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Posted on by peter

25 Years of Digital Printing

A Printing Press

A Printing Press

Printing is a gigantic industry. It employs about 1 million people in the USA, in contrast to the approximately 800,000 working in the automobile industry. It is a slow-growing, traditional industry.

When counted by number of pages printed, most printing still takes place on printing presses like the one on the right.

The following table and pie chart, based on numbers from an American Printer article, show the state of the US printing industry in 2004.

Printing Industry by Segment

Printing Industry by Segment

Segment Size ($US billion)
General commercial 53
Package printing 38
Specialty printing 10.5
Catalogs/directories 10
Forms/labels 10.5
Trade services 12
Newspaper 15
Direct mail 8
Inserts/coupons 7
Financial 5

Within this slow-moving industry there have been dynamic pockets of rapid growth and the adoption of modern technologies for the last 25 years. One of these has been digital printing.

Chester Carlson with his early printer

Chester Carlson

I started working in digital printing the early 1990s. Like many people my involvement in printing can be traced back to Chester Carlson. My first printing job was at a company that connected computers with high quality Xerographic (Carlson’s invention) digital printers and printed using PostScript (a printing language that was invented by John Warnock and Charles Geshke based on their work at Xerox’s PARC).

My employer was one of many small companies thriving in the market opened by the cheap Apple LaserWriter PostScript laser printer in 1985 and the cheap desktop publishing applications created by Apple, Adobe and other development companies. This market remains vibrant as work that was previously done in other parts of the printing industry moves to digital color printing and more corporate printing moves in house as office printers and office software becomes more capable. (There was a parallel and related trend of growth built around home computer printing and drop on demand (dod) inkjet technology but this post will focus on graphics and office printing.) A brief history of digital printing follows.

25 Years of Digital printing

  1. 1985. Office laser printers become available with high quality text and graphics. One of these is the Apple LaserWriter, a PostScript laser printer. HP LaserJet is introduced around the same time and uses the same Canon engine as the LaserWriter but a different page description language PCL. Laser printers and OEMing of print engines and controllers remain hallmarks of the industry for years to come.

  2. 1985-1990. Adobe, founded in 1982, increase their graphics software for the Macintosh with PhotoShop and Illustrator. PageMaker and Quark Express bring in the desktop publishing revolution. These PostScript based systems along with cheap high quality PostScript Type 1 fonts allow Mac users to compete with graphics houses.

  3. Early 1990s. The Canon CLC 500 high quality color laser printer with a computer interface that was introduced in 1989 becomes widely available in the USA and Europe. Several 3rd party companies developed interfaces to the CLC500 making higher quality output available to Mac users reducing costs of printing a page dramatically.

  4. Early 1990s. Small shops with digital printers proliferate and compete with traditional printers and photo labs. Some are ex-copy shops, notably Kinko’s in the USA. Others are just people with some desktop publishing software and a color laser printer.

  5. 1991. Xerox DocuTech, a high-speed high duty-cycle black and white digital laser printer, explodes on the market and redefines corporate printing. For the first time manuals can be stored digitally and printed on demand in volume

  6. 1995. Windows NT 3.51 is introduced. It is the first Microsoft operating system to have a substantial printing architecture with support for AppleTalk, LPR and SMB printing. Network Digital printing becomes easy.

  7. Mid 1990s. Xerox Majestik offers comparable image quality and color to Canon CLC range and the color laser printing market becomes competitive

  8. 1999. Xerox DocuColor 1250 improves color and image quality in a 12 ppm copier/printer. Xerox DocuColor 4040 is a 40 ppm color printer with high duty cycle that takes market share from traditional printing. Like the Majestik family the 1250 and 4040 are designed and manufactured by Fuji Xerox for Xerox.

  9. Late 1990s through 2010. Ricoh, Konica Minolta and other printer vendors make color laser printers at lower prices that are increasingly competitive with Canon and Xerox.

  10. 2008. Monolithic inkjet technology threatens to replace laser printing. HP’s Edgeline and Silverbrook Research’s Memjet look like the first serious contenders to laser printing’s dominance of high workload digital printing but as on today there have been no successful products based on this.

Digital Printing Industry Trends

So what does all this mean? I believe there have been 4 prevailing themes in the digital printing industry:

Disruptive Technology

Disruptive Technology

  1. The continued dominance of laser printing for heavy duty work. Drop on demand ink jet has done well in home printing but has always had a high consumables cost. High throughput dod ink jet has been limited to expensive high-end applications like large format printing.

  2. A movement from black and white to color. This has been part of a trend to higher image quality and includes a movement to wider color gamuts, increased resolution and a lot of detail work that keeps image scientists busy refining the venerable Xerographic process beyond what it was originally thought capable of.

  3. A movement from hardware to software. Graphics and desktop publishing software, network printing software and, less obviously, the software inside printers

  4. Most, but not all, dominant technologies have started cheap and worked their way up to compete with more expensive existing technologies. This has been true of

    • desktop publishing replacing traditional prepress work comprising teams of trained graphic artists and layout specialists and editors,
    • color digital presses replacing imagesetters and traditional presses,
    • cheap digital printers taking low-end market share from high-end digital presses,
    • Mac based desktop publishing moving to Microsoft Office.

