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Process Optimization — Makereadies Mean Money

March 2008 By Mark Smith
Technology Editor
PRINT RUNS are getting shorter. Everyone in the industry now takes that as a given, but what does it mean? Is a short run in the hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands? The answer varies depending on the piece and the platform used to print it.

One thing that is clear: A trend toward shorter runs at any level requires producing more jobs to achieve the same sales volume. Printers need to have highly efficient technology and processes in place to maximize their revenue and profits from this business. They must be able to get more jobs on and off a press per shift.

Makeready efficiency on conventional offset presses can now be increased by the addition of ink-key presetting, automated plate changing, color control and other technological advances. There is still a competitive break-even point for sheetfed offset, though, perhaps 5,000 sheets or even less.

Digital offset presses (DI for machines using Presstek technology) have been positioned as the ink-based solution for shorter runs of static printed pieces. These devices extend the cost-effective range of offset printing to even lower runs by imaging plate materials directly on the press and using waterless printing to cut makeready times.

All-digital devices--using toner, liquid ink or, increasingly, ink-jet imaging--are the undisputed kings of short runs, but they are, first and foremost, positioned as a solution for variable data marketing. Even though it still accounts for the majority of pages output on such devices, doing static work is almost seen as failing.

This article will focus on the shortest of the short runs because this segment has the tightest makeready requirements, and the lessons learned are broadly applicable.

Universal Lithographers, in Sheboygan, WI, was running two 40?, six-color MAN Roland 706 sheetfed presses with aqueous coating units, but was getting requests from some customers to do shorter run work. Those presses are relatively modern (the newest was installed in 2000) and equipped with makeready enhancers such as QuickStart, automatic plate loading and remote-controlled inking.

"We had maximized their makeready potential," says Jerry Keller, executive vice president. "We try to keep the minimum run to 12,000 full sheets because, on a 40? press, that's what you need to break even."

Clients Push for Digital

The company, which has 42 employees, serves a high-end customer base, so its standard output is four-plus colors with a 200 line screen, and it produces a lot of 300 line screen work. "We were being pushed by our clients for a digital offering," Keller notes, "but we did not have a demand for variable printing. We needed high-quality short-run capability."

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