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SHEETFED PRESSES -- Sizing Up the Options

August 2002

Sheetfed offset presses have long been considered the workhorses of the commercial printing industry. This market position has been strengthened by the introduction of new formats, configurations and productivity features to the stable of mid- to large-format machines.

The eight-page, 40˝ (or so) press traditionally has set the standard for the market segment. It has been a source of identity both for shops with the capability and those aspiring to reach that benchmark. Now, press models on either half of the format range increasingly are looking like fun house mirror reflections of the modern, 40˝ press. The state-of-the-art across the board includes five or six-plus colors, extensive automation and in-line coating capabilities.

Defining Terminology

If the 40˝ is the standard, then it's obvious what constitutes a larger format press. Defining a cutoff point for the "mid-size" designation is a bit of a moving target, though.

"Most manufacturers have discontinued their 26˝-wide presses because the format was just a downsized version of a 28˝/29˝ press with a similar cost," asserts Mike Grego, marketing manager for Sakurai USA, in Schaumburg, IL. "We are taking the opposite approach by introducing the compact, 466SIP 26˝ press that is a super-sized version of a 22˝ press. This machine can do almost everything a true half-size press can do, but costs a lot less," Grego says.

Probably the most significant development in the sheetfed press market during the last 18 months has been the availability of the 23.5x29˝-format press, asserts Ray Mullen, vice president of sales and customer service at Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses in Lincolnshire, IL. "It offers many of the advantages inherent in the smaller format, but at the same time provides greater flexibility in the type of work it can print, such as a six-panel piece, some P-O-P (point-of-purchase) sizes or pocket folders. That work couldn't be run as efficiently on a 20x28˝/29˝ press," Mullen says.

"Presses like our Roland 300 and 500 are redefining the half-size category," agrees Christian Cerfontaine, director of marketing at MAN Roland in Westmont, IL. "Both models feature a six-up, 23x29˝ format instead of the classic four-up size, and they are fast (16,000 sph and 18,000 sph, respectively). Since they can compete with 40˝ presses, the move to high-speed, six-up sheetfeds is a growing industry trend," he claims.

The breadth of high-quality, high-productivity product offerings is leading to a trend in printers "right-sizing" their pressroom lineups, says John Dowey, vice president of product management, sheetfed, at Heidelberg USA in Kennesaw, GA. "What that means is printers might consider adding an efficient and modern half- or even three-quarter-size press into their 40˝ pressrooms. Jobs that in the past might have be run on a 40˝ with a smaller sheet can be moved to the smaller presses and produced very economically. These presses offer a lower capital investment and reduced labor costs."

In the current market, 40˝ printers are feeling more of a pinch than half-size shops, believes Grego. "Run lengths are coming down. Jobs that might have been considered to be traditional, 40˝ work are now being produced on half-size presses more efficiently."

The trend is toward trying to create a good blend of press sizes and balance out the pressroom, Mitsubishi's Mullen agrees. "If a shop primarily has 40˝ capacity, it will tend to look at 20x28˝ or 23x29˝ presses next. In less frequent cases, commercial printers may look at larger (45˝ on up) presses."

Packaging work still is the dominant application for larger format sheetfed presses, but high-volume, dedicated commercial printers have been showing more interest in the machines, reports Bob McKinney, director of marketing at KBA North America, Sheetfed Div., in Williston, VT. "The installations started about a year ago and are growing in number," he says. "We're talking about the top end of the printing world. These are three-shift operations running the big machines side-by-side with 40˝ presses," he says.

Automating the Big Dogs

This trend is being driven by the productivity a shop can get out of a large-format press today that it couldn't get five years ago, McKinney continues. "Five years ago, a 60˝-plus press had none of the automation features or speed of a current model. Developments have now gotten to the point where, if you compare a 64˝ to a 40˝ sheetfed, the running speeds are almost the same, the print quality is the same, the manning requirement is basically the same because of automation, and you are pumping out double the page production of a 40˝ press."

