The Evolution of Printing

From woodblock to 3D, a whirlwind tour.

GUEST COLUMN | by Hazel Avila

Woodblocks_for_printing,_Sera_monastery_in_TibetIf someone wants to make a copy of a document today, it could take less than ten seconds. Depending on the size and complexity of the object, we can also 3D print items within hours. However, printing wasn’t always this easy. It took centuries for engineers to develop the technology we have today. We sometimes forget how far we have come with our current printing system. Let’s take a look back at the history of printing.

Woodblock Printing

The earliest form of woodblock printing came from China around 200 A.D. However, it did not become highly used until the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Text was first written on a thin

This is how far we’ve come—imagine what we can accomplish in the future.

piece of paper, then glued face down onto a wooden plate. Characters were carved out to make a wood-block printing plate, which was used to print the text. The process required a lot of time and energy, as a new block had to be carved for each page. However, this was the first time in history that printing was made possible. Woodblock printing increased the speed of sharing knowledge (pictured above: ‘Woodblocks for printing, Sera Monastery, Tibet’, CREDIT: CC – Marisburbergs).

The Printing Press

The printing press was invented in 1440 by Johannes Gutenberg. He was a goldsmith by trade and devised a hand mount to create moveable type printing. The device applied pressure to an inked surface resting upon a print medium. The impact of the printing press was massive- a single printing press could produce 3,600 pages per day. The printing press expedited information sharing and created a wider literate reading public. It played a key role in the development of many movements including the Renaissance, Reformation, and Scientific Revolution.


Xerography was developed in the late 1930s by Chester Carlson. It is a dry copying process in which black or colored powder adheres to parts of a surface after being exposed to light from an image of the document to be copied. It took almost 20 years to develop the fully automated process, resulting in the first commercial automatic copier, the Xerox 914. The technology is now widely used in photocopy machines, laser printers, and digital presses.

3D Printing

3D printing, also know as additive manufacturing, is the process of making a physical object from a 3D model. To produce the object, the printer lays down many successive layers of thin material. The technology has been around since the 1980s, but usage has been limited due to high costs and the complexity of software and machines.

Not until recently has 3D printing been more accessible due to lower costs and easy-to-follow learning resources provided by organizations like Makerbot and SolidProfessor.

Futurologists believe that 3D printing technology will signal the third industrial revolution, replacing the production line assembly that dominates the manufacturing industry today.

The printing industry has come a long way. Today’s powerful tools and improving software allows for increased productivity and accessibility. They provide opportunities we might not otherwise have, for example, making prosthetics more affordable—or printing entire car frames. This is how far we’ve come—imagine what we can accomplish in the future.

Hazel Avila is a recent journalism grad from University of San Diego. Her interests lie in engineering, technology, and education. Write to:


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