According to respected industry research group Pira (Printing Industries Research Association) some 30 per cent of all print will be produced digital in just eight years time. And nowhere will this growth be more rapid than in what was the domain of the small offset sector. Along side comes research from the US that show 80 per cent of all jobs are now less than 5,000 run, and that more than 35 per cent of jobs are required within 24 hours. These statistics represent significant challenges to the small offset businesses.
Already the new generation of digital print systems from the likes of Canon, Fuji Xerox, Océ, Konica Minolita and Ricoh are eating up print volumes, in both colour and monochrome. Similarly HP Indigo, Xeikon, NexPress are gaining stronger footholds in the colour market.
The reason for their success is simple, and just that, simplicity. Digitally produced files are sent direct to the printer, and output. Turnaround time is lightning fast, a major benefit. Add on line finishing solutions, and crucially ease of operation that means two days training rather than four years to produce print, and it seems you have an irresistible proposition.
Not according to the offset press manufacturers though, who continue to pour money into A3 R+D, and continue to grow their sales. It may be that digital is taking, and will take, a large proportion of print, but the question is this at the expense of small offset, or in addition to it. And where can small offset score?
Ink advocates say ink offers lower cost, higher quality, and a wider colour palate. Toner people say that in this digital age of short-run colour, toner has a distinct edge and the quality and colour-palate gap has narrowed.
Heidelberg, which for as long as anyone can remember has been market leader in A3 has seen its Australian A3 sales rise by 20 per cent since it refocused on the area in 2002, and simply doesn’t believe that digital is a major threat. Glenn Plummer says, “We don’t see a digital challenge for A3 offset printers. Our press sales in the A3 market have consistently improved year on year for the past 5 years. Customers are upgrading GTO’s, older Speedmasters and competitive brands and replacing 2 colour machines with 4, 5, and 6 colour presses including many with dedicated coating units. We see digital and offset existing together as complimentary to each other. Despite digital quality improving, offset still produces the best print result on a large variety of stocks and substrates, and since true multicolour personalisation has not gained the much talked about traction in the print consumer market, one of the key differentiators for digital is largely redundant. We also hear that printers with offset and digital capacity under one roof have very low utilisation rates for their small to medium size digital engines compared to their offset presses indicating the power house for these businesses remains litho driven.”
Even so, Heidelberg has integrated digital printing into its workflow environment Prinect. Its Digital Print Manager links digital devices into the automated prepress workflow and provides the benefits of having a united workflow for both offset and digital. Customers running both output technologies benefit from less manual work and a reliable, colour managed output to either device.
The fact is that the small offset press manufacturers have risen to the digital challenge. For many years small offset meant simple unsophisticated mechanically driven machines that would churn out decent quality work, but at low productivity.
There was historically little technology trickle down to A3 from the developments on larger machines, however that has changed in recent years, with Heidelberg, Ryobi, Shinohara, Komori Sakurai and KBA among others bringing exciting new developments from larger presses, and giving their customers the message that together they can meet the challenges, and benefit from the opportunities that the new world provides.
KBA is an interesting case, as it had no A3 press, and really wasn’t seen as a serious player in the four page market either. However the introduction of the Genius, with its innovative waterless technology signified to everyone that if a press giant with huge sales in B1, large format and web presses was willing to spend money on A3 then it had a future. Heidelberg of course has long been market leader with the GTO, and its investment in A3 has continued strongly with the Speedmaster technology coming down to the sector in the SM52, and latterly with the PM range.
Glenn Plummer, says, “Heidelberg’s offering in A3 is essentially extending our range and options to incorporate features on smaller format presses that have been available in A1 and A2 for some time. For instance the Speedmaster SM52 is now available in long perfectors up to 10 colours and in-line one pass processes such as coating, die cutting and UV are now standard options. We also offer many automation options surrounding plate change, wash ups and control console up to the well known CP2000 control centre with all the features of the Speedmaster 102 user interface.”
KBA’s Genius 52 with its very small footprint is like DI presses, a waterless press. It has significant automation in plate handling, plus keyless inking, and the ability to have five printing units to allow for printing a spot colour or a varnish. Waterless printing appears to be a very viable approach for short run working where the absence of water allows for more flexibility and options in four-colour printing.
Rapid responseCompeting with customer expectations, and digital presses with their instant turnaround times has driven A3 press manufacturers to install a host of technology on their new presses, that aims to provide the printer with the ability to respond very rapidly to turnaround times.
CTP believers claim that they can have four plates ready for press in 10 minutes, and of course they come out punched, dry, and ready to mount. Because makeready time is so quick on new presses, and because of this super fast platesetting time, small offset printers do not need to shy away from short-run jobs. With these efficiencies, along with CIP3 functionality now available on some small presses that affords accurate ink key set-up, A3 printers are able to compete with shops running digital imaging presses.
