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Old Faithful

Jan 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Many sprawling plants trace their roots to a single small-format press. We’ve all heard inspirational tales of Chiefs and Multis clattering away in basements and even some entrepreneurs’ bedrooms. But today, small-format presses face considerable competition from evolving toner-based equipment, as well as increasingly efficient larger format presses. What next for these workhorses? Here are some insights from Hamada (Yorba Linda, CA), Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA), KBA (Burlington, VT), Komori (Rolling Meadows, IL), Presstek (Hudson, NH), Ryobi/xpedx (Lenexa, KS), Sakurai (Schaumberg, IL) and Screen USA (Rolling Meadows, IL).

Overflow, shorter run lengths and other issues
Komori product manager Doug Schardt says the migration of volume from small offset presses to digital platforms has been overestimated. Nonetheless, he concedes commodity work is waning. “If a printer had been depending on it,” says Schardt, “that printer had better have something else to do.”

Presstek’s business development manager Tom Leibrandt cites a “marked rise” in demand for multicolor, short-run work, both DI and conventional.

Declining run lengths, says Don Harvey, vice president and GM, xpedx Ryobi division, create “substantial opportunities” to produce jobs in the 500- to 5,000-copy range on small-format offset equipment—in which Ryobi claims to be the “share leader.”

Fred Kirpec, service manager for Sakurai, reports seeing an increase in gang runs on the company’s 58 series presses, which can handle four-up 81?2 x 11-inch work that often represents overflow from larger presses.

Mike Dighton, vice president of marketing and customer service for Hamada, says large press overflow is a perfect fit for the B452 Mark II, a sophisticated 20-inch press that can run postcards, brochures and POP material.

KBA North America president of marketing Eric Frank adds that the best way to counter commoditization in the 20-inch market is with equipment that can, like the Genius 52 UV, perform longer runs with heavier solids and better quality on a wider range of substrates. When a small press can do that, he says, it becomes “more of a value-added product than a price-per-piece product.” It’s vital for small-format printers to offer high quality, he adds, because, “You’re not going to make a profit by competing with the DocuColor at Staples.”

Big printers need small presses, too
Small-format presses aren’t just for small printers. Dighton observes that runs of 200 to 1,000 can be cost-prohibitive on a 40-inch press because the plating expense is high relative to the quantity produced. A 20-inch press comes in handy for that work, which printers are seeing more frequently as print buyers increasingly avoid inventorying large amounts of product. Schardt agrees that midsize and large plants are a viable market for small presses, which he says are never more appreciated than at the moment when a good customer brings in a very-short-run job that won’t run economically on the plant’s full-size equipment.

Mark Crawford, Screen USA’s product manager, output solutions, agrees: “A 40-inch shop might be helping out its customer base by running small jobs, even though they can’t make money producing those jobs on their large-format presses. Our Truepress 344 lets them [handle those jobs more efficiently].”

Tim Kirby, xpedx printing technologies national sales manager, says printers of all sizes are buying 14 x 20-inch presses on a regular basis because it’s the smallest press that can print with quality comparable to 40-inch equipment.

Heidelberg’s director of product management for commercial print, Joerg Daehnhardt, says that while small shops and entry-level four-color businesses are among the major markets for its small-format presses, other users include shops with solid experience in four- and five-color printing, including CIP4 and color management; commercial printers offering inline coating; and plants with specialty applications.

Unlike a large-format press, which may replace two or even three older presses, the replacement ratio is less dramatic on the small-format side. Schardt explains that because a vintage 20-inch press is simple to run, a good operator can print very efficiently with it. He pegs the replacement factor closer to “a press and a half” than two or three.

Daehnhardt agrees that the benefit depends on what is being replaced. If a printer upgrades from a duplicator with a T-head, then the ratio could be 1:2. But he adds that when most printers invest in new small-format presses, they’re typically seeking better quality and job flexibility rather than just more capacity. Features such as zoneless inking, perfecting, coating and inline die cutting—all available on the Speedmaster SM 52—are what really add value in small-format equipment, says Daehnhardt.

All kinds of automation
Harvey says Ryobi offers extensive automation across all sizes of its press offerings. Ryobi’s 14 x 20-inch presses can makeready in six to eight minutes and handle 81?2 x 11-inch and 11 x 17-inch work at 15,000 sph as productively as 28- and 29-inch presses. Dighton notes that Hamada’s B452 Mark II features automatic plate loading, blanket washing, running register control, stream feeding and CIP3 ink fountain setting: “Everything that a 40-inch press has—we just shrunk it down to a 20-inch press.”

