SIC 2752

This category includes establishments involved primarily in printing by various processes involving lithography. It includes printers using web and flat sheet technologies. Terms describing the processes include offset printing, photo-offset printing, photolithography, and planography.

Most of this industry's work is done on a custom-job basis. Typical products include advertising posters, circulars, coupons, and labels. In addition, some products such as calendars, maps, posters, and decalcomanias are bulk manufactured and offered for sale. Greeting card printers, however, are classified in SIC 2771.

Lithographed newspapers and periodicals made by printing companies that are not publishers are also included in this industry. Establishments primarily involved in printing books are classified in SIC 2732. Newspaper, periodical, and book publishers are classified in SICs 2711, 2721, and 2731, respectively.

Establishments primarily involved in preparing plates and related prepress services are classified in SIC2796. Establishments offering photocopying services are classified in SIC 7334.

NAICS Code(s)

323114 (Quick Printing)

323110 (Commercial Lithographic Printing)

Industry Snapshot

"Lithography" describes the printing process in which ink is transferred from a plate with a level surface that has been chemically treated to make some areas ink-receptive and others ink-repellent. The term "offset lithography" was coined to describe the process by which an image is transferred from a lithographic plate onto a rubber blanket cylinder and then pressed from the cylinder onto paper or other substrates. About 50 percent of all the printing done in the United States is lithographic.

In 2000, the commercial printing industry shipped approximately $98 billion in goods; lithography accounted for $55 billion of this total. The lithography industry employed a total of 416,547 workers, accounting for more than half of all commercial printing industry employees. Advertising printing was offset lithography's largest single category in the late 1990s. It was projected that direct advertising materials would continue rapid growth to combat the electronic media. Examples of advertising products were direct mail circulars, letters, pamphlets, mailing inserts, and brochures. Other large categories included periodical printing and general business paperwork printing.

Background and Development

The term "lithography" comes from two Greek words: lithos, meaning "stone," and graphien, meaning "to write." The process was developed by the German inventor Aloys Senefelder, who discovered that by treating limestone with gum arabic, nitric acid, and a mixture of soap and tallow, he could make parts of the stone repel printing ink and parts of it repel water. In 1798, he perfected his process for use in printing.

Early lithographic plates were made from limestone, and presses were made of wood. During the first two decades of the 1800s, technical advances were made. Cast iron plates helped improve impression quality, and steam-driven cylinder presses increased operating efficiency. The ability to print in color was developed in 1837. A typical nineteenth century press could print approximately 600 impressions per hour.

The twentieth century brought innovations to increase press speeds and improve image resolution. Ira W. Rubel and Caspar Hermann, both of New Jersey, developed thin metal plates in 1904. Their success enabled the development of rotary lithography, a procedure in which the plate was mounted on a cylinder. By the late 1980s, advances in offset rotary press technology had produced presses capable of making 30,000 impressions per hour, printing on both sides of the paper, and receiving paper in sheets or from large rolls called "webs."

Despite its widespread use, many people find lithography more difficult to understand than other printing processes. Unlike methods in which printing plates contain raised or etched images, lithographic plates are flat. To create a lithographic plate, a plate maker begins with a thin piece of metal coated with an oil-based emulsion. A photographic negative of the image to be printed is placed over the plate, which is then exposed to a bright light. The light reacts with the uncovered emulsion so that when the plate is chemically washed the emulsion remains only in the image area. During the printing process, water is used to wet the bare metal, non-image areas of the plate. Printing ink, an oil-based product, is able to adhere only to the emulsion in the image area.

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, commercial printing by lithography earnings totaled $32.7 billion in 1987. Of this amount, $30 billion represented products considered primary to the industry. The combined value of commercial printing by all methods in 1987 was estimated at $44.7 billion.

By 1991, the commercial printing industry had grown to $55.7 billion. However, profit margins for many establishments were down as a result of intensified price competition during the national recession.

According to figures published by the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, commercial printing represented the fifth largest manufacturing industry in the United States. During the early 1990s, government statistics indicated that commercial printing was growing faster than general manufacturing in all 50 states. The industry continued striving toward faster presses, quicker set-up, improved color reproduction, and better material handling procedures. One noted trend was toward shorter but more numerous press runs. Industry analysts attributed this to "just in time" inventory systems and to advertisers' ability to target markets with greater precision. Six-color systems became the new industry standard.

Compliance with national, regional, and local environmental regulations posed a challenge to the industry. Commercial lithography depended on the use of solvents, volatile organic compounds (VOC), and other substances classified as toxic. The printing process also generated waste materials that were considered hazardous. In addition, some environmental groups criticized the industry for its mass production of newspapers, periodicals, catalogs, and direct mail items that used paper resources and congested the nation's landfills.

