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Market Trends

Web Offset’s Outlook

Along with consolidation on various fronts, digital technology is eating away at the long run market. But Russ Hicks discovers web presses will still be with us for many years yet

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The highly impressive spectacle of a 160pp Manroland Lithoman press with its small army of minders

Smaller strides for the print giants

Undoubtedly digital print has made its mark on the industry, and for those charged with buying print. One only has to look at the sheer volume of articles on the topic in the esteemed pages of Print Monthly to recognise the importance of the technology for the general commercial printer.

Conversations with any printer will very quickly turn to the question of what digital option they are using and why have they selected it. However, statistics tell us that digital print by volume, globally, still represents just 2.9 percent of total printed output. Not only does this emphasise the importance, and indeed dominance, of litho printing—the chief alternative technology—but it also brings to the fore the giants of printing technology, the web presses.

Digital print by volume, globally, represents just 2.9 percent of total printed output

Web presses produce the newspapers, high volume magazine publications, and catalogue work of the world. Typical examples might include a UK supermarket customer magazine—this can be in the region of 2m copies every month; the leading TV listings magazine is 1.2m copies every week; whilst The Sun, The Metro, and Daily Mail newspapers are all in the region of 1.5m copies every single day, and all produced at mind numbing speed while the majority of us are sleeping. These volumes can only be produced by web offset. While web offset has undergone significant challenges over recent years it is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.

O Factoid: Johann Carolus (1575-1634) was a German publisher of the first newspaper, called Relation aller Fürnemmen und Gedenckwürdigen Historien (Account of all Distinguished and Commemorable News).  O

Changes in the worlds of print, newspapers, and catalogues are, however, having an effect on the suppliers of these print giants. John Gallagher, director of business development, Goss, explains: “Although the market for new offset equipment remains challenging, printers continue to invest in their operations to remain competitive and sustain growth. Globally we saw a number of successful new press projects, with Sunday 2000, Sunday 3000, and M600 presses delivered to customers in North and South America.”

“Although the market for new offset equipment remains challenging, printers continue to invest in their operations to remain competitive and sustain growth,” says John Gallagher, director of business development, Goss. Pictured: the Goss Sunday 2000

John Ellis, managing director of the UK operation for German giant Manroland Web Systems (MRWS), adds: “As a supplier we have to look to gain a larger slice of the declining ‘pie’. We offer not just third-party servicing, but also full electronic retrofits and upgrades. We can replace ageing or obsolete technology on MRWS or non-MRWS equipment with state-of-the-art technology, and we can support this into the future.

“Recent examples include the successful Pecom X retrofits for Goss presses in the USA. This is also an example of a trend to extend the life of older presses rather than buy new. This is where our technology retrofits and third-party servicing comes into its own. Breathing another ten years of life into an existing press can buy time for a user before they have to make the next significant investment decision.”

Fellow German-based supplier Koenig and Bauer echo many of these thoughts—the company’s Henning Düber adds: “Over the course of the past few years, KBA-Digital and Web has adjusted successfully to the drastically shrinking market for new newspaper presses and, in the meantime, place an additional focus on growing market segments such as service or digital, functional, and packaging printing.”

Hybrid web

Packaging appears to be one area where these suppliers see potential. MRWS has recently launched its Varioman product. The press features variable sleeve technology, as initially pioneered on the ground-breaking Dicoweb product of the early 2000s. The hybrid concept of the Varioman allows for the integration of flexo or gravure units within an offset configuration.

A modular inline hybrid platform that can be easily adapted should be the key investment for printers

Another supplier to watch with regard to hybrid creations is Dutch manufacturer Contiweb. Bert Schoonderbeek, managing director of the company, outlines its product offering: “We predict that into 2018 and over the next few years printers will want to combine all the benefits of web offset with the inherent advantages that flexo, gravure, and digital can offer. A modular inline hybrid platform that can be easily adapted should be the key investment for printers who need to meet future changes as market demands become increasingly tough. We’ve already experienced a keen interest from our markets for this concept, with six Contiweb Thallo press systems sold over the last eighteen months.”