Productivity gains with larger printing formats can extend beyond the pressroom, points out MAN Roland's Cerfontaine. "A key advantage of larger format presses is that they accelerate the finishing process, which is still very labor-intensive and expensive," he explains. "Folding one 73˝ sheet into a signature in a single operation, adding a cover and stitching it is faster and more profitable than printing, folding and gathering eight signatures of 29˝ or four signatures of 40˝. Thanks to the high level of automation, the makeready times are the same for all formats."

Cerfontaine concedes that such a workflow scenario might require a printer to invest in larger bindery and finishing machines to handle a bigger printed sheet, but he says the productivity gains still provide a payoff. Equipping the press with a slitter is another way to address this concern.

Most of the large press buyers that KBA is seeing are equipping the machines with slitters, McKinney says. "They are slitting the sheet at the end of the run so they don't have to buy new binding equipment to support the 64˝ format," he explains. "Sheetfeds are now competing against the low end of the web market."

Other issues for potential buyers to consider are the need for large-format platemaking capabilities and the floor space required to fit an oversized press, Mullen points out. "With the larger presses we sell, seven-color configurations have been the more popular option. Label and carton printing are still the dominant applications, but there has been a bit of a trend toward 51˝ presses being installed by commercial shops."

Regardless of format size, the trend toward sheetfed presses with ever more color units has been matched by increasing levels of automation. Manufacturers don't see buyers backing off in either area, even in a challenging business environment. There are practical limits on how far the industry can go on both fronts, however.

"In general, if somebody is committed to buying a new press, they really want to equip it to be as efficient as they can make it," asserts KBA's McKinney. "Probably 95 percent of the presses we sell now are equipped with the CIP4 option. Shops that do a lot of makereadies also opt for the fully automated plate changing option."

The full impact of all this automation has yet to be felt in the marketplace, however. "A trend we're starting to see is customers buying presses for efficiency sake," reveals Stephan Carter, an R.R. Donnelley veteran who was recently named president and COO at Komori America in Rolling Meadows, IL.

"Oftentimes it is more cost-effective for a printer to remove several older, slower presses and replace them with just one new press," adds Doug Schardt, Komori product manager. "Taken as a whole, today's newer presses have capabilities that printers just cannot match with older equipment. Those advances give buyers the edge they need to stay profitable."

According to Sakurai's Grego, press automation is all about survival. "We don't offer a stripped down version (to reduce the price) on any model. We know printers need these features in order to survive over the next decade," he says. "Instead, Sakurai's approach has been to focus on incorporating a unified design into mechanical and electrical parts that allows them to be manufactured economically in large quantities."

Offering a somewhat contrary approach is press manufacturer Polly USA in Jacksonville, FL. "We see press automation as adding capacity, and if a shop doesn't need the capacity it doesn't need to buy certain features," explains Dan Macke, national sales manager. To protect a buyer's investment, though, the company's presses are designed to be modular so components can be added later in the field, Macke points out.

Taking a more traditional view of what constitutes a peripheral, Heidelberg's Dowey says printers are now paying more attention to the components of the total press system. "Peripherals like dryers, ink temperature controls, powder systems and ink filling devices play an increasingly important role in overall press productivity," he explains. As for the possibility of business conditions forcing buyers to trim their feature wish lists, Dowey adds that highly automated presses retain a larger percentage of their investment price.

MAN Roland's Cerfontaine advises printers to look at the even bigger picture when equipping a press. "Networking separate pieces of equipment within a printing plant to create a computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) system is the most important development to implement in order to increase uptime, get more out of the equipment and push JIT (just-in-time) production. This concept incorporates the CIP4-developed JDF workflow," he explains.

Along with support for a CIP4 interface, Mullen of Mitsubishi sees an industry trend toward adding closed-loop color control systems. This is being done by incorporating scanning densitometry or spectrophotometer systems, he says. Heidelberg's Dowey agrees, noting that most press manufacturers now offer at least an entry-level system for closed-loop measurement and control of color bars via scanning spectrophotometers.

