from seeping into the paper fibers, the designer’s choice of a matte sheet gave the images a bright, highly detailed look.

When I looked again at the cover, I did see the faintest sense of a cover coating. My educated guess at this point is that the designer had added a varnish in spite of this being an uncoated paper.

Normally it is not the best idea to run a varnish on an uncoated sheet. Since it seeps into the paper fibers, the lack of ink “hold out” minimizes the effectiveness of the varnish both as a protective device and as an aesthetic statement. After all, you can barely see it.

My expectation is that the varnish had been added to maintain the more natural, muted effect of the uncoated sheet while slightly improving the durability of the ink. I have seen this done before, albeit infrequently. I think it works here.

The Photos in the Print Catalog

I was struck by the almost flawless skin of the models and the subtle transitions of color over the surface of the images. So I brought out my loupe.

The most dramatic part of the image under the loupe was the small size of the halftone dot. At first I thought the halftones had been created with an especially fine halftone screen (perhaps 200+ lpi), but I saw upon further observation that all halftone dots were the same size. In addition, there were no rosettes (the circular patterns of halftone dots visible in most screened images).

I thought about what I was observing and realized that the images in the fashion catalog had been printed with stochastic screening technology. Unlike traditional halftones that include halftone dots of various sizes all arranged on a grid and equidistant from one another, stochastic screening (also known as FM, or frequency modulated, screening) positions dots of equal size all over the halftone image. In areas that are dense, there are more of these equal-size dots, and in light areas with minimal ink coverage, there are fewer dots. In contrast, traditional screening (also known as AM, or amplitude modulated, screening) involves rotating each of the four process color screens at a slight angle to the others (to avoid moire patterns), and this creates the circular rosette patterns present in most halftones but absent in this print catalog.

It worked extraordinarily well in this catalog. The images almost looked like continuous tone photographs, and this highlighted the beautiful skin tones, outdoor backgrounds, and fiber art and clothing.

As an aside, I have even heard of (and seen samples of) halftone images that use hybrid screening technology, which combines both AM screening and FM screening.

Black and White Quadtone Images

One other technique used effectively in the fashion print catalog was the four-color black and white image. Through the loupe, and even with the stochastic screening, I could see the vaguest hint of cyan, magenta, and yellow halftone dots intermixed with the black dots in the halftones.

There were only two of these quadtone black and white images (both with a wide range of tones made possible by the four separate halftone screens), but they were elegant, and the technique reflected the stately tone of their content. What made them so effective was that by removing the color (or the appearance of color), the designer had made the photos look old fashioned. In so doing, he or she also drew attention to the aesthetic tone of the photos. The photos were not just a rendering of a product, a particular dress, but rather a stylized piece of art.

How You Can Apply This to Your Work

If your subject matter lends itself to almost continuous tone imagery, ask your printer about FM screening. It may cost a bit more, but for fashion, food, and automotive imagery this can be worth it. I have even seen the work of printers specializing in stochastic screening. In their case, this technology may not cost extra.

Also, choose printing papers integral to the design of your catalog. Don’t make the paper choice an afterthought. If you want a more natural feel, choose an uncoated paper. For a more slick, corporate tone, you may want to select a gloss stock instead. Or if your subject matter warrants it, choose something in the middle—a matte or dull paper substrate.

And consider four-color black and white imagery. We have grown so accustomed to full-color imagery that a black and white photo can be particularly dramatic just because it’s not expected.

Custom Printing: Office Printing Is Printing, Too

Sunday, November 23rd, 2014

A close friend and associate sent me an article recently about Xerox’s work in minimizing needless printing. I had been so focused on commercial printing (offset lithography, digital printing, package printing, large-format printing, screen printing, and fabric printing) that I had missed the obvious. Office printing—all the printed materials produced across the world on office laser and inkjet equipment–is custom printing, too.

The article my friend sent me was entitled, “Xerox’s New Digital Alternatives Turns the Page On Paper; Redefines How Documents Are Used in the Enterprise,” presented in the 11/7/14 WhatTheyThink column online.

Ironically, the digital revolution has actually increased, rather than decreased, the amount of printed paper in offices. We can connect with vast sources of information online and share it with almost anyone, but we still love our paper copies. Xerox’s initiative to reduce paper consumption addresses this weighty issue head on.

