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Printing Industry Exchange ( is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Archive for December, 2017

Book Printing: Digital Book Printing at Lightning Speed

Tuesday, December 26th, 2017

A print brokering client of mine called me up early last week and asked whether I could provide a direct reprint of her prior year’s government textbook, 350 copies, 6” x 9”, 272 pages, perfect bound, delivered to Florida from Virginia in a week’s time. There was to be a meeting in a convention center on a university campus, and my client’s boss wanted the participants to have copies of the print book. Due to an inventory miscount, my client’s warehouse had run out of copies of the book before the next issue had been printed.

Fortunately, my client had been buying the printing for this book from the same printer for many years, so he had a strong motivation to do what she wanted, but I was still initially unsure that it was even possible. So I asked the sales rep.

What the Book Printer’s Rep Said

The printer said this was possible as long as he got a firm commitment that next day so he could purchase paper. The books would be produced digitally and then perfect bound. My client could have a PDF proof, but it was “confirming-only.” That is, the production process would not stop and wait for her approval. The proof was just a confirmation that the print book was a direct reprint from the prior year’s art files.

Now this news made my client very happy, but to be honest it both surprised and intrigued me. Almost forty years ago I had actually copyedited, typeset, and pasted up this very book for this same organization (three times a year). In fact, more than twenty years ago, I had hired and trained the woman to whom I was now brokering this printing (as a graphic designer), back when I was an art director. Back then, the book took six weeks to print and bind at a large book printer. So in my eyes producing 350 copies in one week was astounding.

Glitches and Resolution

Included in the one-week schedule was the shipping time from the book printer to the university. I did not know at the time, but a two-day delivery time from the Virginia printer to the Florida university actually required a third day for delivery. The print books would arrive at the university in two days, but the delivery service would have to arrange an appointment for final delivery (within the university) on the third day. In addition, the delivery would incur a surcharge since it would be made to a convention center. And it would be an inside delivery.

All of this is relevant because it shortened the time the book printer had available to digitally print and perfect bind the books.

The schedule proceeded as follows. My client contacted me on a Tuesday. She committed to the press run (it was still in flux at this time between 340 and 400 copies), and reviewed the proof, which the printer immediately provided as a PDF on Wednesday. Then the printer produced the pages (272 pages x 350 copies = 95,200 pages, so it wasn’t a short run) and bound the book in house, handing it off to the delivery service on Friday. The following Tuesday it arrived at the university, and Wednesday it was delivered to the final destination within the university.

My client was relieved, I was relieved, and the printer was relieved.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

First of all, this couldn’t have been done if the press run had been very long (thousands rather than hundreds) because the various analog steps of a true offset print run would have taken longer than book production on a digital press. (For example, since there are no custom printing plates on a digital press, there are none to image, none to hang on the press, none to wash up, etc. But even the digitally printed pages still had to be trimmed and bound, which took time. However, all of this was still possible within this time frame.)

Secondly, digital printing opens up a lot of options that had been unavailable when offset printing was the only technology. More specifically, back in the day, no one at the university conference would have received a copy. It wouldn’t have been possible. So they would have missed a learning opportunity, and my client’s boss would have missed a marketing opportunity.

Basically, this means that a bookseller (or in this case an educational foundation that provides books as part of an educational experience) can produce an initial offset book print run that’s almost right and then follow up later with a short digital print run if necessary.

Otherwise, to avoid running out of copies, such a book provider would need to always overestimate and overprint a job. And this would lead to excess inventory that presumably would eventually be thrown away. But before the books were discarded, they would take up space in the warehouse, and they would be counted during inventory. Essentially they would cost money to be produced and stored, but they would generate no income.

Not needing to do this saves a lot of money. So in your own work, even if you need to reprint a few hundred books now and then (and their unit cost was quite a bit more than the offset press run: about $10.00 per book for 350 rather than $4.60 per book for 3,000), the cost still is reasonable when you consider the avoidance of waste and extra storage costs.

