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Sep 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Lost in high-tech digital hype, the small-format, multi-color, sheet-fed offset press nevertheless continues to gain in popularity as the workhorse of the commercial printing industry.

Continuously being upgraded to include more automation, the small format sheet-fed press generally characterized as having a cylinder width of 25 inches to 33 inches, also is found in many large plants as a companion to its larger format cousins. In web plants, the small format sheet-fed press often is used to print covers, inserts and specialty items.

Late last year, the remaking of the small press was in full swing. By Print 97, virtually all multi-color sheet-fed presses in this category were offered in versions that can best be described as "full featured." With speed ranges in the 10,000 to 15,000 range and producing high-quality production features, these multi-color presses are hot sellers in today's marketplace.

They are hot sellers because the current generation of small sheet-fed equipment meets the commercial printing industry's needs for easier-to-operate, user-friendly presses that are capable of cost effectively delivering high-quality process and multiple-color short-run work on production schedules that are becoming tighter and tighter.

While more automation and upgraded features now are standard equipment, press auxiliary suppliers also have enhanced their products to offer the small-format press user a wider range of dampening systems, feeders, anti-marking devices, coaters, blanket cleaners, ink handling systems and other peripherals.

To meet the changing needs of their individual companies, many print buyers have down-shifted their quantity requirements, but have upgraded their use of color as well as quality demands. It is these customer requirements that have been driving the improvements in the 25-inch to 33-inch sheet-fed press designs to encompass electronic controls and other productivity-enhancing devices. These improvements have made the press operator's job easier, less dependent on craftsmanship and more reliant on technology.

There is a growing conviction among printers that less skilled operators can achieve better quality in a shorter time using automation. The bells and whistles of automation pay off for printers.

This trend toward automation goes hand-in-glove with the trend to develop configurations in smaller sizes that accommodate more color.

"The majority of our high-quality printer customers are opting for six-, seven- and eight-color 28-inch presses equipped with tower coaters," observes Ray Mullen, vice president of sheet-fed press sales and marketing for Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses. "We've seen a definite increase in the purchase of half-size presses, usually as a supplement for existing 40-inch units."

The Mitsubishi exec also points out that virtually all of the features available on 40-inch presses have become incorporated into their smaller cousins. "We have semi-automatic platechanging, Delta dampening and automated controls on our F series 20 x 28-inch presses, which are rated at 15,000 sph. These features make it easy for sheet-fed printers to handle a variety of run lengthsand provide faster turnaround for their customers," observes Mullen.

While the smaller format, multi-color press is finding its own market niche, the single-color unit is dying out as new press sales succumb to a wide range of digital printing devices. Although many printers still use one-color presses, single-color volume has been steadily declining. Printers requiring single-color equipment are turning to the used machinery market with increasing frequency.

PrintCom Consulting estimates that single-color lithography produced on all sizes of press equipment has been declining in absolute volume at the rate of five percent to seven percent for the past three years.

Some single-color products have morphed into two-color or process color items being produced on multi-color sheet-fed offset presses. Some products have remained single color and have migrated from offset to digital printing. Finally, some products have been eliminated by alternative electronic media.

Growth in the multi-color small format press market is being fueled by the combination of growth in both spot and process color work as well as the increase in short-run volume. The use of small-format computer-to-plate devices and, in some cases, polyester plates, has helped printers using this equipment to improve their competitiveness.

Perhaps the world's most ubiquitous small-format press is Heidelberg's 14 x 20.5-inch GTO, with an installed base of more than 90,000 units and about 36,000 presses. Recently upgraded with improved dampening, a new ink key system and large ink storage capacity, the classic GTO continues to maintain its position as a best-selling press.

Complementing the GTO is the Speedmaster 52, available in one-, two-, four- and five-color models with perfecting options.

The trend toward producing targeted advertising material and publications with several versions of an insert or signature has stimulated the growth of the multi-color short-run market. The requirements of this marketplace can often be best met by the two-up or four-up sheet-fed press, observes Eric Frank, Printmaster marketing director at Heidelberg.

The four-up eight-page market is the target of Heidelberg's Speedmaster 74, a 20.5 x 29-inch press that is available in single, two, four-, five-, six- and eight-color configurations with perfecting options. Since its introduction in 1994, when it replaced the SM72, more than 10,000 printing units in about 2,000 presses have been placed in operation. The Speedmaster 74 is rated at up to 15,000 sph, and is available with an additional perfecting unit in the five-, six- and eight-color models.

The press is designed for shorter press runs and fast turnaround, according to Heidelberg. Its console control system and various automation features make it feasible for a single press operator to run the press, perhaps with supporting floor help. When equipped with a high-pile delivery, the Speedmaster 74 can be configured for in-line coating with an extended delivery and IR dryer modules. The Speedmaster 74's inking system is a trickle-down modification from its eight-up Speedmaster 102 sibling. It features a 20-roller ink train with a continuously rotating ink fountain roller mated to a continuous flow dampening system.

A 4/4 perfecting configuration of the SM74 features refined perfecting jackets, Venturi-effect sheet guidance and electronically controlled perfecting conversion. "The SM74 4/4 perfector provides printers using half-size equipment with an important competitive advantage," claims John Dowey, Speedmaster product manager, citing reductions in makeready and waste, reduced material handling and lower manning requirements as features that add up to cost reductions.