This is recognizable as the behavior of industries described in the Innovator’s Dilemma (see graph at right). Companies were not disappearing as in the dramatic cases in the Innovator’s Dilemma but cheaper solutions were becoming good enough for many users and taking sales from the bottom end of existing product lines.

Digital Printing Today

It seems that the principle of good enough applies to modern digital printing. Today’s low-end digital printers produce elegant output. This is possibly not good enough for the experts but more than adequate for most people. At the same time eBooks are growing in popularity with the iPad being a bigger seller for Apple today than the LaserWriter was 25 years ago.

It is possible that monolithic ink jets will replace laser printers or laser printers may continue to improve and see off competitive technologies as they have for the last 25 years

There seems to a be a movement to services. This often goes under the name of Managed Print Services and is predicated on the proliferation of printers through offices that end up being expensive to maintain. This may amount to a new industry or possibly new software will emerge to do most of the work as it has with all other aspects of digital printing.

If the next 5 years are like the last 15 years then there will be more movement to software and cheaper products will continue to move upwards and replace more expensive products. People want to print less and to reduce costs and help the environment and this is going to be done with software.

PaperCut and Digital Printing

PaperCut is one of the modern software applications aiming to help organizations print less. PaperCut’s focus is modifying user behavior by applying print policy rules, enforcing quotas, and making users confirm the collection of their print at the device (secure print release), among others.

PaperCut is riding most of the trends described above. It is a disruptive technology, cheaper than its competitors yet meeting the needs of most users. It is software taking the place of hardware, such as coin boxes for copiers. It addresses the same issue of reducing the total cost of printing across organizations as Managed Print Services but with a focus on software rather than services. PaperCut is also aggressively technologically agnostic across the entire gamut of digital printing technologies supporting laser and inkjet, black and white and color, PostScript and PCL, print, copy, scan and fax on Windows, Mac and Linux print architectures.

The Press by e-lame
Disruptive technology graph by Megapixie
Xerography_24 by klaus.urbons

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  • Chris

    Hi Peter, Great read. We’ve come a long way from the days of the noisy dot matrix printers. I remember my first color print job. It was carefully constructed with four passes through a dot matrix with four different color ribbons. The ribbons where manually swapped between each pass. I can’t help but start to imagine what it will be like in another 25 years. One thing is for sure, printers will still be the cause of paper jam frustration 🙂

  • Sergio Campos

    A true lesson in print … Excellent article!
    And the future … how will it be?

    • Hi Sergio,

      If I could predict the future then I would be making my living by betting on lotto or the stock market and I would not be working in the printing industry 🙂

      In 25 years when look back at this industry we are working in today, I think we might find it interesting.

  • Peter, fun read… and very interesting look back. I especially enjoyed the observations on disruptive technologies as well as the focus on software “starting cheap” and working their way to compete with more complex and expensive packages. Oddly enough, this trend makes it fun as the snake begins to eat its own tale, I would presume as “cheaper” has a bottoming out point, no?

    Ken Stewart

  • Hi Ken,

    That is a good question.

    If the computer industry as whole is a guide for digital printing then there will be opportunities to make money even as each individual component gets cheaper. Today’s cell phones have more computing power than the mainframe computers of the 1960s and cost less than 1/1000th as much. Yet companies are making more money from the computer industry today than they were in the 1960s.

    • Kathy,Great! I appreciate your going to bat for those of us who have been using teoonhlcgy in all of it’s forms for a very long time. I will be sure to use “Digital Pioneer” as I communicate the need for change in our district. We have many teachers who fall into this category.You always come up with excellent ways to help people understand where we are.

  • Great insight about Digital printing industry. Digital printing allows documents to be produced from electronic data so that in principle every product can be different. Anyone who uses paper will benefit from digital printing technology, especially those needing a production of 2000 or fewer prints, quick turn-around, and customization. Today, color copying and printing is developing quickly and the resolution and speed of desktop and network printers is increasing. With the quick advancement of technology, a variety of digital papers will be required if users are to utilize the full potential of their equipment.

  • Peter,

    Interesting read, I’ve been working in printing since 1982 and the changes have been enormous. We used to take huge QMS colour PostScript printers out to demo to customers, at the start they were £25,000 each, now you can get better quality and performance for less than £50.

    It is a very mature industry though, I’m not expecting anything revolutionary to happen with the hardware. If I think about my own circumstances the amount of documents I post or receive in the post has been declining for several years, I expect the number to tend towards zero in the long term.

  • This is a great article. Very interesting how you were showing the time periods of printing and how it has evolved.

  • Excellent article, look foward to new inkjet technologies

  • This was a great read, but what are your opinions on digital printing vs offset printing? Do you think the quality of digital printing is compromised on bigger print runs due to overheating ink nozzles and the like?