What we also learn is that dedicated book printers have their own perfect binding equipment. This shortens the lead time for binding, since most other printers have to subcontract out this work. In fact, another (much smaller) press run of books for another client of mine will take a full week to bind because the printer in question is small and therefore does not have in-house perfect binding capabilities.

Granted, in most cases perfect binding equipment at a book printer is large and is intended for long press runs in order to be cost effective. However, some book printers have smaller perfect binders that are ideal for short digital runs.

The final thing I would like to point out is that even with a short press run, the text pages of a long perfect bound book still require a lot of post-press finishing work after the liquid ink or toner is on the press sheets. The pages still need to be bound and trimmed to size, then cartoned and shipped. So if you need to do a job like this, research all the shipping costs and physical requirements first. Make sure you know whether the delivery point is a loading dock or a location inside a building. Avoid finding this out at the last minute.

Finally, this is not the kind of thing every printer will do for you. In my client’s case, there was a long-term, mutually beneficial working relationship that kept my client coming back and motivated the printer to meet the requested schedule, no matter how short it was. When you buy commercial printing, you’re buying a process more than a product, so it is extremely helpful to know your print vendor is a trusted business partner who will cover your back.

Commercial Printing: Hand-Drawn Packaging Art

Tuesday, December 19th, 2017

I remember growing up on Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” hearing that if fifty people a day came into the recruiting office and sang a bar of “Alice’s Restaurant,” the collective effect would be a movement, the “Alice’s Restaurant Anti-Massacree Movement.”

Well, I see another movement coming, in commercial printing and packaging. In our living room my fiancee and I now have a square corrugated box of nuts, two Chipotle cups, and the printed box for a container of Cabernet Sauvignon “House Wine.” What they all have in common is that all of them look “hand drawn,” and all are monochromatic, flexo print jobs.

I’ve already written a blog post about the humor, playful drawings, and quaint sayings on the flexo-printed nut carton, so I will focus this time on the two cups and the box of wine. I see some interesting marketing benefits inherent in this casual approach to design. I think it’s an exceptionally effective approach that rests firmly on basic principles of psychology.

Overview (the Chipotle Cups)

First the Chipotle cups. I have long been a fan of Chipotle’s design and marketing work because it engages the viewer using surprisingly sparse imagery. Like other Chipotle marketing work, these two cups rely on single-color custom printing. When I look at the ink under a 12-power loupe, I see a dark brown, almost black ink with a hint of red coloration. The halos around the perimeter of the type letterforms, with ink that is somewhat uneven and bubbly under high magnification, indicate flexographic commercial printing. But even on the exceptionally small type, this does not diminish readability. To the naked eye, everything looks crisp.

Each of the two cups includes about 25 lines of printed type. Both are entitled “Cultivating Thought, Author Series,” although the type treatment of this title differs from cup to cup. On one cup, the title is surrounded with drawings of figures, power tools, and electronic gadgets (a TV remote, a cell phone). Everyone seems somewhat stressed out, based on their expressions. They seem to be busy, perhaps overwhelmed with multiple tasks.

The text copy on this cup (written by Colson Whitehead) provides a zany, stream of consciousness glimpse of a couple whose TV is possessed. It only plays reruns of Cheers (the episodes with Diane).

The second cup has only one image, a smallish surfer on a surfboard, with all manner of words (like “creative,” “motivation,” inspiration,” and “love”) jammed together in a “tag cloud” and flowing like a cresting wave behind her. The words nestle into one another and are presented in a hand-dawn font reminiscent of 1960s posters. Their combined image forms the surfer’s wave behind her.

In a stream of consciousness form, the narrator (Sue Monk Kidd) addresses the question of what to do with her life. It’s almost like reading a diary, very personal, very intimate. The text reveals the narrator’s coming to embrace not the answers of life but the questions themselves.