The WhatTheyThink column notes that “Printing less isn’t just about using less paper – it’s about working smarter, improving productivity, connecting with clients faster and using data to bolster business,” (Mike Feldman, president, Large Enterprise Operations, Xerox, as quoted in the WhatTheyThink article).

Efficient Printing, Not Just Less Printing

The focus of Xerox’s Digital Alternatives seems to be less about reducing printing for purely ecological reasons and more about coordinating the multiple versions of documents spread across the diverse platforms of a business enterprise. (These would include the PDF, HTML, and epub versions read on desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets.) The goal is to reduce needless printing.

According to Xerox (as quoted in the article), Digital Alternatives “automates paper-based workflows that exist within any large organization” such that “Digital Alternatives users can easily sign, annotate, share, save and read documents from one interface.”

This allows office workers and mobile workers to coordinate their paper-based data, their digital data, and their messaging within both the Windows and Macintosh computing environments, while at the same time providing analytics (applications that show exactly how data and content are used) to turn this data into meaningful, actionable information. This makes business more efficient, and from reading this article, I believe that efficiency is the goal to which Xerox/s Digital Alternatives really is striving.

Xerox makes it clear that printed marketing and sales materials are still essential in business and communications. However, linking the information in the printed product and the purely digital information actually enhances the entire business process, particularly when this information is accessible on all computer devices.

In short, connectivity and data integration facilitate communication while reducing waste.

And It’s Green, Too

Xerox’s Digital Alternatives initiative, and the whole concept of reducing unnecessary printing, will reduce the carbon footprint of businesses. This is true, and this is a major goal of Xerox as well. To encourage employees to participate, the Digital Alternatives application includes “gamification” software (software that makes a competitive game out of reducing waste). Employees in offices using Xerox Digital Alternatives can track their reduced printing as well as compare their print reduction to that of others.

Electronic Signatures

When you are handling paper-based documents and need to sign them (perhaps a contract or an office document), you reach for a pen (I have heard this referred to as a “wet signature”).

So what do you do with an electronic document?

In the 1980s, this question arose regarding faxed copies of documents that needed authentication, validation and/or security confirmation (that is, confirmation that the person who signed the document is the one who wrote it, and/or that the person who signed the document agrees to its intent and contents). Now, if you sign and fax back a document, the signature is accepted as valid (in most cases, just as valid as an original).

Three decades later, as paper is being replaced in some cases by a completely virtual workflow, technologies have been developed to electronically validate your identity and acceptance of a document. “DocuSign” is one such technology, but there are others.

This process replicates one’s actual signature with a click of the mouse, places the signature at end of the contract, and forwards the document to a corporate database. The catch here is that this becomes a binding legal document. And at present, in many countries including the United States, electronic validation has the same legal intent and consequences as the more traditional hand signature.

What You Can Learn from This Article

Putting ink or toner on paper really is about communicating. Knowing what the best venue is for a particular act of communication is prudent, whether or not it helps protect the planet. Coordinating the collection and dissemination of information in a thoughtful (rather than thoughtless, or wasteful) manner makes communication and collaboration more efficient and more effective. Printing piles of paper that never get read or that never promote effective, joint action is not just wasteful. It’s meaningless.

In your design work for commercial printing, this concept can be reframed in the following manner (for instance): As you design a print book or brochure (or any other printed product), ask yourself what the goal of the printed piece is, and whether this printed piece will be effective in achieving this goal. Ask yourself whether a different format might make more sense. Would it be more persuasive? Does this particular product fit into the overall communications initiative? Or is it redundant? And finally, is the commercial printing method efficient and effective, or is it wasteful?

Food for thought. It’s good for business and for the planet.

Custom Printing: A Handful of Useful Type Terms

Monday, November 17th, 2014

I like type. I think it’s a beautiful art form worthy of close observation and study. I take this position not just from an aesthetic sensibility but from a practical marketing outlook. Type, if well chosen, can convey meaning or elicit emotion. It can inspire and persuade.

In this light, I recently paged through the Design Basics Index by Jim Krause (which I have shared before in PIE Blog posts) for a few useful type terms and descriptions. I will also note why I think they will improve your understanding of the functionality and aesthetics of type, and at the same time improve your design for custom printing.

