Lessons from the Printing Industry

There was a time, not so long ago, when it was simply uneconomical to think in terms of small production runs. Indeed, the term “economy-of-scale” alludes to the notion that it’s cheaper to produce a lot of something because the price per unit is reduced the more you produce. This economy-of-scale idea has been especially true in the printing business, where most of overall price for printing something was tied up in the initial setup costs of creating the artwork, producing the plates and setting the presses up for the print run. Of course it doesn’t just apply to the printing process… cars, furniture, food and most other things are cheaper to produce (per unit) if you make a lot of them, but the printing industry is a great example.

When I was at art school in the 80s, I did a lot of screen printing, and this was again a classic example of the way scale affected production cost. About 97% of the time and money required to produce a screened image was consumed in the preparation stage… preparing the screens, creating the artwork, mixing the inks, cleaning up after each colour was printed, and so on, and it added up to hours and hours of time. The time to actually transfer the ink and print each image was measured in mere seconds, making it seem ridiculous to spend all that time preparing the artwork unless you then printed enough copies to make it worthwhile. For fine art screen printing it is not unusual to do print runs of 100+ just to make all the prep work worth it.

I also dabbled with four colour separations. Not only was this was a very time consuming, labour intensive process, but it was quite expensive. Getting artwork ready for colour sep work involved scanning the image into 4 different plates – one each for cyan, magenta, yellow and black – and the cost just to prepare a single image often ran to hundreds of dollars.

And then as computers started to appear, all of that changed. Producing colour separated artwork in Photoshop is a now just a menu click. To me, this is evidence that when technology changes the old way of doing something, it does so in dramatic and revolutionary ways. The important point here is that the computer didn’t just make colour sep work a LITTLE bit cheaper and a LITTLE bit quicker… it totally revolutionised it. The processes and techniques changed radically, literally almost overnight, and the costs and technical overheads involved in that sort of work just vaporised to almost nothing… proof that when the right technology brings along the right change at the right time, the old ways can become immediately redundant.

But I want to come back to this economy-of-scale idea… for a while now we have talked about the way the Internet has democratised society. We’ve heard how the new Web 2.0 technologies like blogging, podcasting and so on, have enabled individuals to have a voice in a landscape where previously only big players like major media outlets could have had one. Blogging has brought the individual back to prominence again and changed the way in which people can share their ideas with the rest of the world. There is no economy of scale with Web 2.0. It doesn’t matter if your audience is 5 or 5 million… the cost to speak your mind, in terms of both time and money, is exactly the same. This is true in a web enabled world.

I was surprised to find a service this week from a company called Blurb. Blurb prints books. But the neat thing about Blurb’s approach is that they don’t require a massive print run to make it economical to do so; in fact they can print books individually. Blurb is an obvious extension to the Personal Book concept that Apple introduced with iPhoto, but what amazes me is the prices Blurb charge for what they do.

I write another blog from our time in Canada which I’m keen to turn into a printed form someday, and it seems that Blurb can extract everything I’ve written – including all 800+ photos – and print me a full colour, 300 page, hard bound book for less than $60! That is extraordinary! But apart from the fact that it’s a great price for what seems to be a great product, what stuns me most is the fact that we have reached a technological point where the economy-of-scale can now be reached at an individual level… and not just online, but also in a physical form. The fact that we can now produce a full colour, hard bound book for a single individual, at a price that could only previously be achieved through mass-scale printing runs, suggests to me that something very significant has happened to the way we can process information on a very small scale and still do it economically. This is about more than just cheap printing… To me, this is further proof that the world has shifted yet again towards the scale of the individual, a world where the unique needs and wants of an individual CAN be met, effectively and economically, with the right technology.

The bigger question is how will schools respond to this changing landscape?  With their predominantly one-size-fits-all approach to learning, and their 19th century production line mentality of moving students along a fixed continuum of content at a steady lock-step pace, how will our schools respond to this emerging age of the individual?

CC BY-SA 4.0 Lessons from the Printing Industry by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.