What Do the Cups Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

I think the way to understand these cups is in the context of hand-drawn marketing items in general. Here are some thoughts:

  1. We live in an increasingly impersonal world. No one seems to even notice us, let alone care. Within that context (which goes against human nature), an informal marketing item that directly addresses the reader with a brief, interesting story, can be very compelling. It is personal and concrete in an impersonal world.
  2. Humor makes the pain and absurdity of life less oppressive. (Think back to the zaniness of 1960s movies and TV shows.)
  3. Cool, edgy text copy invites the reader into a small, exclusive group: the smart, savvy people. Everyone wants to be a part of this exclusive club. Even the Chipotle restaurant interior design, signage, and marketing collateral, as well as the restaurant logos on the cups, reinforce this message of ultimate “coolness.” Affiliation is a basic human psychological need. This tribal and casual marketing approach directly addresses this need.
  4. From the point of view of the vendor, the reader is a captive audience. Anything printed on the food packaging (cups, bags, etc.) will be read at some point, particularly if the person is eating alone. (Think about how many times you have read the cereal box while eating breakfast, when you’re not on the phone or checking emails.)
  5. Single color type and art stand out in a marketing arena (i.e., the customer’s entire field of vision) in which almost everything else is presented in full color. Marketing messages compete for your attention. Any marketing item different from all the others will stand out. Ironically, as single-color, casual marketing items become the norm (i.e, the “movement” I mentioned above), they too will cease to be visible to people.

Overview: The Box of Wine

“House Wine” seems to be the name of the company as well as the description of the contents of the box. When I was growing up, liquids came in bottles. Now they come in bags (flexible packaging) and boxes (folding cartons with flexible packaging inside).

The title “House Wine” just works. People these days embrace “utilitarian-chic.” Simple, hand-drawn line art and type give a functional appeal to this box of wine, as does the notation that one box equals four bottles or 20 glasses. People today like lots of information, specifications, details. The box includes all of these.

Again, like the Chipotle cups, the box of wine is printed in one color: black. This is not really true, although the overall look is of a one-color, low-budget job, a functional product with a functional design. It actually has a little blue ink, positioned on the doors of the house (which is the logo, “House Wine”) and the word “original” on one side of the box. The box design looks sparse, just the perfect drink for those who either love to live simply or who have no other choice.

What Does the Box Say About Life, Art, Psychology, and Marketing?

Like EF Schumacher’s book on economics, Small Is Beautiful, this box exudes simplicity in its low-impact, environmentally-conscious commercial printing. Under my loupe I can see the halos around the text and the watery looking ink (with bubbles and other irregularities) that reflects flexographic custom printing. Since the packaging is a box with gloss litho paper covering the corrugated fluting, I’m not surprised that it was printed via flexography (although the litho paper could also have been offset printed and then glued to the corrugated material).

Here are some thoughts about the overall look:

  1. As with Chipotle’s two cups, this box has a simple, casual air. I’d say it would appeal to young people on a budget who want to savor the joys of life but who may lack sufficient cash flow.
  2. These customers may also have a taste for energetic living, the irreverent, and simplicity.
  3. The design is simple and bold, easy and cheap to produce, and environmentally conscious in its appearance. I think it’s aimed directly—and quite effectively—at young urban professionals.

Overall Views

Overall, I love the approach of this product packaging (which is really marketing collateral). My only hope is that the approach doesn’t morph from a quirky and edgy experiment into a movement, and then into a commonplace style seen everywhere. It’s like the bell bottom jeans of the hippies. At the beginning they were a protest. At the end, they were a uniform.

Book Printing: Thoughts on the Future of Book Printing

Monday, December 11th, 2017

I found a very heartening article online today about print books. The article was in Printing Impressions (or more specifically, It was entitled “2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400,” written by Julie Greenbaum and published on 12/6/17.

Book printing is very much alive. This is nothing new. I’ve been writing articles from time to time in this blog saying the same thing. What I found interesting about Greenbaum’s article, though, is the new information it shares about book printing, and the new drivers for growth in book printing as well as the kinds of changes and new equipment to which this will lead.

