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No escaping revolution

Oct. 24, 2019
Printing with moveable type was the digital transformation of its time.

A couple of years ago, I unexpectedly found myself in Yale University's climate-controlled library in front of a Gutenberg Bible. It was behind glass, but well-lit and visible at close range. I always wanted see one because they're supposed to the first time that moveable, wooden type was used for printing.

I'd imagined the printing would be crude and blurry because moveable type was just invented, right? However, that's not what I saw. The pages on display showed some of the neatest calligraphic characters and most tightly registered text I've ever seen. This was clearly not Johannes Gutenberg's first rodeo. He and his colleagues had obviously done high-volume printing over long periods to produce that book and other rare documents that have survived from the mid-13th century until today.

However, viewing those pages up close demonstrated what a huge upheaval printing with moveable type represented for everyone when it became widely available. The entire Reformation in the following century was driven largely by Bibles printed in native languages, but that's just one of the most famous events.  Before moveable type, all text had to be manually written or copied, mostly by the monks and other scribes that did it during the centuries of the Middle Ages and before. This was time-consuming and costly, and meant that only church officials and the rich could afford the few books available.

Printing was cheap and fast. Using contemporary documentation, Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute reports there were many stalls in and around the city's old St. Paul's Cathedral, selling every kind of printed material imaginable. A completely unrestrained Wild West of information. Ring any bells?

In short, moveable type was the Internet, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and digital transformation of its time, and it affected all aspects of life, society and culture for the next 500 years. Metal type and presses, sheet-feeding, lithography, Lino-O-Type, offset, cold type and other refinements made printing faster, but many of its basic principles remained the same.

I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone of IIoT and digitalization's impact because they not only pop up in pretty much every story in Control and other process industry publications and websites, they also show up in every technical conference session, and in all the other trade publications I and others read when judging entries for the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE).

We're clearly in the middle of an information revolution that's not simply knocking down silos and boundaries, but is turning many industries, businesses, cultures and societies upside down and inside out.

For example, as publishing went from print to online in recent years, ad revenues went off a cliff because few if any buyers or readers are willing to pay even a fraction as much for online and other fluid digital formats as they did for seemingly more solid print.

Likewise, process control and automation suppliers, along with manufacturers in most other industries, are all watching their hardware turn into software. Functions that used to be carried out by controls in cabinets, and networked by cables and connectors, are now moving onto virtual machines on rack-mounted servers and/or cloud-computing services.

Sadly, many industrial customers appear to be as unwilling to pay for software and virtual functions as mainstream consumers are unwilling to pay for online content.

Thanks to IIoT and digitalization, many of us are suddenly making buggy whips. As a result, everyone is scrambling to develop value-added services, partnerships and materials that can offset some of the revenue lost in the transition to digitalization. Many of these efforts could work, and some could be game changers, but they're all a long way from making up for recent losses. The jury's still out, and it looks like they're ordering dinner and hotel rooms.

In any case, the old gravy train is over. As usual, the main advice I have is be as flexible and open-minded as possible; experiment with new products and formats where it makes sense; and put in the time and labor needed to maybe develop a new approach like our friend Gutenberg. Heck, I think one of the monks invented Champagne about that time, so anything is possible. Until then, get used to eating beans and rice for awhile, and stock up on your favorite antacids for dessert.

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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