In addition to the Speedmaster 74, Heidelberg also offers the S-Offset press line, a 20.5 x 29-inch single-color SORM and a two-color SORMZ. Both are rated at 12,000 sph. These presses find their most popular applications in adding a fifth or sixth color to sheets printed on a four-color press. They also do one- or two-color backup work to jobs printed on a non-perfecting machine. The one-color press is commonly used for long-run single-color work, while the two-color finds application in two-color direct mail printing. Ryobi, best known as a duplicator manufacturer, has been moving upscale, offering a 20 x 26-inch landscape press.

"The 14 x 20-inch press is our bread and butter, but our growth will be in the multi-color half-size market," explains Don Trytten, Xpedex vice president. Xpedex distributes Ryobi equipment in the U.S.

Ryobi offers a unique 2/1 three-color press in both the 14 x 20 and 20 x 26-inch size. Currently the only three-color presses available, they are rated at 13,000 sph. The presses are based on Ryobi's satellite perfecting system, which features an on/off switch to control 2/1, 2/0, 1/1 or 1/0 printing. The most popular applications for this configuration are the short-run production of 2/1 or 4/2 direct mail, brochures and business documents.

In a continued expansion of its small-format product line, Ryobi will show a prototype of a 20 x 27-inch press at IPEX. To be known as the 680 series press, the 15,000 sph machine is designed for quick turnaround, short-run, multi-color markets. It will be offered in four-, five- and six-color configurations with a coating option. The press, which will not be shown at Graph Expo, is expected to be available in the United States late in 1999.

Another unique configuration comes from MAN Roland, which brought back the six-up 23 x 29-inch size for a DRUPA 95 reintroduction after a 20-year hiatus. Labeled the Roland 300, the press is available with up to eight printing units with one perfecting station standard and up to three stations as options to provide for a variety of configurations including 4/4. Either two roller or anilox coating capability is optional.

Touted for the productivity made possible by the press, 23 x 29-inch sheet size (six-up layout positions the pages portrait style), the Roland 300 also offers the same range of automation features as the larger Roland 700 series. The Roland 300 is rated at 15,000 sph.

MAN also offers the Roland 200, a 20 x 29-inch press available in one-, two-, four-, five- and six-color configurations with coating modules and dryer options. The Roland 200 is rated at 13,000 sph and features simple operation and a small footprint.

Komori has just introduced a 28-inch four-color configuration Lithrone press targeted at the growing printer ready to make the step up to single-pass four-color production. Although specifically targeted for the "step-up" printer, Mary E. Lisi, Komori director of marketing communications, points out that it has been engineered for 15,000 sph. Like all Lithrone presses, it features double-size impression and transfer cyclinders for outstanding registration accuracy with a minimum of gripper changes.

Equipped with Komori's Print Quality Control (PQC) console, inking, dampening and on-the-run register moves are remotely controlled. The PQC provides the ability to preset ink key profiles, ink roller and dampener settings. The Komori Monitoring System (KMS-1) on the new 2800 offers a computerized digital link between the operator and the press console. The system offers a range of features, including full press maintenance schedules, real-time press and console diagnostics, and the availability of production statistics.

Komori also offers a range of small-format sizes from 14 x 20 inches, 20 x 26 inches and 28 inches in its standard Lithrone series and 26-inch and 28-inch in the Sprint II series. The smaller format Lithrone series presses are available in two, four and six colors with perfecting and double coating options. The Sprint II is available in one- and two-color versions with a perfecting option.

Sakurai president Larry Fuller characterizes the prime market for his company's Oliver line of offset presses as the half-size quality sheet-fed printing niche. Sakurai offers the computer-to-plate PlateMaster as a complement to its small-format press line.

The Sakurai PlateMaster and halftone digital proofing (HDP) system is a private label version of the Pearl Imaging System developed by Presstek.

As a press/CTP option, Sakurai offers an ink preset system for less than $20,000 that connects the PlateMaster to the press console. The ink preset system is a continuous self-learning system that enables the software to mimic the normal actions of a plant's press operator, according to Fuller.

Omnitrade, which specializes in the small press market, offers a double feeder head that reportedly provides consistent higher run speeds on a greater variety of paper stocks. The Omni-Adast presses can be equipped with the Adamatic dampening system, which is designed to supply a uniform film of dampening solution to the plate. Omni-Adast offers a range of presses in the 19 x 26-inch and 20 x 29-inch range.

Other manufacturers with interesting offerings in the half-size press range are Shinohara with a line of 26 x 20-inch units and Manugraph Shiva with several models in the 19 x 26-inch and 20 x 26 to 28-inch range. Akiyama is going strong with a 20 x 28-inch size, as well as the unusual 23 x 32 1/4-inch four-color size. KBA leads the pack with a fast-running 20 x 28-inch press, and Mitsubishi dominates in the 20 x 28-inch size range with an eight-color press.

Reflecting printers' requirements to compete in a marketplace demanding more short-run color on quick turnarounds at rock bottom prices, the market for multi-color presses in the 23 x 32-inch size range is hot. The models generally are rugged, highly automated machines, with almost all manufacturers offering a variety of perfecting options and productivity enhancements. There is a plethora of equipment available--the production management trick is to select the sheet size, number of units, automation and perfecting options that most cost effectively meet the widest range of customer requirements. Careful analysis is required to optimize the critical profitability factor.