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Printing is a large industry composed of many shops that vary in size. More than 2 of every 3 printing shops employ 10 or fewer workers. These small printing shops often are referred to as "job shops," because what they print is determined by the needs of their customers.
There are five printing methods that use plates or some other form of image carrier lithography, letterpress, flexography, gravure, and screen printing. Plateless or nonimpact processes, such as electronic, electrostatic, or inkjet printing, are used mainly for copying, duplicating, and specialty printing, usually in quick printing or in-house print shops.
Lithography, which uses the basic principle that water repels oil, remains the dominant printing process in the industry. Lithography lends itself to computer composition and the economical use of color, accounting for its dominance. Letterpress prints images from the raised surfaces on which ink sits; the sunken surfaces do not show up on the paper. The raised surfaces are generated by means of casting, acid etching, or photoemulsion. In the future, flexography, and gravure to a lesser extent, are expected to be more widely used than at present. Flexography produces vibrant colors with little ruboff, qualities valued for newspapers, directories, and books, which are its biggest markets. Gravure's high-quality reproduction, flexible pagination and formats, and consistent print quality have won it a significant share of packaging and product printing and a growing share of periodical printing.
Another type of printing included in this industry is screen printing, also known as commercial screen printing. This method is used to print designs on clothes and other fabric items, such as caps or napkins. In response to environmental concerns, printers increasingly use alcohol-free solutions, water-based inks, and recycled paper.
The printing industry, like many other industries, continues to undergo technological changes, as computers and technology alter the manner in which work is performed. Many of the processes that were once done by hand are becoming more automated. Technology's influence can be seen in all three stages of printing: Prepress, preparation of materials for printing; press, the actual printing process; and postpress or finishing, the folding, binding, and trimming of printed sheets into final form. The most notable changes have occurred in the prepress stage. Instead of cutting and pasting articles by hand, workers now produce entire publications on a computer, complete with artwork and graphics. Columns can be displayed and arranged on the computer screen exactly as they will appear in print, and then printed. Nearly all prepress work is becoming computerized, and prepress workers need more training in computers and graphic communications software. Printing processes today use scanners to input images and computers to manipulate and format the graphic images prior to printing. Digital printing also is transforming prepress operations as well as the printing process. It eliminates much of the lengthy process in transferring print files to the printing press by directly transferring digital files to an electronically driven output device bypassing most prepress operations.
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