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Printing Machine Operator Careers, Jobs and Employment Information

Printing Maching Operator Career and Job Highlights

  • The majority receive informal training on the job.
  • Growth in employment will be limited as more and more new, more productive computerized printing presses are used facilitating a shift to printing-on-demand.
  • Prospects will be best for those who get formal apprenticeship training or who receive postsecondary training in printing.

Printing Machine Operator Career and Job Description

Printing machine operators are in charge of preparing, operating, and maintaining the printing presses found in a pressroom. The responsibilities of printing machine operators differ depending on the kind of press they run—offset lithography, gravure, flexography, screen printing, letterpress, and digital. Offset lithography, which transfers an inked impression from a rubber-covered cylinder to paper, is the most common form of printing process. With gravure, an etched plate’s recesses or cylinder are inked and then pressed to paper to transfer the ink to the desired material. Flexography is a type of rotary printing whereby ink is applied to a surface using a flexible rubber printing plate that has a raised image area. Use of gravure and flexography will gain more popularity over the next 10 years, but letterpress, where an inked, raised surface is pressed against paper, is use only by specialty printing firms. Besides the major printing processes, some forms like plateless or nonimpact processes are becoming more common. Plateless processes—including digital, electrostatic, and ink-jet printing—are used to copy, duplicate, and document a print using specialty techniques, typically by fast or in-house printing operations, as well as more and more by commercial printers running short-run jobs or variable data printing.

Machine operators must prepare the presses to print by installing and adjusting the printing plate, adjusting pressure, inking the presses, loading the paper, and adjusting the press to the proper dimensions of the paper. Press operators check to make sure paper and ink meet the require specs, and make adjustment to the margins and the flow of ink to the inking rollers as needed. They also send the material through the press cylinders adjusting the feed and tension settings as necessary.

As printing presses are operating, press operators watch the presses and ensure that paper feeds are stocked abundantly. When issues with ink distribution, speed, and temperatures in the drying chamber occur press operators make the appropriate adjustments. If a press stops due to paper jams or tears, workers must fix the problem as fast as possible to avoid excessive downtime. Similarly, operators operating other high-speed presses are always on the lookout for potential problems, quickly rectifying any issues in an attempt to prevent costly losses of paper and ink. During the operation, operators will periodically pull sheets to look for printing imperfections, though a lot of this quality analysis is now performed by computers.

In the majority of printing press facilities, press operators also are responsible for preventive maintenance. Press operators must lubricate and clean the presses and perform any minor repairs needed.

Jobs and responsibility vary from one facility to another according to the variance in the types and sizes of presses. One person normally runs a small commercial shop which typically has very small presses which print in just one or two colors. Press operators employed by large companies normally have helpers and aides. Large newspaper, magazine, and book printers utilize large “in-line web” presses that must be operated by a team of several press operators and assistants. These presses are fed big rolls, or “webs” of paper, which can be 50 inches or more in width. These presses print the paper on either side, then trim, assemble, score, and fold the pages as needed and finally count the completed portions as roll of the press.
The majority of printing facilities already has installed or will eventually install computerized printing presses which use complex controls allowing jobs to be set up more rapidly. Press operators can use computers to carry out most of duties electronically. Press operators can track the progress and status of the printing process using a monitor which also facilitates adjustments to be made electronically.

Printing Machine Operator Training and Job Qualifications

As usual the best training begins with a formal apprenticeship or a postsecondary program, but the majority of printing machine operators learn the tricks of the trade on the job working as assistants or helpers. New press operators begin with simple tasks like loading, unloading, and cleaning the presses. As they gain experience they learn how to operate one-color sheet-fed presses and gradually learn how to operate multi-color presses. Most workers will end up operating a variety of different presses throughout their work life. In commercial shops, apprenticeship programs to become press operators can take as many as 4 years. Besides receiving formal on the job training, apprentices also receive instruction in class or through correspondence school courses. Apprenticeships used to be the main way to train to become a press operator but that is no longer the case.

Now programs related to printing operations are being taught by technical and trade schools as well as community colleges. Some higher education programs grant graduates an associate’s degree after 2 years of study, but the majority of programs can be finished in less than a year. Postsecondary programs are gaining popularity and importance since they teach potential workers the theoretical knowledge required to run sophisticated equipment.

Printing machine operators must also possess mechanical skills since part of their responsibility includes repair and adjusting machines. Other important skills include oral and writing abilities. Workers must also be capable of calculating percentages, weights, and measures, as well as determining how much ink and paper is required for a job. Due to technological advancements workers need to take classes in chemistry, electronics, color theory, and physics.
Advancements in technology have greatly changed the skills a printing machine operator must possess. Modern equipment makes it necessary that press operators are skilled in the basic computer functions. At times experienced workers might have to receive additional training to enhance and update their skill set. For instance, firms that shift from sheet-fed offset presses to digital presses must train the entire crew again since the skills required to operate the two presses differ greatly.

Advancements for printing machine operators are manifested through higher wages along with more responsibility as they begin to work on complicated printing presses. For instance, a press operator of one-color sheet-fed press may advance to operating a four-color sheet-fed press by showing the required experience and ability. Some press operators will be promoted to supervisory positions and be in charge of the whole press team. Those with the proper knowledge of prepress tasks can become prepress techs.

Printing Machine Operator Job and Employment Opportunities

Employment of printing machine operators is projected to rise slower than the average through 2012. In spite of the below average growth, the need for qualified workers trained in computerized printing equipment coupled with the need for workers to replace retirees will result in many new openings for the next 10 years. People who get into a formal apprenticeship program or who obtain postsecondary education and training in printing will have the best prospects for employment as printing machine operators.

From 2002-12, the need for and production of printed materials is projected to increase. As schools enroll more children and more adults take continuous education classes and read leisurely the demand for printing materials like books and magazines will grow. Additionally, there should be added growth resulting from higher foreign demand for the nation’s trade publications, professional and scientific works, and popular paperback books. Demand will also be encouraged by the companies spending more on advertising which requires print materials. Modern marketing methods are encouraging companies to spend more money on advertising to reach targeted audiences, and this will increase the need for printed materials that become advertisements in the form of newspaper inserts, catalogs, and direct mailings. Of course, the continued printing of books, newspapers, and greeting jobs will still make many jobs available to workers.

Unfortunately employment will not grow on pace with demand for printing materials since more computerized printing equipment is being employed. Additionally, shifts in business tactics like on demand printing or electronic publishing will also curb the productions of more printed goods. Printing-on-demand means printing goods when they are ordered by customers rather than printing thousands of pieces before they are actually purchased and having to toss the excess. Due to large mergers and many companies consolidating operations, the amount of newspaper printing positions is expected to decline.

Historical Earning Information

In 2002, the average wages of printing machine operators were $ 13.95. The middle 50 percent made anywhere from $10.52 to $18.27 an hour. The bottom 10 percent made less than $8.32, and the top10 percent made upwards of $22.46 an hour.