American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

FULLSIZE PRESS TRENDS

May 1, 2001 12:00 AM


         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

“WE CAN HANG 10 PLATES IN 10 TO 25 MINUTES [ON OUR PERFECTOR]. WE GET OUR FIRST PULL IN 30 MINUTES.”

The progress of technology and the evolution of the printing market are clearly evident at Sprint Denver, a general commercial printer in Colorado. The company, which has 100 employees and produces high-end annual reports and brochures, has the oldest six-color, 40-inch Komori sheetfed press in North America, as well as two new 40-inch presses.

The older press, which bears the serial number 101, is a 1983 model, and still runs reliably. Nowadays it is kept busy with long-run work. The shorter runs are scheduled for Sprint Denver's two 2000 Komori Lithrone 40-inch presses, an eight-color perfector and a six-color straightline press with a double coater.

Curiously, according to company president Kent Zwingelberg, the 1983 press is actually faster than the two newer models. “Because both of the new presses are eight units — including coaters — they run at 12,000 sph, versus the older press that runs at 13,000 sph,” he explains. The 1983 press, however, has a makeready of two hours. The 2000 presses are ready in 40 minutes.

In today's printing market, it's how fast a press can be up and running that determines its value. “Run lengths are shorter every year, so it's makeready that counts,” notes Zwingelberg.

THE COMPETITION

It's this same trend of shorter run lengths that has placed fullsize presses in a curious position. “It's not so much that 40-inch press sales are going down — sales of other format presses are going up,” observes C. Clint Bolte, principal of C. Clint Bolte & Associates (Chambersburg, PA), a graphic arts consultancy. In particular, halfsize presses are experiencing a boom in popularity, with most press manufacturers reporting increased sales in the 28-inch format (see “Midsize sheetfeds: just right,” January 2001, p. 36). The smaller presses are not only less expensive — a major plus during a shaky economy — but they also require less manning and are well-suited for handling shorter runs.

Pressure for market share is also coming from the large-format sector. “In the last year or so, five of our customers that traditionally only ran 40-inch equipment are buying much larger format presses,” notes Bob McKinney, marketing director at KBA North America, Inc. (Williston, VT), manufacturers of the 40-inch Rapida 105 sheetfed press.

“Four or five years ago, a 64-inch press wasn't nearly as automated as the 40-inch format — the presses ran more slowly and the required manning was greater,” says McKinney. Now automation has ascended to the large-format presses, the exec explains, resulting in equal manning, makereadies and print quality to the 40-inch presses.

So what's the status of the 40-inch market in the face of such competition? Recent trends indicate that the format is far from stale — in fact, emerging technologies and advancements in press engineering are breathing new life into the fullsize sheetfed press.

PERFECTORS: NEW AND IMPROVED

Perfectors used to be considered a quick means to getting a two-sided job out — as long as your customer didn't demand high quality. “In the old days, on a perfector-printed piece, you could tell which side was turned over and was traveling against the cylinders in the second part of the press,” notes Dave Kornbau, vice president of operations at Strine Printing Co., Inc. (York, PA), an $80 million printer specializing in greeting and trading cards. This marking problem dissuaded many printers from giving perfectors a second look.

Fortunately, perfectors have changed. “In today's market, the presses have improved so much that perfecting a heavy-density printed sheet gives you quality product and delivery,” Kornbau observes. “One time through the machine, and it's a finished product.” Strine Printing has four 40-inch Heidelberg Speedmaster 102 perfectors, ranging from two to 10 colors; the printer also boasts 12 other sheetfed presses, including a 55-inch, six-color MAN Roland 900.

According to Detlef Janke, Speedmaster 102 marketing director at Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA), the Speedmaster 102 features a uniquely designed impression cylinder jacket to prevent marking, and is available with Cutstar, a roll-to-sheet device that “enables customers to benefit from lower costs in purchasing reel stock compared to sheetfed material.”

“There's a definite trend toward the perfector format,” observes Martin Peterson, marketing manager at Akiyama Corp. of America (Pine Brook, NJ), manufacturer of the Bestech 40 straightline, fullsize sheetfed press and the J-Print perfector. “As printers become more concerned with the workflow through their plant, they keep trying to reduce the total time between the beginning and end of a job. They want to eliminate the wait time between printing the front and back of a job — which can be anywhere from eight hours to two days.”

Peterson adds that when printing two sides of a job with a straightline press, printers also have to perform a second makeready, which wastes sheets that already have one side printed satisfactorily.