X-Height and the Baseline

Picture a lowercase “x” in a line of type. Unlike a lowercase “q,” for instance, the “x” sits squarely on top of the “baseline.” The baseline is the imaginary line on which the letters rest: their support, if you will.

The lowercase “q” drops below this line. The portion of the letter that drops below the baseline is called a “descender.”

An important term to consider at this point is the “x-height” of a particular typeface. This is the height of a lowercase (not uppercase) “x.” If you look closely, you will see that the body of all lowercase letters in a particular font rests on the baseline and aligns with the top of other lowercase characters along the “x-height.”

That is, in the word “Design,” which Krause uses in his discussion of typefaces, the tops of the lowercase “e,” “s,” “i,” “g,” and “n” all align (except for the dot above the “i”). The “g” drops below the baseline, and if the word “design” were written with a lowerdase “d” rather than an uppercase “D,” you would say that the top of the “d” rising above the imaginary line across the top of all the other letters is an “ascender” because it ascends above their x-height.

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Beyond the aesthetics of a typeface, the “x-height” is very important in determining whether a typeface (set in a particular size) will be readable.

If you can’t read the words set in a particular typeface at a particular point size, your message will be lost. The type may be beautiful, but it will not communicate with your reader.

Look closely at type sample books or online samples of type, and you’ll see that every typeface has an “x-height” and that this varies from typeface to typeface. Some have higher x-heights; some have lower x-heights. The higher ones are much easier to read. Keep this in mind as you design your commercial printing projects.

Ascenders and Descenders

Going further, the concept of the “ascender” and “descender” described above also pertains to readability.

A word set in all capital letters has a “shape” if you look at it from a slight distance. Imagine a line tracing the outside boundary of all the letters in a word. The word’s shape is a rectangle when it is set in all uppercase letters. Unfortunately, no matter what the word set in all capital letters is, the shape will always be a rectangle.

Scientists who have studied reading patterns have noted that as people read, they don’t look at all the letters in a word. Instead, they look for the shape of the word, a shape they have seen before and have committed to memory.

The word “DESIGN,” for instance, has the shape of a rectangle, as noted above. If, however, you set the word in lowercase letters, “design,” the ascender (the top of the “d”) and the descender (the bottom of the “g” that drops below the baseline) give the word a unique shape, a shape that is not quite a rectangle. (It has a bulge at the top left and bottom right.) This unique shape allows the reader to immediately recognize the word without needing to read all the letters.

In contrast, the uppercase “DESIGN” actually slows down the reader, since he or she will have to look more closely (i.e., not skim the word to recognize it).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

If you want to use uppercase-only type, keep it to only a few words, or you’ll lose your reader. If you run the type over several lines, make the lines very short, and put a lot of extra horizontal space between them (i.e., add extra leading).

Serif and Sans Serif Type

Design Basics Index by Jim Krause includes a few magnified images of serifs (the little tails on letterforms that help draw your eye from one letter to the next as you read a line of text).

Old-Style serifs are curved. They taper gradually from the vertical and horizontal strokes of the letters. Krause uses Goudy as an example of an Old-Style typeface.

Modern serifs are thin and abrupt. They change direction instantly from the horizontal and vertical strokes of a letterform (there are no gradual curves in the serifs). Moreover, there is a more dramatic contrast between the thin and thick strokes of a letter in a Modern typeface than in an Old-Style typeface. Krause uses Bodoni as an example of a Modern typeface.

Slab Serif type has fat, chunky serifs. This category of type is also called “Egyptian type,” and you may be reminded of Old Wild West signs and posters when you see these typefaces. Krause has chosen Clarendon to illustrate Slab Serif typefaces.

In contrast, Sans Serif typefaces have no serifs. However, you will find that some are narrow and tall while others are wide and chunky. You will also find that some, like Optima, actually have letterforms that are thinner or thicker in different places (most sans serif faces are of equal weight in all strokes of the letterforms).

How Is This Relevant to Design?