Another observed trend was the increased use of color. Previously, four-color presses were considered the industry standard for reproducing photographic images. Four-color process printing created shades and tones of color by employing a technique called color separation, which involved filtering an image through a screen to produce a series of single-color plates, each containing an image comprised of tiny dots. Six- and eight-color presses enabled printers to exactly match distinctive colors, take advantage of special effects such as the application of metallic inks, and apply coatings or other finishes.

According to a July 1996 article in American Printer, a survey of the top fifth of domestic printing firms indicated that more than half were involved in mergers or acquisitions. The larger the company, the more likely the chance of merger. In February 1997, Publishing & Production Executive suggested that the consolidation trend was fueled by the printing customer's demand for a one-stop shop. The huge capital investments required to stay competitive in the industry were also a factor.

The National Association of Printers & Lithographers identified seven key industry trends in a November 1996 report published in GATF World, the magazine of the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation. The trends, in order of importance, were: more color, graphics, and complex designs; shorter run-lengths; paper and material cost inflation; severe price competition among printers; much quicker turn-around times; black and white printing now going to copying machine technology; and, clients insisting on higher quality.

An increasingly pressing challenge for the industry was training and retaining qualified employees. The industry was revamped during the 1980s and 1990s, and traditional mechanical printers' skills were not sufficient in leading shops. From electronic prepress to digital presses, the new standard of commercial printing equipment was redefining the craft in terms of the electronic era. New technology was a two-edged sword. According to a 1996 study by the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, the cost of staying "state-of-the-art" with regard to new software and hardware was the leading threat to overall profitability for the industry. Interestingly, the same survey identified the key strength of the industry as having state-of-the-art equipment that could handle a broad range of work. The second most serious "threat to profitability" was closer kin to it—the learning curve of keeping current with new technology and converting to new systems.

The mid-1990s was a trying time for many in the industry. Rising postage costs, rising paper costs, and threats of recession kept many companies lean. Aggressive competition among printers cut profit margins.

Current Conditions

In the late 1990s, the dominance of six-color presses was being challenged by eight-color sheet-fed "perfectors" that could print both sides of a sheet of paper during one pass through the press. At prices ranging from $2.7 million to $4.0 million dollars, these behemoth machines were considered expensive, but incredibly productive—and a sure contender for the wave of the future. By the late 1990s, they were already widely adopted by printers in Europe.

Another important development within commercial lithography was the growing impact of environmental regulations. Systems used to produce proofs (samples made before printing to exactly depict the finished product) were criticized because of their reliance on solvents associated with air and water pollution. Many local ordinances controlled waste water discharges from printing establishments by defining acceptable pH levels, restricting the discharge of ignitable substances, and banning the presence of heavy metals. Worker safety regulations mandated chemical exposure limits, and the storage and handling of hazardous substances were controlled by legislation. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 required companies to obtain permits for press equipment, and some states also ordered permits for vented prepress equipment. In some places, local governing authorities restricted the number of hours a day certain types of presses were allowed to run and limited the acquisition of additional printing capacity.

In the late 1990s, the race for new technology and the challenge of finding technologically savvy workers were expected to hold back industry expansion. But by far the largest obstacle was the rising cost of paper, expected to continue to increase into 2003.

Industry Leaders

One of the largest commercial printers operating in the United States during the 1998 was Quebecor Printing Inc., of Boston, Massachusetts. The company's parent organization, Quebecor Inc., was founded in 1965, and its corporate headquarters is in Montreal, Canada. In 1997, Quebecor operated 48 printing and related service plants in the United States, mostly concentrated in the Northeast, and in 1998, it had 170 locations worldwide. The company reported 1998 sales of $3.8 billion and employed more than 27,500 workers.

Quebecor's principal products included advertising inserts, circulars, flyers, magazines, catalogs, and books. Other divisions included specialty printing, directory printing, securities printing, newspaper printing, and other printing services such as prepress support, circulation fulfillment, and list management.

Another industry leader is Quad/Graphics, Inc., founded in 1971 by entrepreneur Henry Quadracci in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. In 1998, Quad/Graphics was the largest privately held printing company in North America, with annual sales in excess of $1.4 billion dollars and 11,000 employees. Quad/Graphics also operates extensive digital design, gravure, book publishing, mailing, and fulfillment centers.

Other industry leaders in 1998 included R. R. Donnelly& Sons Company, a Chicago printing giant founded in 1866, with annual sales of $5 billion; and Big Flower Holdings, Inc., with 1998 sales of more than $1 billion.


In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau reported that the commercial lithographic printing industry employed a total of 416,547 workers, including 297,810 productions workers. The jobs were well distributed through the country, with only slightly heavier concentrations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Dallas.

Workers within the commercial printing industry were facing rapid changes as new production methods and materials were adopted. Changes resulted in the elimination of some job classifications but created shortages of experienced labor in others. The prepress and postpress areas were expected to yield the greatest gains in employment opportunity, while traditional jobs such as those of "strippers" were being eliminated by computerized prepress.

