Decision Points 2006 is the theme for this 54th edition of the Web Offset Association (WOA) Annual Management and Technical Conference. To a large extent, if any recent year were plugged into that phrase, the hot issues, industry trends and challenges would be the same.
In a promotional piece for the conference, Ralph Pontillo, 2005-2006 chairman of the WOA board of directors and vice president/division director at Transcontinental Printing, observes that: “Critical decisions must be made daily—strategy and tactics, operational challenges, investment decisions and procedures. A quick glance at the myriad of (2006 session) topics yields volumes of opportunities: world and industry viewpoints and trends, maintenance, sales, technology, training, continuous improvement, business integration, recruiting and retention of employees, and much more.”
The major forces—good and bad—shaping web offset’s near-term future are already widely known. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers when it comes to figuring out the best strategy for dealing with the challenges. The issues touch on technology, marketing and management.
Building on his earlier comments, Pontillo says, “Right now I see the industry struggling with its identity. It has become about more than just print.”
Competition has made response time an even more critical issue. He still finds it striking that the industry went from just talking about direct-to-plate technology to near 100 percent adoption in such short order.
“Web printers have to continually focus on process improvement and optimization,” advises the industry exec. “Printers know how to do that, though. Where they need help is with diversification and what comes next.”
Looking out over the slightly longer term—five or 10 years and beyond—Pontillo sees an increasingly more critical concern.
“The industry as a whole needs to be communicating with the next generation coming up about getting into this business. Print doesn’t have the standing as a career like it once did. We need to reach out to this group, which is very wrapped up in the latest digital technology,” he says.
“We’re only as good as our people,” Pontillo continues. “Ideas come from them, and they make the technology work. Treating them right is important to our ongoing success.”
On the technology side, he sees on-demand digital printing technology making its way into the web offset arena, but perhaps more so for versioning than producing entire products.
Art Salayda is completing his term as WOA vice chairman and is in line to move up to chairman. He is also president of Evergreen Publishing and Printing in Bellmawr, NJ, and deferred to his vice president of sales and marketing, John Dreisbach, for the company’s market outlook. Evergreen targets its heatset and cold web printing services to community newspapers, as well as trade and business publishers.
Among the trends Dreisbach sees:
* a major increase in the use of color in community newspapers;
* daily newspapers doing custom publishing to capture or hold onto ad dollars from companies that are partial to coated paper; and
* some coldset web publications converting to heatset printing, either in part or in whole, to stay competitive or gain an edge by offering added value to advertisers.
In today’s competitive pricing environment, efficiency is critical, Dreisbach agrees. “Margins are relatively small, so we need the most efficient, effective and consistent operating equipment and processes possible.”
“We continue to live in a ‘do more with less’ world,” Dreisbach continues. “This challenge is as much about the competition between various industry companies to secure good people. Management’s job is to coach a group of aggressive thinkers; letting people know that you value their ability and contribution.
“You can acquire technology and skilled workers, but good attitudes can’t be purchased. They must be grown, shaped and maintained through good management, which includes leading by example,” he adds.
Doing more with less can be extended to presses, but the decision to retrofit an existing machine rather than buy new can get complicated, according to Dreisbach.
“Retrofitting new fountains with presetting and closed-loop color adjustment to replace 15- to 20-year-old original components would have a measurable payback—less waste and quicker makeready. Doing that would probably be worth the effort. Installing new drives and controllers and motorizing manual registration controls on a press that is 20 years old may not be worth the investment,” he concludes.
Catalogs and magazines are key areas of focus for William Lamparter, president of PrintCom Consulting Group in Waxhaw, NC. His industry research has found several interesting trends in the web offset sector.
“In the last several years, personalization on the back cover of catalogs has been in decline,” Lamparter reveals. “When we ask catalog merchandisers why they’re not doing it, the real answer is that it’s not proving to be effective in terms of recipients actually making additional purchases as a result of the message.”
Instead of putting a message in that space, most catalogers are finding they get a much greater return by rearranging the back page and adding another product, Lamparter adds.
Catalogers are interested in going the next step up and producing all or parts of their catalogs digitally so they can be personalized for individual recipients, he adds. “As of now, though, they can’t afford doing that because the cost of toner is too high and the speed of production too low.”
Many of the firms with the vision to do this are the ones dropping 500,000 to a couple million catalogs, notes the industry consultant.
“The interviewing we’ve done indicates there could be significant change in the way catalogs are handled if and when digital printing becomes ready to tackle that application,” he continues.
As for the other end of the spectrum—competition between offset and gravure—Lamparter says he is hearing some discussion about this, primarily among catalogers. “There is talk of making the switch, but we haven’t been able to find any catalog merchandiser now using heatset web that actually has a plan and commitment in place to shift to gravure,” he notes.
One finding of his industry research that mystifies the consultant: those web printers that have gone CTP yet still haven’t implemented ink fountain presetting. “The payback is clearly there,” he observes.
Web printers in this group offer one of two reasons for not making the move, according to Lamparter. They either don’t think the technology will work or think their old presses can’t be upgraded to support digital presetting of ink fountains. “Both are wrong,” the consultant adds.
