WEB OFFSET SPECIAL REPORT -- Breaks and Splices Ahead
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.
Direct response singles and marriage mail—post-Anthrax scare—are slow to recover at half-web and mini-web demanders. Units and weights remain stagnant, and insertion into clear polybags is preferred over paper carriers. The bindery and lettershop/mailing house of the future may have to be a cleanroom with collator-sterilizers and antiseptic workers. The latter isn't a bad idea.
A bad break for direct mail printers is coming from the latest generation of digital four-color duplexers, many with into-the-mail delivery. While unit costs to the sponsors exceed six times that of web printing, the impressive response rates so far rationalize it. On-the-run versioning plus personalization also permit different messages (and even jobs) to co-mingle in carrier route sequence; obviously impossible in web printing.
As a defense perhaps, a web break with the past is coming soon to your plant: Roll-to-roll. "Oh-no," cry the in-line hardliners and, yes, there has been violence over in- or off-line for decades. Now, however, digital and specialty finishing are demanding the "rollover." A vast array of 1-2-1, B-2-B and S.O.B. requirements and capabilities make 1970-style in-line press-to-ship obsolete. Hybrid applications, with web printed backgrounds that accommodate ink-jet and laser versioning and personalization, will increase press throughput if not utilization.
Soon "history" will be those web-finished products that make for snake-like festoons around a plant and for legendary makeready-to-run times. Roll-to-roll-to-truck; that's the future. Or, if a job is one of those odd or impossible formats that today's imposition-challenged buyers specify, off-line batteries of specialty finishing machines will convert roll-to-weird. Bring on the 49-pagers with flush gates and outboard tips, whatever they are!
It will take a brave craftsperson to anticipate the probability that tomorrow's pressroom will be peripheral rather than central to production. Smart innovation will be in process integration rather than what the late, great Harry Quadracci envisioned to be the "shortening of the process" at press. Practicality, as well as physics, are dooming most direct-to-cylinder propositions as already-invented digital imagers move up to speed.
Also, the justifications for very-large-format web presses in a population-concentrated Europe are not so relevant in most of North America. The term "hybrid," in all of its neobiological human and machinery connotations, is destined to be this year's buzz word.
Most exciting to the by-now-exhausted web veterans are the imminent ends of SWOP, SNAP and other once-needed standards to control the gremlin of dot gain. The nobel printed-piece prize should go to whomever came up with the idea of same-size dots, and much smaller ones at that. FM screening is at once the greatest gift to web offset and to everyone who eventually gets to see and read it. Stochastic enables all presses to print better.
Cold webs, long suffering indignities on the issue of press quality, are taking the cure with UV. This wonder therapy, coupled with FMS, is producing astoundingly heatset-like results. Sure, the inks are more expensive, but not when compared to the operating costs of ovens (ouch!). Imagine a contest of equals where the winner is, oh my, a non-heatset printer! This will indeed herald the culmination of the web metamorphosis.