The National Association of Printers and Lithographers stated that "though commercial printing is a huge industry, it is an industry of numerous small businesses, embodying the U.S. entrepreneurial spirit." Forty-three percent of commercial printing establishments employed fewer than four employees; 66.2 percent employed fewer than 10; 85.0 percent fewer than 20; and 93.4 percent of the nation's commercial printers employed fewer than 50 employees.

In the mid-1990s, the median weekly wage for a press operator was $432, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment in this sector was expected to grow slowly through 2005 because, although demand for the printed product was expected to increase, technology would enable one professional offset press operator to print more quickly and more efficiently than several were able to do in the past. Most employment growth in 2000 and beyond will result from direct mail efforts and expansion into industry globalization.

Research and Technology

Evolving technology played a vital role in the development of the commercial printing industry. Analysts estimated that printers invested more than $2 billion in new technology during 1991 to maintain their competitiveness. The development of high-quality copying machines drove printers to adopt presses capable of offering more benefits. Innovations brought improvements in color capacity, press speeds, and automation.

As press speeds approached 2,500 feet per minute, automated equipment became increasingly important because of human physical limitations. New methods of feeding paper into the press and taking printed matter away from the press were developed. Researchers designed computers to help achieve optimal results by automatically monitoring press temperatures, plate register (how images fit together), and web tension. One device that facilitated the development of higher speed presses was a densitometer. A densitometer was a device used to insure color integrity throughout an entire press run by automatically making adjustments to the ink fountains. Prior to the development of densitometers, ink fountain adjustments were made by an experienced pressman based on visual perception.

In the industry's quest for decreased production time and increased efficiency, commercial printers were turning to the International Cooperation for Integration of Pre-press, Press, and Postpress (CIP3). This digital technology was being embraced in 1999 as an answer to the quick electronic media. Half-size webs were also becoming more popular as a quick alternative to the larger webs.

Other technological changes were aimed at improving the ability to quickly set up a press and to reduce paper waste. One area under study was the automatic setting of press variables from prepress operations. For example, if computerized color separations could be used to directly set press ink keys, exact color reproductions could be made without wasting time and paper in experimental attempts to duplicate the required visual results. Other evolving technologies included faster plate changes, reductions in the amount of blank space required to lock plates onto press cylinders, additional in-line finishing capabilities, optimized material handling at the end of the press run, and better photographic reproductions.

One system that gained acceptance was called dry lithography. Dry lithography used waterless ink systems. In traditional lithography, water was necessary to dampen the plate. A precise ink/water balance was essential for superior quality. Systems printing without water achieved higher-quality results and operated more efficiently. Waterless printing also enabled printers to work with higher resolutions. For example, commercial printers traditionally reproduced photographs using screens of 150 lines per inch. Using waterless technology, printers could employ screens of 300 to 500 lines per inch. The investment required to "retro-fit" presses for dry lithography, however, delayed the penetration of this technology into the market. The technology required special inks and special plate materials able to repel the inks from non-image areas. In addition, press temperatures were more difficult to control. Using traditional water systems, the water served not only to keep ink away from non-image areas but also to cool the press. Waterless systems required chilling rolls to carry off excess heat or ink adjustments to compensate for higher temperatures.

At the close of 1999, technological advancements in digital prepress and printing was expected to define the market for the next century. Digital technology offers better quality products, decreased production time, and allows the industry to remain competitive with fast-growing electronic media.

Further Reading

Dun's Business Rankings. Bethlehem, PA: Dun & Bradstreet, 1996.

"Eight Is Enough: Printers Look to Eight-Color Perfectors." American Printer, February 1997.

Esler, Bill. "The Quick Print Giants." Graphic Arts Monthly, December 1996.

"Hoover's Company Capsules." Hoover' Online, 1999. Available from .

Ferris, Fred. "A Step Ahead of the Crowd: Short-Run Digital Color Requires a Fresh, Aggressive Marketing Approach." American Printer, April 1996.

Lamparter, William C. "Web Press Wonders." American Printer, May 1999.

Milburn, David L. "Connects Pixels to Paper—1996 Technology Forecast." GATF World, March/April 1996.

"Printer's Perspective: 1996 in Review." Publishing & Production Executive, February 1997.

"Printers' Profits Remain Healthy Despite Drop." GATF World, July/August 1996.

"Quebecor Printing (USA) Company Overview." Boston: Quebecor, 1997. Available from .

"The More Complete Sheet." Printing Impressions, February 1997.

Toth, Deborah. "CIP3 Compatibility Buffs Rosy Sheetfed Out-look." Graphic Arts Monthly, June 1999.

"Tracking the Trends: Merger Activity in Top Printing Firms." American Printer, July 1996.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. International Trade Administration. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1998. Available from .

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