“We predict that into 2018 and over the next few years printers will want to combine all the benefits of web offset with the inherent advantages that flexo, gravure, and digital can offer,” explains Bert Schoonderbeek, managing director, Contiweb

Schoonderbeek continues: “Over the past year we’ve seen that digital printing is undeniably becoming more important, specifically in the world of flexible packaging. Increased global consolidation of printing companies means label printers have started exploring the packaging market, and further centralisation of packaging procurement requires further standardisation.

Six Contiweb Thallo presses have been sold and installed in the last 18 months

“Printers and converters face growing pressure to slash costs, cut turnaround times and deliver premium print quality. At the same time, brand owners want to make regular changes without incurring the expensive set-up costs associated with traditional processes. However, for wider web applications, digital printing is still a costly way of producing print.”

He concludes: “Web offset offers the highest levels of print quality; it is an extremely well-established and repeatable process that is unmatched in terms of colour reproduction and proof matching. Moreover, with the prepress process integrated in-house, printers and brand owners can standardise all print-related processes at different production locations around the world. Thus, we predict that in 2018 and over the next few years, web offset combined with hybrid technology will become the industry standard.”

Consolidation continues

The collapse of UK giant Polestar back in April 2016 saw circa £80m of print quickly placed abroad. Manroland Web Systems’ Ellis takes up the story: “The majority of this has not returned to the UK. The expectation is that some of this work will gradually seep back to the UK over time, but it is unlikely that all of it will return. Market consolidation has certainly slowed since Polestar’s collapse, but it does continue—Stones of Ashford is a prime example. The margins available in web offset have been squeezed to a minimum meaning that a single production stoppage can erode the entire profit in the job. This means that press reliability and performance are more critical than ever.”

Magazine printer Stones Ashford went into receivership in December 2017 with an estimated black hole of £4m, with energy supplier E.On being the one to pull the plug. The company had employed some 120 people. Formerly known as Headley Brothers, the business had only been acquired by Henry Stone Printers, Banbury, back in March of last year. Back at the beginning of 2017, Garnett Dickinson, the Rotherham-based web and sheetfed printer collapsed with an estimated shortfall of £27m, but a rescue in the form of a pre-pack was made by GD Web Offset, with the loss of just five jobs out of 130 previously employed.

However, the sector is not all doom and gloom. Walstead Group, for example, announced late in 2017 that it had purchased one of the giant 96pp Goss presses that had previously been installed at Polestar’s Sheffield site. The 2.86m wide Goss Sunday 96pp is to be installed at the company’s Spanish web offset plant, Rotocobrhi, just outside of Madrid.

Having just enjoyed the best ever year, Warners Midlands plc of Bourne is also already planning ahead for the future. The company, which employs more than 200 people, specialises in printing magazines, brochures, and catalogues, has submitted plans to South Kesteven District Council to build a new press hall at its site at the Maltings, West Street, Bourne.

The proposed two-storey extension to the existing press hall would provide approximately 3,000sq m of additional space spread over two floors. The existing press hall currently occupies around 3,700sq m of space.

The company’s managing director, Philip Warner, explains: “At the moment we are simply applying for permission to add facilities to our site in line with the medium to long-term objectives of the business. We want to apply for all permissions first before moving on to the next phase of planning and executing a build.”

Consolidation too in newspapers is ongoing. In addition to The Guardian taking itself out of the printing process, the very latest news involves the owner of the Daily Mirror and an agreement to buy the company behind titles including the Daily Express and the Daily Star, as well as magazines such as OK! Trinity Mirror is to pay £126.7m for the publishing assets of Northern and Shell, which is chaired by Richard Desmond. At the time of writing, the final details of the future arrangements were not clear, but one might well anticipate staff losses due to the overlap on back-office duties at the very least.

