Souped-up offset delivers digi-beating performance

Barney Cox
Monday, January 26, 2015

Conventional wisdom says that digital is the best way to go for short-run and quick-turnaround work.

However, predictions of the death of litho, particularly in this part of the market are premature. In fact, there are signs that litho is not just holding its own, but is actually gaining ground. 

Press technologies that cut make-ready times and waste sheets, and reduce drying time are all helping to reduce the lower limit of cost-effective litho printing. While trade specialists are often geared up with big presses and sophisticated software to gang up and bash out short-run work, there still many general commercial printers that have a need to produce the odd short-run job who don’t want to cede control to a trade peer.

“The challenge is the combination of short runs and quick turnarounds,” says Apex Digital Graphics sales & marketing director Neil Handforth. “The two go hand in hand. The trend is for regular re-orders of smaller volumes when that job would once have been one long run.“

A typical definition of short-run work these days is 250-500 sheets for most offset jobs. Below that heavier stock, special colours or especially high quality may also favour litho over digital. 

“People ask what our cut-off is on litho; there’s no hard and fast rule,” says Doveton Press production director Mark Savage. “We recently did a 20-run job litho – there was no way we could have done it digitally because it was on 400gsm board.”

The Bristol-based firm, which specialises in short runs, has Heidelberg digital and litho kit including a pair of B3 Anicolors, an SM 74 – due to be replaced with an XL 75 this March – and a pair of digital LinoPrint 901s.

Short runs and quick turnarounds are inter-related and as volumes have come down, so have lead times, which presents additional challenges. Two to three days is standard, with next-day or same-day rush jobs a possible request.

Balanced arguments

The challenge is balancing your ability to meet day-to-day needs with the ability to accept any short deadline demands a client throws at you without having expensive equipment sat idly by. 

“The bulk of the market is still general commercial printers who need a flexible press that can handle as much work in-house as possible,” says Komori director of sheetfed sales Steve Turner. They don’t want to outsource to a trade printer optimised for the short-run work. Flexibility is the key. It’s about doing it all and doing it economically.”

A typical example is Lanes Printers in Broadstairs, Kent. The firm uses Heidelberg and Hans Gronhi offset presses to produce runs down to 150. 

“We don’t specialise in short runs but we can do them and offer fast turnarounds if needed,” says managing director Wayne Yorath. 

The Hans Gronhi, a four-colour GH524 four-year-old B3 machine that replaced a B2 press, was chosen for its ability to handle short-run work. More recently the firm has upgraded its platesetter, installing a Screen PlateRite 8600N-S. Its high speed – it can churn out more than 60 B3 plates per hour – means it keeps the presses fed with plates, even when producing very short runs. That, combined with low plate prices, is key to competing with digital for short runs. 

“It was always platemaking that was the issue for litho,” says Yorath. “Now with a set of plates costing £6 the average job costs £20 to makeready.”

His approach highlights one rule of thumb for determining how to produce a job, which is to use the cost of a set of plates versus the click charge of a digital press to find the break point between the processes. It’s not the only factor though, and the most appropriate print process isn’t always obvious. Many firms say the MIS is becoming more important to help pick the most cost-effective production route especially as technology evolves and challenges previous assumptions.

“We’ve invested in a Tharstern MIS to make ourselves more efficient,” says Doveton’s Savage. 

Leicester-based Flexpress runs Ryobi B2 and B3 litho machines alongside an HP Indigo digital press. Managing director Steve Wenlock says: “Deciding whether a job is printed digitally or using litho is a combination of the price and the deadline. There are some jobs that suit the Indigo but are just too expensive. Conversely there are others that would be better on litho, but if they’re needed in a hurry they’ll go on the Indigo.”

Developments by offset press vendors are making it possible to switch work that was printed digitally before onto, or back onto litho. 

“We have spent the past decade developing on-press tools such as fully automated plate changing and intelligent controls such as KHS AI, all of which have reduced makeready dramatically,” says Komori’s Turner.

However, just having a press that is capable of a quick makeready is not enough to guarantee success.

“There are litho firms targeting the market from 250 copies,” says Heidelberg B2 & B3 product manager Paul Chamberlain. “Some firms are getting down to three-minute makereadies. To do that you need the right materials, processes and methodology.”

Another way in which the requirement for short-run, fast turnarounds is being addressed is the new UV curing systems. 

“You can have the most efficient press but if you then have to wait for the sheets to dry before you can run the sheet through again or finish them, it counts for nothing,” says Turner. “There is a market for short and extremely short runs addressed by HUV including work that was previously produced on digital presses.”

While the press and the inks are important they aren’t the whole story. The whole business needs to be set up to be able to work that way, including finishing.

“However you print shorter runs finishing must be geared up,” says Flexpress Wenlock, who recently invested in a Duplo iSaddle. 

Doveton too has invested in finishing, buying a Duplo DMBi Saddle System.

“We were sending out £3,000 of stitching per month,” says Savage. “Sending out a £200 job at £60 to stitch destroys your margins.”

If, for want of a more elegant turn of phrase, your specialism is generalisation, beware that in seeking to optimise what you’ve got for short runs you don’t go chasing an unsustainable dream. Focusing exclusively on short runs means your presses need an awful lot of jobs to keep them fed. This can be tricky to achieve including big investments and different skills to most printers’ core competence, especially if you’re using W2P to bring in work.

Flexpress’ Wenlock sounds a cautious note: “In our experience W2P means you end up attracting people who just want to pay the lowest prices. We know what we’re trying to achieve and the type of customers we want – we’re more of a person-to-person business.”

Regardless of how you interact with your customers though, thanks to technical advances by the press vendors, post-press manufacturers and software developers, short-run is no longer simply the de-facto term for digital print – if anything short-run is simply a euphemism for efficiency. And if you have the efficiencies in place from pre-press, to press, to post-press – then the deciding factors for whether a job is produced litho or digital is simply unit cost and timescale.

As the saying goes, many a good tune has been played on an old fiddle, and if the fiddle in question has been pimped for productivity, then litho can stay in tune with the changing demands of clients for the foreseeable future. 

Case study: Remous

Based in Sherborne, Dorset, Remous is a 35-year-old family firm that has evolved from a trade printer into a general printer offering litho, digital and wide-format print along with design and mailing. 

At the end of 2014 it invested in a Komori Lithrone S529 with HUV curing. Work is a mix of B2B and B2C, and the firm uses W2P and direct sales to get business. Its W2P offering includes three separate brands in addition to its own site. 

“Since putting in the Komori HUV press we have had jobs that we would have previously run digital go on the HUV press,” says director Alan Bunter. 

An example is 1,000 A4 letterheads that it has switched from running 500 sheets two-up digitally to 250 sheets four-up on the HUV. 

Some jobs have gone litho rather than digital because they were needed quickly. 

“Litho is now quicker than digital on short-run work,” he says. “We’ve turned around some nightmare jobs. One was reflex blue on a 400gsm board. It wouldn’t have dried conventionally. Using the HUV, the artwork arrived at 10am and we delivered it at 1pm the same day. I wouldn’t want to work like that all the time but we can now say yes to jobs other people just can’t do.”

Another benefit of HUV is that it can do work and turn and immediately print the other side of the sheet. “Even with quick drying inks the drying time was longer than the time on press, it was a right palaver. From that perspective the HUV is just like digital,” he says.

“We treat a job the same whether it’s digital or litho. There isn’t a clear line and looking long-term we see it merging further. I don’t believe clients want to know how you print; they’re after quality, price and timeliness. Knowing which of those is most important to the client helps us choose the best production method.” 


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