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Under the Hood


Brian Sims goes under the hood of the Variquik to find out how this machine has been able to survive significant change in the industry to remain a relevant piece of kit over 30 years later

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A step back in time for printing

From a sporting perspective it has not been the best of late. We got knocked out of the World Cup by Maradona’s fluke goal; him being able to seemingly get his 5ft 5" frame above Peter Shilton’s 6ft outstretched arm. It almost seemed like there was a divine intervention, kind of "Hand of God".

On the upside, in the last twelve months we have seen the completion of the new ring road that will cut journey times significantly around London, it is called the M25. And we must not forget to pass all the best to Prince Andrew and Lady Ferguson and wish them all the best for married life together.

On a technology front, a new company has been formed called Pixar. By all accounts they seem to think you can make cartoons by using computer technology. Their latest release is a desk lamp that moves up and down, not the most entertaining; I would not see too much interest being generated if that is all they can offer.

More positively, The European Community has agreed a new form of mobile telephony called Spécial Mobile Group (GSM); by all accounts this will improve the mobile signals currently provided by our trusted analogue system.

Something called a Small Message Service (SMS) will be available widely on this new system, seems quite pointless to send message in less than 144 characters. But what might be worth looking at for the future is a company called Microsoft that has recently listed on the NYSE making someone called Bill Gates the youngest ever billionaire; at $21 per share it might be worth an outside chance of a bet.

Breakthrough in print

Something of far more interest to the printing industry is a breakthrough product from British print manufacturer, Strachan Henshaw Machinery (SHM). Based in Bristol, SHM is widely known throughout the printing industry for producing high quality web offset booking printing presses (B and P). Its new product is called Variquik.

Something of far more interest to the printing industry is a breakthrough product from British print manufacturer, Strachan Henshaw Machinery

Traditional web presses for the book and publication market are dedicated to a certain cut off to produce the specific book format the publisher needs. Changing in size is not possible, that is not a major issue as we do not need our books in other formats.

Traditional web presses for the book and publication market are dedicated to a certain cut off to produce the specific book format the publisher needs

The folders on B and P presses can produce a small number of fold formats, the standard being the "double parallel" fold, giving a fixed number of pages per section depending on the format (circumference) of the printing unit. The folder has cylinders of a fixed circumference to match the plate cylinder and thus format. Running in collect or non-collect can change the pagination, but the size remains fixed.

The Variquik is still available from and supported today by Janus Tech

SHM has come up with a novel idea of being able to provide the printer with a choice of sizes, but most intriguingly they suggest that you can change from format to format with almost no waste. The idea seems a little fanciful and the obvious question is why would you need other formats?

SHM clearly believes that in future, given the opportunity, printers would like the chance of purchasing a press that can produce a number of book products such as Royal, Demy, Crown Quarto along with traditional A and B formats.

The nub of the problem however is regarding the changing of size. We all know that the plate cylinder of a web press dictates the folded format. To be able to change the format would mean you would need to change the plate cylinders themselves? Clearly, you would think totally impractical; almost impossible. Not so.

SHM has gone back to the drawing board with a plain piece of paper and after much deliberation has designed a new modular press that can do exactly what seems impossible, you can actually change the plate and blanket cylinders in the space of minutes, changing the format of the press.
Each press consists of a reelstand with a reel trolley that holds the reel of paper of the required web width for the format required. The web passes through a festoon that allows each reel to be automatically spliced on a zero speed splicer. Next it is directed through 90°, over idler rollers and enters the bottom of the patented printing unit.

Solving problems

This is where the clever stuff begins; forget ?flash in the pan? telephony systems as mentioned, the print unit has the capacity to hold three cartridges, each with a different plate cylinder circumference.

The printer selects which book format they wish to use and the ink carriage straddling the print unit moves to one of the three positions and then locks itself onto which one of the three preselected.

(Above & below) The Variquik was first introduced to the market more than three decades ago around the time Diego Maradona scored his famous ‘Hand of God’ goal against England

Inside the ink carriage there is an impression mechanism that engages onto the plate and blanket cylinder assembly. The print unit operates as a normal inverted arc type offset printing unit. The idea is very simple yet effective.

The printer has a choice of three units to select in the print tower, but if you require further choice, SHM can supply additional print units to produce a range of products. It takes no more than five minutes to withdraw one print cartridge and replace it with another. Cut off lengths can be provided from 860 to 1,027mm.

So, SHM has got over the major issue of the plate cylinder circumference, but as we explained the folder cylinders have to match the plate cylinders in size or ratio of circumference, so do SHM expect you to change folder cylinder too?

No, SHM has circumvented this problem with the novel idea of not using a traditional cylinder type folder but to hook up the variable size printing unit to a traditional buckle folder. In a masterstroke, the issues of folder sizes are gone.


Stream the printed web through a dryer, down over a former, and through a second angle bar sending the folded web through a crush cut unit and onto a delivery table that can be found on any high quality buckle folder such as that from Stahl or MBO.

The engineers at SHM have mechanised nearly every adjustment on the press. The reel sizes, plate cylinder size, and folder settings are all preprogramed into the machine control system and at the press of a button, the press automatically is converted from one book format to another. This accomplishes its claim to have virtually zero make ready waste.

Truly choice is now available to the printer and their market, clearly the press is not designed for extensive long runs, but perhaps a forward thinking company can see the potential of marrying web press technology up with sheetfed finishing equipment.

Thirty or so years on, the world thrives on 144 character messages, Pixar can make the impossible seem possible to our eyes, but that Maradona goal is still too much to swallow. And for the Variquik? It is still alive and well, Janus Tech can still supply and support the printing system, and a small number of companies did see the advantage of the idea.
The press never really reached the potential in the innovative process; it was overtaken by changes in the market that could not have been seen in the early 80s. SHM succumbed in 2000 in the same way as lots of other traditional and extremely talented UK companies and went into receivership.

Brian Sims, principal consultant, Metis Print Consultancy, www.metis-uk.eu

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