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Iron giants

Sep 1, 2007 12:00 AM


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AMERICAN PRINTER asked the major manufacturers of VLF presses and three of their customers about the realties of stepping up to production in formats that make 40-inch presses seem tiny. KBA (Williston, VT), MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), and Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses USA (MLP USA) (Lincolnshire, IL) currently offer VLF equipment; Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) expects to unveil the first of its VLF products at Drupa 2008, next May. The printers include one that had operated older VLF presses prior to installing the new model; one that added a VLF machine to a pressroom that had contained nothing larger than 40 inches; and one, a former broker, that installed a VLF press as the platform around which it launched its printing business.

The vendors say stepping up to VLF means learning to think in new productivity terms. “If something limited to one-up printing on a 40-inch press can be printed three- or four-up on a VLF press, productivity is doubled or even quadrupled,” notes Roland Krapp, Heidelberg's vice president for sheetfed product management. Mitch Dudek, MLP USA's sheetfed business development manager, says that the ability to impose more pieces up on the sheet is a particular advantage for package production, “especially if the customer has die-cutting equipment to mirror the press sheet size.”

Hans-Willy Schuetz, MAN Roland's business unit leader for large-format sheetfed presses, says that when job structure and volume are appropriate for the use of a bigger machine, a large-format press is inherently more productive and profitable than a midsize platform. He explains that this is because a VLF press can be made ready in about the same time as a midsize machine and be run by the same number of operators — but at a much greater rate of output per hour.

Use your pagination imagination

According to Walter Chmura, vice president of product management for KBA, VLF printing's combination of high-volume productivity and imposition flexibility can be lucrative. “Most printers think a large-format press is two 40-inch sheets running side by side,” he says, “but that's an oversimplification.”

Chmura explains that printers might discover they can paginate, for example, “32-page signatures, three 12-page signatures, six pocket folders, 19 sell sheets, and two six-pagers combined with two eight-pagers combined with two four-pagers.” What's more, says Chmura, all of these paginations can be imaged on one set of plates to run sheetwise, work-and-turn, or in a single pass.

Chmura lets the dollars-and-cents implications speak for themselves. He maintains that the average large-format printer sees an earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (EBITDA) profitability of 16 percent to 18 percent while the average 41-inch printer must make do with an EBITDA margin of 5 percent to 7 percent. Whatever the returns, he says, “New markets are opened up to large-format printers that were not available to them when they only had 40-inch equipment.”

None of this would be possible if today's VLF presses had not overcome the limitations that hobbled legacy presses: sheet instability, color variation across the sheet, and running speeds that seem stuck in first or second gear, by present standards.

Some familiar features

“All MAN Roland sheetfed presses, 29-inch and larger, have the same operating system and controls,” says Schuetz. Krapp, likewise, notes that Heidelberg is adapting its Prinect Axis Control, Image Control, and InPress Control color solutions for use in the VLF family it will introduce at Drupa. Chmura says that KBA's DensiTronic S closed-loop color control actually makes it easier for a press operator to control color on a large-format press than on smaller equipment.

According to Dudek, Mitsubishi technology assures, “Color control should not be an issue going from a 40-inch press to a larger format if the press is maintained properly and the pressroom chemistry is correct for the press conditions.”

Improved press design also eases some of the headaches previously associated with moving large sheets of paper through VLF printing units at production speeds. Many veteran VLF printers have found thin substrates put the brakes on press speeds, as it's difficult to control sheet travel and register. But Krapp says Heidelberg sees an opportunity to differentiate its VLF presses through sheet control technology that will make it possible to print thin substrates at higher speeds.

Chmura notes that if any part of the substrate is still in the blanket nip upon sheet transfer, dot distortion, mechanical dot gain and misregistration can be the unwanted results. KBA eliminates the problem in its VLF Rapidas by ensuring the substrate is completely out of the nip when sheet transfer occurs. This design feature, says Chmura, helps KBA presses resolve some of the “manufacturing pains” seen in 40-inch equipment.

Some practical considerations based on size do come into play, most notably in connection with conditioning the substrates. Krapp says that because board and other heavy stocks will be stable in larger sizes at higher running speeds, there should be no difference in their runnability compared with smaller formats. Thinner, lower-quality grades may exhibit more problems from moisture and pressure in VLF sizes — but no more, according to Krapp, than they would in a 40-inch sheet vs. a 20-inch sheet. Dudek takes a more conservative view, noting that because of the increased sheet size, controlling the moisture content of the stock is “much more critical” in a VLF environment than in a 40-inch pressroom.

