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Taste For Success

Under the Skin of Offset Litho

Time was that some pundits were readying their hammers for the final nail in litho’s coffin. Brendan Perring charts how it has bounced back to health

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Underneath the feeding mechanism of a Komori Lithrone at the manufacturer’s European headquarters in Utrecht, The Netherlands

A deeper look

At the last Drupa in 2016 I made a point of spending an extended amount of time with all the offset litho printing technology developers and manufacturers, sounding them out about their views on the future of the sector and whether new developments coming on stream would have a tangible impact.
The consensus was that wider market forces had taken an unexpected turn, and that—combined with the ongoing push for litho presses to run more effieiciently, produce less waste, dry ink more quickly, consume less power, and run with far less need for manual press operator intervention—had resulted in the realistic future for the relevance and demand for litho printing technology being pushed decades into the future based on current trends.

The great printing seer Benny Landa holding court at Drupa 2016. Although his nanographic printing technology holds great potential and has been taken forward by Komori, it has yet to realise it and become a threat to established litho printing technology

Those ‘wider market forces‘ are actually pretty straightforward. The digital communications bubble burst around 2014 as the sheer saturation of e-mail marketing, online push ads, and digital devices pervading every part of the developed world consumer’s life combined to ignite a renaissance in demand for print as a route to market. Now, all that happened was that the slide from print to digital communications and media consumption came to a halt and in areas such as direct mail, high-quality short-run marketing materials, and even coffee table books, there was a sigficant recovery of ground by ink on paper. Now, that trend has steadied and maintained, and the simple cost-effectivness, humaness, and physical beauty of print has meant that a new generation of marketers and consumers have returned to it in levels that have fed through into the new generation of offset litho presses being the right tool to get the job done.

No time for sentiment

Printers are not sentimental by and large, if they could get the job done more cheaply to the required standard and time-frame that their customer base require using digital technology only, they would. The truth is they cannot, and so they are investing in new litho presses—especially the growing number of trade print houses—to get the job done within the constraints they are operating under to turn a profit.

Antrim’s W.G. Baird is a good example. It recently invested in the UK and Ireland’s first H-UV equipped eight colour Lithrone GL840P four-over-four perfector. The new B1 Lithrone is fully automated and incorporates the Komori KID Operational Support Display system and the Komori PDC-SX print density control, which provides automatic registration and colour control in a single process. The traversing scanner of the PDC-SX measures colour bars positioned anywhere on the sheet, so that on perfectors, the bar can be located in the central zone of both sides of the sheet, optimising the sheet image area and helping to reduce paper waste.

Komori have one of the highest spends on research and development of any printing press manufacturer, and despite a strong divergence into the development of digital print technology and a tie up with Landa remains dedicated to a long-term litho future

“We believe in the highest levels of automation to minimise our operators’ involvements in plate changing, inking up, and making individual judgements on colour so that they are free to concentrate on print productivity,“ explains managing director, Patrick Moffett, in a view that is common amongst his peers.

He adds: “In fact, the immediacy of H-UV drying has enabled us to replace the ten previous units we had with eight Komori units, as we do not need to have the fifth and tenth units for sealing—the Lithrone’s H-UV completely drying the top side of the sheet before it’s turned and the reverse before it reaches the delivery.”

Moffet concludes: “The extra cost of the ink was a big consideration in our buying process. But when you consider the fact that we do not have to purchase two extra printing units for sealing and the savings in perfecting jackets, varnish spray-powder, reduced cleaning and maintenance, and the  productivity gains in our bindery by not processing wet work, the decision to go H-UV became relatively straight forward.”

Pander press (Stone) is another classic example of this trend as it gathered momentum back in 2014. It invested in a Hans-Gronhi five-color GH525 B3 machine from Printers Superstore.

Hans Grohni’s printing presses are distributed in the UK through Printers Superstore. Joint managing director Graham Moorby explains its performance and investment cost price point is hitting a real sweet spot for today’s commercial printers

Speaking at the time of the purchase, managing director Laurence Tunnicliffe very much backed up the view that litho remains the right fit for the market conditions facing modern print businesses: “There is not much between commercial offset presses nowadays. Output quality is the same, most share the same features, and specifications are similar. The difference with the Hans-Gronhi machine is that it has everything we need, it’s very well engineered, but unlike the rest, it’s priced sensibly.

“The consumables are competitively priced, and we will save on our electricity bill, because this five colour machine uses less power than the four colour machine it is replacing. We also use quick dry inks but we will still benefit from having a sealing unit to assist drying time when we are under pressure. In addition, we appreciate the importance of brand matching and other special colour work, so having a dedicated fifth unit will be worthwhile.”

New horizons

Another important trend that has been beginning to consolidate is that, if you accept my argument above, litho press technology is what is described as a ‘legacy technology’. Much like the combustion engine, it will continue to be developed, for current to mid-term conditions it fullfills market requirements, and it is nearing the very pinnacle of what is physically possible with its development. But the eyes of the big players are on the development of the next generation of printing platforms and markets with more room to grow and exploit untapped development horizons. Landa was brave in this respect, but his technology is perhaps 20 years too early, and its commercial success waits in the wings for market forces to breathe wind beneath its wings.