Newspapers still investing

Newspapers, however, do still invest. The new year began with a pleasant boost for Augsburg-based Manroland Web Systems with news of a contract signing for a total of nine highly automated Uniset newspaper press lines for the Cuban newspaper Granma.

The new equipment is part of a strategic investment project for Cuba. The new presses will be installed in the cities of Havana, Holguin, and Santa Clara where they will produce, besides the major Cuban newspaper Granma, other newspaper products and books.

Koenig and Bauer’s Henning Düber adds: “In the newspaper branch, in particular, the volume of spending to maintain and modernise existing installations has increased significantly in comparison to the investments in brand new presses. Alongside classic services such as retrofits and press relocations, more and more users are seeking upgrades to expand their production options and thus to improve press utilisation. Typical examples are coating units to enable commercial products to be printed on the waterless Cortina newspaper press, facilities for four-page centre spreads and new advertising formats, or stitchers to enhance the user-friendliness of printed newspapers.”

A Koenig and Bauer C16 is setup for its next run through its highly-sophisticated control and monitoring interface

Used machinery is also figuring in the equation, as Gallagher from Goss explains: “We have also seen significant activity in certified pre-owned equipment sales. This included the installation of a Sunday 5000 64-page short grain press at York Mailing in the UK.  Along with sales of S5000 equipment to Gotha Druck in Germany and Rotocobrhi in Spain. CPO is a growth area for Goss. It gives our customers more options to execute on their growth strategies, using the OEM’s knowledge and expertise to reconfigure, enhance, install, and commission to the highest standard. Other than the Sunday 5000 projects, over the last twelve months we have sold, delivered, and installed projects utilising pre-owned Goss M600, SSC/Community, Magnum 4, Sunday 2000, and Hantscho presses.”

Working smarter

New innovation and investments from all the key manufacturers in this area are focusing on the latest technology to ensure efficient and cost-effective operation. MRWS’s Ellis outlines its own efforts in this respect: “Customers are using smart techniques to gain the best advantage, such as the Rotoman 65 in Switzerland that is sharing the heat from the dryer with another company on the same industrial estate. This is only one example; we also see a drift from 16pp presses to more efficient 32pp platforms. This gives increased output with the same manning and dramatically reduces costs in the bindery area with reduced number of hoppers for feeding signatures and therefore fewer staff required.

“The Main Pad meanwhile is a smart site maintenance tool allowing access to multiple machines from one device. This is also linked directly to the MRWS Tele-Support Centre for direct assistance via sending messages, photos or even video of the problem area. All machine documentation is accessible via QR codes and filtered to the technician type required—electronic/mechanical or pneumatic.

A sheet from a 96pp Manroland Web Systems Lithoman is inspected for quality and consistency

“Main Pad is also connected to the Manroland Store for direct access to parts ordering and can also be used for remote diagnostics. This technology follows on from the Manroland Mobil Pad press control system. We can now use an industrial tablet for running and managing the entire press line. The tablet is, of course, mobile so that the operator can move around the press with total control in his hands. The Mobil Pad also contains all press production performance data for use in production meetings.”

The Mobil Pad from Manroland Web Systems is a new innovation from the manufacturer to enable remote press diagnostics and maintenance. It forms part of the sector-wide drive for efficiency and waste reduction

Developments too continue at Goss. “We are developing mechanical upgrades, such as the M600 ‘Bladder Eliminator’ upgrade. This enhancement enables M600 users to eliminate the need to replace the plate cylinder bladders as part of their ongoing maintenance programs,” says Gallagher.

Koenig and Bauer is also keen to stress its continued investment in research and development for their newspaper and commercial printing presses, such as a new varnishing unit for the C16 and a patented roller lock.

Big is still beautiful

So, while its core markets continue to change, the web press sector is still going strong. The huge volumes produced by these machines are never going to be easy to replace. Digital is growing for sure, and ‘internet only’ products might have their place, but there is still no substitute for web offset presses when high volume production of the printed word is required.

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