Outracing obsolescence Printing: The computer is forcing a consolidation in the printing industry, Maryland's largest manufacturing branch, with more than 28,000 jobs is stake.

August 19, 1996|By Abbe Gluck | Abbe Gluck,SUN STAFF

Struggling to keep pace with technology, two local companies in different aspects of printing are merging, saying it's the only way to keep either firm from becoming obsolete.

And many in the industry say the consolidation has implications for the future of the entire printing business, which is Maryland's largest in manufacturing with more than 28,000 employees.

"In the 14 years we've been in this building, we've never had a fixed wall," said George Shenk, owner of Whitmore Print and Imaging in Annapolis. "The walls come and go because, like the industry, we're always changing."

And Whitmore's recent acquisition of Hahn Graphics Inc. of Baltimore means the walls will be coming down again.

"The old processes of printing focus on presses and folding machines," said Shenk. "The future is computerization, and you're really going to have to reinvent how you do your work."

For Whitmore, a 49-year-old company that prints brochures and advertising material, keeping up with the times meant acquiring the technology and expertise of Hahn, a pre-press operation.

Bridging the gap between the design and printing stages, high-technology pre-press companies prepare documents for the presses by transferring them from disk to lithographic film.

The fact that two mid-sized companies decided to take such preventive measures marks the beginning of a trend in Maryland's $1.9 billion industry, said Henry Mortimer, editor of Print & Graphics magazine in Timonium.

"The big companies have been running around buying up a lot of the mid-sized printers, but for a company like Whitmore to buy all that equipment, set up that scale of operation and then look to offer that service is astounding," he said.

Whitmore, which had $6 million in sales this fiscal year, anticipates $7.5 million next year, Shenk said. Combined, the companies have 80 employees, most of whom will be retained, he said.

Bill Harrison, president of Graphtec Inc., said other mid-sized companies will follow suit. "There has to be a continued consolidation of the graphic arts industry," Harrison said. "Technology is moving far too quickly for companies to continue doing business the way they were five years ago."

And with its presses at capacity, the acquisition gives Whitmore the technology to expand its business into other areas, such as doing computer work on documents it may never actually print.

"In the future of the communications industry, once files are put onto disk, they will be transferred to print, CD-ROM, the Internet or video," said Hahn, now Whitmore's vice president of communications.

"Whoever has the ability to manage the electronic files has the ability to work with the customer in many different venues," Hahn said, adding that the acquisition of her company, one of the biggest independent pre-press operations in the Baltimore area, gives Whitmore that technological know-how.

And for Hahn, a future in which documents move from disk to press means that "the film stage will be eliminated" and, with it, the need for the pre-press, she said.

With some companies already moving into that "digital" stage and other printers preparing for the future by expanding in-house technology, Hahn's company was "only doing a percentage of the jobs we used to," she said.

One such printer preparing for the future is John D. Lucas Printing Co. The $30 million company said last week that it had invested $2 million in technology to become the first Baltimore printer to fully digitalize its pre-press operations.

"We never have to touch a piece of film," said Steve Meggitt, pre-press and electronic pre-press supervisor. With operations now more than five times faster than those of traditional pre-presses, Lucas can offer "big cost savings to printers" that other pre-presses can't, Meggitt said.

Fearing just such a phasing-out of traditional pre-press technology, Graphtec, a $16 million operation in Annapolis Junction, took steps similar to Whitmore and Hahn's three years ago.

A pre-press operation for more than 30 years, "We saw the industry was changing and allowing our clients to do themselves what we had been doing," Harrison said.

As a result, Graphtec acquired Wolk Press of Baltimore in 1993, positioning itself as a full-service printer and ensuring a future for the company.

But while realizing prospects for its pre-press were limited, Harrison said Graphtec's "roots in pre-press are what allowed us to adapt to technological advances, and that's a similar approach to what Whitmore and Hahn did."

Hahn also said she expects most of her customers to move with her, including the 30 percent of them who are printers themselves, but don't have their own pre-press operations.

"It shouldn't be a problem as long as they don't compete for the same markets as Whitmore," she said.

Pub Date: 8/19/96

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