Large-Format Sheetfed Presses -- Bigger Gets Better
By Erik Cagle
It wasn't long ago that large and extra-large format sheetfed offset presses were considered primary tools for the package printing market.
In Europe, notes Ken Kodama, vice president of sheetfed sales for Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses (MLP U.S.A.), these oversized machines were not used just by folding carton producers, but also by publication and commercial printers. But the productivity of the super-sized press and its ease of use is winning over favor among U.S. printers in the commercial sector.
"The manning for a large-format is similar to a 40˝ press, so the makereadies are very similar," Kodama says.
"For example, with perfecting, in order to get a 16-page format, you're perfecting on both sides. On a 56˝ press, you can do it on one side, although you still have to work and turn the sheet. On a large format, you are not limited by the pagination of the sheet because perfecting requires gutters for the slow down wheels on the back side and ceramic-type jackets on the impression cylinders, which will affect print quality. So there are some advantages to the large format."
The role of the perfecting press has made a dramatic impact in recent years, according to Kodama, primarily because the technology has improved. "I think the technology has gotten good enough that it's easier for customers to use. However, even now, the perfecting unit is an item that will require proper maintenance, which the large format will not require, and perfecting jobs require some extra thought for workflow that is not required for straight printing.
"Considering the ongoing pressure on margins for printers, any time you can accomplish something in one pass is money saved for them."
Mitsubishi enjoyed a strong PRINT 05 & CONVERTING 05 show in September, promoting the Diamond 5000 (51˝) and 6000 (56˝) models in the large-format realm. Tandem Perfector presses aren't available for the large format yet, but Mitsubishi is considering producing them in the future.
Gaining efficiencies, particularly through the power of perfecting, were among the hot topics during PRINT 05 in Chicago. No one needed to tell KBA North America that large-format printing is the rage in sheetfed circles; its sales for the past year exploded by 42 percent, primarily due to its successful efforts in large-format press sales. The company has sold in excess of 700 large-format presses worldwide since 1995, notes Michael Iburg, product specialist for KBA.
One thing that has allowed KBA to differentiate itself, according to Iburg, is its modern control console technology. Advantages include: optional integration into a digital workflow; comprehensive automation of functions such as plate and pile changing or non-stop pile logistics; online densitometry and spectrophotometry quality control; and automatic presetting for press components and auxiliary systems.
With printers churning out both paper and board stock on models ranging from the 51˝ Rapida 130 to the 81˝ Rapida 205, Iburg notes that KBA presses can switch from 40-lb. paper to 64-pt. board with pushbutton control in a matter of seconds—a two-man operation taking upwards of 30 minutes to accomplish with other machines, he contends.
"Plus, our large and super-large format models produce the same high quality generated on a 40˝ press, but give the printer twice the productivity as one 40˝ press," he says. "The Rapida 142 outputs two 40˝ sheets at a time and the Rapida 205 outputs four 40˝ sheets at a time."
Heidelberg USA, which garnered much attention with its Speedmaster XL 105, has also witnessed customer demand for increased efficiencies. Additionally, the company has received much feedback for its long perfecting technology, which offers the fastest job throughput and turnaround time in all format classes, asserts Roland Krapp, vice president of sheetfed for Heidelberg USA.
"Also, the integration of specialty printing applications like UV and hybrid printing are, by far, more common today than just a few years ago," Krapp remarks. "In addition, custom-built configurations like the DuoPress—combination flexo and offset—on the Speedmaster CD 74 and CD 102 presses continue to contribute a significant share of orders to our overall sales."
During PRINT 05, Heidelberg also announced it would likely create a press designed for the very-large-format (VLF) market. He says that the company has been asked by its customers to produce a VLF model for several years. Such a product would allow Heidelberg shops to seamlessly integrate all of their print production tools into their workflow, while providing an increase in efficiency and transparency, according to Krapp.
More than anything, printers are realizing that they can leverage new large-format sheetfed technology to differentiate themselves in the marketplace, contends Doug Still, marketing manager for MAN Roland.
