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Frank Romano: In five years 50% of print will be digital

24 June 2016

Author, book collector, college professor, historian, museum director, technology expert and friend of the rich and famous and printers everywhere. Frank Romano wears many hats, but in print circles he’s most likely to be affectionately imagined in a black Fedora as the Godfather of Print. In conversation with Darryl Danielli, the editor of PrintWeek in UK.

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Romano has so far written almost 60 books on print, and on his current Drupa world cruise – he doesn’t like to fly so he takes a world cruise to get to Düsseldorf – he’s likely to add at least a couple more. Although he’s unlikely to increase his other equally impressive book related tally on this trip – he’s seen 39 of the 48 known Gutenberg Bibles.

Simply put, he’s regarded as one of the world’s leading authorities on print. So when print advocacy group Print Power invited him to lunch during his visit to London it was the ideal opportunity to listen to his thoughts on Drupa, the future of print and what Steve Jobs, Benny Landa and Rupert Murdoch have in common.

Darryl Danielli: So when did your Drupa world tour start?
Frank Romano: I left New York on the Queen Mary II on the 17 January and it’s been fantastic. I’ve been to the Caribbean, South America, New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong, South East Asia, India, the Suez Canal, Israel, Italy and Spain, giving presentations along the way.

Israel? Did you see anything interesting while you were there?
(Laughs) Benny (Landa) took me on a whirlwind tour of all the Landa facilities in Israel, including all the secret stuff. He drove me to each of his five facilities, he drives very fast by the way, some of the stuff is mind boggling.

Calling it ink is a disservice, it’s something else. I thought it was like liquid toner, but it goes way beyond that – it’s hard to describe it, call it Nanographic ink, call it what you want. In any case those particles have all kinds of abilities – he has one division that does metallic for cars and the colours are unbelievable. He can also print metallic on paper, by the way. He’s essentially taking that ink technology and extending it across (applications). He sold one part (ColoRight) to a hair products company...

I heard about that; wasn’t it sold to L’Oréal for a couple of hundred million dollars?
I don’t know the value, but it’s very interesting technology. These little pellets of his ink, if you will, are in a bubble-gum machine and with a special spectrophotometer it scans a hair colour and creates a mixture to match it and out comes the look that you want. It’s taking him a while (to bring the Landa presses to market), and he got a lot of bad press because he promised it would do this and that in a certain time frame and it didn’t happen. But he’s got money coming in from every source you can imagine, so he’s not lacking for funding. Don’t forget he’s one of the richest men in Israel, but yet when he talks to people he’s just a regular guy.

Do you think he’ll be ready for Drupa?
Yes. The machine is the size of a (litho) printing press. The Komori-built base alone weighs 37 tonnes, and when you buy one, Komori will ship the base to you and then Landa will ship the top part separately.

A bit like how airplanes are manufactured by Airbus.
That’s right. So that machine will be there (at Drupa), so it now has the format of a printing press, the speed of a printing press and a quality way beyond a printing press. You’ll see it at the show.

So come on then, tell us some of those secrets.
I can tell you anything on what he has, but can’t tell you what he’s working on (laughs).

Fair enough, so let’s talk about what you can discuss – you. How long have you been in print?
I started in 1959 right out of high school. I was a mail boy at Mergenthaler Linotype in Brooklyn, New York. I went to high school with Bernie Sanders (US Democrat candidate) by the way, he’s a good friend. I don’t think he’ll necessarily get elected President, but he might create the third party that we desperately need to keep everyone honest.

On the subject of interesting times, what’s been the most interesting time in print?
Every time has been the most interesting. I’ve got so many stories because I lived through all that stuff. I lived through hot metal, phototypesetting, desktop publishing, digital – I’ve even worked with (late Apple chief executive) Steve Jobs.

Really?
I helped create the font library for the Macintosh. I’m the reason you choose Times New Roman or Helvetica, I had to come up with the listing. The only argument we ever had was when he wanted Courier and I thought that was the dumbest thing I ever heard. Everyone gasped when I said that. But if Steve acknowledged you as an authority you could get away with murder.

Do you group Jobs and Landa together as mold breakers?
They both had a vision of where they wanted to go and nothing would get in their way. But Steve Jobs could either be a genius or a jerk; I saw him fire a guy right in front of me once. I was in an elevator in Cupertino with him and a young guy stepped in and Steve said to him ‘and what’s your contribution to Apple?’ and the kid gets nervous and couldn’t think what to say and Jobs just says to him ‘go to Human Resources and tell them I just fired you’. That was just the way he could be. He pushed people very hard, but he had a vision.