CREATING A NICHE

Some printers are even perfecting jobs to fill a niche. Lithotech International (El Monte, CA) is a $13 million commercial printer specializing in books and magazines in short to medium runs. Lithotech recently added a five-over-five, 10-color Akiyama J-Print to its pressroom, which also houses six-color, 40-inch and 28-inch Akiyama Bestechs with coaters. According to Chase Blaogon, COO and vice president of sales and marketing, the printer invested in the perfector to distinguish itself from the competition.

“We felt we needed to create our own niche to give us an edge — we thought a perfector was perfect because we can take on jobs that are too small for a web press and too big for a straightline sheetfed press,” the exec explains. Run lengths vary between 5,000 to less than 20,000 pieces.

Producing such jobs efficiently requires a quick makeready, which the fully automated perfector provides. “We can hang 10 plates in 10 to 25 minutes — much faster than the straightline 40-inch press,” Blaogon notes. “We can get our first pull in 30 minutes, vs. an hour for the straightline.” The J-Print's impression cylinders have a ceramic coating designed to eliminate offset on the “wet down” side of the sheet. The press also features automated plate changing, remote plate cocking, and impression and paper size preset systems.

Other 40-inch sheetfed perfectors offered include the MAN Roland 700, Mitsubishi 3F and the Komori Lithrone 40SP. Sakurai has also introduced the 2102 series 40-inch, two-color perfector, an automated press aimed at the book market.

AUTOMATING THE ‘SOFT’ MAKEREADY

“We've all come a long way toward addressing the ‘hard’ makeready — automated plate changing, blanket washing, ink roller washing,” says Douglas Schardt, assistant product manager at Komori America Corp. (Rolling Meadows, IL). Komori offers the Lithrone 40 straightline and 40 SP perfecting press, as well as the Project D 40-inch direct-imaging press (see “The 40-inch digital-imaging mindset,” p. 33). “Now we're starting to automate the ‘soft’ makeready — getting to color, getting color in the right spot and minimizing makeready waste.”

Schardt adds that historically, the speed and success of the soft portion of a makeready has been based on the skills of the press operator. With the ongoing skilled labor shortage — and the subjectivity inherent in manual press makereadies — fullsize press manufacturers have been introducing systems designed to automate the area of makeready that determines customer satisfaction. Two areas in particular that have seen a lot of development are color control and pre-inking.

At Sprint Denver, a combination of Komori's K-Station print production management system, which enables offline makereadies, and the KHS pre-inking system has sped up operations dramatically. KHS provides pre-inking and ink-removal functionality. During the first makeready of the day, it establishes a standard ink film, which it adjusts when changing the press over for the next job. It includes K-ColorProfiler, a software package that creates an ICC profile of a press, containing all data required for color control, device calibration and benchmarking.

“The pre-inking system lets us cut down on makeready time — 90 percent of the time we get to color on the first pull of 50 sheets or better,” says Sprint Denver's Zwingelberg. He notes that without the KHS system, 40 minutes and 1,000 sheets of paper would have to be added to the makeready.

Zwingelberg adds that K-ColorProfiler has the added benefit of matching the capabilities of the press and the proofer, preventing the production of a proof that places unrealistic demands on the reproduction abilities of the press.

FASTER COLOR

R&B Group (Chicago) is a 12-year-old, $12.5 million commercial printer that caters to the agency and designer market. Its pressroom houses two 40-inch MAN Roland 700 presses, a six-color and a seven-color, both with coaters. “The first and foremost reason we bought the MAN Rolands was because of their computer-controlled control inking (CCI) system — we come up to color faster than we ever had in the past,” says Mike Zienty, vice president and general manager.

The CCI system utilizes a high-speed scanning densitometer to take readings of pulled sheets throughout the run. It works with MAN Roland's process electronic control, organization and management system, PECOM, to control color automatically to a preset density. Rudy Valenta, MAN Roland manager of corporate sales, notes that the CCI system can offer 25 percent to 40 percent savings on makeready.

R&B has certainly enjoyed such benefits. Its designer and agency clients have more confidence in the accuracy of a press OK. “Our clients actually are prepared to stand on a color OK a lot longer than average — one color OK and they're done,” says Zienty. An average press OK at R&B takes from five to 10 minutes.

Mitsubishi offers its Auto-Preset Inking System (API-III) and Color Control System; according to John Santie, product manager of sheetfed presses, the new Diamond 1000 and 3000 presses, which will debut at Print 01, also feature enhancements to the ink fountains for quick ink change. “The Diamond 3000 is similar to the existing 3F presses, with some enhancements to the feeder, ink fountains, cylinder transfer and electronics,” says Santie. Other press manufacturers offering pre-inking and color control include Heidelberg's CPC 1 remote inking and register control system, and the CPC 21 spectrophotometric color-analysis system. Akiyama is currently beta testing its first color-control system, which, according to Peterson, will be introduced commercially in the near future.