Good news for press crews

Press operators will find themselves on familiar grounds. “The technical advances on today's presses make running a larger format press very similar to a smaller press,” declares Dudek. Chmura concurs: “Large-format presses today are equipped with the same level of automation as a 41-inch press. This allows the printer to reduce the learning curve to master moving into large format.”

“It makes no difference if an operator is running a 41-inch Roland 700, a 51-inch Roland 900, or a 73-inch Roland 900 XXL,” says Schuetz. “Of course the sheet is larger, but because the control functions are the same, processing the sheet is not really more difficult.

The physical issues of introducing VLF equipment into a busy plant are real enough. There must be enough horizontal and vertical space for a VLF press bay, and the pressroom's floor load rating must be checked to ensure that it can handle the weight of a VLF machine. Moving the big units in for assembly won't be a picnic, either. Be prepared to widen doorways, cut new ones, or even breach entire walls.

Once the new VLF equipment is in place, prepress and postpress formats will have to be aligned with that of the press. Depending on what the plant already has, the VLF investment also could include purchasing a suitably sized imagesetter, CTP unit, proofing system, paper cutter or folder. Stations might have to be added to saddlestitching and perfect binding lines to accommodate the increased output. Package printers expanding into VLF might need larger, more automated die cutters.

Paper supply is another contingency to provide for. Krapp says that because the choice of VLF sheet sizes in certain grades may be limited, printers should check with their paper merchants about availability and lead times for the stocks they'll need. He adds that many will find it advantageous to invest in a sheeter that lets them cut roll stock to the desired sizes.

Don't forget about material handling, say Dudek and Schuetz, who advise printers to make sure they have pile turner/aerators and forklift trucks that are robust enough to manipulate and transport VLF loads efficiently.

Why buy VLF?

Mapping out a production plan for VLF printing is a straightforward exercise, and so, for the most part, is deciding whether to acquire VLF capability in the first place. According to Krapp, printers who purchase VLF equipment are motivated to do it primarily by their customers. “They don't want to say no,” he says, especially if they are jobbing out VLF work to other printers. He calls it “a classic do-or-buy decision” that forces them to compare the money they are spending on trade work with the investment cost of acquiring that capability themselves. Also to be considered, notes Krapp, is the risk of losing customers to trade providers who offer smaller-format presswork as well as VLF.

Each of the three plants contacted for this story had its own rationale for acquiring or expanding VLF capability. Schawk's Los Angeles division installed the world's first eight-color-plus-coater version of the 73-inch MAN Roland 900 XXL last January. All-Out Inc. of Woodridge, IL, put in a five-color 56-inch KBA Rapida 142 in July of 2006 and expects to have a second, UV-capable Rapida 142 in place early next year. Vision Graphics Inc. of Loveland, CO, is the most experienced VLF producer of the three, having operated a six-color, coater equipped, 56-inch MAN Roland 906 LV since 2000.

Standing out in the 40-inch crowd

J.B. Capuano, president of All-Out, sold a family business to Consolidated Graphics about seven years ago and re-entered the industry in his new venture last year. All-Out commenced production with the Rapida 142 in September 2006 after operating as a brokerage during its start-up phase. Capuano says he knew from experience in his former company that 40-inch production had become “a very commoditized business.” Instead of being “pigeonholed” in that format, Capuano says, All-Out wanted to expand into packaging, POP, labels, and other high-margin work that could be run most efficiently on a large-format press. Added attractions of a VLF press were that it could also produce All-Out's general commercial jobs and let the company compete for shorter-run web work.

Schawk Los Angeles was already in the large-format business by virtue of operating a pair of 77-inch Miehles, according to Bill Jacot, vice president of operations. In Schawk's search for a new platform to streamline the production of its packaging and outdoor advertising work, he says, “Our issue was new technology and faster makeready times. To bring the current level of automation into our operations, we needed to upgrade the equipment. After analyzing our work, we felt that eight units would be more valuable to our customers than a press wider than 73 inches.”

