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WEB OFFSET SPECIAL REPORT -- Breaks and Splices Ahead

April 2004
By Vincent Mallardi, C.M.C.

There are new tensions in web offset these days, some unanticipated, some expected and welcomed.

The mainstays of the medium—catalogs and magazines—are going face-in as both the numbers of issues and page counts continue to decline, but at a lesser rate of about 5 percent. These victims of less literate readership, declines in real disposable personal income, as well as the exponential rise in Internet advertising, shopping and information, are forcing heatset web production, in particular, to re-tool.

Larger page-count configurations reduce presstime, deliver faster makereadies, permit greater flexibilities in content and fuel the emergence of new custom published products such as magalogs and highly targeted special interest offerings between issues and signatures. So-called "other publishing" that also includes event, boutique, advocacy and other non-traditional products, is approaching one-fifth of all heatset work. Go-with, go-in or go-on items are increasingly occupying the web pressroom and bindery, with most "not made here."

Certainly, in the conventional management imperative of volume, such specialties are as unattractive as gourmet dinners are to McDonald's, but their popularity with clients is unabating. The questions are: "Can managements adapt?" and "Is there a place for specialty activities in a web operation?"

A once-regarded bad break for the medium is unrelenting shorter run lengths. At every trade meeting, a show of hands is invariably demanded from the question, "How many of you are seeing shorter runs?" Embarrassed, most respond. The others, of course, are liars. Direct-to-plate prepress and faster makereadies are good breaks, and many plants in short-run web are so efficient that the only victims are sheetfed printers! The crossover price, or what economists call the marginal point of substitution, is down to 18,000 impressions on 16-page forms and is even lower on impositions for double-webs, half-webs and mini-webs.

The War on Waste, so long waged by the Web Offset Association, has also been won in the process. Getting up to color takes only about three times the passes as most sheetfeds, but with lower costs of rolls vs. sheets and tighter trims, the real difference is minimal. Running lighter weights than sheetfeds is an additional attraction for buyers. As the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) incredibly raises rates to compensate for reduced volumes that, in part, are the result of increased rates, our medium needs not only to lose weight, but also to eliminate wrong destinations.

Here, the web offset community and the industries it serves must come together to develop a 21st Century information and alternative-delivery infrastructure. The USPS appears unable and unwilling to face the future, and web printers, especially the independents, should not depend on piggy-backing with the major printers (Donnelley Logistics and the like), or wait for them to do the job. In so paranoid of a business as printing, the notion of having the largest players delivering to the customers of others is nerve-racking.


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