Wednesday, 21 Aug 2019 19:50 GMT

Web Offset

With the advancing digital technology creeping up on the stalwart of the industry, Genevieve Lewis explores the future of web offset and where it can go from here

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As new technology explodes onto the market, it is no secret that old equipment can be left behind. But with falling print runs – particularly in the world of newspapers and magazines – one of the stalwarts of the industry could be suffering. Or is it?

Digital inkjet printing has improved significantly since it was first introduced, but web offset systems can do something that digital cannot – it can print far longer runs. John Ellis, managing director of manroland Goss web systems in the UK, explains: “Digital print still accounts for a very small percentage of overall print volume. Yes, this will eventually change – it would be hard to deny that – however, currently there simply is no affordable process to produce the volume of print that can be printed on a web offset press. When you think of high-volume print, don’t just stop at newspapers and magazines. Consider also high-volume catalogues and directories, as well as mass-produced product brochures, door drops and mailings.”

But what about the market, is it still strong enough? Ellis highlights the fact that manroland has recently secured two orders in the UK showcasing that web offset is definitely not dead – yet. He says: “The manroland Goss web press team are delighted to have secured two recent orders for 32pp LITHOMAN presses in the UK. The first one is being installed right now at Acorn Web Offset in Normanton. The new machine will replace one of the existing 16pp manroland Rotoman web presses and will be able to print at up to 37,500 impressions per hour. The press is equipped with the highest level of automation features from manroland Goss web systems, including Inline Control Systems for dynamic cut-off, colour register and ink density.”

A manroland Goss LITHOMAN press

Ellis continues: “Easy operator control helps to guarantee the shortest makeready and changeover times, and, at the same time, the lowest waste rates and highest quality for machine start-up, reel changes and blanket washing. The automation package is complemented with the QuickStart and QuickStop features – particularly important for frequent job changes. A second 32pp LITHOMAN press will arrive later this year.”

Old dog, new tricks

While these latest sales are obviously a positive, Ellis recognises that the falling production and need for such big presses has been stunted. However, he says that manroland is now turning to breathing new life into older presses and that this could be the way forward. He adds: “As has been promoted over the last decade or more, press productivity is a critical issue. However, manroland Goss web systems has led the market in introducing a large number of product features that have led to more productive, efficient, and reliable presses, many of which can be added to existing installations.

As has been promoted over the last decade or more, press productivity is a critical issue

“A typical example of adding to existing equipment would include the successful PECOM X retrofits on Goss presses in the USA. There is a trend to extend the life of older presses rather than buy new. This is where our technology retrofits and servicing comes into its own. Breathing another ten years of life into a press can buy time before making the next significant investment.”

Web offset in action. Koenig & Bauer has a number of presses for this division – the Commander CL, Comet and Continent are just a selection

Koenig & Bauer, one of the world’s oldest manufacturers, has a similar point of view when it comes to the web offset market. Henning Düber, PR and marketing for Koenig & Bauer, digital and webfed, explains: “Web offset – commercial and newspaper – continues to this day to bear the brunt of the total worldwide volume of print matter and will continue to do so for a long time.

John Ellis, managing director of manroland Goss web systems in the UK

Why is that the case? Three arguments which simply cannot be beat: efficiency, speed and high quality. The influence of digital inkjet printing is having a positive effect – competition is also good for business – because due to that, the final customer also recognises today how flexible, targeted and promotionally effective ‘printed matter’ continues to be.”

In terms of the market, Düber continues: “Web offset is undergoing a period of consolidation in Europe at the moment and every ‘slim-down’ represents an opportunity. Some in the industry have overestimated capacity – the era of 96-page presses. But that has nothing to do with the future of sustainability of the industry. In Europe, we are heading towards a major problem with the availability of personal data i.e the one-off – and personalised – copy remains difficult and expensive to produce.”

