Offset Printing History

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Offset Printing History

Offset printing is a commonly used technique in which the inked image is transferred (or “offset”) from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. When used in combination with the lithographic process, which is based on the repulsion of oil and water, the offset technique employs a flat (planographic) image carrier on which the image to be printed obtains ink from ink rollers, while the non-printing area attracts a water-based film (called “fountain solution”), keeping the non-printing areas ink-free. The modern “web” process feeds a large reel of paper through a large press machine in several parts, typically for several meters, which then prints continuously as the paper is fed through.

Development of the offset press came in two versions: in 1875 by Robert Barclay of England for printing on tin, and in 1904 by Ira Washington Rubel of the United States for printing on paper.

Lithography was initially created to be an inexpensive method of reproducing artwork. This printing process was limited to use on flat, porous surfaces because the printing plates were produced from limestone. In fact, the word “lithograph” historically means “an image from stone” or “printed from stone”. Tin cans were popular packaging materials in the 19th century, but transfer technologies were required before the lithographic process could be used to print on the tin.

The first rotary offset lithographic printing press was created in England and patented in 1875 by Robert Barclay. This development combined mid-19th century transfer printing technologies and Richard March Hoe’s 1843 rotary printing press—a press that used a metal cylinder instead of a flat stone. The offset cylinder was covered with specially treated cardboard that transferred the printed image from the stone to the surface of the metal. Later, the cardboard covering of the offset cylinder was changed to rubber, which is still the most commonly used material.

As the 19th century closed and photography became popular, many lithographic firms went out of business. Photoengraving, a process that used halftone technology instead of illustration, became the primary aesthetic of the era. Many printers, including Ira Washington Rubel of New Jersey, were using the low-cost lithograph process to produce copies of photographs and books. Rubel discovered in 1901—by forgetting to load a sheet—that when printing from the rubber roller, instead of the metal, the printed page was clearer and sharper. After further refinement, the Potter Press printing Company in New York produced a press in 1903. By 1907 the Rubel offset press was in use in San Francisco.

The Harris Automatic Press Company also created a similar press around the same time. Charles and Albert Harris modeled their press “on a rotary letter press machine”.

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Offset printing process

The most common kind of offset printing is derived from the photo offset process, which involves using light-sensitive chemicals and photographic techniques to transfer images and type from original materials to printing plates. In current use, original materials may be an actual photographic print and typeset text. However, it is more common—with the prevalence of computers and digital images—that the source material exists only as data in a digital publishing system.

Offset printing process consists of several parts:

  1. the inking system (ink fountain and ink rollers).
  2. the dampening system (water fountain and water rollers).
  3. the plate cylinder.
  4. the offset cylinder (or blanket cylinder).
  5. the impression cylinder.

In this process, ink is transferred from the ink fountain to the paper in several steps:

  • The inking and dampening systems deliver ink and water onto the offset plate covering the plate cylinder.
  • The plate cylinder transfers the ink onto the blanket covering the offset cylinder.
  • The paper is then pressed against the offset cylinder by the impression cylinder, transferring the ink onto the paper to form the printed image.

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Sheet-fed offset

Sheet-fed refers to individual sheets of paper or rolls being fed into a press via a suction bar that lifts and drops each sheet onto place. A lithographic (“litho” for short) press uses principles of lithography to apply ink to a printing plate, as explained previously. Sheet-fed litho is commonly used for printing of short-run magazines, brochures, letter headings, and general commercial (jobbing) printing. In sheet-fed offset, “the printing is carried out on single sheets of paper as they are fed to the press one at a time”. Sheet-fed presses use mechanical registration to relate each sheet to one another to ensure that they are reproduced with the same imagery in the same position on every sheet running through the press.

  • Perfecting press

A perfecting press, also known as a duplex press, is one that can print on both sides of the paper at the same time. Web and sheet-fed offset presses are similar in that many of them can also print on both sides of the paper in one pass, making it easier and faster to print duplex.

  • Offset duplicators

Small offset lithographic presses that are used for fast, good quality reproduction of one-color and two-color copies in sizes up to 12″ by 18″. Popular models were made by A. B. Dick Company, Multilith, and the Chief and Davidson lines made by A.T.F.-Davidson. Offset duplicators are made for fast and quick printing jobs; printing up to 12,000 impressions per hour. They are able to print business forms, letterheads, labels, bulletins, postcards, envelopes, folders, reports, and sales literature.

  • Feeder system

The feeder system is responsible for making sure paper runs through the press correctly. This is where the substrate is loaded and then the system is correctly set up to the certain specifications of the substrate to the press.

  • Printing–inking system

The Printing Unit consists of many different systems. The dampening system is used to apply dampening solution to the plates with water rollers. The inking system uses rollers to deliver ink to the plate and blanket cylinders to be transferred to the substrate. The plate cylinder is where the plates containing all of the imaging are mounted. Finally the blanket and impression cylinders are used to transfer the image to the substrate running through the press.

  • Delivery system

The delivery system is the final destination in the printing process while the paper runs through the press. Once the paper reaches delivery, it is stacked for the ink to cure in a proper manner. This is the step in which sheets are inspected to make sure they have proper ink density and registration.

  • Slur

Production or impact of double image in printing is known as slur.