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SPECIAL REPORT -- Web Offset - Weird Windings Of the Web

April 2005

by Vincent Mallardi, C.M.C.

A monstrous double-round cylinder transfixed a trio at a trade show as if it was an object from outer space. A technician turned it reverently as it revealed the gleaming and exaggerated reflections of the human forms facing it.

"That's what we need to replace the M-1000-A!"

A sales exec nearby wasn't moved. Eerie onlookers like these were serious in intention, correct in their vision, but pathetically "years late and dollars short." That's why only a cylinder, and not a press, was being exhibited; as an auto dealer might showcase a wheel-assembly instead of a car.

Web printing is no longer for the wishful or faint-hearted. A few financially fit demons are mysteriously rolling up plants and gruesomely splicing them into what will soon be printing's second and most scary oligopoly. (Remember rotogravure, the first.)

Macabre consolidations in publishing, finance, telecom and among most other demanders of web printing are forcing this uncanny transmogrification. Fewer buyers require fewer providers, by nature. No exceptions. No mercies. Oligopoly drives oligopoly, because the only alternative is superfluous supply and irrational price-cutting.

Hey, unfortunately, that's what's happening!

The combined market share of the biggest two web printers is equal to the combined web purchases of the biggest nine demanders. Assume, as is eerily happening, that these behemoths sign spooky long-term contracts with each other, effectively, if not intentionally, preempting all competitors. Every other supplier and demander is relegated to an economic form of musical chairs: A tortuous game because only six second-tier web printers are large enough to fully accommodate the requirements of some 2,000 remaining demanders. (And you thought there were many more?)

The under-capable wind up with "over-capacity." These are plants with "legacy" equipment and, most probably, legacy managements (ouch!).

A spectral analogy is in order. "Drunken Fish" is a favorite delicacy, where not illegal, in the Orient. The recipe: Wrap a frozen towel around the head of a live carp, fry it, remove the towel and serve. The fish, which has no central nervous system, wiggles around the plate, unaware it is being consumed.

Web printers are being consumed as well, if not by oppressive real-world acquirers, by otherworldly fantasy denials of their demise. An apparition a dozen years forward is a few hundred geographically distributed mega-plants spinning webs and sheets in the dark. Beyond and removed from this very closed-loop will be frightful, feeble facilities run by a shifting medley of dreamlike figures —phantasmagorias, really—turning with their cylinders as fatefully as the drunken fish. When the last of them becomes a spirit, an even greater apostasy will occur; a federal ban on web offset conventions!


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