Plummer says, “There is certainly a market for selling package deals with press and prepress and this would be more prevalent in the A3 market than anywhere else. A3 printers have been slow to bring digital plate production in house but CTP technology is now easy to implement and use and since the cost has come down a major press up-grade is often the catalyst to invest in their own pre press production environment. Also, where as in the past Polyester was the entry level CTP technology for A3 printers more recently metal platesetters such as our Suprasetter A52 (to be shown at Printex) are now economical for this market. Workflow applications such as our MetaDimension and Printready are very reliable, easy to use and automate many of the processes that used to require a skilled desktop operator meaning small shops with limited pre press skills can manage files and can readily handle digital plate production. Since, with all other things being equal printers typically prefer metal over polyester, sales for our Polysetter have slowed and our Suprasetter orders have sky rocketed.
CTP a key driver
Charlie Scandrett of Pressnet, which markets the Sakurai and Hamada presses in Australia believes that CTP is a key driver of small offset growth and ability to compete with digital, he says, “The B3 market is strongly influenced by turnaround and quality because it competes with the digital press market. CTP and CIP3 are essential features of a competitive B3production centre. The price of metal CTP in B3 is now the same as polyester. Chemical free is another market demand and is only available in metal CTP. Pressnet package their B3 presses with Presstek processless CTP.”
In small offset Ryobi is pushing hard for increased market share in Australia since Asian powerhouse Cyber Graphics took the agency. Ryobi offers a trio of small format options; the 512 series (an entry-level two-colour machine with three form rollers), the 520 series, and the 524 series.
Ryobi’s 520 series is available in the HX model, with four, five, or six colours, and no console or automation. Further, the HXX model is also available in four- to six-colour configurations, along with automated features. In the five- and six-colour models, the HXX is now available with or without perfecting and coaters.
The newest Ryobi model offered is the 524 HE, a four-colour press with a semi-automatic plate changer. The Ryobi 524 HXX four-colour press also features semi-automatic plate changing. The 524 HXXP offers the same features, plus a fully automatic convertible perfecting device. This model can output 13,000sph in perfecting mode, according to the manufacturer.
Sakurai approaches the 20" market a bit differently. Though it does sell a traditional 20" press, the 452 SIP, it promotes its 58 Series of presses, including the four-colour 458EII straight and 458EPII perfector, and 558EII and 558EPII perfector. These presses are models, with automated plate loading, auto perfector changeover, auto roller wash-up, coating, and CIP3 technology, all rated at 15,000 iph.
The advantage of this slightly larger sheet size, says Sakurai is greater productivity, for the same price, Scandrett says, “Sakurai provides free extra size. Sakurai manufacture a 580 x 460 mm press ( Sakurai 458SI ) for exactly the same price as their 52cm press. Several Australian printers who were looking at the B3 x 52cm format have ordered Sakurai 458SI and 558SI presses.”
Shinohara, sold in this country through Currie & Co offers the Shinohara 52, available in two to six colours, featuring both straight and perfecting models, The offerings feature the Shinohara semi-automatic plate changer, which reduces the time and skill set required to change plates, according to the manufacturer. Additionally, the 52 Series comes with Shinohara’s plate cocking system and optional convertible cardboard printing system, aqueous in-line coater, infrared dryer, pre-registering system, and CIP3 station.
The CIP3 station sets ink key apertures based on PPF (Print Production Format) files, ensuring that the pre-inking system receives the appropriate amount of ink film on all rollers before printing begins. Curries is also a strong believer ion CTP packages, and sells a significant amount of Shinohara’s bundles together with a platesetter.
Long perfecting hits A3
Long perfecting presses have also hit the A3 market, CJ Printing in Perth put in the first SM52 long perfector this year, with Ryobi and Shinohara among those also manufacturing long perfectors. There is no doubt that for certain types of work and markets A3 long perfectors will be an ideal solution, although of course they will never dominate the sector in the way B1 long perfectos have come to, but the fact that manufacturers are producing them means there is a good market there.There is no doubt that digital printing is certainly an option for some areas of short run A3 printing. The length of run where such a process is cost effective is difficult to define, and may be forever so, given the different parameters of each job. Speak to digital print manufacturers and they will say crossover may be more than 1,000 copies, more if online finishing is incorporated and turnaround time is very tight. SOS Print & Media for instance in Sydney receives digital files from financial services customers at 3am and has to have bound copies sitting on desks by 6am. However talk to offset press manufacturers and printers, and they will claim that as low as copies is viable for small offset, particularly when linked with CTP and CIP3.
Interestingly most digital printer suppliers now talk in terms of their technology complementing offset, not replacing it. Certainly the efforts of the manufacturers in the last decade to meet the digital challenge and give their customers, the traditional jobbing printer, the tools to exploit new market opportunities, combining the primary quality of offset with rapid turnaround times are to be applauded, small offset will be around and delivering decent profits for a long time to come.