Look closely at different serif and sans serif type samples (maybe a paragraph of each), and you’ll see that some are more legible than others. You’ll also find that each of these type samples has a slightly different mood or tone. An Old-Style typeface may seem more stately and serious, and a Modern typeface may seem more avant garde. For a poster, a slab serif typeface may be more dramatic and persuasive.

So the bottom line is that you should observe type closely, set your message in a number of different typefaces, and then think about which choice is most readable and also most congruent with the tone and content of the message you wish to convey. The more you know about type, the better able you will be to select the best typeface for a particular custom printing project.

Custom Printing: Printing Is More Than You May Think

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

How many of you, as children, cut a potato in half, cut a design into one half of the potato, and then inked up the relief image you had just carved and pressed it onto paper? That’s printing. Even though it bears little resemblance to the five- and six-color presses in a commercial printing shop, it’s still printing. (Actually, as a relief process, it bears more of a resemblance to letterpress.)

How many of you have taken a leaf, smeared ink on its surface, covered it with a flat sheet of paper, and run it through a manual printing press, only to find the veins on the leaf had printed an exact replica of the leaf on the surface of the paper?

Printing Is More Than You Might Imagine

The preceding examples illustrate the simplicity and elegance that can be found in printing images by hand. Sponge printing and fish printing provide still more examples.

My fiancee and I do art therapy with autistic students. This week, one of the members took a fragment of cellulose sponge we had provided, stuck it onto the back wooden tip of a paintbrush, dipped it in paint, and used it to make multiple impressions of the texture of the sponge on his acrylic painting.

The ink was a little watery and transparent, so it added a new layer to his painting, and the repeated pattern of the sponge differed from the brush strokes comprising the rest of his image, creating an interesting contrast. The student had combined a painting technique with a custom printing technique to create a new, mixed media art piece.

Printing With Real Fish and Rubber Fish

Long before photography, Japanese fishermen used to smear ink on the side of the fish they had caught and then place rice paper over them to create fish prints. This is called “Gyotaku,” and it was common practice in the mid-1800s. It provided a record of the kinds of fish they had caught as well as their size and markings. Since then, Gyotaku has become an art form used to reflect the natural beauty of fish.

In this case one side of the surface of the fish is inked, rice paper is placed over the fish, and the surface of the paper is rubbed to produce a single print, called a “monotype.” Each print in this case is unique. The process differs from what we commonly think of as custom printing (one plate imaging multiple copies), but it is still printing, in that an image is transferred from an inked surface to a receptive substrate.

In a similar vein to Gyotaku (but with a slightly different kind of fish), my fiancee and I once used rubber fish of various kinds to help autistic students make fish prints. The set of molded fish we used included both fish (such as flounder) and other ocean creatures such as starfish and seahorses. Once inked, the scales and other markings on the rubber fish produced a version of the Gyotaku prints that the autistic members could then add to with other colors.

Each time the members changed a color, they had to wash off the rubber fish, removing the custom screen printing ink we were using (we had chosen this particular ink since it was thick, vibrant, and fluid) in preparation for the next color application. In some cases, the autistic students painted on the prints; in other cases, the students printed successive colors using the rubber fish additional times.

What Can We Learn from This?

This is what I learned, at least, from a number of custom printing sessions with our students:

  1. Printing is far more than what we normally think of as a mechanical process for duplicating text and images. It goes back far beyond even Johannes Gutenberg and movable type in the 1400s. It even goes back to a more primitive time, when people ground up berries, insects, and rocks to make colors, which they then used to print images. Personally, I think that the only absolutely common theme among these custom printing techniques is that they all involve transferring an image from a “plate” of some kind to a “substrate” of some kind.
  2. Printing is as much an art form as a method of communication or persuasion. Editorial and promotional printing, and even the functional or industrial printing used on machinery, have their place, but so does the purely aesthetic printing hung in art museums.
  3. It is both possible and beneficial to bring natural elements into the process of printing, such as the printing of fish in Gyotaku. Furthermore, this brings a renewed appreciation of natural forms both to the printer and to those who see the print. Printing leaves and other natural objects echoes this approach, but this is just a beginning.
  4. It is possible to broaden one’s understanding of a culture, as well as the history of a culture, by understanding the kinds of custom printing done by its members. For instance, one can learn about both the history and economy of Japan (its dependence on fishing and its orientation toward the surrounding ocean) as well as the aesthetics of the Japanese by closely observing Gyotaku fish printing. The same holds true for other cultures and their printed artwork.

