Bells and whistles litho can take on short-run digital

By Simon Eccles, Monday 22 July 2019

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In the quarter century or so that digital colour presses have been around, most of the debate has been about if, how, and when they would take over from ‘conventional’ printing processes.

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Conventional wisdom has been that digital is the only way to go for personalisation, but it’s also unbeatable for short runs, especially with fast responsiveness and same-day turnaround. 

What’s less often examined is how the makers of conventional commercial presses haven’t been standing still, with a combination of pre-press and on-press automation plus accessible UV curing. This now means that some of them can not only match digital response times for short runs, but they’re actually more economical while retaining the ability to offer fast and economical long runs in high quality too. 

Here we’re examining largely sheetfed litho developments, but flexo has advanced by leaps and bounds in recent years and we’ll cover its fight back against digital in a future story. 

Heidelberg, Koenig & Bauer and RMGT all say they’ve seen significant sales into the larger web-to-print specialists, originally associated with short runs and digital. Here, highly efficient MIS can control job grouping, imposition and scheduling can make large-format high speed litho presses more efficient than slower, usually smaller, digital presses. 

Craig Bretherton, product and marketing manager at Koenig & Bauer (UK), explains. ‘With rapid developments in digital technologies in recent years and the rise to prominence of web-to-print style printers, automation relating to makeready has formed a key area of our ongoing press development. 

“We are now competitive with digital down to around 250 copies due to the huge steps in automation and in particular, simultaneous activities such as being able to change plates while washing blankets and cylinders, or even changing plates while the press is still running another job.

“Due to the individually servo driven plate cylinders we can adjust the print length for tight registered jobs without the press being stopped. We also have simultaneous roller washing where spare print units can be washed and prepared for the next job whilst the press is running the previous job. This dramatically reduces wash-up time. For coating we have fully automatic anilox roller changes while the press is running. All these features mean that the time between changeovers is reduced to an absolute minimum.”

Heidelberg is also stressing the advances in automation on its large- and small-format sheetfed litho presses as being a big factor in bringing changeover times down to compete with digital. In particular its current XL generation coupled with the Prinect Inpress Control 2 inline spectrophotometer measuring system that automatically measures and controls colour and register on the fly and at any speed. 

Its eight-unit packaging presses can also be used with a seven-colour process ink set called Multicolor (CMYKOGV), which can handle nearly all brand colours without ink changes between jobs. The inks match those on the Heidelberg Primefire B1 inkjet packaging press, making job swaps easier.

The 52 and 75 presses are optionally available with Anicolor keyless inking, which uses an anilox roller in place of a conventional duct with keys. Paul Chamberlain, marketing and product manager for B3 and Prinect at Heidelberg UK, says that the beauty of Anicolor is that it gets the press into colour in just one revolution, compared to up to 100 on a conventional press after a colour change. It then maintains the ink density by varying the temperature of the anilox roller. Getting new plates running means only about 37 to 40 waste sheets on a five-unit press, taking only a minute or so. Couple that with auto plate change and auto washing, and changeovers are very rapid with little waste. “Whatever they say, you often do get waste on a digital press too,” Chamberlain points out. The presses can also be fitted with LE or LED UV curing, for rapid perfecting and same-day finishing if required. Chamberlain says that there are no plans to produce a B1 or larger Anicolor press, however. The reason is that very high capacity heater/chiller units would be needed on each unit, which would be prohibitively expensive to fit and run. 

Matt Rockley is Heidelberg’s product marketing manager for B1 and above, and has also recently taken on responsibility for the Primefire B1 inkjet packaging printer. The large-format VLF presses are certainly finding places in web-to-print he says,
citing a customer in Germany with more than 20 eight-colour perfector VLFs and CutStar roll-to-sheet feeds. “They are running jobs down to 250 sheets, with say 126 business cards per sheet. The imposition is where the money lies. They offer discounts to customers it they choose standard formats and papers. If they don’t need to change paper or inks they can change over in one minute with 50 sheets waste, while buying reels saves them 8%-10%.”

UV curing on the B1 presses removes the need to plan similar jobs in line because of the ink keys, he says. “You can put a mix of sizes on the same plate.” The VLF presses offer double grippers for the front and back of the sheet means there’s little need for gutters between images, so mixtures are again possible. 

Follow the money

Murray Lock is managing director of M Partners, the UK distributor for the RMGT range, including the larger-format (formerly Mitsubishi) sheetfed litho presses and smaller-format (up to SRA1) former Ryobi models. “Printers generally want to talk about digital, they feel they have to go that way, but when they talk about costs or a business model they get confused,” he says. “Look at the running costs. I was with a printer this week who said he couldn’t understand why there has to be a service contract on a big digital press costing £40,000 per year.”

Lock says that it’s very hard to calculate the true costs of digital versus offset. There’s no standard for describing digital throughput because things like quality settings can be varied. “With conventional litho you’ve got the main players, RMGT, Heidelberg, Koenig & Bauer, Komori, Manroland. Everyone can compare them like for like,” he says. “With digital you are not comparing like for like, everyone has a different quirk and a Landa is different from an HP or a Fuji. One may say for instance it will print 10,000 A4s per hour, but it turns out they’re quoting single-colour. Even if you look at a quality equivalent to litho, everyone is quoting different DPIs or whatever they use to describe quality.”

Lock has come up with what he admits is a highly simplistic way to compare standardised costs. “We’re looking at what is the cost to produce an A4 sheet? We looked at the format, whether it is a B1, B2, B3 sheet simplex or duplex. Then how many A4 pages is it producing at litho or equivalent quality, then divide by the hourly speed.” The results aren’t actual costs, more like comparative ratios. 

He’s produced a spreadsheet that compares costs of various digital and RMGT litho presses. He asked that we don’t give too much detail, so we won’t identify the actual digital presses. One sheetfed B2 inkjet costs £100 per nominal A4, a B1 sheetfed inkjet is £69.44, one continuous 525mm simplex inkjet is £19.52 and another 520mm duplex continuous inkjet is £12.50. By comparison, Lock claims, an RMGT 524GX LED five-unit B3 offset press is £19.23 per nominal A4, and an SRA1 928 LED is £6.25. Interesting, although PrintWeek would point out that this doesn’t take account of differences in speed, uptime, changeovers, quality, personalisation or depreciation. But the difficulty of defining these reinforces Lock’s point. 

Of the companies we talked to, Heidelberg and Koenig & Bauer have digital presses of their own, while Komori has joint ventures with digital manufacturers Konica Minolta and Landa. RMGT’s Ryobi wing has long experience of supplying transport chassis to digital makers, including Fujifilm for the Jet Presses currently. All have direct experience of both digital and conventional presses, so can present objective views in sales talks. “We sell both, so we understand the differences,” sums up Rockley at Heidelberg. 

Lock at M Partners used to work for Manroland agent PPS in the 1990s and 2000s, when it also sold rebadged Xeikons and the clever but overly expensive DicoWeb DI web press, so he’s seen both sides too. “We believe RMGT is complementary to digital,” says Lock. “For example ProCo believed they were going to throw out litho as they couldn’t see where it fit in their marketing mix. They had HP with personalisation. But then they bought a 16,200sph RMGT press and very quickly followed it with a second one. If we also look at Precision Printing in London, they have two eight-colour RMGTs that replaced their Heidelberg B2s. I would love to say it’s because they love us and the previous agent Apex Digital, but these companies have looked at the numbers and see the commercial reality and that’s why they came to us. If you get the pricing right there’s a business there!” 

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