How does Benny differ then?
I’ve worked with a lot of brilliant people and they all had a vision of exactly where they wanted to go, but Jobs was more merciless than most. Benny tends to be more of a benefactor, more of a father figure – but he also finds the best people and they work night and day for him. The difference is that you get the feeling they would do that even if he didn’t ask, because they just want what he wants.

Other than the vision, can you think of any other common traits of inspirational leaders you’ve worked with?
They all knew that they couldn’t do it on their own and that the key to success was finding the right people to work for them. I worked for Rupert Murdoch too by the way.

How did that come about?
When he bought the New York Post (in the 1970s) they hired me as a consultant to assess the print plant, which was hot metal in those days and really old at that. So I gave my report to one of his underlings and they tell me that Rupert wants to hear it. So I give him the presentation, tell him that they’re really going to have junk it as it was all antiquated hot metal and they needed to prepare for colour. Well, he just points his finger at me and says ‘young man, newspapers are black and white and will always be black and white’. I wish I had recorded that.

You might be 10-years his junior, but unlike Murdoch are you retired now?
Well, I still speak at lots of events, but put it this way, I don’t think I’ve been paid in the past 20 years.

How come?
Because I sold a magazine for $13m, so I don’t need to.

That would do it.
I started a magazine in 1977 called TypeWorld, because I worked with a guy who started ComputerWorld and there was nothing at the time for typesetting. I ran it for 20-odd years and sold it at a time when magazines had great value. I was lucky enough to sell it for a premium. It had a trade show too and I sold that separately. Publishing is my life, I love it – but magazines today don’t have that kind of value, it’s much tougher.

Much like it is for the industry generally I guess?
Our printing programme (at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT)) was the best funded in the entire university. We had more scholarship money than all other RIT schools combined. Because in their heyday printers had money, so they supported the industry and wanted their children to be educated. It’s not the same anymore and we struggle for every student we get. So we had to change the name of the programme to media sciences because the word printing is a turn-off for high school kids, and who’s going to spend $150,000 to get a degree in printing. Just look at the London College of Communications, that used to have printing in its name too.

Are you still heavily involved with RIT?
I’ve been teaching there for around 20 odd years. I’m Professor Emeritus, I still have an office there and go back every fall and teach a course and I also advise a lot of the masters students. Every two years I teach at California Polytechnic, during the winter – I’m no idiot (laughs).

And you’re still writing books?
Right now I’m writing a book on the history of desktop publishing. I finished another book on the cruise too. One of my students from India is getting his masters degree from RIT, so he did the research for a book on the ‘new’ print industry, like there’s media and ‘new’ media.

What’s the precis?
It’s about defining where the new revenue for printers is going to come from in the future. Wide-format inkjet saved the industry in America. We have less than half as many printers as the 63,000 we had in 1995. If you look at the companies that are left and where their revenues come from its wide-format that has generated the new revenue. But where will it come from as we move forward?

I’m hoping you’re going to tell me?
Well, we have to figure out how to use 3D printing and how to make money with it, we’ve got to make money with printing on carpets, plastics and ceramics and how to make money with printed electronics. So in the book we look at some of the markets that are evolving in the same way wide-format evolved. We’ve divided the book into two parts, traditional and new printed products, and there are 32 sections in each part. The idea being that the new products are opportunities where you can make money. I have this simple philosophy: if you can’t make money with something, forget about it.

Is that what you try to instill in your students?
All I ever try to teach my students is how to learn, how to adapt because whatever I say today will be useless at some point in the future. I teach them how to look at technology today, and understand how they can make money from it. The technology of tomorrow may be different, but the methodology is the same.

But generally speaking is print having a renaissance?
I don’t necessarily think it’s a renaissance, it’s more of a continuum. My feeling is that we are about to level off in terms of worldwide volumes. What’s going to go digital (online) has gone digital and what’s left will be printing as we will know it to the end of the century. I’m an unabashed capitalist though, so the big question is: how can printers make money?

Do you still get excited about print though?
Absolutely. Any time I see new technology I get excited. I was at the SGIA show in Atlanta last year and I was walking down the aisle and I saw this machine printing on Christmas tree ornaments, I ran over so fast it wasn’t funny.

