Revamps outstrip new launches as market picks up

By Simon Eccles, Monday 18 April 2016

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If you look back over the four years since the last Drupa, or even the past decade, you won’t see much that’s revolutionary happening in conventional printing presses. Yet they’ve steadily become more efficient, more reliable, and their productivity has gained as a result.

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Recent development has undoubtedly been affected by the seemingly never-ending economic slowdown in print, but there’s also the factor that presses are a mature technology and there’s little scope for completely new ground-up designs. Small gains in speed, more automation at various stages and cutting out waste and inefficiency, are adding up to significant improvements in presses you can buy today compared to 10 years ago. 

Christian Knapp, former managing director of KBA UK, is now running CMD Insight, a Canada-based international digital consultancy. He is critical of offset manufacturers’ approach: “The established printing press manufacturers are all content to focus on incremental improvements rather then seeing the larger picture. As a result they are just as likely to suffer the same fate as letterpress OEMs that ignored offset. Well, let me be controversial and state that the ‘new’ offset is actually liquid based digital”, by which he means inkjet and Landa’s Nanography. “The offset manufacturers will continue to tweak  makeready features, but as long as water is involved a realistic first pull will still take around 80 to 100 sheets. Meaningful research efforts in waterless offset, for 10 to 50 waste sheets, have stopped.”

Press sales are finally recovering. “In the last 12-18 months the market for presses has improved markedly,” says Neil Handforth, sales director of Apex Digital, which is Ryobi’s UK distributor. “Not only in sales, but enquiries and requests for demos are all up. Some of it goes back to when we put our LED-UV press as a demonstrator into the showroom. It’s partly the new technology, but partly that for seven or eight years, people have hung onto presses that normally they’d have changed at five or six years. 

“These presses are coming up to 10 years and printers are getting two generations of improvements when they do decide to change. This makes a huge difference – often one new press can replace two old ones. When people come to our showroom their first question isn’t ‘how fast does it run?’ but how fast does it make ready?”

Offset updates

New offset presses are appearing, but they’re no longer radically different from what went before. Komori is one of the few manufacturers to say it will announce a new offset litho press at Drupa. Its B2-plus Lithrone G29 will be the platform for its future presses, though it won’t replace the LS29 range yet, says Komori UK managing director Neil Sutton. The G designation was first seen on the B1 G40 and stands for a suite of ‘green’ improvements. 

Just as important, perhaps, are Komori’s plans to link presses into the ‘Internet of Things’, by extending online connectivity. For instance its KP-Connect puts production, quality, maintenance and error reporting information into the cloud for remote monitoring and support, with an element of predictive maintenance. 

The company already has collaborations with Konica Minolta and Landa to produce digital presses and also says it wants to become a “print engineering service provider,” working with third parties to extend its range, initially into finishing. 

Heidelberg grew to be an acquisitive giant in the early 2000s and briefly had products at pretty well all stages of print production and admin. Then it cut back to more core basics and like other press manufacturers seemed to lose its way for a while in the financial crisis after 2008. Now it’s bounced back with healthy sheetfed offset sales, a revamped digital press strategy that seems to be working, and radical plans to develop large-format industrial printing based on its 4D inkjets for direct-to-shape printing. 

It ties all these together with its Prinect system as the basis of end-to-end workflows that it’s dubbing ‘the smart print shop of the future’ at Drupa, with ‘Smart Automation’ applied where possible to standard products. According to press product executive Matt Rockley: “Today it is often the process control rather than technology that has to be addressed for a hike in throughput. Overall equipment efficiency means monitoring and measuring every machine and even elements within the machine more competently.”

Its Drupa press plans include a second-generation B2 Anicolor keyless inking press with features for much faster colour changes, cutting makeready times by 60 to 100 seconds (useful for packaging printers in particular), plus improvements to the Speedmaster CX 102 and XL 75 presses, a new Prinect Press Centre XL control system, an “intuitive” new operating system for the whole Speedmaster range and ‘next-generation’ tools for faster makereadies. 