Same Day Delivery: The Amazon Model

Greenbaum’s article opens with the “new disrupter,” Amazon’s same-day delivery model. Now I realize that you can go online and Amazon (as well as other web portals) will allow you to upload your print book files, and print an on-demand run that is replenished as Amazon (or another vendor) sells your digitally printed books. However, Greenbaum’s Printing Impressions article approaches this more from the vendor side of the equation. That is, the article addresses the book printers that will actually produce the books for Amazon, and considers what their strategy will be for meeting the “same-day delivery” model.

To answer this question Greenbaum references John Conley, CEO of Borderland Advisors, noting his belief that production inkjet (large-format, quick throughput, sheetfed and roll-fed inkjet printing on large equipment) will be one answer. However he expects there to also be new market-driven improvements (and even groundbreaking print-engines that haven’t been developed yet). He also believes that improvements in digital binding are on the way. Conley thinks that costs will decrease and quality, reliability, and speed will improve to meet the demands of consumers.

On the positive side, this will allow more titles to be produced, since inventory can be tightly controlled. Instead of printing a huge number of only the most popular books, it will be possible to print fewer copies of more titles reflecting the varied interests of the numerous niche market customers.

Continued Demand But Shorter Press Runs

“2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400” then goes on to share the opinions of management at Walsworth in Marceline, MO; Edwards Brothers Malloy in Ann Arbor, MI; and Worzilla, in Stevens Point, WI.

David Grisa, executive vice president of commercial sales at Walsworth, notes the continued demand for short-run printing, and describes the digital binding changes Walsworth has implemented along with e-commerce solutions, inventory management, and fulfillment services. In short, this book printer has expanded the services offered, improved the company’s workflow, and expanded its digital printing capabilities in response to the needs of the market. As Grisa says, “Digital printing has allowed us to economically produce smaller order quantities.”

John Edwards, president and CEO of Edwards Brothers Malloy, seems to share Grisa’s beliefs. Greenbaum’s article notes Edwards’ views that “Being able to print a book of one helps its customers manage titles that can range from one book to those in the thousands.” Edwards says this “has kept titles alive, economically.”

Being able to produce anywhere from one book to thousands of books has helped Edwards Brothers Malloy’s customers both control inventory and respond to their own customers’ needs much more quickly. And the quick turn-arounds made possible by digital printing, along with diversification of printing services, has kept printers relevant while at the same time providing more books (and more titles) to people who still prefer print books.

Edwards does note that for longer press runs, offset printing is still the more economical method.

A third printer Greenbaum mentions in her article is Worzilla, in Stevens Point, WI. Worzilla’s president, Jim Fetherston, notes that Worzilla can be economically competitive even on runs of several hundred books on its offset printing equipment due to improvements in its presses and finishing equipment. This has allowed Worzilla to produce high-quality full-color books more quickly and efficiently.

What’s In Store for 2018?

Greenbaum’s article, “2018 Book Manufacturing Outlook Includes Ranking of Top 5 Book Printers from PI 400,” goes on to describe Conley’s (of Borderland Advisors) vision of the near future, noting:

  1. Schools are not abandoning print books and embracing digital readers. They’re still not sure how effective ebooks are as a learning tool. More specifically, educators are not sure that students retain information read on a computer screen as well as what they read in physical books.
  2. Printers will continue to consolidate. There will be fewer offset book printers and a lot of digital book printers and printers with both digital and offset capabilities.

Grisa (of Walsworth) notes:

  1. There will be shorter press runs requiring less inventory management.
  2. Grisa sees the advent of simplified workflows and improved fulfillment services.
  3. Grisa also notes that there is “an increasing need to reduce the total cost of production, not just reduced unit costs.”

Edwards (of Edwards Brothers Malloy) notes:

  1. Print is “still viable and in demand.”
  2. But the paper market is changing, and this could seriously affect paper availability and pricing.
  3. And Edwards expects any increases in energy prices to affect shipping costs and therefore overall costs (since freight is a big part of the total print production expense).
  4. Edwards also expects “a trend this year toward shorter runs, faster replenishment, and a focus on ultra-short, on-demand runs to minimize inventory.”