A case in point is Heidelberg's new AxisControl module for its Prinect system, Dowey says. The spectrophotometry-based color measuring system is integrated into the press manufacturer's CP2000 press control center. In keeping with the opportunities it sees in the area of peripherals, the company has also extended its CANopen technology to enable virtually all Star components for Speedmaster 74 and 102 presses to be controlled and monitored using the CP2000 touchscreen. CAN stands for "Controller Area Network" and is a globally standardized data bus system.

To enhance quality control, all PECOM-operated MAN Roland presses can be equipped with a new ColorPilot console that adds spectrophotometry measurements to the classic densitometric readings.

The company recently unveiled new styling across its press line which, in addition to the 29˝ models, includes the 41˝ Roland 700 on up to the large-format Roland 900 press. The sizes offered in the 900 series have been doubled to six, ranging from 32x44˝ to 51x73˝. Automated plate changing is available on the entire press line and is standard on the Roland 700.

Komori's Newest Star

Komori America reports its new Lithrone S40 40˝ sheetfed press comes 'network-ready' and features automated, data-driven makeready as standard equipment. This capability is enabled by the Komori CIP4 data converter, KHS inking system and a new cassette-less automatic plate changing system. Its enhanced Komori Management System (KMS) features improved ergonomics and integration into the single press control console. Automatic cleaning also is standard, including a new automatic blanket washing system. The press is slated to make its U.S. debut at Graph Expo in October.

Another planned introduction at the show is the Sakurai 466SIP series sheetfed press. It is a 26˝, fully automatic, four-color convertible perfector press featuring a compact design and maximum running speed of 15,000 iph. Standard equipment includes automatic plate changers, automatic roller washers, touchscreen controls with CIP4 integration, Sakurai Auto Set sheet preset device and Sakurai color console. The press features a vacuum feed board, ink ductor ratio selection and roller declutching.

KBA considers automatically convertible perfecting units to be one of the standout features of its sheetfed press line. Perfecting is supported by the 20.47x29.1˝ Rapida 74 model on up through the large-format Rapida 162 (44x64˝) and 162a (47x64˝) machines. The standout in the line is the 41" Rapida 105 press, with its combination of high running speed, fast make-ready and automation features, McKinney says. A modular automation system, called Opera, provides solutions for production management (KBA Logotronic), quality control (KBA Densitronic S) and digital workflow integration based on CIP4 (KBA CIPLink).

In addition to offering the 23.5x29˝ format, Mitsubishi's Diamond Series sheetfed offset presses are available in sizes from 20.5x28˝ (Diamond 1000) through 40x56˝ (Diamond 6000) in configurations with up to 10 colors. The optional DiamondLink III electronic press control system encompasses PressLink for automatic presetting and control of press parameters, JobLink for online job tracking, and ColorLink for CIP4 compatibility and closed-loop color management. The system is PC-based and operates under Windows NT. The COMRAC (Centralized Operator Make Ready and Control) system comes standard.

One of the main things Polly USA would like potential buyers to know about its current press line is that these are not the same products it first brought to market in 1997, Macke says. The engineers started with a clean slate in developing the Polly Prestige 74 sheetfed press, he reports.

The 20.5x29.125˝ press is available in two-, four- and five-color configurations (perfecting currently is not supported) running at speeds to 13,000 sph. The machine features double-diameter impression and transfer cylinders and has a vacuum feed board. Its Polly Control I console is Windows 2000-based and CIP4 compliant. Automatic blanket and roller washing systems are standard. Polly USA also offers the 19x26˝ Performer 66.

If technology advances and productivity enhancements are not enough to convince printers that now is the time to buy a new sheetfed press, KBA's McKinney points out there currently is an added investment incentive available to equipment buyers.

"The economic stimulus bill includes a depreciation bonus," he explains. "Equipment buyers can double the depreciation (to 40 percent instead of 20 percent) they take in the first year. The bill doesn't increase the overall depreciation, but accelerates it in the first year. That can be a real advantage for someone buying a $1 million-plus piece of equipment."


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