An industry that is always a step ahead.

Coming from the Information Technology (IT) sector, agreeing to a salary that turned out to be one third of what I was earning, it was as if all sense of logic was lost. Preparing for my interview at one of the biggest printing machine manufacturing companies in the world brought out the research part of me, I studied an industry that wasn’t only a service industry but could also double as manufacturing depending on how you look at it. I checked out cost of the printing equipment and what was termed medium was more expensive than the high end servers and applications (hardware and software) that we deployed in those big banks or educational institutions in my field engineering life in the IT world. I knew I was coming to learn, I knew I was coming to pioneer. So researching all that was researchable about printing became my way of life.

In the 18th century guinea pigs began to be used by medical researchers as laboratory animals because they have many biological similarities to humans, thus the origin of the phrase ‘being a guinea pig’ . So I knew I was going to become a guinea pig for an industry that was full of potential which many foreigners reaped in the area of equipment sales and after sales support. Ask the big printers of the years pre-2000 to understand how much they spent on bringing in engineers to maintain their printing machines.

My journey started by getting the required training, I remember when I was applying for a printing professional status and I attached over a dozen certificates and asked if they wanted more, I was told “No thanks” in the most sarcastic manner I have ever heard in my small life. Learning is key to succeed in this industry that is always a step ahead.

For those asking if learning alone is enough, remember the quote “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” That was Benjamin Franklin speaking, I didn’t think training was enough, I had to move to the place of applying what was learnt. You won’t understand my predicament till you understand that there was no Nigerian Prepress Engineer before me, I depended on friends, trainers, entirely bunch of resource people abroad. My first truest shock was when I had a particular problem and was on the phone with my second level support guys who said “Akin, sorry we have never seen such problem and as a matter of fact from our design such can NEVER happen“, yet I was sitting in front of a machine exhibiting the problem. Pioneering spirit isn’t for conquering the world but for improving the quality of life!
Shortly before this we had to live with a tedious way of making a postscript file from our designs before it can be sent through an imagesetter, the manufacturers don’t design using Corel draw so they cared less about how we got by, understanding how we can create postscript drivers to ease our operators stress of sending Corel draw files to our imagesetters became imperative, we learnt by solving our own unique problems. Getting a few break throughs did very well in my confidence building stage of working in a field where only foreigners played at that time, to be honest this “poor black boy” needed all the confidence.

Fast forward to today, I have learnt the hard way that when I see a problem that the manufacturer of an equipment hasn’t seen before it will most likely be linked to two major things – Our temperature/ humidity or our source of power supply. That particular problem turned out to be caused by the frequency generated from the customers generating set, when you are left to figure out your problem you will think of everything and ask every possible questions, the generator guys had come for servicing and have ramped up the revolution because there was a complain that the gen loses power when some equipment come on, this action in turn has increased the frequency. In Nigeria we run with 50Hz with really steep tolerance, my international resource person was right he had never seen such a problem before, he has never had to install any equipment powered by a generating set.

Brain Roberts was right when he said “Pioneers are the ones who get the arrow in their back”. Should I start to show the wound of arrows in my back on being a part of installing the first Direct Imaging (DI), I mean the real DI and not the digital machines we call DI in Nigeria today, I had to join the team because the mechanical and electrical guys needed someone who understood operating systems and applications that this industry that is always a step ahead had incorporated within that purely mechanical press. Indeed the story of hybrid printing “no be today” as the concept of DI was to merge prepress and press in one technology. Or is it the wounds of when I personally installed the first Computer to Plate (CTP), or leading and bringing up to speed the loads of engineers now in the industry who have become bigger and even more experienced and knowledgeable than me in their various rights? Or should I speak about introducing some cutting edge technology like the chemistry free technology that eliminated all chemical waste and turned a polluted prepress room “green” and healthy? Or is it the pioneering, and deploying a dedicated CTP for the newspaper sector? Knowing fully well that the newspaper business is not structured like its commercial counterpart, because they sell perishable goods, newspapers not on the news stand by 6 a.m. will be useless, hence they needed a CTP that could meet up with that specific need. I must say it was intriguing to install the fastest newspaper CTP in Africa, a 150 plates per hour CTP was a big deal 13 years ago. Time will however not permit me to look at direct to garment (DtG), and its story of the good, the bad and the ugly or the introduction of textile printing equipment and the improvements that came with such, also hopefully I will one day have some opportunity to talk about our most recent partnership with ESKO – a company with integrated solutions for the flexography printing sector…

