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Offset and Beyond — Great Technologies, But Tough Times

April 2009 By Cheryl Adams
SUCCESS IS often a matter of location, location, location. But, today, it’s a matter of timing, timing, timing.

When it comes to forecasting the current sheetfed and web offset markets, the biggest threat isn’t just digital technology, it’s the state of the economy. There are some pretty exciting developments going on in the lithographic printing market this year, but that’s the problem. It’s 2009. When demand is down—with printers, like their clients, being forced to tighten budgets, reduce head counts and shut down plants to remain competitive—even the best technological advancements have problems selling when the timing is not right.

Across the board, all manufacturing industries are struggling. Printing is one of many. Minus the current economic crisis, however, both sheetfed and web offset printers would most likely be holding their own, according to industry experts.

Ray Prince, NAPL vice president and senior consultant, operations management, has observed dramatic changes in the offset market in the past four to five years, and believes that the process is now capable of competing with digital’s short run lengths and low prices. “Litho makereadies only take five to seven minutes, and washup times are much faster, so the process is now capable of cost-effective, short-run production. Mostly, offset is still going strong because litho offers very high quality and consistency, which digital production presses cannot offer yet.”

Prince maintains that there is still a tremendous market for long-run production, and that digital printing is not yet known as a competitor in the long-run market. He points out that the consistency of digital is not there, and the price for long runs is significantly higher per unit than offset.

“Major litho players invested heavily in color controls, defect controls and improved makereadies,” explains Prince. “Currently, digital can’t compete [on long runs].”

Bill Lamparter, president of the PrintCom Consulting Group, claims that today’s sheetfed offset innovations are so advanced, they’re already pushing 2004 press models toward obsolescence. “Analog press developments continue to focus on waste reduction, faster run speeds, quick changeovers, improved and automatic color control, better perfectors, improved inking systems, touchscreen controls and virtual proofing on the console,” he details. “And, there are new advancements in in-line finishing, such as cold foiling, embossing, diecutting and a variety of coating options, which enable on-press production of unique product effects.”

Lamparter acknowledges other new offerings, such as large-format sheetfed presses up to 64˝ wide, which are designed for both commercial printing and packaging applications. (KBA and man- roland offer even larger models.)

“This was Heidelberg’s contribution to Drupa 2008,” he says. “And the Speedmaster XL VLF presses include features like Heidelberg’s Intellistart, which permits the press to be prepared for the next job while the first one is being printed; and Wallscreen, which gives the press operator an overview of the printing process with dynamically depicted functions, including ink zone displays.

According to Lamparter, there has been a bounty of eye-opening innovations in lithographic technology: on-press spectrophotometric color measurement/adjustment systems, operated by touchscreen; the ability to customize press lines to meet a printer’s specific application requirements; perfecting technologies; and on-press options like UV coaters, double coating units, cold foil systems, as well as presses that can be equipped with a flexo unit before the offset units.

Bill McLauchlan, senior technical consultant for Printing Industries of America, is confident that—excluding the unfortunate economic situation in 2009—many “next-gen” offset presses on the market would be strengthening the industry.

“The newest technology offerings are amazing. Every manufacturer has developed new and innovative features,” he points out. “There is so much automation. In the past, this kind of high-tech machinery was unheard of.” 

Today’s presses run at high speeds, are quick to makeready, and it takes fewer operators to run them, he continues. The robotics, ease of operation and touchscreen controls all increase operator friendliness. Value-added capabilities also include double coaters, flexo units, combination units and so on.

“We’re asking machines to do so much today: special colors, glosses, varnishes, in-line diecutting and more,” McLauchlan remarks. “It’s truly amazing.”

The three printing industry experts also note the latest advancements in web press technology. For example, Goss International’s new M-600 Folia web press is designed as an alternative to sheetfed perfectors. Incorporating M-600 printing units and a custom sheeter developed by Vits, the press prints up to 30,000 perfected sph on coated stock without a dryer, and uses standard inks. Options include automated plate changers, digital inking, closed-loop color controls and more.

