Technology: Second litho revolution puts offset back in the spotlight

Jo Francis
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Digital may be the more glamourous option for the modern printer, but high performance never goes out of fashion - and the latest advances in litho offer both style and substance

In the 1960s, the industry experienced the ‘litho revolution’, when offset lithography usurped the then-dominant letterpress process. By the late 1970s, litho presses were producing high-quality, multicolour print at high speeds and had become the commercial printing method of choice.

Come the tail-end of the 20th century, another printing revolution got underway: the digital printing revolution that will, supposedly, render many conventional printing processes irrelevant.

From the first Indigo machines in 1993, to the ever-more sophisticated electrophotographic and inkjet devices, digital developments have come thick and fast. And there’s no sign of a slowdown.

But while much of the focus is understandably about the rapid advances in digital – and what it can and will be able to offer – offset litho isn’t sitting in a corner covered in dust like some sort of ancient relic. In fact, recent years have witnessed something of a renaissance in offset press developments, as Heidelberg UK sales director Jim Todd observes: "At Ipex last year, if you were a digital supplier looking at what  an offset machine can do now, you would have been worried," he states. "I’ve got strong opinions on this, I think we are living in the world of ‘new offset’."

Todd believes the latest generation of printing presses, bristling with high-tech, can be likened to high-performance racing cars, and he pinpoints predictability and consistency as being fundamental aspects of this ‘new offset’ revolution.
"Predictability was never there in the old days. Where we are today with the integration of pre-press to press, and things like simultaneous plate changing with a reliability that makes it worthwhile and makes it all work – even minutiae like having technology that ensures the plate is on the pins properly.

"It’s much more sophisticated than it was. And it’s all enabled reductions in makeready time and waste that has allowed offset to fight back against digital," Todd adds. "Spectrophotographic colour measuring, on the run, with closed-loop control, is a revolution. It enables non-stop makeready, which is another revolution!"

Changing priorities
The 21st century litho press is both fast and accurate. And although a running speed of 18,000sph has become the new norm on the latest generation of high-performance sheetfed press models, cranking up the speedometer even further is not the major preoccupation of the people in white coats busying themselves in the press manufacturers’ R&D departments. "More than 10 years ago, we set a world speed record running a press at 20,000sph and still nothing runs that fast today," notes KBA UK managing director Christian Knapp. "That is not the point anymore. Makeready, colour and quality control have taken the biggest steps. A few years ago someone produced a curve showing the economics of litho versus digital run lengths. The level of automation that suppliers have introduced on sheetfed presses has shifted that curve inwards and downwards," he says.

"That comes with sophisticated technology. The quality and the consistency today is incredible, from the first copy to the last copy and throughout the run. And of course continued focus on makereadies, down to saving on seconds. I know of a packaging company where they are improving makeready times in second intervals now. Companies are making money in being quick at changeovers," Knapp adds.

Norman Revill, Knapp’s counterpart at Manroland GB, concurs: "Can presses run faster? I’m not sure that they will. The trend is for run lengths coming down and because of that, speed is not the biggest imperative now. The most important thing is how quickly we can change a job."

Revill says that one of the major areas of focus for Manroland and its customers is value-added printing, whereby additional inline processes, such as foiling or embossing, create higher-value printed products. The capabilities of Manroland’s Prindor inline foiling system were demonstrated on the cover of PrintWeek’s recent Power of Print supplement – the patented cold foiling system can be retro-fitted to existing presses and uses standard printing plates rather than special dies. It sits above the printing units, which can still be used as normal when producing non-foiled jobs. "Value-added printing is not just about being bigger or faster. It’s making sure the printer can find a marketplace and make some money out of it," says Revill.

"We’ve got lots of new and innovative ideas about reinventing print and making print sexy again. For example, a Roland 706 with coater can accommodate a Prindor inline foiling system. It’s a remarkable piece of equipment and I’m amazed nobody’s grasped the nettle yet in the UK. I think there will be one before the end of the year, because it’s ideal for so many applications including security printing, cosmetics, and labelling. Really it’s as flexible as the imagination of the person designing the job."