  • Hi Gareth,

    I have not looked at high-end digital presses for the last few years so I don’t know the answer to your question for the latest crop of presses.

    Maybe readers who work in print shops with offset and digital presses can give some feedback.

  • I really enjoy reading this great detailed post. Digital printing services are in huge demand these days. The latest digital printing methods provide efficient, economical services with a high quality, eye-catching finishing to printing products.

  • It’s great to see such a detailed post on digital printing! As Chris said, we’ve certainly come a long way but with any technology, it’s forever a changing game and when we look back in another decade of two, we’ll be saying the same thing!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  • You’re right, this was a huge year for digital printing, but I think in time this industry will survive.

    • In the UK quite a few smaller printing companies have closed down, but the larger printing companies always seem to be investing in the latest presses and seem to be expanding all the time, there is an up turn in demand and the moment let hope it continues.

  • dijital baskı bence bir ayrıcalık

  • Printing industry has grown a lot and in last few decades and helping people in all ways whether it is education or employment . However, in last couple of years people start liking e-books and reading and doing their education etc online because of revolution in internet and web space as well as digital media but still printing industry is growing day by day.

  • It is hard to beleive that it has been 25 year of digital printing. I remember when we had plates and negs and now everything is direct. Great read and I still think it will be a while before we are completely paperless.

  • Great article! Such a good experience to know about the history of digital printing. 25 years are really a big time.

  • Peter,
    We have sold digital printing machines since 1994. Your article is very interesting for me. It is a great job.
    Your article is great. Very interesting how you were showing the time periods of printing and how it has evolved.

  • I’m also digital printing industry since last 2 years..Its really nice technology and much interesting too..I’ve bookmarked your site too for future reference too. Keep sharing it in future too.

  • It has been 25 years to digital pringting…thats great:) The main differences between digital printing and traditional methods are that no need to replace printing plates in digital whereas in analog printing plates are continuously replaced, resulting in a quicker and less expensive turn around time.
    Digital printing has many advantages over traditional methods. Some applications of note include -Desktop publishing – inexpensive home and office printing is only possible because of digital processes that bypass the need for printing plates
    Variable data printing – uses database-driven print files for the mass personalization of printed materials
    Fine art – archival digital printing methods include real photo paper exposure prints and giclée prints on watercolor paper using pigment based and binding techniques.
    It is also used for fine arts, photos etc. Thanku!!

  • Thanks for providing such good points here about digital printing ..I was also waiting for such nice points since a long time..I’m so glad to read your stuff here.

  • Innah

    Undeniably, digital printing has already come a long way, making it possible for people to deal with printing tasks easily and still achieve outstanding results. I can’t wait to see how digital printing will evolve in the coming years.

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  • I am a printer who regularly employs digital printing and even I hadn’t realised how long it had actually been around! It still feels like such a new technology and one that people (printers and clients alike) are still a little unsure of. Thanks for sharing the timeline, it really puts things in perspective!


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  • Today I have read your posting. It is very interesting and informative post about printing services. We are also working in the same field at Las Vegas. We welcome you to visit our website. Thanks for nice information.

  • It’s very interesting article. pleasure to see this precise on digital printing Digital Printing

  • kayrah

    i need more info

    • Hi Kayrah,

      Thanks for your interest in our blog post and glad to know you are interested in additional details about the last 25 years in digital printing. We would be happy to provide answers to any specific questions you may have.

      Please email in to and we can talk more.

  • Extremely amazing informative information relates to the printing press. Please keep posting like this article. i had one shop in india and always like to read this kind of informations.

  • Digital printing is greatest invention and innovation for promotion of business. Most of the small business owner opt digital printing services for promotion of their businesses. Nclogowear is reputed company in digital printing services

  • AJAY

    There are lots of printing service industry but it has been very long time periods in printing service . We are also working in digital printing to last few years and i am happy to know about this industry. Share more information like that how we can improve our work in this category ?

  • Troy Cameron

    Hello Peter. I have read your article. It really says a lot about different stages of printing.Thanks for the wonderful post. I got lot of information from this topic.

  • Ken

    This is such a helpful post.

  • Ruelle Smith

    Digital printing is indeed a trend up to this time. We have seen the continuous improvement of digital printing over the years and for that I really appreciate this article so much. If you have a chance you may want to visit Premium Quality Printers in Adelaide

  • It’s a nice information about Digital printing. Thanks for sharing the post. Signvec Technology is one of the best engraving industries in Singapore that offers Printer Products like Digital UV printer,Solvent printers,Solvent printer,Digital Solvent Printer,Direct Digital Printer etc.

  • Thanks for the informative posting, we are also provides the printing service in las vegas. Great work……

    • Dan (Papercut Support)

      Hi Jeff,

      Thanks for getting in touch, great to hear you are enjoying our product!



  • thank u for giving a good information on digital printing on your blog. we are also providing serives on digital printing .

    • Jemma – PaperCut Support

      Hey there.

      Thank you for your feedback, glad you enjoyed the blog!

      Many thanks, Jemma.

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