Digital and Offset Convergence -- Going Long on Shorter RunsApril 2009 By Mark Smith
The trend toward print buyers, at every level, cutting back their order quantities is a case in point. At the same time, technological advancements are enabling digital, sheetfed and web offset printing operations to be competitive over a wider range of jobs, extending the run length crossover between processes. Organizations that offer all three processes, therefore, are taking a more holistic approach to printing and developing their capabilities as a continuum rather than as discrete operations.
This means aligning and rightsizing their digital, sheetfed and web printing platforms relative to each other. As acceptance of the process and capacity grows, digital printing is extending the boundary of “short-run” work to produce more jobs that previously were done sheetfed. Meanwhile, web offset presses configured with color controls, automated plate changers and other makeready enhancements are pushing down into runs of 5,000 or even fewer impressions, depending on the product.
David Uslan, chief marketing -officer at Smith Litho in Rockville, MD, reports that his company has been seeing digital printing volumes growing rapidly, sheetfed offset work trending down, and web offset demand heading up in terms of -number of pages printed. “That’s how we’ve started to position our capabilities in the last few years,” he notes.
The Migration to Digital
In just the past few months, the printer has added a new HP Indigo 7000 digital color press and an eight-color Sanden Quantum 1500 variable cut-off, UV web press to enhance its capabilities as a general commercial printer. Uslan says the company is considering making further modifications to its heatset web platform over the next several years, such as replacing two of its three smaller webs with another full-size press.
Smith Litho has kept its existing HP Indigo 5000 digital press in production, since it was looking to boost capacity in response to growing demand. Migration of offset work to digital printing was one factor in the company’s decision to reduce its sheetfed press capacity about 18 months ago, Uslan notes. The department currently operates one six-color, 40? Heidelberg Speedmaster CD 102 with coater.
“The HP Indigo 7000 gives us more opportunity to compete on shorter-run sheetfed and variable data work, while our remaining Heidelberg provides enough capacity to run the medium- and longer-run jobs we are presented,” he says.
The company formerly known as St Ives U.S. has been reinventing itself on several fronts of late, including changing its name to Angstrom Graphics following a management-led buyout under the direction of Wayne Angstrom, chairman and CEO. It also just completed the installation of a second new Komori System 38 web press at its all-web facility in Hollywood, FL. Several 40? sheetfed presses and a Xerox iGen3 digital color press complement three -additional heatset web presses at a sister plant in Cleveland.
Print customers have been looking for ways to reduce their costs for some time now, Angstrom says. This includes taking steps such as reducing product counts and running fewer pages.
“That has led us to installing presses, both web and sheetfed, that cater to a shorter-run-length type of product,” reports the company’s CEO. “We produce publications on our newer web that have a 1,500 count—perfect bound and saddle wire products with 96 or 112 pages. Our average run length at the moment is about 38,000 copies, though.”
Angstrom says he has seen digital and web presses eating into the sheetfed market from opposite ends, but not quite as rapidly as some may think. Sheetfed presses are not encroaching into the web arena, however, even after incorporating roll-to-sheet capabilities to make the company’s machines a more efficient and economical production platform. Drying requirements for sheetfed work and finishing capabilities on web presses mean the latter process can get to a completed product quicker, explains the industry exec.
Process selection is simply a matter of figuring out which method can produce the work most efficiently based on the product specifications. “Any argument about quality has by and large gone away,” says Angstrom. The company has former sheetfed customers whose work is now being done on its new web press, and they are ecstatic about the results, he notes.
More than just run lengths are converging at St. Joseph Print, a division of St. Joseph Communications, in Toronto. The company is planning to relocate two of its current operations—one primarily a sheetfed plant and the other a digital shop—into a new, 140,000-square-foot facility in nearby Concord. It is creating a printing campus by situating this combined plant next to its existing, 300,000-square-foot web offset operation that recently underwent a $50 million revitalization program.
That program included installing three new manroland Rotoman S heatset web presses (one 48-pager and two 16-pagers) during the past three years. The company traded in several presses, but still increased overall capacity along with improving makeready.
“We bought absolutely state-of-the-art equipment because our main focus was reducing -makeready time and waste, so we can focus on short runs,” says John Gagliano, president of St. Joseph Print. “Our run lengths have certainly been reduced on the web offset side. We are producing many more plates for the same or fewer overall impressions.”
Customer crossover for its web, sheetfed and digital printing services is the impetus for the company’s latest investment program, Gagliano continues. “We are seeing more and more clients that need all three processes, but there still are a fair number that buy a la carte. We will be able to better service customers that want to buy all three from one source.”
Hybrid digital and offset applications are something St. Joseph is pushing in a big way, he notes. “If a client wants to do large volumes and is worried about the click cost (for digital), we tell them we can do part of it variable and then marry that up with a static run—whether sheetfed or web—in the bindery using barcodes to ensure that work gets done properly.”
Variable covers and surveys inserted into offset catalogs are two examples of hybrid jobs. “Our bigger wins are probably coming in that area, and being in the same campus is going to bring us production synergies.”
Just over a year ago, the company purchased two new 40? Heidelberg Speedmaster sheetfed presses and took three other machines out of production. It now operates all 40? equipment, with eight, 10 or 12 colors and perfecting capabilities, including a couple of presses with rollfed units.
Work that previously was produced on smaller sheetfeds can now either be pushed down to a digital press or moved up to one of the 40? machines because of their efficiency, says the printer’s chief exec.
St. Joseph, which currently has a mix of Xerox iGen3 color presses and Océ equipment, plans to upgrade its digital capabilities as part of this latest $25 million investment program. Customers generally are willing to accept the most efficient production method, Gagliano says, but the company occasionally still has to do some convincing for a buyer to go digital or web over sheetfed.
One Full-Service Printer
Product size is mainly what dictates if a job is printed sheetfed or web. “If it fits the cutoff, odds are the work will go web,” he adds. Even a 5,000 run of a 64-page magazine or catalog will routinely be put on a web press, but a piece 13? on the spine that can be run two-up will be put on a sheetfed press for runs of 5,000 to 500,000.
All three companies say they go to market as full-service printers, rather than individually branding any of their digital, sheetfed or web printing operations. The processes are also integrated internally.
“We have customers that utilize all three of our processes, but most utilize the various processes that we sell independent of one another,” reports Angstrom Graphics’ chief executive. “We match all of our presses to our platemaking curves on an ongoing basis so that our digital, sheetfed and web presses are as close to one another in capability as we can get them.” The same workflow, in terms of estimating, prepress, customer service, etc., is used to process all jobs, Angstrom adds.
The “St. Joseph” name is included in the branding of all of its operations, and the organization overall positions itself as a low-cost producer, Gagliano notes. It puts a lot of effort, including help from suppliers, into getting the output from all of its devices to match as close as possible, he adds.
The company already has been using Kodak Prinergy as the front end for all three processes, and is looking to go a step further by having one prepress department and a common MIS solution for the new printing campus.
Smith Litho has also seen the needs of some clients cross all three platforms of its printing services, according to Uslan. Ultimately, what gets printed is a PDF workflow for digital, sheetfed and web, he adds. Cross-training—from sales through manufacturing—helps bridge the gap between the operations, with prepress personnel trained to operate the digital presses, sheetfed and web crews able to fill in for one another, and account managers trained to process all types of work. PI