WOA 50th ANNIVERSARY -- Turning up The Heat
By Mark Smith
Rollin', rollin', rollin' . . . keep them presses rollin'. This submission to the Web Offset Association (WOA) slogan contest didn't make the final cut, but its catchy rhythm makes it hard to get out of your head once you've heard it. The little ditty particularly has resonance for fans of Clint Eastwood or TV westerns who hear the echoes of the "Rawhide" theme song.
Pinpointing exactly how long web offset presses have been rolling along depends on how far one stretches the product definition. In "The Power of the Press," a chronicle of the history of printing presses, author Paul Martin Tonsing reports that the Bigelow rotary offset press, in 1907, was the first webfed offset press to be advertised for sale.
However, the modern web press really came into its own in the 1950s, which coincidentally was the same decade that "Rawhide" debuted.
The early '50s also saw the rise of what was to become the Web Offset Association. Some 13 companies were represented at the first formal meeting of the group in the summer of 1953, according to the minutes.
Much of the discussion centered around technology-related topics, which is not surprising given the state of developments at that time. From the outset, the members also agreed that forms presses should be considered a distinct category of technology and were not to be a focus of the industry association.
Half Century of Changes
The intervening 50 years have brought a great deal of change to WOA, the industry and the technology itself. Modern web offset presses roll along at much higher speeds, print more colors and feature an array of in-line finishing capabilities—all supported by electronic controls that simplify operation and improve quality.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the association, if not the process, we asked some of the industry's technology experts to share their assessments of the current state of web offset's development. We also asked them to go out on a limb by offering informed guesses as to what the next 50 years might bring (see sidebar).
"The most important development in modern web offset presses has been the enabling of faster makereadies with electronic controls, ink-key presetting and closed-loop operations," contends Dick Holliday, a well-known industry consultant and the founding partner in 3P Inc., of Westerly, RI.
When former President William J. Clinton first ran for the office, his winning campaign slogan was: "It's the economy, stupid," notes Joe Abbott, director of technical support at MAN Roland, in Westmont, IL.
"For as long as I have been in the printing equipment business, the message has been: 'It's the makeready, stupid,' and that's not changing. To meet this challenge, modern web presses are equipped with an automation package that includes color and register controls, a preset computer hooked to the RIP via CIP3, plate changing automation and an AC shaftless drive."
The combination of utilizing ink fountain presets and onboard closed-loop color control already has had and will continue to have a significant impact on the web offset industry, agrees William Lamparter, president of the PrintCom Consulting Group in Charlotte, NC.
"This advancement reduces makeready time and waste while providing consistent color throughout a run. The net result is increased productivity and more consistent quality."
"The reductions in make-ready through automation have been significant, making short runs on web presses economical," adds Richard L. McKrell, corporate vice president of R&D at Heidelberg Web Systems in Dover, NH.
You Have to Believe
Another believer in the benefits of digital presetting and closed-loop color control technology is Ted Ringman, another industry consultant and vice president of development for the Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation in Sewickley, PA. "It's one of a few technologies that can be retrofit to older presses to increase the competitiveness of the machine and extend its economic life," he says. "Today, technology introductions can have an immediate productivity and bottom line impact. To remain competitive, printers now often must become early adopters."
As for the development of a shaftless drive mentioned by Abbott, Ringman adds that it has provided for greater press configuration flexibility and improved dynamic stability. "This technology also allows for future press expansions and reconfiguration," he continues. "In addition, waste reduction is improved by eliminating the torsion 'wrap up' of a conventional line shaft. Copies are saved as the press changes speed in acceleration and deceleration."
The shaftless design does save energy costs, allow for easier installation of a press and permit more flexibility in configurations, Holliday agrees.
Once the web press is installed, though, he says that the benefits to the user are less apparent. "It's like having a better automatic transmission in your car. If it still operates much the same, do you really care that the transmission is now a simpler device? You can still buy a press and wear it out without having to do anything to the drive shaft," Holliday claims.
Gapless technology also is seen as another important development on the mechanical side of the web offset process.
"The combination of gapless printing units and pinless folders has revolutionized web printing, resulting in wider and faster web presses," asserts Heidelberg's McKrell. "This development has dramatically increased the productivity of offset press systems while saving paper (by reducing cutoffs)."
