An Impression by Any Other Name...
How do you define “impression?” Printers have been arguing about the definition of an impression for as long as we’ve had devices that put marks on pieces of paper. Longer, actually.
The earliest known forms of printing date back to 3000 B.C. and involved rolling an “impress” into clay tablets (according to Wikipedia). Modern printing continues to be based on the technology of bringing a substrate into contact with an image and somehow transferring—or pressing—that image onto the sheet. Some printing texts define “impression” as the amount of pressure that the press sheet receives, and controlling the amount of pressure required to create the optimum image is a critical component of press operation.
Somewhere along the way impressions began to be used as a measure of productivity. The amount of work done by a press over a period of time was determined by counting the impressions produced, and the definition an impression became one rotation of the plate cylinder.
Today, presses are rated by the number of impressions per hour they are capable of producing. When one describes the condition of an offset press, the number of impressions may be used as an estimate of the amount of wear and tear the press has experienced.
As copiers and digital print devices evolved into high-quality production devices, some manufacturers have adopted the term impression to measure the performance of digital print engines, and it’s not uncommon to hear a digital vendor measure production in impressions per hour. Businessdictionary.com defines an impression as the number of images (individual copies) produced in a print run. www.businessdictionary.com/definition/print-impressions.html
These definitions are fine as far as they go, and that’s the problem. They don’t go far enough. Is the impression from a 40˝, five-color press the same as the impression from a 29˝, two-color? What about the output from a 12x18˝ digital engine? And if you count a four-color press sheet as four impressions (four revolutions of the plate cylinders), how do you measure the same job if it’s run on a digital press? Ask any three printers to define impression and you’ll probably get three different answers.
In my career I’ve managed in-plant shops with a combination of large and small production equipment, and we ran jobs on the equipment that made the most sense. Short runs went on duplicators. If the quantity for the same job increased to 50,000, we might move it to a small roll-to-sheet device. And if the job was a carbonless pre-collated form and the quantity was relatively large, we might run it eight-up on a 40˝ sheetfed press.
To account for these differences we defined an impression as one side of a letter-size sheet. That definition worked for my shop, but a different shop with different equipment and workflow might develop a different definition. In fact, a lot of pressroom managers don’t even keep track of impressions.
When we talk about commonly used terms with varying meanings, we need to make sure we’re all talking about the same things, right?
So what’s the point? This isn’t new information. Like I said earlier, we’ve been dealing with this for hundreds of years.
Here’s the point: The State Auditor's Office (SAO) in the State of Washington has awarded a contract (with an estimated price tag of $300,000) to a consultant to be a "subject matter expert" for a “Printing Services Performance Audit” and assess the performance of the Washington State Department of Printing. The consultant is interviewing managers of other large printing operations to determine “best practices.” Nothing wrong with that. In fact, I suggested people to interview.
The consultants/vendors invited to submit proposals were pre-qualified, that is the SAO screened consulting firms to determine which ones possessed the skills and experience to conduct performance audits and price studies on printing operations. I take that to mean the SAO identified firms that had the knowledge and experience to understand and evaluate the performance of a large and complex printing operation employing over 100 people and generating annual revenues in excess of $30 million. Consultants that were not prequalified were not allowed to submit proposals for the project.
The firm that was selected has partnered with NAPL, presumably to provide subject matter expertise, but this partnership was formed after the consulting firm was prequalified. At the time the consultant was prequalified, its relevant experience, as described in its own proposal, appears to be limited to evaluating a couple of very small shops, both with roughly five FTE and revenues in the area of $600,000.
Back to the interviews: One manager interviewed about best practices was asked how many impressions her shop produced the previous year. When, drawing on her own printing background, she asked the "subject matter experts" to explain what they meant by impression, they could not. It was clear that the "experts" had not thought about the definition an impression prior to the interview.
The "experts" could not define a basic measure being used to assess the performance of the State Department of Printing, a measure that may well lead to closing the shop.
Subject matter experts? Yeah, right.