Commercial Printing: Four Protective Coating Options

Friday, November 7th, 2014

There are a number of reasons to coat the cover paper of a perfect-bound print book, or the dust jacket of a case bound book, or even a poster, but the primary ones involve appearance and durability. If you want the print book, for instance, to endure heavy use or last a long time (or if you want to protect heavy ink coverage from fingerprinting), consider coating the sheet. Or, if you want to contrast various dull or gloss effects against one another to highlight the printed images, you may also want to add an additional coating.

Here are four options to consider when choosing a protective coating. (Remember that this is in addition to the gloss or dull surface of a coated sheet. Protective coatings go on top of the printed, dried press sheets.)

Press Varnish

The simplest and least expensive paper coating is a varnish. Essentially varnish is ink without its colorant (or the ink vehicle with no pigment). The custom printing supplier adds this coating by using one of the ink units on his press (let’s say a fifth or sixth unit on a six-color press, after the cyan, magenta, yellow, and black inks have been laid down).

In fact, if you’re printing your 4-color job on a six-color press and you’re not using a PMS match color in one of the remaining ink units, you might want to add both a dull and a gloss varnish.

Perhaps you could coat the photos with the gloss varnish to make them stand out, and coat the background with a dull varnish to make it recede. Using both varnishes together would make the contrast more striking, and would cause anything covered with gloss varnish to “jump” off the page.

An alternate use for varnish is to completely coat the press sheet. This is called a flood application, in contrast to a varnish laid down in a limited area, which is called a spot application.

An alternative to a clear coating of varnish is a tinted coat. You may want to use this inside a magazine, for instance, for a subtle, ghost-like image or type treatment that can only barely be seen.

Varnish is the least durable coating, and it may yellow over time, so it’s wise to consider how long your printed product will be in use. It also can darken the inks over which it is printed. And it is not particularly useful when printed on an uncoated sheet, since it will be absorbed into the paper fibers like any other ink, potentially rendering it useless for both protection and any aesthetic effect.

Aqueous Coating

Aqueous coating comes in dull, gloss, and satin (in between dull and gloss). Like varnish, aqueous coating is applied in-line. But unlike varnish, aqueous coating is applied using a separate aqueous coating tower, which immediately follows the four or six press inking units.

Aqueous coating is a water soluble polymer, so it dries to a hard surface. Therefore, it is very durable as well as attractive. However, aqueous coating is more suited to a flood application (over the entire press sheet) than a spot coating.

Not every custom printing vendor has equipment for aqueous coating. If you request this service, your printer may need to subcontract the work, adding to the cost and schedule of the job.

Ultraviolet Coating

UV (ultraviolet) coating “cures” under ultraviolet light. It is more expensive than either varnish or aqueous coating. Unlike aqueous coating, it can be easily applied as either a spot coating or a flood coating. Usually the process is completed off-line (as a separate finishing step), in contrast to the in-line nature of applying varnish or an aqueous coating.

Since UV coating “cures” instantly when exposed to light (rather than drying when exposed to heat), no solvents are necessary and no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) are released into the atmosphere during its application.

As with aqueous coating, not every printer can apply a UV coating. Your printer may need to subcontract this work.

Film Laminates and Liquid Laminates

Even more durable than UV coating is lamination. This comes as a film or as a liquid coating. Since it seals the press sheet completely, you might wind up with book covers that curl. In this case, the uncoated interior of the book cover absorbs moisture (humidity) and expands, while the coated side does not. You can avoid this problem by specifying “lay-flat laminate,” which is permeable and allows air to pass through the polyester coating.

Things to Remember

If you will need to write on a portion of your print job with a ballpoint pen, or if you will need to inkjet information (like addresses) onto the printed press sheet, you will need to leave an unprinted area with no protective coating. Otherwise, the ink (particularly ballpoint pen ink) will smear.

That said, there are always exceptions. I have seen inkjet addressing applied directly over some coatings. Therefore, unless you play it safe and omit the coating over such an area, you will need to discuss this with your printer to make sure his equipment will accommodate your needs.

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