There is, however, a practical limit to small-press automation. As Daehnhardt puts it: “When was the last time you saw a small-format press running at 18,000 sph?” Noting that a 20-inch sheet isn’t nearly as challenging to control as a 40-inch one, he explains some features that are essential for larger presses are neither feasible nor cost-effective for smaller formats. An “adapted level of automation” is Heidelberg’s goal.

Heidelberg cites the small commercial market segment as among its top priorities—the vendor recently launched a special Web site, Printers Advantage (www.printers, which targets this group. The site includes information on Printmaster QM 46, Printmaster 52, Printmaster GTO 52 and Speedmaster SM 52, along with other small-format equipment. Membership is free, and printers need not own a Heidelberg press to register.

How low can they go?
Comparing a small offset press to a digital one is a tricky proposition. The cost of digital clicks never changes, whereas in an offset run, spreading makeready and other fixed costs over an increasing number of copies drives the unit cost down. Cost-wise, digital beats offset hands-down in very small quantities; but at some point beyond that, offset becomes the better deal. The more automated and efficient a small press is, the lower that crucial crossover point can be.

(Editor’s note: Steve Johnson’s column on pg. 47 offers additional insights on digital print expenses.)

Many variables apply, but most vendors agree the low end of the offset scale is somewhere between 200 and 250 four-color impressions. Leibrandt says many Presstek DI customers can print competitively at 250 sheets. He claims it takes only about “$40 worth of material and 10 minutes of time” to start up a DI press. Dighton, Schardt, Kirby and Kirpec say 200 is possible with Hamada, Komori, Ryobi and Sakurai small presses, respectively.

According to Frank, printing on the KBA Genius 52 UV could be cost-justifiable for as few as 20 sheets. Daehnhardt says a Heidelberg’s Speedmaster SM 52 equipped with the vendor’s new Anicolor anilox inking and dampening technology can come up to color in 20 sheets after only seven minutes of makeready.

But sometimes convenience trumps price. As Schardt observes, if the clock is ticking, a digital press is clicking. How quickly does the customer need the job? If it’s a case of interrupting work already in production to make room for a higher-priority job, digital equipment might have the edge. So, hitting the exact crossover point isn’t always the main consideration.

Can they outdistance digital?
Daehnhardt acknowledges a digital press is the obvious choice if the printer wants a variable-data printing (VDP) platform and has an infrastructure for producing it in place—but this, he contends, is seldom the situation. If the bulk of the printer’s revenue comes from static, short-run work, Daehnhardt says the best investment probably would be a combination of a midrange digital press and an offset press to handle everything over 500 copies.

Harvey adds that if the variable content is mostly text, a printer might opt for a lower-end digital copier or even mailing equipment that can process variable content.

Small-format presses fight on
Schardt says printers also must consider the complexity of typical jobs and the extent to which the work involves varnishes, coatings, and other enhancements beyond the scope of digital equipment. Kirpec, likewise, notes that most shops these days handle a “huge variety” of jobs, and digital won’t be the answer for all of them. Offset, he says, still makes it possible to offer a “well rounded” printing capability that digital systems often can’t. Despite challenges from many worthy competitors, small-format offset printing is alive and kicking.

Digital printing packs a punch
Print Industries Market Information and Research Organization (PRIMIR) recently completed “Small Commercial and Quick Printer Study 2006-2011.” According to PRIMIR: “The kind of work that had traditionally been the specialty of the small commercial and quick printer—relatively straightforward, one- or two-color, small format, quick turnaround, short run—is increasingly being produced at the desktop, workgroup, or central reproduction department (CRD) level by toner and, more recently, inkjet printers. It is no wonder that two-thirds of respondents see this as a direct threat to their business.”

The likely effect on equipment purchasing decisions within the segment, according to the study, is that: “Fewer sites intend to invest in conventional offset presses. For those who do, one- and two-color offset portrait type presses remain favored. Demand for four-color printing is growing, and so is the interest among small commercial and quick printers in buying four-color output devices. This need is most likely to be met with the purchase of a digital output device (color copier/printer or digital press) or DI press, rather than a conventional four-color offset press.”