HIGH GLOSS, LESS COST

Most 40-inch sheetfed presses sold today are equipped with a coater — and for many printers, especially those specializing in high-quality, showpiece jobs, double coaters are becoming a necessity. Although the resulting high gloss certainly makes for an attractive piece, double coaters are a big investment and can take up the equivalent of two units' worth of pressroom space. Printers investing in longer presses feel the space crunch the most.

“We will hear more of eight-, 10- and 12-unit perfector purchases in the future — well over 90 percent in 40-inch configurations,” predicts Bolte. “Currently they're printing with a double coater, which is why UV ink and coatings are growing in popularity.”

In the UV curing process, certain substances in special UV inks and coatings are exposed to UV light — usually from a lamp positioned in between printing units or at the end of the press — causing them to solidify. UV offers the same high-gloss finish as double coaters, but without the same space demands. It also requires less time to dry. The resulting finish is highly durable and scratch-resistant.

The technology, however, is not a one-size-fits-all solution. “UV is fine if you have a need — but it doesn't fit every bill,” cautions Ray Prince, senior technical consultant at GATF (Sewickley, PA). He says that UV coating is ideal for applications such as printing on non-absorbing substrates or for producing high-quality jobs typically printed on web presses, such as coffee-table books.

EB: THE UV ALTERNATIVE

UV curing technology is also a significant investment, and UV inks and coatings are more costly than conventional formulations. A standard coater can be used to apply UV coatings, but it may need to be equipped with anilox rollers to accommodate the application of a thicker coating layer. Also, a press must be dedicated solely to UV printing. Drying can also prove a tricky matter for applications when UV coating is applied over conventional inks.

The introduction of hybrid inks, however, has eliminated some of these problems. And in many instances, the technology can more than pay for itself. (See “UV printing shines,” p. 48.)

An alternative technology to UV is electron beam (EB) drying. EB systems, such as EZCure from Energy Sciences, Inc. (ESI) (Wilmington, MA), expose specially formulated coatings to accelerated electrons, instantaneously transforming the liquid into a solid. It produces half the heat of UV curing and no volatile organic chemicals. The actual materials used are also less expensive.

EB drying is widely used in web printing and converting applications. In fact, according to Prince, only one sheetfed installation exists, at a Boston commercial printer. Although previously an expensive technology, EB is becoming more affordable; this and the eventual introduction of competing EB systems for sheetfed may make it attractive to more printers. “It's totally dry, with no solvents,” Prince notes. “That could breathe life into sheetfed.”

Alpha Beta pushes the envelope

Alpha Beta Press Inc. (Tinley Park, IL) is highly experienced in short-run printing. Its customers include financial, healthcare, manufacturing and public health companies, which demand timely delivery of their brochure, marketing material and customer communication jobs.

To ensure jobs get out on time, Alpha Beta's pressroom investments focus on automation — in particular, its fully automated Mitsubishi Model 3F-16 six-color, 40-inch press with inline coater. The press boasts a speed of 16,000 sph, which Alpha Beta tests constantly. “We try to push the envelope on speed,” notes Chuck McDermott, vice president of operations. “I think speed is all in the makeready — that's the nature of short-run business.”

The press is networked via Mitsubishi's DiamondLink System with two of Alpha Beta's other Mitsubishi presses, a four-color 40-inch Model 3F-16 and a six-color, 28-inch Model 1F-15. The printer runs a Scitex Brisque workflow from its RIP, using Inkpro, a software program that provides an ink profile of each color. When an operator runs a job, he or she can pull up an ink profile from the server. The result is even faster makeready, a more organized workflow and standardized ink-key setup.

The 40-inch digital-imaging mindset

Of the 15 direct-imaging (DI) presses on the market or in development, there is only one 40-inch DI press: Komori America Corp.'s (Rolling Meadows, IL) Project D. The press features CreoScitex digital-imaging technology, and is expected to cost $2 million to $3 million, depending on configuration.

Printers and industry pundits have acknowledged DI presses as an appropriate solution for the short-run market, where quick turnaround is paramount and fast makereadies enable speedy project execution. Stan Najmr, director of DI marketing at system vendor Presstek (Hudson, NH), argues that speed is one of the biggest advantages of DI technology, but it won't necessarily play out as an advantage in the eight-up format. “On 40-inch presses, materials are running for many hours or many days. Fast makeready only makes sense if there are six to eight jobs on a press per day,” says Najmr, who doesn't see huge market potential for 40-inch DI presses.

Short-run more economical?