A case in point is Koenig and Bauer, founded two centuries ago it has just negotiated a syndicated banking loan of €200m (£176.2m) that “includes a revolving cash credit facility of €150m (£132.2m) with an option to increase it by €50m (£44.1m).”
Dr Mathias Dähn, chief financial officer of Koenig and Bauer, explains what has motivated the decision: “Our own liquidity together with the flexible credit facilities will allow us to finance our targeted organic growth in packaging, digital, and industrial printing, while also giving us financial scope for strategic investments and acquisitions.”

The plan is to move away from their traditional reliance on heavy metal printing presses and embrace printing technology for packaging, and in particular that of corrugated packaging, as the market continues to expand. It will also allow the firm to develop high tech print management systems to maximise efficiency in their presses.

With those plans in place however and the key word being ‘reliance’, Sascha Fischer, head of product management at Koenig and Bauer recently laid out the company’s litho development plans and current innovations at a recent global customer event: “Our new generation of plate changers significantly reduce change times in half for medium and large-formats, alongside the ability to load plates without prior bending of the rear edges.

Koenig and Bauer have renewed confidence in their future after securing an impressive €200m (£176.2m) loan to facilitate expansion, and also publicising a strong focus on the ongoing development of LED-UV ink drying technology for its litho press technology

“New measuring system options such as Print Check and PDF Check make use of a single, common camera system and guarantee absolute inspection and control precision. LED-UV dryers for Rapida sheetfed offset presses are now manufactured by KBA-Sheetfed itself, are even more finely adapted to the Rapida press series and thus offer even greater drying performance across all format classes, including also large-formats. Autonomous printing with Ergo Tronic Auto Run is also about to be raised to a new level.”

Fischer continues: “The future belongs to Auto Print—not least because the system will soon be able to program a complete job changeover itself, without any need for operator input. The Rapida Live App, finally, is already in practical use in the field, with a further expanded scope of features.”

LED-UV leads the charge

A key focus of the technology showcase for Koenig and Bauer was on LED-UV, and that is because the likes of RMGT (Ryobi) have been eating up the market share of their rivals with their own pioneering version of the technology. Indeed, major UK commercial print house Pro Co recently revealed the purchase of a second RMGT (Ryobi) 920 LED-UV press.

RMGT (Ryobi) litho presses drew a lot of interest at Drupa 2016, with its pioneering take on LED-UV ink drying technology hitting a sweet spot in a market catering for a greater number of short-run jobs on tight turnarounds

Jon Bailey, chief executive officer at Pro Co, explains the motivation for his investment: “The first Ryobi machine, which we have been using for several months now, has allowed us to think totally differently about litho printing at our Sheffield site. The SRA1 format means we can be significantly more competitive on a wider range of work and we’re seeing some very positive early signs about the impact it can have on our business. By offering our clients superior turnarounds, different formats, and competitive pricing we’re opening up lots of new avenues for us and we’re excited about bringing another press into the facility.”

At the time of the installation of the first Ryobi press, Graeme Parry, production director at Pro Co, also made a telling comment in the context of this article: “While litho is still very much a key part of our offering, we needed to explore how we could maintain it as a viable part of our business, and the new press will help us do that.”

While litho is still very much a key part of our offering, we needed to explore how we could maintain it as a viable part of our business

Now, talking of LED-UV as the technology leading the charge to maintain the relevance and fit of litho within today’s print industry, one of its goliaths is just as firmly driving its development. Indeed, one of the two presses on public show for the first time in the UK at the Heidelberg ‘Press 4 Value’ open house will run the technology. At the time of going to print the event was yet to be held on February 21st and 22nd.

O Factoid: While litho is still very much a key part of our offering, we needed to explore how we could maintain it as a viable part of our business O

The Speedmaster CX 75 and Speedmaster CS 92 LED-UV will both be run alongside a full range of prepress, digital presses, finishing, workflow, and consumables products. In addition to a technical introduction to the new presses, there will be a number of breakout sessions covering issues as diverse as data analysis, MIS, ‘push to stop’ folding, postpress packaging, and colour automation for digital printing.

Gerard Heanue, managing director of Heidelberg UK, says: “Heidelberg is constantly expanding its litho and digital press range and it is fantastic that we can give two Speedmasters a UK launch at this event. The CX 75 with its double circumference cylinder built on the success of the Speedmaster XL 75 but coming in at a lower price point is already winning business for us.”

Heidelberg in the UK retains a dominant position, with around half the market for litho presses under its wings

Looking at Heidelberg’s customers, a recent investment by Streamline is yet further evidence of why offset litho has found its footing once more. It is replacing two B1 presses, both five-colour Speedmasters with coaters, with one Push to Stop press to give a net productivity increase of 20 percent. And it is with the comments of Alan Squire, operations director at Streamline, that I shall conclude this odyssey, as he sums up why there is still a deep and strong flowing river bearing litho along its historic journey:  “It is not only in the pressroom that the mindset must change, so that the flow of work from proof to press is very slick and quick. We have working parties looking at every aspect of the business to see what we can do even better. This Speedmaster will give us great data feedback and transparency. I will attend a High Performance training course at Heidelberg to ensure we can interpret the data accurately and effectively, and use the findings to make good business decisions. We want to ensure we are truly world class and operating at maximum efficiency.”

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