Frank Romano revisits the early days of digital print

Frank Romano revisits the early days of digital print

“I expected digital printing in color to change the printing industry. And it has.” Frank Romano witnessed the rise of digital printing over the last 25 years from up close – not least through his personal friendship with Lucien De Schamphelaere, founder of Xeikon: “I first met Lucien when I became a user of the 1985 400 dpi Agfa P400 digital monochrome printer. Later there was a tabletop version, the P3400. We talked at length about digital printing and how it would evolve into color.”

 

Today a Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), Frank Romano started his career at the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in 1959. At the age of 30, he became one of the first consultants in the printing industry and helped hundreds of companies convert from hot metal to phototypesetting and from letterpress to offset lithography. He is also author of some 60 books, including “Personalized & Database Printing - The Complete Guide” from 1999, together with David Broudy. According to Wikipedia, “the origin of the term ‘variable data printing’ is widely credited to Frank Romano”.

 

The first digital color system

Romano, who was a full-time professor at RIT in 1988, recalls how Lucien De Schamphelaere assembled ‘a small group of talented engineers, all about 30 years old’, and created a development center: “He told me later that at one point they were demoralized. They wanted to print on both sides of the web at virtually the same time and were stymied. There was a Belgian holiday and they decided to take the time off. When they returned, one of the engineers came up with the solution.”

Having found a way to do ‘single pass duplex printing’, Xeikon geared up for the launch at IPEX in 1993. “This is a great story”, says Romano: “Prior to IPEX 1993 in September, I was under non-disclosure from Indigo. When the Xeikon press release arrived in June announcing a press conference in July about digital color printing, Indigo retained a major PR firm. All their booth and promotion was based on “first digital color printing system.” I got a call from the Wall Street Journal and was interviewed. I told the reporter about Xeikon. The article came out on June 20, my birthday, and called Indigo the first digital color system. When I saw Lucien at IPEX, I asked what happened. He said: ‘Oh Frank, we were very arrogant. We told the reporter he would have to come to the July press conference.’ And thus Xeikon lost the PR battle for being first, even though both systems were introduced at the same time at IPEX.”

 

Xeikon and RIT

Romano witnessed the unveiling at IPEX in Birmingham (UK): “I spoke at the Indigo press conference. Agfa was somewhat subdued. Later, they became more aggressive. An Agfa manager, Paul (Willems), did a great job putting Agfa Chromapress on the map.”

After the Xeikon was introduced as the Agfa Chromapress Romano went to visit De Schamphelaere at the original headquarters in Mortsel. “By that time he had OEM deals with AM and IBM. In the plant the guts of each machine were assembled and the different colored skins were assembled at the end. It was then that we discussed having RIT do the paper qualification for the machine. We had two machines eventually, the 12-inch and the 20-inch, doing all paper qualification for Xeikon for over a decade. We qualified over 1500 substrates. Our students worked on these machines and upon graduation went to work for many of the early US Xeikon users. In 1994, RIT presented him with the prestigious Cary Award. All of the graphics and signage were produced on the Xeikons we had.”

Cary Award - Lucien De Schamphelaere - Xeikon

Talking technology

“I would see him at the IPEX and DRUPA trade shows and we would often walk the shows and look at what exhibitors were doing. I often visited Triakon [the printing business he started in 1998] in Mortsel, Belgium. He was in his element when complex jobs came into the plant. He was in Rochester a few times to visit one of his most innovative users and we would meet. I was also with him in Rochester the night before he was visiting Xerox, which was forcing him to the negotiating table. They wanted a machine to bridge the gap between what they had and the iGen, which would not be out until 2001. We discussed it at a fish restaurant and the next day there was a deal.”

“I loved talking to Lucien because he was what we would call today, a total geek. He loved to talk about technology. He was the very definition of engineer. He solved complex problems. His mind was inquisitive and analytical. Small talk was not something he did. Having a meal with Lucien was always interesting. He took notes and had many questions. Even after his first illness he had ideas for another machine.”

 

‘You’re the top’

For his 75th birthday, the De Schamphelaere family asked Romano to write something for the commemorative book that would be produced for this special occasion. “I wrote a version of Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’.” Only last year, Lucien De Schamphelaere passed away at the age of 85. “I truly miss him.”

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