"That means they're turning to presses that help them stand out from the competition by equipping them to offer new applications and higher efficiencies," he says. "It's the best way they can widen their profit margins, which have been virtually flat for the past four years."
The Roland 900 XXL has generated much attention recently, with its 73˝ model delivering 328 percent more printable area than a conventional 40˝ machine, Still remarks. Aside from the increased profit margins that result, he feels one of its most attractive qualities is the ability to print a 64-page signature in a single pass. Meanwhile, it opens the commercial market up to the world of package printing. Point-of-sale applications are also very attractive to printers, Still notes.
While large-format technology is not brand-spanking new, it has made inroads on what were once slow operating speeds and time-consuming makereadies. "So we applied the latest engineering and digital electronics to produce large-format presses that are virtually as nimble, in terms of both makeready and speed, as most 40˝ presses," Still says.
The one-pass productivity, more than anything, has provided a boost for perfecting presses, notes Doug Shardt, product manager for Komori America. With the improving technology levels on the perfector, the concept has experienced greater acceptance.
"There are printed products being perfected that traditionally wouldn't have been thought of as perfecting pieces," Shardt says.
"When you look at the factors weighing in on it, one of the biggest trends is stability of the press," he adds. "There are a lot of influences going on with the press on any given day—different operators, stocks and jobs. Machines today are more capable of handling that variability without changing what they do, and that's due to technology."
One company that has truly bought into Komori's technology is Consolidated Graphics (CGX), which purchased nine 40˝ presses, six of which are Lithrone S40P perfectors. Despite the multi-press sale to Consolidated, Komori America President Stephan Carter points out that 80 percent of its business is still derived from the small- to mid-sized printer.
In the large-format division, Komori offers the Lithrone 44 and Lithrone 50, with both numbers representing the sheet size of the presses.
In terms of perfecting presses, Akiyama International touted its 10-color Jprint perfector during PRINT 05. The Jprint is primarily a mid-range machine, but tops out at the 44˝ sheet size.
While bigger does not always equate better, large-format and VLF presses are making believers out of more than just the package printing crowd.
Large Wave Of the Future?
While the large and very-large format presses will never replace the 40˝ and under class, it does appear the bigger presses are generating newly found sources of applications, and revenue. Our panel of manufacturing experts is split on whether large format is the wave of the future.
Ken Kodama, MLP U.S.A.: "Yes and no, depending on what kind of jobs you want to run. It's a much larger press investment; you're talking about double the price for a large-format press when compared to a 40˝. Not everyone can afford a press like that, so you need enough volume to feed it and pay for it. It's not going to replace the 40˝ market, but there may be printers who have the volume, that may be looking at large format to do the things they used to do on 40s for increased productivity."
Doug Shardt, Komori America: "Certainly in some segments, but I don't think it's universal. This market is tough. When you're trying to pinch a profit out of something, you're looking for any efficiency you can get. Some of it will apply to large formats, others will apply to general job efficiency. It's a question of how you can work that job through your plant as quickly as possible with a minimal amount of problems."
Michael Iburg, KBA North America: "Absolutely! KBA has long believed that large-format sheetfed presses were not only applicable in commercial printing, but would help to make the printer more efficient and profitable. Commercial printers are learning about all of the automation we have on our large-format presses to enable fast makereadies, ease of operation, high quality and a way to differentiate them in the market."
Roland Krapp, Heidelberg USA: "No. These machines are not going to be the wave of the future for the sheetfed printer. The VLF printing presses will continue to fill a specific need in the marketplace. For today and the foreseeable future, some of our customers have a consistent requirement for the VLF. As their partner, we will deliver a product to them that exceeds their expectations and capitalizes on the inefficiencies of today's currently available products in the market."
Doug Still, MAN Roland: "There's no doubt that the XXL formats will grow in popularity once printers see how well they are performing. That said, we shouldn't downplay the current and future impact of long 41˝ perfectors, because they have the ability to better address other areas of the print product spectrum. The lesson to learn here is that the printer needs to consult with a press manufacturer that offers both solutions—extra-wide formats and long perfectors—so he can get an honest assessment of the equipment that will best serve him and his customers."