Breakthrough in Design
Holliday agrees that gapless operation has brought a breakthrough in printing unit configuration and design. "Manufacturers now can make presses wider, without increasing the diameter of the cylinders. In addition, streaking due to cylinder gap bounce is virtually eliminated."
Improvements also have been made in the thermal part of the web offset process equation, the experts report. New dryer chill technology makes it possible to measure and adjust the tension in every web span and, when combined with multi-drive technology, will lead to fewer web breaks, McKrell points out.
The integration of drying and chilling will continue to improve product quality and the gloss factor of the set ink, adds Ringman. "Evaporative cooling also will improve the process by reducing the required press footprint and providing better handling of a wide range of substrate basis weights," he says.
On the chemical side, single-fluid inks generally are seen as the most significant potential development. Taking a wait-and-see approach seems to be the order of the day, though.
Dampeners are much better today than they were years ago, thus dampener-related problems have diminished, Holliday points out. "It still will be wonderful when the industry can reliably and cost-effectively operate with a single-fluid system, but the technology is not here yet."
Waterless inks showed great promise a few years ago, but the ink cost could not be justified, points out MAN Roland's Abbott. "Single-fluid ink technology offers similar promise for wide adoption, but the economics will determine its fate."
On-press Imaging Cynics
The concept of on-press imaging of digital plates/cylinders tends to illicit similar skepticism.
"A cynic might say a printing press is no place to put a platemaker," Holliday notes. "It's a bad operating environment and a digital platemaker is an expensive piece of equipment, so you should use it fully, or nearly fully, when you have one. If you put an imaging system on-press, you can only use it on one cylinder and only when that cylinder isn't printing. At best, you can use it half the time.
"I'm not ruling out (on-press imaging) developments in the future, but the numbers (costs, ROI) are not close to right yet," he concludes.
Ringman sees the advantage of the technology in general, but questions its placement on-press. "Digital imaging, in all of its technological forms, increases print quality by eliminating variables in the image composition," he says. "But a large web offset press may have more than 16 printing couples, so the economics would make it impractical to add the number of imaging systems required.
"On-press imaging will have the greatest impact on smaller presses effectively used for shorter run, high-turnover work."
Instead, Ringman envisions use of a removable image sleeve or tube that can be processed off-press for longer runs on larger web presses. "The image tubes or sleeves will mount like gapless, tubular blankets," he explains.
Broad Range of Advancements
Picking up on a theme Ringman introduced earlier, consultant Lamparter believes the full impact of technological developments on the web offset industry has been broader than any one given advancement.
"The most significant impact can be seen in the perhaps understandable failure of many web offset printers to adopt current-generation technology," he asserts. "This inaction is understandable, considering the capital investment required, but it's not necessarily wise. Given crews of equal competence, it is difficult for a five- to seven-year-old or older machine to compete with a fully automated 2000+-era press."
This gap is likely to only grow in the future, too. Lamparter believes printing technology is on a dual path of technological development.
"Conventional web offset processes are being constantly improved, moving from a craftsmen-dominated approach to computer-aided operation and, ultimately, an interactive, computer-controlled, integrated manufacturing process.
"Meanwhile, variable imaging digital color presses, now in their infancy, are moving into puberty and are headed for a maturity where they will dwarf conventional analog offset, just as over time offset has almost (but not quite) made letterpress extinct."
Looking forward is all well and good, but having witnessed first-hand much of the progression of web offset technology through his positions at Harris Graphics and MAN Roland, Holliday thinks it's important that the industry pioneers get their due recognition, as well.
"In the early days of web offset, not very many people were excited about its potential. It took a few dreamers, with a lot of ink under their fingernails, to really drive the process," he notes.
Holliday prefers not to name names for fear of leaving someone deserving off the list, but he says all who championed the process had an uphill struggle. "The presses weren't very good, for one, and the market didn't want the technology. The innovators really had to swim upstream, but as they say, 'the rest is history.' "
That's at least 50 years of history and counting, so far, and here's to hoping technological advances will keep the industry going for another 50.
Predictions from Industry Experts
Q: How will web offset presses and printing plants be different from today in five, 10 and even up to 50 years from now?
president, PrintCom Consulting Group
In virtually every industry that adopts digital technology, over time digital forces out analog. Print will be no exception, and the trend has already started. By 2010 to 2015, the PrintCom Consulting Group forecasts that 10 percent of all printing will be produced on direct imaging (DI) equipment.