As the world started coming out of the shock that the COVID-19 pandemic brought, there was big confusion everywhere, I remember making some predictions and one was that Nigerian engineers should brace up, I urged them to bring all they have learnt globally to our local level and help use engineering to start solving difficult problems, one clear example was that I said they must start looking at how inkjet large format machines can be converted to print textile, which means positioning a business that was tied to events (lifestyle and trends) which unfortunately was hard hit by the lockdown and COVID restrictions for gathering and lost all form of profitability, I did urge that we should see how engineers can help convert those machines to print on textile instead. I said then that there is no evidence that wearing clothes (soft fashion) and home decoration (like curtains, bedsheets and chair covers) would be replaced by any alternative anytime soon. Over a year after, so many large format machines have been successful converted to print DTF (Direct to film) transfers. And I honestly think this is a good place to start.

By the way DTF is an improved transfer, using waterbased nano droplet inks, this inks are treated after they get on the film with DTF Powder or pretreat Powder as they are called in other quarters. This is a hot melt powder made of polyurethane resin and grinded into adhesive powder. It’s used to cover the print before the process of pressing begins. This film is then heat pressed on the fabric to transfer the prints. I have heard many people trying to use the DTF as a replacement for DTG (Direct to Garment) but no, they serve different purposes. Where DTG still has the best picture realistic prints, it also still has the best hand feel which we can never compare with the DTF rubbery like feel – close to the screen printed shirt feel, we however must give it to the DTF’s ability to print on a wide variety of fabric type especially sports wear which is a big thing in T-shirt printing today. I am glad also that my prediction of seeing much more equipment’s that will be built for multiple purposes is also coming to pass. As DTG and DTF can coexist we are beginning to see manufacturers of DTG printer adapting them to be able to print DTF films. I personally will route for this hybrid machine any day, the advantage is that we can with one machine print DTG and DTF which places one a step ahead.

I predicted that training will become a big thing again, it is obvious that for some reasons there has been some skill or knowledge gap in our workforce in the printing value chain, hence the gradual disappearance of innovation and the pioneering spirit. It is impossible to pioneer what you don’t know else it will amount to the proverbial blind leading the blind, a ditch is in any case inevitable. I totally align with David Attenborough thought “We only know a tiny proportion about the complexity of the natural world. Wherever you look, there are still things we don’t know about and don’t understand. There are always new things to find out if you go looking for them”.

Training is a must for those who will lead the new printing establishment. Meanwhile the pandemic has made life easier as we can now learn from the comfort of our homes or offices. We are waiting for the pioneers of this Global Learning Platform.

With my sojourn in the printing industry, I need not look too far to see that the industry likes those who are a step ahead. In this industry we have seen pioneer species express freely and at the same time make money when others are complaining…

To stay ahead Pioneer species needed again and again…

Pioneer species are hardy species which are the first to colonize (take ownership of) barren environments or previously biodiverse steady-state ecosystems that have been disrupted (e.g. by fire, pest or in our case the pandemic). In geography some lichens grow on rocks without soil, and eventually break down the rocks into soil for plants in the coming generation. Where are those pioneering species ready to make printing palatable for the next generation? This species ARE ALWAYS A STEP AHEAD!

  1. A good read. Thanks for giving us hope. As you’ve said, pioneer species are a hardy specie…we keep moving…

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