Large-format Printing — Size DOES Matter!
A SMALL, but growing number of printers are taking a big leap of faith (and finances) to invest in what may well be the commercial and packaging printing equivalent of the Gold Rush. Printers big and small—like Branch Smith Printing, Carter Printing, Ambassador Press and Strine Printing, to name a few—are expanding into large- and very-large-format sheetfed technology and betting the ranch...’er, press...on their ability to boost productivity and expand into new product niches.
Hoping to hit the motherload of profitability, printers are staking their claim by offering up to 81˝ formats to blend the high-quality printing capabilities of sheetfed offset with the ability to output more pages per sheet, to reduce makereadies, to gang jobs, and to enter new markets like point-of-purchase and point-of-sale. Printers who caught “the fever” and invested in large-format presses have struck gold and are discovering immediate success.
And, the golden opportunities aren’t likely to stop any time soon, since large format is a “hybrid” printing process that produces a high-quality product, while maximizing the use of sheet space to output larger quantities. The accuracy, efficiency and high-end results of large-format printing are producing big savings, which translates to bigger profits. And, big surprise: The investment is paying for itself faster than some expected, with various printers reporting estimated ROIs in less than two years.
This is a particularly important milestone, considering the transition to large-format printing can be an expensive one. To support the large formats, an investment often must also be made in prepress and the bindery to accommodate the larger plate and product sizes.
“Large format is a big investment—a big risk. It’s definitely not for the timid,” says Daniel Hanson, general manager of Fort Worth, TX-based Branch Smith Printing, a publications, catalog and book printer. Branch Smith bought an eight-color, 51˝ KBA Rapida 130 perfector, which is reportedly one of only four in North America. The company began installing the press in mid-February, and it was up and running in early April.
Large Format, Big Plus
But, before Branch Smith could install the press, the company had to make room for it.
In order to fit the mega press on the first floor of its three-story facility, Branch Smith dug out 400 square yards of dirt and concrete (1.5 feet deep) to provide the required 13-foot clearance.
The press has been paying for itself from Day 1 through increased ROI, productivity and profitability.
Other printers are striking it big with their large-format presses, as well. And, like Branch Smith, they, too, are going to extremes to implement what they believe is a golden opportunity.
Richmond, VA-based Carter Printing was so thrilled about its six-color, 56˝ Mitsubishi Diamond 6000LS sheetfed press with aqueous coater installed in 2004 that, in order to show it off, the company held an open house with events lasting over two weekends. To celebrate the acquisition and expansion, Wayne Carter, president, invited about 275 clients and guests to attend the open house and tour Carter’s 55,000-square-foot facility.
Print buyers got a firsthand look at the press, as well as a large-format MBO Perfection series folder and Heidelberg Polar cutting system installed to complement the expanded production capabilities. According to Carter, his guests were impressed to see a 56˝ sheetfed press printing quality products, while running at high speeds of 14,000 sph.
Carter already owned a Mitsubishi press, albeit not a large-format model, and he says he’s a loyal customer of the manufacturer. However, the owner of the 130-employee firm still took the necessary due diligence to do his own homework on various alternatives. “Typically, we run 70-lb. to 100-lb. text and lightweight board up to 12-pt. thickness. The dot structure on paper had to be sharp and precise. We visited a number of plants in several cities, and it became clear that the Mitsubishi was going to do a better job for us.”
In fact, it is surpassing Carter’s expectation. He discloses that, virtually as soon as the press was installed (in July 2004), business increased so much in volume that the company had its “biggest month ever in terms of volume.” The printer’s annual sales increased significantly the first year, and business has been growing at a record pace ever since.
Ambassador Press, like Carter Printing, is a mid-size printer (78 employees) that was competing with larger, commodity printers. It wanted to branch out into other printed products to differentiate itself from the crowd. So, Ed Engle, president and second-generation owner, set out on a quest to conquer the doldrums of the 40˝ press market and expand his business into bigger, better things.
He bought a six-color, 64˝ KBA Rapida 162. With its newfound large-format capabilities, the Midwest printer set out to break new ground by breaking into new niche markets. Point-of-sale and point-of-purchase materials, floor graphics, jumbo posters, jumbo wraps, plastic signage, UV printing, and retail and cosmetic packaging are just some of the products Engle’s facility is now manufacturing.
“Not only are we running a larger size press, but we’re running other substrates like plastic, and coatings such as hybrid and UV, as well as aqueous spot coatings for plastic packaging. We can run up to 48-pt. board (vs. 24 pt. before).”
To support the new large-format press, Engle’s investment also included a new platesetter and prepress system, and paper handlers and page turners…and a new sales staff, one with experience in selling large-format products.
The sales team’s job is made easier by the fact that, as Engle explains, “the quality and consistency of the large-format KBA press has been right up there. We’re extremely pleased with the print quality, retention of color, sharpness of print—everything. Our 64˝ press prints and holds color as well as a 40˝ press.
“We expected more spoilage with the larger format, but that didn’t happen. A big benefit of the 64˝ press is the lack of spoilage. We tracked it, and our spoilage is less than 1 percent.”
According to Engle, one of the biggest benefits of big printing is the big business it brings. Because the quality and consistency is now as good as a 40˝ press, and because large-format presses can run plastic and other substrates, Ambassador Press is hitting a profit vein. Packaging is a profitable new market for the company, as is XL carton wraps, using UV.