At the same time, variable image (VI) printing will explode—growing from six to seven percent process share to 25 percent of all printing.
By the Web Offset Association's 100th anniversary, if the group still exists, it will likely be called the Web Digital Association.
There are several technologies—from a vastly improved ink-jet to electrocoagulation and others as yet unannounced—that will result in variable imaging presses that print as fast or faster than offset, and at equal or higher quality levels.
In the meantime, watch for hybrid presses that combine traditional fixed image printing with variable imaging and integrated finishing. DRUPA 04 will be the "Digital Press" exposition, benchmarking the incursion of both the DI and VI digital presses into the more traditional analog printing strongholds.
corporate vice president of R&D, Heidelberg Web Systems
The future will be focused on keeping web printing competitive with other printing methods and other media as a means of advertising and delivering information.
The printing process will be more automated in the future, with presses operating similar to office copiers. You'll load the data, set the number of copies and then prepare for the next job. The press will operate unattended.
Major future improvements will also come in the postpress area, as this is now the most labor-intensive operation and the greatest cycle time inhibitor in getting to a finished product.
industry consultant and vice president of development, Print & Graphics Scholarship Foundation
In the near term, say the next five years, there will be little technology change from what is seen today.
A tremendous number of presses were installed in the 1990s. This level of technology will remain competitive for the near-term horizon. However, major developments will continue in the front-end digitization, presetting and on-press color management arena.
In the 10- to 50-year horizon, dramatic changes will be implemented in the entire printing process. Digital imaging engines will be used for all print runs under 30,000 copies, and they will print variable data for personalizing products at high speeds.
Automation will continue to be added to web presses and the technology will become more "gravure like" in its speed, simplicity and the ability to vary the repeat length. It will be the dominant printing process for run lengths greater than 30,000 and up to two million impressions.
The future web offset press will look completely different and be physically smaller than the press of 2002. The single recognizable component in the future will be a synthetic rubber printing blanket sleeve to transfer the image.
director of technical support, MAN Roland
As an industry matures, improvements in efficiency become more important than speed increases. In the case of printing, all the data indicate run lengths will continue to go down.
In order to compete with toner-based technology for very short runs and electronically delivered data, web offset needs to continue to adapt and effectively shorten its economical run length.
This will mean imaging on-press, reducing human input to decrease labor costs, changing materials to further reduce make-ready, and linking up with new folders or directly to finishing equipment to shorten the manufacturing cycle time and cost. It will also take adapting ink-jet systems for personalization and gravure or flexo stations for special requirements.
In addition, the industry needs to continue to adapt to societal demands for environmentally acceptable use of natural resources. Use of radiation curing methods, such as UV and EB, will continue to grow in packaging and niche commercial markets, but heatset will retain its economic and operating advantages.
My overall prediction would be that the consumption per capita of printed paper will continue to grow in relation to GDP for many years as new uses for printing develop around web offset capabilities.
Bios of Our Panel
Joe Abbott has been involved in engineering, product development and service for web offset equipment since 1963 when he joined the Cottrell Co. He is known as the father of the M-110 and the developer of the first pinless double former folder at Harris Corp. Following a stint at E.R. Smith Associates in the late 1980s, Abbott has spent the last 12 years at MAN Roland in engineering and technical sales.
Since 1991, Dick Holliday has been a founding partner in 3P Inc., a general printing and equipment consulting practice that specializes in working with web printers seeking special equipment to meet evolving print market requirements. Previously, he spent the majority of his career in executive positions at Harris Corp. and MAN Roland.
Bill Lamparter is recognized worldwide as a printing and publishing industry consultant with a reputation as a practical futurist and a track record of correct early identification of technical and market trends. He is known as an authority on emerging processes including current developments in computer-to-plate technology, digital printing, computer-integrated manufacturing and alternative electronic media.
Richard McKrell got his start in the industry in 1980 as vice president of engineering for the Publications Press Div. of Harris Corp. In 1987, he assumed the position of vice president of engineering for all products when Harris Graphics consolidated its operations. The company subsequently was purchased by Heidelberg.
Following his graduation from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 1970, Ted Ringman held various sales-related positions at Harris Corp. In 1990, he joined Goss Graphic Systems as director of sales, and marketing director for Baker Perkins-Hantscho products. He became a consultant in 2000, and joined the P&GSF in 2001.