Fetherston (of Worzilla) notes:

  1. There’s no better cure than a print book for spending too much time in front of a computer screen.
  2. Since online news has become unreliable in some cases, Fetherston believes a print book “is reemerging as a vehicle where readers can determine if the author is knowledgeable, credible, and worth reading.”

What You Can Learn From This Article

Here are some thoughts:

  1. Print books are not going away. People still find value in the print book reading experience, the ability to learn from print books and retain that knowledge, and the ability to trust their content.
  2. The technology is changing to meet customer demand for more titles but with shorter runs. This means increased speed, reliability, and print quality, as well as the need for more digital finishing options.
  3. There’s still room for book printers that can adapt, providing a variety of services: digital and offset printing, finishing, inventory management, and fulfillment.
  4. There will be more consolidation of printers.
  5. Book designers will still be in demand and their skills will be relevant.

Custom Printing: Hand-Printing Your Holiday Cards

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

It’s the holidays again, and whatever holiday you celebrate, it’s always nice to receive a physical, paper card with a handwritten note. It goes miles beyond a virtual card. I really do believe that.

I’ve given thought recently to ways you can produce individual works of art if your card list is manageably short. Some of these methods I’d like to try in the next year with the autistic students my fiancee and I work with, since they lend themselves to fine art printing as well as greeting card printing.

Monotype Printing

You will find this referred to as both “monoprinting” and “monotyping,” but the more accurate term for what I’m describing is monotyping: that is, painting an image on a flat plate (it was originally a copper plate, but you can use anything from glass to plastic as long as it’s flat), and then printing this plate on finely made paper.

This is custom printing, since you’re transferring an image from a plate to a substrate, but you only get one “truly” original print each time you do it.

These are the steps:

  1. You use commercial printing ink, oil-based artist’s paint, or even water-based paint to prepare your image on the glass or plastic printing plate. Then you lay either dry or damp paper over the plate, and using a spoon, a roller, a Japanese baren, or even the drying rollers of an old washing machine, you apply even pressure to transfer the ink from the plate to the paper.
  2. Since you have neither a raised nor a recessed image on the plate, your first image is the only original. If you try to print again, you will get a “ghost” image, which may actually be to your liking. It just won’t be exactly like the original, and it will be lighter.
  3. You can add ink to the plate with a brush and then print again (but it will be a slightly different version).
  4. You can also go back into the original print with brushes and paint (or ink) to add to, or adjust, the image.
  5. Even though you only get one original image this way, you can combine the brush strokes of painting with some of the characteristics of printing (such as the dense, rich tones). What you often get is a happy accident, a combination of spontaneity and experimentation that you might not be able to otherwise consciously create.
  6. You have both an additive and subtractive approach to monotyping. The additive option is what I just described (adding ink to an otherwise blank custom printing plate). The subtractive option involves inking the glass or plastic plate entirely and then using a rag, brush, stylus, or other implement to remove the ink you don’t want to print. You can even use your fingers.
  7. Another option involves rolling out commercial printing ink onto one sheet of printing paper (or onto a printing plate), laying another piece of paper over it, and then drawing on the back of the second sheet with a pencil or other implement. When you peel off the second sheet from the first (or from the printing plate), what you have is a line drawing made from the ink that has been pulled up off the plate onto the back of the sheet by the pressure of the pencil.
  8. In addition to painting or drawing further on the final print with ink and a brush, you can also wipe the plate clean and then paint a different color image onto the “matrix” (i.e., the image area of the plate). If these two different color images are in register (the same meaning as in commercial printing), you will have a coherent, multi-colored print.
  9. Giovanni Castiligone is credited with having invented the monotype, but Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, and William Blake also used this technique extensively.
  10. The term “monoprint,” while often used interchangeably with “monotype,” really refers to a plate (called a matrix) that has one or several permanent features but that you still alter in some way from print to print. You can have some consistent lines and tones but change the rest of the overall image from impression to impression (in terms of color, line, tone, etc.).