While we may not have anyone with a Prindor system in the UK just yet, we do have plenty of people experiencing the benefits that the latest press technology can bring to their businesses. Jon Lancaster, managing director at Falkland Press in Hatfield is a case in point. During his tenure at the family-owned company, it has upgraded from a four-colour Speedmaster 72 to an SM 74 and now a five-colour Speedmaster XL 75 with coater. "Everything has improved on it," he says. "We can pre-set the next job while running the current one, and the skill now is more around the operator’s attention to speed and getting plates and paper to the machine at the right time. On some jobs we are making ready in two minutes."

At just 24 years of age, Lancaster has already lived through the differences in three iterations of press technology – for Peter Alderson, who’s been in print for twice Lancaster’s lifetime, the capabilities of today’s offset presses would have been simply unimaginable in the early days of the company he co-founded alongside his brother. What’s more, the press hall at West Molesey-based Alderson Print Group has also been home to a veritable ‘who’s who’ of equipment over the years, spanning sheetfed litho, digital, and web offset.

Productivity jumps
The firm’s most recent acquisition, a KBA Rapida 106, was commissioned just a couple of weeks ago. "What the new generation of presses can do is such an eye-opener," says Alderson. "When I think back to our first multicolour press in the 1980s, we were mounting plates manually with bolt clamps, we had screws on the ink ducts – it took more than an hour to complete makeready.

"Now this new press can produce three times more work during a day than the one it’s replacing, it’s unreal. And it really will run at top speed, as opposed to theoretically," he adds. "We had a number of demonstrations, of course, but the difference really hits home when it’s working in your own factory. It’s a step change."

This step change in throughput means it’s now becoming commonplace for one new-generation offset press to comfortably replace two older models, with knock-on benefits in terms of the amount of factory space required, and in manning levels. Brighton’s Litho Direct recently installed a new Komori Lithrone S29 with all the latest fast makeready bells and whistles, replacing two older Lithrone 28s. It was in the late 1990s that Komori promoted its Printroom 2000 concept of a highly automated press hall, where technology had taken over many of the processes that had previously required skilled operators along with hours of manual effort. While it’s fair to say this vision didn’t quite come to pass in the anticipated timeframe, in the second decade of the 21st century, it is increasingly becoming a reality.

Ultimately, this requires a more systematic approach to analysing press performance, according to Murray Lock, managing director at M Partners: "If you’re already on a five- or six-minute makeready, how can you really improve on things? What we find, is that some printers aren’t getting the best out of the presses in the way they run them. If you can improve in-house performance by 10%, then that’s money on the bottom line.

"They might be running at slower speeds because they’re using cheaper ink, or not getting small things fixed. It all adds up. If every element of operation is systematically analysed, people can still get huge performance improvements," he says.

The engineering precision of the 21st century printing press really does put it on a pedestal above everything that has gone before, yet the incremental improvements keep on coming. A recent notable example is the sheet transfer system on Heidelberg’s XL 162 press, which involves a gripper at either end of the sheet. Sounds simple enough, but it was a technical challenge that posed a considerable test, even for the expert engineering brains at the manufacturer. "This gripper system enables us to run minimal sheet size, so we’re saving 30-45mm of paper across a big sheet," explains Todd. "The benefits of being able to deliver a wet sheet of this size, with that sort of accuracy, could flow through to smaller sizes too," he muses.

And it’s this expertise in moving pieces of paper quickly and precisely that gives offset manufacturers considerable confidence in the longevity of their offerings, not least because it’s something that digital press manufacturers covet. "We [the press manufacturers] can move paper at extremely high speed, very accurately. How you put ink on that paper is the next question," says KBA’s Knapp.

Even Alderson, with his half-century of know-how, finds it impossible to predict where litho technology can go next: "What the next step is goodness only knows – I never thought we’d get this far."

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