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Printing firms adapt to survive Digital printers and laser cutters revolutionize industry

When E.J. Flammer was just starting out in the printing trade 14 years ago, there were some who wouldn't take his calls as he tried to sell more engraved stationery for his family's 103-year-old Bates Jackson Engraving Co.

The reception that summer in 1992 was chilly. He soon decided there were limits to the profits from the old engraving machines that apply 2,000 pounds of pressure to make subtly elegant raised letters on paper.

"It's classy. A lot of people like it. But it's expensive and it's a slow process," he said. "The need for engraved stationery just isn't there any more. It's just not the way it was in 1903."

Flammer, executive vice president of the Buffalo company his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s, spent $650,000 three years ago to install state-of-the-art digital machines in the same century-old red brick building at 19 Elm St. that holds traditional presses.

Today digital printing makes up 35 percent of the business. While old-style stationery orders and regular "offset" print jobs make up the rest, he expects that the new long gray machines with blinking lights will lead to even more revenue because of the way they can personalize each order so easily. The digital printers can do small runs of books for authors with manuscripts and print thousands of postcard coupons with individual customer names.

The evolution of Bates Jackson Engraving is part of a metamorphosis throughout the region's printing industry that includes a Depew printing plant for Quebec-based Quebecor, one of the world's largest printers. While the Buffalo-Niagara area's contingent of 207 large and small printers have not all gone ahead with latest, newest machines, more are adding new to the old.

New digital presses are part of a transformation that began with big changes about 25 years ago. Back then, computers began to replace old-style type-set printing. Now, the old filmed images the once were transferred to the printing press have been replaced by easy to e-mail digital files that can morph into simple "We're closed" bank signs or as a picture of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel painting printed onto ceiling tiles.

"There's a whole lot of different ways people are kind of marrying traditional printing with digital printing," said Timothy Freeman, president of the Amherst-based Printing and Imaging Association of New York.

Modern change can be subtle, too. To make fancy cards and invitations, Amherst's Grover Cleveland Press still relies on traditional metallic foils, cut-outs and embossing. Yet the old cutting machines are now fitted with more intricate patterns that lasers allow. The press can then stamp out a card of a curving dress dangling on a hanger, as one dress shop wanted for an anniversary notice. The design came in as a digital file, an easier and faster way to make specialized designs to better make customer orders stand out. "It's old-fashioned, but it's progressed," said Michael Degen, president.
The willingness of local printers to make use of the new has helped the trade. In the late 1980s, the Buffalo-based Zenger Group was among the first to use computers to do design layouts instead of traditional, and slower, typesetting machines.

"If some of the old school printing industry paid attention to it, they might still be here," said Freeman. Now Zenger, which has five divisions and three printing plants, has gone digital, as Bates Jackson has, spending $650,000 on the change last year.

While some 40 local companies have gone out of business in the last 10 years, others consolidated and the numbers are still strong, said Freeman. Buffalo-Niagara has the nation's 44th largest concentration of printers, he said. The 207 local firms employ 5,500 and generate $825 million in annual revenues, selling signs, placards, brochures, cards, posters for clients nearby, out of town and downstate to New York City.

"I think a lot of the printing businesses sprung up to service the manufacturing base that we had," said Freeman of the bygone steel plants and manufacturers. "They're used to having to struggle to come up with new ideas."

Flammer got one of his ideas about a month after the digital presses arrived. The father of a high school friend asked if he could print a book. The man was a professor with English-language rights to a volume he wrote about Jesuit priests that was published in Spain.

"It just dawned on me that a short run of a book makes perfect sense," said Flammer. "There's no other process out there beyond digital that would be able to do that."

The old rollers of offset printers do work best for big orders, making 8,000 impressions an hour versus the digital printer's 2,000 impressions an hour. Yet digital can customize because a computer allows slight changes for every impression. It is now easy to do 80,000 flyers personalized with 80,000 different names and sorted by zip code. Books can be printed five copies at a time. At 200 pages, each one may cost $6.

The book printing niche has been growing. So far Bates Jackson has printed four textbooks by local college professors who in turn sell directly to students. One man reprinted 14 or 15 copies of each of the 129 books Horatio Alger wrote in the 1800s. Another collaborated on a series of eight books about Chinese martial arts medicine. "They have a very good artist who can do the cover design," said Michael Cimino, who works with the translations of his Chinese martial arts teacher. "We can turn the book around in a month."

The work from the new presses helped keep the firm's 20 employees busy. Staff would be half that otherwise, said Flammer, 31. "I don't know where we'd be if we didn't invest in this," he said.

At 66, Hal Leader, president of Printing Prep, can remember being seduced into the business by its old ways. As a student in shop class at Bennett High School, he loved putting small metal letters together to make words, words to make paragraphs, paragraphs to make pages.

When Leader opened his typesetting company on East Tupper in 1968, handset type was on its way out. Instead, machines printed words on paper and staff cut and arranged printed type for newspaper ads, one of Leader's specialties.

By 1989, more and more clients were doing their own "typesetting" on computer. "We realized we had to refocus the business, or go out of business," Leader said.

Now he has a collection of printing machines that can print the shiny photo ads posted on back-lit airport signs along with simpler "We will be closed for Memorial Day" bank signs.

Leader changed his business again in 2003 when he spent $475,000 on a printer so enormous he bought a building and formed a new division, "Leader All Surface Printing." The Virtu Printer, which weighs about four tons, now stands where firefighters used to sleep in a converted fire house on Washington Street.

Displays set up along the fire hall walls are copies of the Virtu Printer's oeuvre so far. A life-size photo of a boy on plexiglass was used in a Manhattan toy store display. Bricks printed with Buffalo company names were used for a local fund-raiser. An architect's design on sparkling bent aluminum served as an architect's proposal for a New Jersey World Trade Center monument.

For fun, Leader printed photos of the Sistine Chapel on ceiling tiles. Lately Delta Sonic has been considering an experiment: Printing on its curtained car wash strips.

"I have been looking for this machine for eight years," Leader said. "It was a whole new frontier."

Still, he can't help but hang on to a third printing enterprise that doesn't make a profit. He calls the old time print shop he set up in a room at his Tupper Street building "Paradise Press."

Rows of cabinets have thin wooden drawers with small compartments of type sorted by letter. Another former typesetter Bill Watson, 89, comes into the quiet space three times a week to make leaflets with wood engraved pictures of birds and typeset quotes, such as " 'Words are all we have.' Samuel Beckett."

The "keepsakes" are left for the taking on piles by the receptionist's desk. "It's Paradise," said Leader, who lets anyone who knows how to use type come in and print. "It's our history. It's an art form. It's not costing me anything."

On one recent afternoon, he walked in as Watson was inking in purple. Leader pulled open a drawer and quickly spelled "Welcome to Paradise" on a tray. Just as fast, he put the letters away and walked out to show off all the machines that have helped make his company into a $3 million-a-year business.

"I just can't believe the change," he said, stopping to smile. "I can't believe how lucky I was."

e-mail: mkearns@buffnews.com

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