Rockley says: “It is rare for a B1 or B2 printer to purchase a press without workflow and a spectral measurement device. Inpress Control 2, launched last year, has further slashed makeready times and waste and made the control of colour easier and more accurate.”

KBA-Sheetfed Solutions is following the current German fashion for all things 4.0, thanks to a German government initiative called Industrie 4.0 which promotes computerisation to produce the ‘smart factory’. KBA 4.0 proposes a networked print factory in which products, presses and tools are continuously exchanging information. The first implementation is for proactive and preventative maintenance applications. KBA says it will present more examples at the show. 

There will be at least one new KBA press to see at Drupa though, the B2-plus Rapida 75 Pro, to be shown as a five-colour press with UV-LED curing. This closes the gap between the original 75 and the more highly automated 76. KBA says that by pre-selecting makeready sequences and activating them with a single button, makeready times can be cut by 50%. 

In the 1990s it looked as if the future of offset presses was on-press digital imaging and probably waterless plates (this was particularly promoted by KBA). Today we don’t hear much about either: they still exist but they’re not mainstream development areas. In this case it’s because other technologies have been refined enough that they’re not really needed. 

UV resurgence

Instead, an older technology has come to prominence in recent years: UV ink curing for instant drying of print jobs. In the 1970s this was a specialised process for packaging and plastics printers, using nasty health-risking inks and power-hungry lamps that threw off a lot of heat and ozone that needed extraction lamps.

Today’s compact, cool-running and long-living UV-LED or low-energy LE/HUV lamp arrays can be fitted to even small format presses, while improvements in UV-cured inks, plus mist extraction and filtration, make them less hazardous to users. Press manufacturers are increasingly offering these on new presses or as retrofits.

“For businesses running uncoated stock the benefits are to get a dry sheet straight off the end of the press, straight into finishing without fear of marking, and out the door,” says Chris Schofield, joint managing director of UV specialist IST (UK) “They are efficient and cut the amount of ink used, sometimes by 30% to 40% in volume, as well as eliminating powder spray and reducing the energy bill, compared with other drying options. They also provide high gloss levels and resistance to abrasion, side-lining the need for a dedicated coating or sealing unit.”

Neil Handforth says that UV-LED is changing the way customers are specifying presses. “For instance at Drupa Ryobi will show a 920 press as an eight-colour perfector. It will have four units then a UV drier after the perfector and another on the delivery for the second side. In the past people would have ordered a 10-unit press with two coaters to seal the ink. The cost saved on the extra units almost pays for the UV driers.”

IST recently launched its own retrofit service and says it can work with most presses, with conversions typically taking one or two days. Schofield says: “There are a lot of printers that haven’t got £1m to spend on a new press, but for 10% of that or less, they can get exactly what the guy down the road has got.”

In offset plates the story over recent years has been steady improvement too. Ever since CTP imaging became commercially viable 20 years ago, the major impetus has been to reduce the need for processing chemistry. The past decade has seen the introduction and steady improvement of processless thermal-laser plates with on-press ‘development’ by damper fluid and scrubbing on the blankets. This saves space (no processors), cost (no chemistry) and is “greener” (no delivery runs, no waste liquid). Inkjets remain a low end plate imaging solution. The challenge has been to get enough image contrast on the plate to allow it to be checked before mounting on the press. Agfa, Kodak and Fujifilm have all made good progress. For instance Kodak’s processless Sonora plate has been a sales success and has progressed from a pale grey-on-grey image to a much more visibly pale blue on grey. It’s good for up to 200,000 impressions and will work with most UV inks. Agfa is now demonstrating better contrast on its latest plates at Drupa. 

In summary, don’t expect anything revolutionary in conventional presses at Drupa. However if you have an older offset press you may be surprised at how much more you’d get out of the latest models. 

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