Printing is a large and geographically diverse industry in North America, although the majority of companies are located in the Midwest, Texas, Florida, and California. Annual sales have continued to decline since the early 2000s, from more than $174.5 billion to $85 billion in 2016, which dropped even further, to $79 billion, in 2019. This is largely due to the continued increase in online publishing, or e-publishing, which is much less costly.
Still, there is scarcely a town of any size without some provision for printing, which gives young people entering the job market an array of choices. According to the Printing Industries of America, printing manufacturers have a presence in each state throughout the country.
No matter what a company's size or specialty, the printing process is usually the same. It is a highly technical process that typically operates under tight deadlines. For example, newspaper printers must deliver papers daily and financial printers often must produce stock prospectuses overnight. Many large commercial printers run 24 hours a day to keep up with demand in their markets. Because of this deadline-driven environment, all of the jobs in the industry, from administrative positions to manual labor, call for team players who perform well in pressure situations.
The printing process typically begins with the printing sales representative, who identifies customers who have a need for printing services. The sales rep must convince the prospect that the company he or she represents is best qualified to do the job. In smaller companies, independent sales representatives, or brokers, may solicit clients. Brokering can be highly lucrative but tends to be limited to large cities where a range of print services is available.
Part of selling print is providing the prospective customer with an estimate of how much a job will cost. The sales representative requests this information from the estimator. The estimator evaluates all aspects of the job—quantity, size, type of paper and ink, number of colors, special folds, photo scans, and other details—and calculates as accurately as possible how much the job will cost and how long it will take. This part of the process is important because it establishes the financial basis for the entire print job. Estimating requires close attention to detail, confidence with numbers, a familiarity with all aspects of the printing process, and the ability to work well under pressure.
Once an initial price agreement is reached, the customer sends the job to the printing company and it goes into production. The production process breaks down into three major steps: prepress, press, and postpress (usually called binding or finishing).
The entire print job is overseen by the production manager or customer service representative, who works closely with the salesperson throughout the process. It is the production manager's job to communicate with everyone involved and make sure things happen on time. Production management requires attention to detail, strong communication skills, and the ability to handle multiple tasks at once.
Although printing companies sometimes receive camera-ready art from their customers, most jobs are now submitted on a computer disk. This is why prepress areas have experienced such radical change in recent years. What used to be a typesetting and hand-composition operation run by people skilled in particular crafts is now predominantly computer-oriented. Prepress workers must be highly computer-literate and competent in a variety of tasks.
When a disk arrives from a customer, it first goes to the preflight technician, who checks the file to make sure all the elements are there and that there are no technical problems with it. If photos or illustrations are not supplied electronically, the scanner operator (also known as prepress technician) scans them and converts them into electronic images that are then integrated into the file. If color correction is needed, it is done at this stage.
Offset printing using lithography is currently one of the most common methods of printing. Other methods include letterpress, gravure, flexography, and screen printing. Whatever the method, it is the job of the printing press operator to set up the press for the print run. This involves installing the plates, adjusting ink levels and other controls, and loading the paper. Once the press is running, the operator continues to monitor and adjust the controls to ensure quality and consistency.
Once off the press, the printed sheets go to the binding area for the finishing process. Depending on the job's specifications, this may involve trimming, folding, gluing, and/or stitching. In binding, as in printing, technology has automated traditional methods that existed for hundreds of years. Many high-speed printing presses now have automatic folders, stitchers, and trimmers attached, delivering a finished product with virtually no manual work.