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

In this world of digital media, where everything is evanescent, temporary and without physical form, a hand-printed holiday card will make a distinctive impression on your clients, your friends, or your family. Each image of a monotype is unique, plus you have the tactile qualities of the paper that set these cards apart from digital-only holiday greetings.

Relief Printing, Easier Than Monotype Printing

As an alternative, the relief print is a much easier to create when you need multiple copies. However, it still yields a hand-designed and hand-printed card. If your list of recipients is long, this might work better for you than a monotype.

Anything that can be cut away to expose an upper level and a lower level will work. I’d suggest wood, which was the traditional medium for woodcuts, but it is often hard to cut, depending on the particular variety and its density. A good alternative would be a linoleum block, which is a block of wood with a sheet of linoleum on one side (this is called linocut printing).

You use knives and gouges from an art supply store to carve away any part of the image that will not print. Once you ink the plate, only the raised image areas will accept ink. The non-image areas will be far enough below the surface of the plate to not receive any printer’s ink.

Once the plate has been cut, ink it with a brayer (a roller that applies an even film of printer’s ink). Then lay a sheet of custom printing paper across the surface of the plate, and rub the back of the paper with a wooden spoon or a roller, or run the plate and paper through a printing press (an art press, not a commercial printing press).

The linocut printing plate will not have the characteristic grain of a woodcut, and it won’t last for as many impressions, but the overall process will be much easier to master than woodcut printing.

In addition, if you use more than one custom printing plate (in register with the others), you can produce multi-color prints (one color per plate).

Alternatively, you can print one color, clean the plate, then cut away sections of the linoleum that will not print in the successive color, and ink the plate with another color of ink. (This is called “reductive printing,” since you are reducing the linoleum plate for each successive color.)

You can even do this kind of relief printing with softer materials. For instance, my fiancee and I have used styrofoam plates from grocery store meat departments (the plates under the shrink-wrapped cuts of beef, pork, or lamb). These are easy to cut with a stylus such as a pen or pencil, or even the point of a pair of scissors.

Or you can even cut a potato in half and then use a kitchen knife to carve relief areas (image areas and non-image areas). Or you can take a bar of soap and cut it into a relief plate.

On an entirely different note, we have even done Japanese fish printing with our autistic students. Granted, we used rubber fish, unlike the traditional Japanese method, but this was still relief printing, since the raised parts of the fish (such as the scales and side fins) printed while the recessed areas like the eyes did not.

Why Is This Relevant to You As a Designer or Print Buyer?

Going back to the oldest methods of printing by hand will increase your understanding of modern commercial printing because, at its deepest levels, even computer-controlled offset printing has a direct link to the original custom printing techniques.

Creating your holiday cards by hand will also yield a printed product that is personal, unique, and a joy to hold in the hand. You can’t say this about an e-card. Make a special impression on your family and friends with the techniques of old-school printing.

Custom Printing: Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Monday, December 4th, 2017

When I first read the article “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric” (, 11/08/2017), all I could think about was growing up watching James Bond. I have begun to wrap my brain around 3D printing, knowing that some people are already printing food and body parts with a greater or lesser degree of success. I also know that the definition of custom printing has expanded way beyond the realm of ink on paper or even digital toner on paper.

But learning that a process was under development to print flexible circuits directly onto fabric, such that you could become part of the Internet of Things (IoT), get medical or other feedback from your clothes (as you might from a Fitbit), or perhaps experience Virtual Reality (VR) or Augmented Reality (AR), got me thinking about how everything is now connected and everything is digital. It was like a virtual Zen moment.

The Article About Printing Electronic Circuits on Fabric

Here’s the gist of the article:

“Researchers have successfully incorporated washable, stretchable and breathable electronic circuits into fabric, opening up new possibilities for smart textiles and wearable electronics” (from “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

The process uses inkjet technology and environmentally friendly ink. To this process, researchers at the University of Cambridge along with colleagues in China and Italy have added graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that can be printed directly onto the fabric to create integrated circuits that will withstand up to twenty wash cycles.

