A front-row seat for five decades: Witnessing and experiencing dramatic changes in printing

By Skip DeBiase

CEO, Phoenix Graphics

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Skip DeBiase and his son, Sal, review a color document from their Kodak Nexpress SX3900.

I am proud to tell our customers that we are a four-generation printing business. I personally have grown up in the printing industry. Working in my mother and father’s “family-run” print shop after school, learning and living not only the technical side of printing but also the physical side of having the work ethic necessary to grow and survive the business.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Setting movable type

I personally have been on the job watching, learning, and growing with the dramatic changes I have lived through from my front-row seat during my 55 years in the industry.

I have lived through the evolution of “movable type” letterpress and hot metal linotype to “cold composition” and offset lithography to the advent of the computer era and up to present — the digital revolution in printing. The changes even amaze me!

A full-color product in the 1960s meant my father and I would color separate, strip, plate, and run the 4-color process on a 1-color press, one color at a time. The sequence was run yellow separation first, then put the sheets back through the press and run the red separation (while staying in perfect register of dot for dot), and again for the blue separation, and finally the black plate.

Throughout the four separate runs, there was much anxiety as we never knew if the final finished piece was acceptable until the final pass was complete — and if it wasn’t perfect, we would throw it out and start all over again at our expense. The problems could have been in the original film separations, the stripping (aligning), the plate (exposures), or the press (inks, densities, registrations, offset, etc.).

Over the years, we ultimately experimented and changed combinations, but no matter, it was not an exact science as we were working with so many variables (films, plates, inks, presses, washes, registrations and so on).  In retrospect, I don’t know how we made it work, but we did somehow.

In the 1970s we increased our color work by investing in 2-color presses. When we did that, we could put down various combinations with only two passes of each sheet. We could “see” the final image much sooner and had more latitude in altering the overall image by adding or subtracting two colors at once. Sequences became blue black then red yellow. This gave us a much greater ability to manipulate the final color densities of the image produced.

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Offset printing machine from the 1950s

Today it seems archaic, but at the time we honestly believed, “Wow, we’ve arrived! In truth the industry kept evolving at a much faster pace than ever imagined. We expanded to web offset  (roll-fed), multi-unit presses, whereby we printed four or even five colors with one pass through the press. At the same time, the “web” of paper was automatically cut off and sheeted or, if needed, folded as required for final usage.

Just as time marches on, so it is with the printing industry. Offset (lithography) is rapidly being replaced with digital printing. The new digital world allows us to do things that were not even considered a few years ago.

As it’s computer-generated, each piece can be individualized. Gone are films, plates, stripping, etc. What used to take us a week to make ready can now be produced and completed in hours.

Currently we have reached the pinnacle of digital color printing with the Kodak NexPress SX3900, which we installed in 2014. This goes alongside our other 10 Kodak digital presses.

Being in Kodak’s town, and having their technical staff always available, certainly helped make our equipment decision easier. We used to produce thousands of documents in decades past, whereas we now produce tens of millions of documents in the same time frame.

What used to take weeks, literally now takes hours. This allows our customers much more flexibility in ordering on as-needed basis. This new technology has truly been a game changer on both sides of the aisle.

Tony Running Ballots

Phoenix Graphics has 10 digital color Kodak presses working alongside its Kodak NexPress.

Our family business still thrives due to the work ethic instilled by our ancestors. It has grown from a small hand-fed press in my father’s basement — where he printed church bulletins and prayer cards — to the multi-million-dollar commercial powerhouse it is today. I have grown from running that hand-fed press at age 12 to overseeing the staggering growth of Phoenix Graphics as it exists today.

I am in awe of the capabilities our latest equipment allows and feel a great sense of pride watching the evolution and the next generation that is the driving force moving forward.

Impressive? You bet!

Phoenix Graphics has 10 digital color Kodak presses working alongside its Kodak NexPress. Learn more 

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