Prince maintains that new web technologies should help sustain the offset market during the uncertainty of 2009 and beyond. He advises that printers “keep their eyes on” a new sleeve-web press technology being offered. “These presses have variable cutoffs of 10,000 to 200,000 per unit,” he says. “This is great for applications such as food coupons. With non-variable work, you waste stock with every revolution. But, with the smaller (variable cutoff) sleeves, you cut waste dramatically, so the competitiveness is dramatic.”

According to McLauchlan, another web development is printers adding rotary diecutters to their lines, producing four- and five-color boxes. Manufacturers are also automating sheet (size) changers, “bringing them up to speed,” he says.

And, new ink formulations are enabling non-heatset web presses to run coated papers with these new inks, “which opens up a whole new ball game,” he notes. “We can now print process work on coldset presses, including inserts on coated papers.”

Another opportunity for offset growth is in the “emerging and merging” technologies, adds McLauchlan, such as combining flexo with digital printing. Also, he notes that there is increasing use of roll-to-sheet feeders. “Presses that were en vogue 30 years ago, but disappeared, are now back again.”

In his own version of “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” Prince believes recessions make printers stronger, as an industry of manufacturers. For example, he recalls the 1950s, when “there was ‘too much iron,’ too many printers.”

Unfortunately, in 2009, the same can be said, he asserts. “There is always too much competition in the printing industry. We’re always praying for printers to go away. So, our prayers are being answered. Those shops with old equipment and antiquated marketing practices are gone, or soon will be. Unfortunately, though, some good printers are going out of business today because of the economy and through no fault of their own.”

Acknowledging that the industry has survived tough economic times in the past, Prince believes that those who survive will be in a good position when the economy does bounce back. But, are the good ol’ days really coming back?

Prince responds with candor: “They are never coming back. We must address this change. In bad times, it is critical to correct poor manufacturing practices (wastefulness, lack of efficiency, non-productiveness). Replacing them with best practices is the only way printing businesses can survive.”

Printers will learn some pretty tough lessons during these hard times. However, Prince and McLauchlan agree that the offset industry will endure.

Those who do their due diligence will hold their own, McLauchlan says. “I do a lot of work with manufacturers; they’re reporting that equipment is moving, but very slowly. Hopefully, President Obama’s stimulus package will change that.”

Likewise, Prince, McLauchlan and Lamparter all believe that 2009 holds several growth areas for offset. According to Prince, lithographic sheetfed presses capable of printing on various specialty, high-quality plastic materials will be front and center in the packaging market. This will have printers producing a wide range of packaging products, especially for the food industry, which require new techniques for bright colors and eye-catching graphics. And, packaging is one area where offset has the advantage over digital, Prince says.

Lamparter agrees, and points to hybrid combinations of ink-jet and offset, as well as ink-jet and flexo for packaging applications, as another way in which a combination of processes are being used to cost-effectively produce differentiated products.

Assuming lithographic print survives the economic recession, will the offset process survive in an increasingly digital world? “Offset has been around a very long time,” ponders Prince. “Will it still be around for a long time? Yes. Will it die? Eventually, maybe in 50 years or so. But, something cheaper, better and more cost-effective will have to come along to displace it, and we just don’t have anything like that at this time.”

Overall, today’s digital presses still have quality control issues, he adds. “There are gradation problems; color is inconsistent and has to be constantly monitored just to maintain consistency.”

Lamparter describes the competition between the two processes as “evolving, innovative improvements in offset litho vs. emerging, high-speed full-color ink-jet technology with improved quality.” As ink-jet moves closer to offset speeds—and has “achieved arguably commercial quality” for most applications—“primary differentiators are offset’s more favorable economics for long runs of static printing and digital’s ability to print full-color personalization or individualized products, as well as very short runs.”

Digital is best suited for short-run, personalized products, and offset excels at longer runs and higher quality, McLauchlan agrees. “So, it’s like trying to compare apples and oranges. Both bring something to the table.” PI


 

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