Workers at the giant Judd & Detweiler printing plant in Northeast Washington could see the end coming, they said, because their 117-year-old company had bought and built three new plants in Virginia and Maryland, and the investment in costly high-speed technology seemed to be draining from the city.

It came as a blow, nonetheless, when officials of Judd & Detweiler, one of Washington's oldest and largest printing firms, called them off the shop floor this week to announce plans to shut down the District plant.

Nearly 200 jobs here will be eliminated by early next year, one of the largest job losses in the District in recent years.

The shutdown of the once-bustling 300,000-square-foot. plant at 1500 Eckington Place NE, which caught some city officials by surprise, mirrors the recent dramatic shift in the Washington area's largest manufacturing industry, which employs nearly 30,000 workers.

Because of competitive pressures, the printing and publishing business has been transformed from an urban, heavily unionized industry into a predominantly suburban, nonunion enterprise.

The lower suburban costs of land, taxes, transportation and wages have drawn most of this expanding business to the Capital Beltway and far beyond, often taking jobs from the city. "Our work was productive enough to produce enough profit so they could start up new plants in the Shenandoah Valley" and Maryland, said Dwight (Skeeter) DeAtley, 42, a bindery worker and union shop steward who worked for Judd & Detweiler for 20 years. "Our profits enabled them to open two new plants, and now a third one. And now, they are closing us down."

Judd & Detweiler subsidiaries print regional runs of Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report and Changing Times, among 200 publications. The company opened its newest plant in Mount Jackson, Va., where, among other inducements, it received a 50-acre industrial site for free, according to H. Wayne Warner, president of Judd's Inc., the parent company of the four printing plants.

Warner said the plant closing became necessary because the three-story facility was obsolete, recently lost its major printing job of producing 1 million copies of Yankee magazine and had higher labor costs than its nonunion sister plants.

"I have been here 32 years, and I've never seen such competition . . . . Competitors can always keeping undercutting you. It is almost a price war," Warner said, explaining why the firm, which once employed more than 700 here, believed it could not stay competitive in Washington.

"This kind of threw me . . . . We had no indications they were leaving," said Kwasi Holman, director of the D.C. Office of Business and Economic Development.

In a letter to city officials last July 24, Judd & Detweiler said, "We have been doing business in Washington since 1868, and while some things change, we hope to be here for another century-plus."

Holman said his office had solicited the letter, asking the firm whether District officials could help Judd & Detweiler's business. He said the only problem indicated by the firm, located near the Northeast railroad yard, was a minor parking lot complaint, which he said was remedied.

Warner said the company plans to keep its headquarters in the District and lease the vacant space to other companies. He said city officials misinterpreted the letter if they believed it to be a commitment to continue manufacturing in the city. He said company officials did not inform the city because the firm believed nothing could be done by the city to change the decision.

The District might have offered industrial revenue bonds, tax breaks and other assistance, Holman said, "but there is no way we can compete" with offers of free land and room for expansion.

The printing exodus from the city has been substantial, according to D.C. Department of Employment Security figures. In 1972, nearly 7 in 10 of the region's printing jobs were in the District. But since then, while the industry boomed and employment climbed by 50 percent, the D.C. share of printing jobs fell to 4 in 10. Similarly, the union share of employment has fallen from roughly 40 percent a decade ago to less than 20 percent because of plant closings and nonunion expansion, according to estimates by the Printing Industries of America.

The shift to suburbia was evident in declining new investment inside Judd & Detweiler's District plant, according to DeAtley, the shop steward for the Graphic Communications International Union.

While new automation was installed at the other plants, he said, "we have the older equipment now . . . secondhand, and even thirdhand, and you just can't compete nowadays with second- and thirdhand."

Warner said that that description of the plant was exaggerated and that Judd & Detweiler had invested $8 million here in new equipment in the last few years.

Both Warner and Thomas E. Treynor, a local GCIU union president, said they were optimistic that the majority of the displaced workers would find other jobs. But while skilled union journeymen printers are in demand, Treynor said, lessskilled and older workers have a hard time.

"It's going to be a tough time for me to find something else," said William E. Herbert, 57, a bindery helper who has worked for Judd & Detweiler since he was 18. "Age-wise, it's going to be a little hard for me."

Wages at the District plant range from about $10 an hour for helpers to $15 for skilled workers. Although some jobs pay substantially less at the company's nonunion facilities in Pikesville, Md., and Strasburg, Va., Warner said the pay disparity was not the key cause for the shift.

GCIU has previously offered concessions in the form of wage freezes and changes in work rules and work hours, Treynor said, "but I don't think there is anything we could've done to prevent this."