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State of Web Printing : Web Offset: Still on a Roll?

May 2010 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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A WISE sage once suggested "We don't know (what) we don't know." It's been suggested that the wise man in question was Donald Rumsfeld. It's a less-than-elegant turn of phrase, but clear and simple in its delivery. We will be applying this mantra to the state of web offset printing.

Understanding change is realizing that not every revolution will leave a trail of victims, or technology, in its wake. Some movements are gradual. Yes, there have been bloody, brutalized casualties. Just ask your Smith Corona typewriter what it's been up to these days. (Answer: it went to Dr. 90210, had a processor installed and is now an HP Compaq Presario.)

We've learned from the past enough to know we cannot predict the future with reasonable certainty. Still, that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't plan according to trends; some are more of a slave to them than others.

Consider the current and future state of web offset printing. How do we gauge its current performance in relation to where it is heading, when factoring in change variables such as digital printing and shorter run lengths? Let's ask the pros.

Michael Murphy, president of St. Louis Park, MN-based Japs-Olson and the industry keynote speaker at this month's Web Offset Association (WOA) Offset & Beyond Conference, feels web offset provides a number of advantages in his company's markets. "Makeready times have improved over the past decade due to the integrated register and closed-loop color systems," he says. "Though not competing directly with sheetfed, we find that new web press technology makes web printing cost competitive as low as 10,000 impressions.

"Also, folding off the web press dramatically reduces turn times and production costs. This is a production cost often overlooked when comparing sheetfed to web."

The balance between capacity and productivity is a challenge for Japs-Olson. Its new generation web press boasts more firepower and cost-effectiveness than its elder brethren, printing wider, faster and more efficiently. In order to cost-justify the purchase, however, output must be increased "somewhere in the range of three to four times," according to Murphy.

"However, volume is not increasing," he adds. "As a result, we find that the ROI must include the retirement of older equipment to cost-justify the new equipment. This level of workload balancing is very difficult."

Murphy is ecstatic about the technology contained in the new generation Goss Sunday 2000 with Autoplate and Auto Transfer—technologies he believes will "revolutionize the industry." The Autoplate has enabled dramatic improvements in makeready and changeover times, while Auto Transfer has kept Japs-Olson competitive on bids for work with multiple versions or changes within the run.

Murphy, for one, is bullish on the future of web offset and its collaborative opportunities with other printing disciplines. "The future growth of web offset will come in conjunction with the new inkjet technology," he says. "I see there being a migration towards a hybrid printing press that includes offset, inkjet and in-line finishing."

It's not enough to offer quality work, fast turnarounds, low prices and excellent service. Today's printer needs to be multi-processed to enable them to use the best technology, or combination, available for each job, points out Craig Faust, president and CEO of HGI Co. in Burlington, WI.

"With run lengths getting shorter, you have more versions, which can be more complicated," he says. "Lead times are getting shorter because customers don't have the staff they had before, so you need to integrate and partner with them even further."

The most effective print partner won't be the one who automatically pushes jobs toward a certain platform, he notes. Choosing the right manufacturing process maximizes value to the client.

"Systems integrations are extremely important," Faust says. "Automate where you can, and run as lean as you can. It's not about working harder, it's working smarter. Of course, that is easier said than done."

Faust sees a bevy of opportunities that present themselves in concert with other technologies. With web offset most suited toward medium-to-long runs, he believes larger vertical markets can incorporate digital printing for short runs and for customization.

"We need to provide transparent offerings, providing clients the most cost-effective manufacturing platform based on their individual and specific marketing needs," Faust relates. "This includes our ability as client marketing partners to provide multichannel offerings—from e-offerings to print and strategic distribution of their printed products."

For some printers, heatset web printing offers a more attractive production dynamic for their customer bases. Such is the case for Miami Valley Publishing, of Fairborn, OH, which specializes in multi-version runs for the retail market space. Ralph Pontillo, company president, points out that high-volume runs for multiple versioning is a sport best left to the web offset players.

"It's all about speed, even on the commercial and publication side of it," he says. "It's about being time-sensitive to give catalogers or publishers the last possible option for making changes. And changes are simple enough in web offset."

Among the stiffest challenges Pontillo sees is the increasing costs of raw materials. Check that—the true challenge is passing along the higher prices to print buyers. And, with excess capacity an everlasting problem in the industry, some players are lowballing their bids just to keep their presses running and to maintain a revenue stream.

"A lot of really big competitors are scrambling without any infrastructure," he notes. "Many people work on just cash flow; they don't have to worry about a bottom line. That's where the frustration comes in, from my perspective."

How can printers gain an edge? That's a tough call. Pontillo notes that press manufacturers have gone above and beyond in order to unveil labor-saving technologies, to the point where two or fewer workers are manning the press. The front end is already lightning quick, so where can time be saved?

Probably the best friend of the web offset printer is the aforementioned lowballer going out of business—and taking needless excess capacity with it. But Pontillo sees growth opportunities complemented by digital printing.

"The digital arena, which allows one-to-one marketing, will continue to grow," he says. "That has been a real niche for a lot of smaller players. I think you'll see bigger printers getting into it as a support function for their customers."

Try to predict the future if you must. For the present and foreseeable future, the web offset process will continue to play an important role in a number of vertical markets, accompanied (and not ravaged) by digital printing. But, 10 years from now? Ask Rumsfeld. PI


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