Leading the digital pack in 1995

Of the most interesting jobs I’ve had my favorites were always those where I worked with people who were smarter, more skilled or just plane leaders it their field. One of these occasion was in 1995 when I was called to run the digital prepress operations for the Canadian introduction of the first digital offset printing press at the largest printing trade show in Canada.

Dr. Fischer was from head office in Germany, and the leader of the digital research department was in charge of making sure the machine arrived and was installed and run to the highest standards, it was his baby. I expected a stern ship’s captain but was pleasantly surprised when he introduced himself in a cheerful happy voice and a big smile. His assistance, of course he called the shots but it seemed like he was helping us and his funny jokes made the long hours setting up the show pass quickly. We completed our tasks on time with everything moving along smoothly.

As the last day of setup was coming to a close it was noticed that the huge show booth did not have enough light so the show services department were summoned and extra lights were quickly hoisted up to the rafters. It was as the last of the extra lights were being adjusted that the large scissor lift truck lurched backward and its steel frame clipped sharply into the delivery unit of our secret weapon press breaking and bending precious bits of aluminum and steel with a loud crunch.

The booth was filled with shock and horror, would Dr. Fischer freak out, would he hit the extra high ceiling in a screaming panic? Nope, in much more coolness than I’m sure anyone else there could muster he calmly walked over and started to explain to the press technicians which parts were from which other model machines and off they went back to the shop to collect them. I believe it was his control of the situation that allowed the work to progress unhindered by panic and drama. It took until late in the night but all was repaired and the show went on like nothing happened.

Our big deal was that we could print directly from a normal computer and at that time it was a Macintosh laptop to an offset press, no film making, no traditional printing plates and no waiting, push print and a few minutes later beautiful four colour sheets were flying off the press at up to 10,000 an hour.

We produced a newsletter specially for the show on a glossy tabloid sized sheet, one side was printed in the morning with news of that day and the other side was printed during the demo using photos and info from the group that was being given the demo. After the demo the room was filled with the smell of ink and the guests were handed the fresh sheets that contained photos of themselves with the warning that the ink was still wet. Amazing!

We also produced a more challenging demo that was printed in the evening. I combined many of the features of the machine that were difficult to achieve on normal small format presses like very tight registration, very long gradients, very small type, highly saturated colours and it was printed on the maximum size sheet the press would handle. This allowed an interested customer to compare our sheet to the other high speed machines at the show. Since at this time the competition were merely colour photocopiers their sheet was dull and smaller and the print was fuzzy and the ink sat up on the paper like drops of paint from a paint brush, they were no competition. Dr. Fischer also allowed me to print my name on the sheet as creator which made it the centerpiece of my portfolio for years.

After donning a shirt and tie for a week the show was over and the wrap party was held at a nearby steakhouse where the company paid for a huge keg of beer and fabulous dinners for everyone. It was here that I found out that our special press was the hit of the show and the expected target of 15 orders was exceeded by over 70 orders! Ahhh my job was secure.

Now with the show over I was back to developing the first digital demo center for the Canadian headquarters near Toronto. The company already had a very large traditional demo center with many printing presses large and small and all the equipment to support those machines like film processors, plate makers, light tables, cutters, punching machines, etc. enough to mostly fill a 10,000 square foot room. We were given about 500 square feet to start with and permission to get what I thought we needed.

Up until this point my duties were as technical consultant to the sales specialist for the new and up until now secret and unannounced digital printing products. The person I was assisting was trained on traditional offset presses and had some Macintosh graphic arts familiarity but not enough to complete the demo center. After the success of the show he was required to hit the road supporting the new customers and I was left mostly on my own to complete the task in anticipation of our demo press arrival.

As I spent day after day in the new demo center digital room, at first assembling and starting up the equipment and then proofing and preparing customer demo jobs staff members started to pop in and see what I was up to. This interaction with other staff members lead to other jobs including working with the marketing department on preparation of the monthly ad buys. I assembled all the ads for spots that ran in many nationally distributed trade magazines and delivered them in digital format. By the time of the next trade show I was producing signage to be displayed on everything up to multi-million dollar presses and a whole range of graphic needs.

1995 was also the dawn of the internet in business and being a unix networking person I was called to teach the company president how to access the internet with an ISDN connection we had installed in his office. Later I registered their first domain name and created and maintained their first web site.

Other interesting jobs were when the president would assign special top secret projects. These were usually tests to see how good the equipment really was, how close could we come to a competitor’s claim of being the best at something, how close can new equipment duplicate old methods, what changes would new processes have on quality? Many questions were answered and I swore to not talk about the results.

Since fifteen years have gone by I think I’m free to talk about them if anyone cares to hear. The real point is when you get millions of dollars of equipment and a room full of professionals in different disciplines you can do some amazing stuff. I feel some of the trade show jobs we created were totally unfair to customers as we had a large team and virtually unlimited budget that allowed us to produce a job until we got it perfect and then some. I remember modifying huge bitmaps to allow the ink keys to appear more uniform, which is kind of unnecessary but I’m sure allowed some kind of bragging rights for the show manager.

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Getting my photo taken during the show, GraphicTrade1995, Toronto, Canada.