So is it the possible applications of print, rather than the technology that gets you excited nowadays?
It’s both, combined, they go together. When the DocuTech came out – you’re probably too young to remember, it was 1990 or so – but Frank Steinberg, who was head of the programme at Xerox, set something up so that every time a salesman came across a new application at a customer site, they did a little bulletin on it, and by building up books and books of all these applications that’s how the DocuTech grew – because they could go in and talk about applications.

Was there one defining moment around that time when print was at its most exciting then?
Yes, 1993. When Xeikon and Indigo were introducing themselves. That was a really heady time. It was Ipex and it was mind boggling. It was a funny story too, because neither knew about the other, so Xeikon sent out an advisory that it was going to announce something digital and Benny (Landa) reads this and thinks he can’t let them do this, because they will announce something that’s probably going to compete with his Indigo. So he gets a PR firm to reach out to Walter Mossberg at the Wall Street Journal, one of the most famous technology writers. They tell him that they’re going to introduce the world’s first (production) digital colour printer and he writes it up. Years later I see Lucien De Schamphelaere, who invented the Xeikon, and asked him why didn’t he say they were going to launch the world’s first digital printer in the advisory? And he said they never thought of that, so Indigo now gets credit for launching the first digital printer even though they both showed at the same time (Ipex 1993).

What do you think is going to be the next big step change?
Somehow, the combination of printed electronics with traditional printing. That could revolutionise retail.

What have been the five defining technologies in print then?
Great question: Koenig and Bauer’s steam-driven press built for the London Times (in 1814); the Linotype machine of the 1880s; colour scanners of the 1950s; desktop publishing, because it gave control to the designer; digital colour printing; and the internet.

I’ll let you off. On the subject of digital though, in a funny way as a keen advocate has its progress been disappointing?
One of the things that has always bothered me is that (vendor) companies keep track of something called page impressions, and they talk about the fact that digital is only responsible for 5% or so of the worldwide value of print by (A4 page) volume. That’s because the machines were small, but they’re now finally getting larger and faster. So if Landa gets his machine off the ground and you combine that with the next generation of the bigger HP Indigos and the other larger-format digital machines from manufacturers like Screen and Fujifilm, then we’re now seeing machines that are starting to get close to offset volumes, and we’re going to start see some significant (digital) volume growth.

How significant do you think?
I think within the next five years digital will be 50% of the market or more.

It’s going to grow that fast?
Now that the machines are available, I really believe it will. As more and more commercial printers start to use large-format sheetfed digital then that will really open the market up. Anybody who is still thinking in terms of A4 pages, that’s not the world anymore; it’s about signatures, not pages – we need to get page impressions out of our heads.

That’s still dramatic growth though?
The technology is now becoming available, before that you had to do the predictions further out because there weren’t the machines to base it on, but it’s been two Drupas since the Fujifilm and Screen B2 machines were first shown, so now they’re starting to move machines. So now if Landa can get his technology out in the next few months, and it appears that way based on the number of chassis I saw…

What about the future for offset then?
Who’s the biggest exhibitor at this Drupa? HP. It’s mind boggling. And look down the list and Landa’s not far behind. You have to go down a few more before you to get to Heidelberg.

What about hybrid technology, where printers have high-speed inkjet heads on offset presses?
I’m not sure that’s a growth market long term, because that assumes that there will still be long runs. There will be some, but not the kind of number that might justify that system. There are markets where you want a combination of static and personalised information, but as the (ink/toner) running costs of the digital machines come down that will change.

And running costs are still the elephant in the room for digital surely, but do you think as the volumes increase the costs will come down?
The thing that will open up everything is packaging. Up until now we’ve been limited on what we can do with folding carton weights in terms of size and speed. Then there’s flexible packaging, because that has been a real limiting force in printing because you had to have a flexo press, but if you can do that digitally then it opens up flexible packaging to all printers. And flexible packaging is half of the packaging industry.

And labels?
One of the biggest markets out there is labels, but some companies are already printing directly on the can or the bottle now. Well, why not integrate that with a packaging (filling) line? Then the question is what level of print will be integrated
with the manufacturing? The digital label market is gigantic and growing, at the last Drupa I counted around 20 dedicated label printers, this time there will probably be twice that. What happens for longer runs, if it’s printed directly on to the bottle? That will change the whole dynamic of the packaging industry.

Substrate choice is still a limiting factor for digital too though?
That’s right, but as the volumes increase so will the options. I feel for the paper companies though, right now they have to carry so many SKUs – different sizes and coatings for each digital machine. Over the next five years that will change.

Last question then, if someone is visiting Drupa and has just 30 minutes at the show - what should they do?
That’s an easy one. Go see the Landa show!

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