Talking points and bragging rights

At Vision Graphics, says Mark Steputis, president, the original plan was to add another 40-inch press until it dawned on everyone that putting in another machine of that size “wasn't going to give us anything to talk about.” Steputis notes, “For less than 50 percent more money, we could go from a 40-inch press to a 56-inch press that literally would print twice as much work.” The investment also would make Vision Graphics the owner of the only modern VLF press in its area.

For each company, the step up to VLF has been accompanied by a step up in production volume, market share, or both.

Because All-Out has operated its Rapida 142 only for about 12 months, Capuano feels it's too soon to state a precise ROI. But, he says he does expect to print $10 million worth of work on the press this year.

Jacot says all of Schawk's projections for the MAN Roland 900 XXL show a very positive ROI, well within the company's guidelines. “With the faster makeready and faster run speeds we can achieve as compared with our older presses, we see a big differentiation and financial advantage.”

Before committing to a VLF press, Vision Graphics reviewed its purchasing intentions with potential buyers of large-format output. Their favorable reactions proved to be good omens, because today, says Steputis, the MAN Roland 906 LV is “our easiest press to fill up with work.” It also is the press that enabled Vision Graphics to break into packaging, a market in which it has operated successfully ever since.

To hear these companies tell the story, living and working with a VLF press needn't be more complicated than managing a press of any other size. Capuano, for example, says a two-member crew using a pile turner can print, turn and second-side print a large-format job without additional help. He adds that thanks to the Rapida 142's quality control features, All-Out's operators have encountered “zero problems” with those banes of early VLF output, image distortion and misregistration.

Because Schawk's operators were working on large-format presses already, the transition was easy when it came to sheet handling on the MAN Roland 900 XXL. “The learning curve for us,” says Jacot, “was in the very advanced automation of the press. Running the machine from the console and controlling color with the on-board scanning colorimeter turned out to be the areas where our operators were most challenged. We also now use ink key presetting from data sent by the prep department, which has further increased our productivity.”

Steputis reports that a crew of two is sufficient to run Vision Graphics' MAN Roland 906 LV, which uses the same console software as the pressroom's six-color, 40-inch MAN Roland 700 — a shared feature that makes it easy for operators to switch from one press to the other. Steputis also positions the large-format press as a better solution for two-sided printing than a long perfector because, among its other limitations, no long perfector can print sheets as wide as a VLF can handle.

Another limitation, according to Steputis, is the fact that, “A perfector has to perfect,” whereas on a coater-equipped VLF straight press, it's possible (and preferable) to print and coat on both surfaces with half as many plates using a work-and-turn imposition. Steputis maintains that with a VLF straight press, there are no concerns about print quality on the second side, as there can be with some perfectors. And, even though printing one side at a time involves sheet handling and turning that don't occur in perfecting, Steputis claims the quality of the finished product is worth it.

Such are the experiences of three companies that have succeeded in taking the big step up to VLF. Krapp says other printers contemplating the move to large-format production should apply the same criteria they would use in the purchase of a any other size press. Depending on market segment, it must be possible to achieve a “reasonable” ROI of three to five years. The would-be purchaser must also determine whether the return will come exclusively from cost savings or whether the ROI is based on market price assumptions (always subject to seasonality and fluctuations in demand).

At the end of the day, the most urgent question to ask is whether the customer base can be retained if the largest format the printer can offer is 40 inches. “If the answer is no or even maybe,” says Krapp, “the moment for expansion into VLF probably has come.”


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

Press notes

KBA's bread-and-butter large-format machines include the Rapida 130-162a in 52-, 56-, and 64 inches; larger presses include the 73-inch Rapida 185 and the 81-inch Rapida 205.

MAN Roland offers three large-format presses in its Roland 900 series. The largest is 51 × 73; next is a 47 × 64-inch model and, finally, there's the 43 × 64-inch press. MAN Roland's three other Roland 900 models are a 32 × 45-inch, 38 × 51-inch and 40 × 56-inch press.

Mitsubishi offers a 41 × 56-inch press, the Diamond 6000, in two models. Diamond 6000LS and Diamond 6000LX. The LX is designed to run heavier stock from 0.004- to 0.04-inch thick; the LS handles 0.0016- to 0.036-inch-thick stock. Mitsubishi also offers its 51-inch press, the Diamond 5000 in LS and LX versions.

At Drupa 2008, Heidelberg will debut the Speedmaster XL 142 (40.2 × 55.9 inches) and Speedmaster XL 162 (47.2 × 63.8 inches).