“Komori has done a nice job of automating the press — changeover is quick and the direct-to-press technology enhances that, so short-run becomes economical at 40 inches,” says Brad Palmer, director of short-run printing at CreoScitex. “There are some products that have been typically printed in low-quality black and white, so buyers could get the cost structure and fast turnaround they needed, but where full-quality, full-color would clearly be more appealing to their customers.”

According to Palmer, Project D will be used for booklets, larger posters, point-of-sale displays, certain types of financial publications, directories, children's books and new types of work that didn't exist before. “Our position is that, yes, DI is about short run, but it's not limited to press format,” states the exec.

Jacki Hudmon, general manager of Komori's imaging systems division, is quick to point out that a 40-inch DI press is not for everyone. “If a printer already has five conventional presses, CTP probably makes the most sense,” she says. “Printers that have a certain niche or a customer that requires quick turnaround times are the ones who should buy this press. There isn't just one answer — it's so specific to a printer's requirements.”

According to Hudmon, Komori has sold the first Project D press in North America, a 640 DI with coater. The press will be shown at Print 01, when it will be officially available for commercial release.

Plate challenge

Hudmon says that the main challenge in bringing the press to market has not been in finding interest for the product, but in ensuring that customers will have multiple plate options. Komori has certified Agfa's Thermoline plate for the Project D press. No-process plates from Asahi Chemical, Kodak Polychrome Graphics, Presstek and others are compatible with the DI press and are in various stages of testing and certification. Currently, plate choices include no-process plates from Kodak Polychrome Graphics, Agfa and Asahi Chemical. Komori is also working with Agfa and CreoScitex on an advanced lithographic material. At Graph Expo, CreoScitex demonstrated its SP plateless digital offset printing using Agfa's LiteSpeed media. The SP process involves spraying the lithographic material in a thin coating onto a reusable substrate that is mounted on the plate cylinder of a press. CreoScitex's SQUAREspot thermal imaging technology then images the media, switching the lithographic properties.

At the end of the print run, the substrate is cleaned and ready for the next print job. Palmer anticipates that the technology will not be commercially viable for two to three years.

Will there be buyers?

Palmer estimates that two years after Print 01, 40-inch DI presses will be widely accepted. “It's a multi-year process to educate the industry on new tools,” he says.

“It's a different mindset — and getting over that mindset is a hurdle,” agrees Hudmon. “But the head technology is very stable and the press technology is very stable, and those two elements combined deliver a great product.”

Training in the pressroom

Traditional training for a 40-inch press operator is often limited to hands-on instruction from a more seasoned operator. To provide press operators with a skill set beyond the pressroom, many printers offer formal training programs for their employees.

“Skill and knowledge are as important as they have ever been,” says Jim Workman, training programs director at GATF (Sewickley, PA). “But there needs to be more of a systems mentality. It's important to not just have some craft skills, but to think in a broader way, to understand the whole digitization of print.”

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Printing Division (Salt Lake City) implemented GATF's sheetfed and web offset press training programs to “take a young group of press operators with limited experience to a set standard — quicker than through the traditional hands-on approach,” according to swingshift supervisor John Bernstein. The LDS Printing Division employs 300 people who produce a wide range of products, utilizing a combination of web, multi-color sheetfed and specialty offset presses.

Over the course of 16 to 20 months, participants meet for about one hour each week, where their time is divided between in-class theory instruction and hands-on practicum.

“It requires a real time commitment by the company,” GATF's Workman notes. “We provide the content and structure to the program, but the hardest part is providing the motivation for employees to learn.”

Bernstein maintains that the support of upper management is a necessary component for successful results: Training and test-taking are completed on company time, and LDS pays for the GATF and National Skills Standards (NSS) exam fees, including retakes, if necessary. Management also formally salutes employees who complete the program with an awards dinner, framed certificates and mentions at company-wide meetings.

Bernstein believes that LDS' investment of time and money in the GATF program has definitely paid off. “Employees who go through the program feel more comfortable dealing with unfamiliar problems. They gain better troubleshooting and researching skills,” he says.

Not one-size fits all

Dick Niehaus, vice president of the Assn. for Graphic Arts Training (AGAT), says training isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition. “The first thing printers must do is perform a needs assessment of their employees, and find out what their talents are and what they need to learn.”

Niehaus also says press operator training should extend beyond the pressroom. “They should be more involved with paper and chemicals, and they should have refined troubleshooting, problem-solving skills,” says the exec. He notes that with any type of training, a company must commit to spending the time and money. “Printers can set up a training program, but if the presses are running overtime and the pressroom can't give up those people, the program won't work. It's a matter of establishing priorities.”