“If a printer has gone CTP and is not doing ink fountain presetting, it’s leaving money on the table. Every analysis we’ve done says it pays out. The technology cuts makeready time, reduces paper waste and gives you truer color. It eliminates variation from one press operator to another,” he says.
Color variation clearly needs attention, Lamparter asserts, given the results of PrintCom’s ongoing study of the catalog sector—“Analysis of Catalog Production Trends—Paper, Selective Signature Assembly, Personalization/Ink-jet Imaging.”
“We gather a very large number of consumer and business-to-business catalogs from five or six collection points around the country. All of the copies are compared to assess the quality of the images. Two out of the five copies of a given catalog in a single mailing may be “radically” different from the other three. Radically different meaning you can order a product and get something you didn’t want because the color isn’t what it was represented to be in print,” Lamparter explains.
Color variation doesn’t have to occur in the products featured to have a negative impact, as things like shifts in background colors and flesh tones can give a lower quality appearance to the overall catalog, he points out. “There’s still work to be done in color control in terms of variability during the run,” the consultant advises.
“We’ve been doing this analysis for a number of years and, while the problem is not as severe as it was, the change is pretty marginal,” he continues. “Closed-loop color control should be on every web press printing a magazine or catalog. Obviously, that’s still not the case today.”
The market potential for other advances in web technology, such as auto transfer capability and even wider webs, remains an open question, Lamparter believes.
“You can do more versioning (with on-press auto-transfer), but I’m not sure that does any more for you than doing it on the bindery line. The technology has a place, but it’s not the same as being able to digitally print an individual catalog for every recipient,” he explains.
“What we are seeing across the markets, both for catalogs and magazines, is a continuing reduction in pages, Lamparter continues. “If paging is coming down and versioning is going up, what does that mean for wide webs?”
Dick Holliday, another industry veteran, is now a consultant with 3P Inc. in Westerly, RI, which focuses on optimizing presses with aftermarket technology. But he also has extensive experience on the new press manufacturing side of the business. He agrees that all of the forces driving web offset in 2006 are nothing new to printers in this segment.
“The industry as a whole is trying to preserve its market share against the more immediate media,” Holliday notes. “The heavy iron, to a degree, is also fighting to preserve its place against toner-based, variable data printing.
“I think the most significant single phrase for web offset is ‘run lengths declining in most market segments.’ Printers are having to do more makereadies per impressions printed, and it’s taking more presses to produce the same amount of printed matter in a year. The impact of spreading the same fixed overhead for a press across fewer good signatures sneaks up on printers,” he asserts.
Other trends that continue to buffet printers in this market include demand for more immediacy, targeting and color, along with increasing use of lighter weight papers, Holliday says. “If all that isn’t enough, there’s continuing price pressure.”
Run lengths are declining, not just by five or 10 percent, but more like 50 percent when version changes are factored in, he adds. “That puts a premium on makeready speed enabled by presetting.”
Virtually every press productivity enhancer available on a new press can be matched by the aftermarket for existing presses, Holliday contends. This includes semi-automatic plate changing, preset systems, closed-loop color control and servo drives. Two exceptions are press format and motorized folders, in terms of providing a payback, he adds.
With makeready being done electronically based on plate file data, it’s possible to make wider/bigger presses ready in about the same time as a 2x4 format machine, Holliday points out. “The best press for short runs is the one that requires the fewest makereadies to complete the job. That’s the larger format, except when the final imposition of the job is less than the page capacity of the press.
“This is another new reality that has snuck up on a lot of printers. The conventional thinking always was to use small presses for short runs, until we automated makeready. Increasing the format size can be a very big lever in the makeready cost equation,” he explains.
Maximizing pressroom efficiency is not all about electronics. Presetting and running to the numbers make it more important to keep presses in their standard operating range.
“There now is a much greater impetus than most printers realize to have a very good preventive maintenance program to ensure their presses are always reliable and predictable.”
Printers also may want to rethink the mindset of equating fewer operators with pressroom efficiency, he adds. “Run lengths coming down so rapidly may merit a bit of a reevaluation of the benefits of saving a man on a press crew. You don’t want to compromise your overall costs by skimping on crews. You may actually want more crew on hand for the more frequent makereadies.”
When doing this reevaluation of manning requirements, managers should also think in terms of skill requirements, not just numbers, the consultant asserts. Running to the numbers, auto plate changers and presetting is reducing the press expertise required, at least to an extent, he believes. “You can have one person seeing to the expert functions on multiple presses.”
Similar to Lamparter, Holliday says he wants to see real-world results before passing judgment on four or more color auto-transfer capabilities. With black-only changes, a shop may only through away 50 signatures—or even just 10 if they’re really good—in making the changeover, he explains.
“With four-color work, you have to get back up to color at high speed. I want to see how fast operators can get the color acceptable again because they are running waste at a very high rate,” the consultant observes.
As a final thought, he says switching to metal-back blankets is a low-tech option that’s getting overlooked. Making the change quiets down and smooths out a press, he asserts.