There are fewer than 200,000 printing machine operators working in the United States. Job growth projections indicate a slight decline over the next decade. However, a combination of retiring workers and workers with training in digital printing applications will afford jobs to highly skilled and experienced print machine operators.
Printing machine or press operators are responsible for printing press set up, maintenance, and operation. There are a number of types of presses; specific tasks required with one machine may not be relevant to another. Offset, gravure, rotary press flexography, and letterpress machines all use a plate or to deliver the final image to paper. Modern processes such as plateless or nonimpact approaches are becoming increasingly popular. Plateless processes include digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet printing. These are methods of copying, documenting and creating specialty or unique printing projects. They are used primarily by shops that promise rapid turnover, as well as some small in-house printing companies.
Digital presses capable of producing long runs are growing more and more popular with commercial printers. Printers can transfer files, create color blends, and inspect the resulting images electronically with digital presses, this work that was done previously with letter presses; digitalizing these processes saves considerable time and money.
Different shops serve different clientele and require different types of printing machinery. Small houses run smaller presses with fewer capabilities, such as the ability to run only two colors at a time. These presses can be operated by one worker, who is often the owner.
Commercial printers often own a number of presses with a range of color and size capacities. Press operators may be especially well trained in one kind of machine. If a shop owns two or more of a single type, these operators will run several machines simultaneously in order to stay on schedule. Commercial printers also employ operators who are familiar with several types of presses and can fill in should a worker be absent; many of these operators who can run multiple jobs at once.
Enormous in-line web presses used by newspaper, magazine, and book publishers depend upon a team comprised of multiple press operators and assistants. After prepress technicians have set the presses and completed a satisfactory trial run, press operators install plates, fine-tune the pressure, ink the press, load in paper, and adapt the press to paper size.
Operators must monitor production to make sure specifications are met; it may be necessary to make adjustments to ink flow and inking rollers. Paper passed through press cylinders must be carefully calibrated to move at specific speed and tension.
Increasingly, digital technology has automated a number of tasks, enabling operators to monitor production and keep paper feeders fully stocked. Ink distribution, production speed, and drying chamber temperature are adjusted as necessary. Such problems as paper jams are quickly repaired. This automation has increased production tremendously and has reduced the number of operators required to complete a print job. Computerized presses with complex instrumentation capable of controlling most aspects of press operations permit operators to manage production electronically.
Press operators are also responsible for machine maintenance, including inspecting, lubricating, cleaning, and making minor adjustments to keep machines in top working order.
Because press operators spend most of their time on their feet, a certain amount of stamina is required. Deadlines can cause stress on the job, and close visual work can result in headaches. Operators must be able to make instantaneous decisions regarding adjustments needed to maintain quality and avoid waste. Workers in large, noisy press rooms will need ear protectors to minimize hearing loss. While serious press machine accidents can occur, modern equipment comes with built-in guards that permit operators to adjust components from a control panel. Newspaper operators frequently work night shifts, weekends, and holidays.
Some press operators receive on the job training. Employers seek new hires who have gone through either formal postsecondary training or an apprenticeship in operating a variety of printing equipment. Applicants must show manual dexterity, careful attention to detail, and competence with electronics, computers, and software applications.
On the job trainees are given simple tasks such as loading materials and cleaning presses. Gradually, more and more complex tasks are added until one type of press has been mastered. Periodic ongoing training is given to experienced operators to familiarize them with changes in machinery, new methods, and newly designed equipment. Technical colleges, community colleges, and some universities offer two to four year programs in printing equipment operation that combine classroom study with hands-on experience.
Press operators advance by gaining experience and taking on greater responsibility. Becoming certified or earning an associate’s degree can help increase advancement opportunities.
Operators with good communication and leadership abilities might become crew supervisors, cost estimators, sales representatives, or trainers. Some move up into administrative or executive positions.
The median hourly pay for printing machine operators is approximately $16. Trainees at the low end of the pay scale earn less than $10 per hour. Experienced, highly skilled and well-trained operators can earn more than $25 per hour.