What makes this intriguing is that “The versatility of this process allowed the researchers to design not only single transistors but all-printed integrated electronic circuits combining active and passive components” (according to the article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric”).

Up until this development, adding electronic circuits to clothing has been problematic. The circuits were rigid structures (with components mounted on rubber or plastic) that were uncomfortable to wear and that were destroyed by washing. In addition, the inks used in prior fabric printing of electronics had included toxic solvents, whereas the researchers at the University of Cambridge (and their colleagues in China and Italy) have been able to base their inks on non-toxic chemicals.

The article quotes Professor Roman Sordan of Politecnico di Milano, saying that although researchers had developed relatively simple integrated circuits, this “process is scalable and there are no fundamental obstacles to the technological development of wearable electronic devices both in terms of their complexity and performance.”

These integrated circuits operate on low power, are flexible, and can be washed. All of these characteristics set this generation of fabric printed electronics apart from its predecessors.

The Applications for Such Technology

The article, “Fully integrated circuits printed directly onto fabric,” goes on to list the kinds of potential uses for this fabric printed electronics technology. These include:

  1. Medical Devices. The electronic circuits could monitor the wearer’s vital signs and provide feedback. This could be similar to wrist watch-like devices, such as the Fitbit, that monitor heart rate, calories burned, steps walked, duration of the exercise routine, etc.
  2. Energy Harvesting. Presumably you could capture solar energy and then store it using such a device. This might be similar to the solar panels attached to some laptop carrying cases, but the flexible circuitry would be incorporated into garments that could be comfortably worn.
  3. Military Uniforms. Presumably the technology could incorporate communications or virtual reality capabilities to augment the soldier’s awareness and information processing abilities, or even facilitate communication.
  4. The Internet of Things. Garments could communicate with other digitally enhanced items, providing data to other items or to the wearer by establishing a vast communications grid.

But What Does This Mean for You As a Commercial Printing Buyer

This is a step into the future. We’re no longer in Kansas. Presumably, future iterations of this custom printing process will tolerate more than twenty wash cycles, improving their longevity. But for now this means that things will be connected and will communicate just as people do.

For a savvy print buyer, it is wise to expand the definition of custom printing. Just as 3D printing uses a three dimensional rather than two dimensional grid to produce an object rather than a brochure or flyer by using a process similar to inkjet printing, the graphene-printing process also depends on inkjet printing technology for its success.

In addition, you could even draw an analogy between the functional or industrial printing realm that has been a growth industry of late and the commercial printing of integrated electronic circuitry on fabric. In both cases, you are using printing as a functional component of a usable item. You’re not producing a promotional or educational product. You’re making something in which the printing component has a functional use–just like a stop sign or the printing on the keys of your computer.

From the point of view of a designer, this means that there is room for explosive growth in designing items that depend on both their functionality and their aesthetics. Apple’s iPad and other products exemplify this mindset, as does the OXO Good Grips line of kitchen tools. All of these are successful because they are visually appealing, they feel good in the hand, and they do something useful both intuitively and well. Design is baked into the product. It is an essential component.

Regarding the future of wearable integrated circuits, think about Google Glasses. Glasses have already been developed for commercial use that provide augmented reality information to the wearer, enhancing his or her sensory awareness while providing useful information. I think that successfully (and comfortably) incorporating integrated circuitry into garments will play a similar role.

Finally, this means that a successful designer will need to develop multiple skills. I think it won’t be enough to just design print books and brochures for commercial printing. Already the designers in the highest demand can craft (for instance) a multi-channel promotional campaign that links a billboard to a website through a QR code and your cell phone camera (or through NFC, near-field communications). Adding 3D additive manufacturing to the mix along with wearable electronics that link to other objects and provide useful information will be a growth industry that will still depend on effective design and marketing skills.

There will still be the need to persuade, educate, and communicate through visual media using design skills and aesthetic awareness. In fact, I think the need for these skills will increase rather than decrease.


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