How small is small format?
NPES small press designations include “SF Lith Press 23 inches and Under (includes 23 inches)—(two-page and Under).” A subcategory, “Small Offset Presses and Duplicators 19 inches and Below” comprises small presses without stream feeders, registration devices and other advanced features. A variety of sizes are offered, but the 52-cm (14 x 20-inch) format prevails. Some larger presses don’t quite fit these sheet classifications but often are used for the same applications as “true” small-format presses. Examples include Komori’s 20 x 26-inch Spica 26 and Sakurai’s 18 1?8 x 22 3/4-inch 58 series.

Some small presses are a good fit for printers of all sizes, but a few are better suited to midsize and large operations. KBA, for example, reports that midsize and large plants, plastic printers, package printers and specialty printers are buying its Genius 52 UV, while Heidelberg’s high-end Speedmaster SM 52 targets a different market than its workhorse Printmaster QM 46 or Printmaster PM 52.

The direct imaging question
The PRIMIR small commercial/quick print market study identifies DI printing as a preferred solution for short runs in color, and DI presses, with their built-in digital plating capability, would appear to possess a technical edge. Eric Frank, who markets a 74-format DI press for KBA, says that the things that make a DI press more productive vs. a non-DI press are its faster register, more accurate color output, and reduced waste. Waterless printing with a DI press is, says Frank, a stable, more streamlined form of production that takes variables out of the process.

Watch that clock
Leibrandt casts a skeptical eye on tales of 10-minute makereadies on conventional offset presses, contending these claims overlook offline platemaking time and costs. With a DI press, says Leibrandt, the 10 minutes of makeready are measured when the press goes into operation: “from the RIP to the first salable print.” In conventional printing, he argues, makeready doesn’t start until the plates are made and on the press, and it doesn’t include the time spent imaging and otherwise preparing them.

According to Kirby, Ryobi sells its small-format 3404 DI “to those who want the technology”—shops that need the platemaking to be self-contained because of space constraints, or those that are “digitally oriented” and like having a DI press in their stable. However, he says, “Only in very rare instances is a DI press going to ROI out faster or better than a 14 x 20-inch press.”

Crawford says Screen’s DI offering, the Truepress 344, is a good fit for in-plant and other operations transitioning from duplicators to “real” presses, as well as book printers’ cover printing needs and 40-inch shops seeking high-quality small-format capabilities. Because the Truepress is a wet offset press, he says, it could be used to produce proofs jobs destined for a 40-inch press, particularly for die-hard customers who balk at inkjet proofs.

Heidelberg stopped producing its Quickmaster DI 46-4 in 2006 (although it continues to resell used, reconditioned models). Daehnhardt says that while DI remains a good way to break into four-color production, improvements in offline CTP and prepress workflows have caught up with direct-imaging presses. When a shop’s workload exceeds five makereadies per day, he says, a conventional press supported by a CTP device becomes very competitive with a DI press.

Screen to host DI press event
Screen USA showcased its Truepress 344 DI press (pictured) at Graph Expo and will host a special 344 event at its Rolling Meadows, IL, facility February 5-7, 2007.

“We’ll demonstrate the press doing five- and six-color work,” says Mark Crawford, product manager, output solutions. “A third-party manufacturer will show an inline coater and we’ll run a wide range of stocks, foils and so on.” Screen also will highlight the Trueflow Rite TP workflow management system.

Crawford says quality is a key point of differentiation for the Truepress DI. “It’s a not a waterless press,” he explains. “The Truepress 344 runs off-the-shelf inks and the same blankets as a 40-inch press. The dot structure is the same. Other than creating plates on press, the Truepress prints identically to a 40-inch press.”

The four-color Truepress 344 has a maximum sheet size of 13.4 × 18.5 inches and a maximum imaging area of 13 × 18.1 inches, with a top printing speed of 7,000 sph. It utilizes high-speed 830-nm, multi-array laser diode (MALD) imaging technology to expose processless plates. Plates can be imaged at 2,400-dpi resolution using screen rulings up to 175 lpi. In addition, Spekta screening enables printers to enjoy the benefits of AM/FM hybrid screening. In just over five minutes, the press is ready to start the next job.

Launched at Ipex in 2006, the Truepress now is in full release with approximately 35 installations worldwide, including two in the United States. See

Patrick Henry is the director of Liberty or Death Communications. Contact him via