“It’s a whole different situation now that we’re a large-format printer,” Engle contends. “Customers are starting to look for us. Now, we’re giving estimates and bidding on big projects with large cosmetics and retail companies that we could never have gotten before. We soon hope to get into more packaging applications and other promotional products, like back-lit signs and such.”
ROI: Fast and Furious
The six-color Rapida 162 has only been up and running since last fall, but it’s already beating Engle’s anticipated estimate on ROI. “We figured it would take about two years to get it fully up and running with a strong cash flow,” he contends. “The press is paying for itself very quickly. The banks and accountants are predicting we’ll have it paid off a lot sooner, especially with all the printing opportunities that we haven’t even realized yet.”
Like Ambassador Press, Branch Smith is excited about the money-saving and money-making possibilities of its new eight-color, 51˝ KBA Rapida 130 perfector.
“Our crews are thrilled with the press,” Hanson exclaims. “Its automation, intelligence, engineering—everything about it—is designed to run extremely well. The print quality is exceptional. The large-format press holds ink and water balance better than any press we’ve ever owned.”
The goal for publication, catalog and book printers is to print quality products without cutting corners, but cut costs whenever plausible and possible, Hanson contends. Larger formats allow Branch Smith to print a high-end sheetfed product, but it can run twice as many signature pages per sheet, in this case, 32 instead of 16.
“Our large-format expansion is also having a direct effect on our bindery costs. For example, instead of having to handle 20 signatures for a job, there are now only 10, so fewer sheets have to be handled, cut, bound and so on. Press checks have been cut in half. If a client had to do 20 press checks, now they only have to do 10.
“Most of our total labor costs are from the bindery,” he continues. “There’s been a significant improvement in throughput since we installed the 51˝ press.”
The large-format press is saving money for Branch Smith, but, according to Hanson, ROI is complex because the investment also involved the cost of new large-format prepress and bindery equipment. Three new Stahl folders, an additional Muller Martini saddlestitcher and binder, and a 61˝ Polar cutter were installed, as well as a new Kodak Magnus VLF platesetter. Another part of the total investment, which must be taken into account when figuring the ROI, is Branch Smith’s expanded sales force that was brought in to handle the influx in business.
Large format is performing to, if not beyond, Branch Smith’s expectations in its core markets. Hanson says he didn’t go looking for more or different types of work. “We didn’t buy the press to enter new markets. But, somehow, new markets are finding us. Finding other applications is not what we intended, but since new applications seem to be finding us, of course, if they fit our business, we’ll take them.”
Some printers didn’t “catch” the large-format fever, they started it.
York, PA-based Strine Printing is one of North America’s largest commercial, packaging, display and specialty products printers. It’s also one of the first printers to stake a mega claim in large-format sheetfed technology. It’s been running these sizes of presses since 2001 and hit paydirt almost immediately.
Last fall, Strine bought a new seven-color, 64˝ Roland 900 XXL, and it, too, has been running at near-capacity since it was installed. The press is equipped with a double coater, an extended delivery and fully automatic plate changers. This ultra high-tech press is bridging the gap in Strine’s ever- growing inventory of large-format equipment, further expanding the company’s XXL business.
Strine already had three MAN Roland large-format presses: two six-color, 56˝ Roland 900 models and a six-color, 73˝ﾝRoland 900 XXL with coater. The trio of presses were running around the clock, and the addition of the new 64˝ press enables Strine to continue the three-shift, 24/7 momentum.
Interestingly, Strine Printing execs originally didn’t expect the large-format business to take off like it did. So, they had no idea they would be installing another XXL press a year after their 73˝ machine was added. The extra capacity of the 64˝ Roland 900 was needed sooner, rather than later, explains William Kirk, president of Strine Printing. Also, he notes, the 64˝ press was the perfect fit between its existing 56˝ and 73˝ press formats.
Diversify and Multiply
The 64˝ Roland 900 XXL was purchased to diversify Strine’s product offering to its existing customer base, as well as gain entry into new markets, notes Mike Strine, CEO. “We were already positioned as a high-volume printer and found that the large-format equipment enhanced that position, even as we broadened our sales and marketing efforts into the display and packaging work that requires presses of this size,” Strine explains.
“Further, we were looking for areas where we could differentiate ourselves from the market at large—areas where there was strong continuing demand. King-size point-of-sale materials and litho wraps for packaging are two of those areas.
“Much of our point-of-purchase work is dynamic and very high-end,” adds Strine. “Most of our customers are blown away by the fidelity and quality of printing of the new MAN Roland presses, particularly those who have had less than fantastic experiences with some of the older large-format equipment that still dominates the landscape. Without a doubt, the quality of work coming off our new generation large-format equipment meets and exceeds that of our 40˝ presses.
“On high-volume signature work, our large-format capabilities have redefined the threshold between sheetfed and web quantities,” he points out. “Also, supporting these presses with bindery and finishing equipment capable of handling the large sheets has been key to maximizing the cost benefits.”
But what about Strine Printing’s overall ROI?
“Taking into consideration the investment needed for supporting equipment, such as super-sized CTP devices, three sheeters to convert the stock for these presses, extra-large skid turners, not to mention the diecutters and folders that support the format—the ROI question is much more complex than it would be for a single additional press,” Strine adds.
“The financial commitment we’ve made has resulted in redefining Strine as a print provider far beyond the traditional 40˝ players and has brought us into an entirely new segment of the graphic arts marketplace. We’ve been in the large-format business since 2001, and things have worked out better than we could have ever hoped.” PI