Düber remains confidant, adding: “The masses will continue to remain faithful to web offset.” Bearing this in mind, how strong is the market? With so much uncertainty swirling around Europe and the United Kingdom, has there been an effect on spending? Not only that, but in terms of the products many web offset operations produce – such as newspapers and magazines – are obviously enduring shrinking print runs. “The commercial market in Europe is repositioning itself,” says Düber. “The tendency will be towards smaller and more flexible presses – we do not think any more 96-page presses will come onto the market – but because a lot of overcapacity has been created over the last five years, the market for new presses will continue to decline in the medium term.”

O Factoid:  Litho presses have their origins in both England and America, with the press built to print on tin arriving in 1875 and the first on paper in the USA coming in 1904.  O

Düber also discusses the specific newspaper market, saying: “The market for newspaper presses is similar, consolidation in this area has been taking place longer, in some countries they have already conceptually eradicated printed newspapers. In Germany, where approximately 40 million people read a newspaper every day, life without them is unthinkable.

“Only a few – but regular – investments to achieve rationalisation occur in this market, ROI is sometimes stunning. Even in the USA, in the era of ‘fake news’, printed matter – credible news – is experiencing a renaissance. The New York Times announced in 2010 that it intended to discontinue the printed version in 2015, but it is still rolling off presses today.”

The reality

It would be easy to say that all will be fine in the world of web offset, but Mark Priest, UK sales manager for Sakurai, has a realistic view on the market. He explains: “The market is shrinking and run lengths of web offset are reducing on many publications, which has an adverse effect on web offset across the board. The number of web offset printing companies is at an all-time low but there is still not enough work and many companies are struggling to be profitable.”

Mark Priest of Sakurai says that the move to online news has had an effect on web offset

However, Priest believes that web offset will not be replaced in the near future, but the industry should definitely expect a major change in the future. He continues: “Web offset printing will not be replaced in the short term, whilst there is still a demand for high run length CMYK production, with sufficient volumes to pay the running costs of the press. I do think that in the future web offset presses will incorporate digital features and that digital web presses and sheetfed for that matter will improve, taking more work away from the traditional web offset press. New digital technology may eventually replace the standard web offset press as we know it today.”

But what are the reasons behind the fall in jobs? Priest says that it is also down to consumer trends – for example how the public consume their news: “I think the biggest problem that web offset still faces, is more to do with buyer trends than digital, as such. So many magazines and newspapers are read online, it is forcing circulation numbers down. In fact, to the younger generation reading online is normal. Reading online has also had an impact on where advertising occurs, with more spend being allocated to internet-based activities.”

So, if web offset print volumes will inevitably decline, what is the future for the traditional production method? Priest says: “The most important factor for all of us, is that print is changing. I truly believe the future of traditional CMYK print is tactile finishing. There is an upward trend towards print embellishment across the board, with luxury packaging and DM the likely candidates to really kick off. Special finishes such as foil blocking, high build 3D UV varnishes, pearlescent or holographic finishes, not only bring a ‘touchy feely’ vibe to print, it allows us to be creative and come away from the ‘produce it as cheap as possible’ type of thought process. This creativity actually puts some ‘skill requirement’ back into the industry. Something which I think the industry has lost during the ‘CMYK price wars’.”

Priest also says that the future of CMYK print is tactile finishing

Priest adds: “Today’s, profitable, progressive printing businesses, often have a mixture of offset and digital equipment, with multiple pieces of finishing equipment to do cutting and creasing, folding and stitching, gluing and very often, even have design in-house now. They are self-sufficient; with each process producing a small amount of profit adding to the total. Without this, there is simply not enough money in CMYK print to make it worthwhile.”

Koenig & Bauer’s Düber concludes that himself and the company do not believe that any current technology could replace offset. He says: “There is currently no technology which completely replace offset and we do not expect that to happen in the next ten to fifteen years either. Inkjet will take some market share by today, and over the next five years, nobody can afford to give up offset in the dedicated commercial or newspaper sectors.”

Düber’s comments provide the perfect finishing point for this feature, as it is obvious that web offset will not be going anywhere in the near future – and that’s not ‘fake news’.

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