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A dry run

May 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Given the pros and cons of waterless technology, is the process viable for web offset printing?

As a web printer, do you crave higher quality? What about faster makereadies? If you want it, you've got it with web offset presses equipped for waterless printing--at least according to many experts.

Waterless webs, which run without fountain solution, boast the same advantages as do waterless sheet-feds. Both not only produce stellar quality, but can provide faster makereadies with lower spoilage and improved productivity. Plants also can use waterless printing as a sales tool to reel in new clients. And don't forget about the ease of operation possible when workers don't need to monkey around with ink and water balance.

The downside? Plate availability is limited and, at least currently, only one plate manufacturer exists (although Presstek in Hudson, NH does produce a digital waterless plate for small-format presses). In addition, printers must shell out more dollars for waterless inks and plates along with a special processor. Finally, dry offset on webs has its own distinct challenges due to the long run lengths tackled by these machines, as well as the speed at which they run.

The big question is, given the advantages and challenges involved with the process, is dry offset an economically viable alternative for web presses? Are its benefits abundant enough to counter any obstacles? At what run lengths? For which types of work?

Only six installed web presses operate waterless in the U.S. (not including an unspecified number at R.R. Donnelley), relates Arthur LeFebvre,executive director of the Waterless Printing Assn. in Chicago. Compare that figure with the approximately 400 sheet-fed presses that "actively" print dry offset, meaning they have invested in waterless plates and a special plate processor.

Web offset presses have been shipped "waterless capable," with hollow core vibrator rollers and water cooling, for years, according to Eddie Duarte, sales and service for Sun Graphics Technologies (Fort Worth, TX).

"Chilling always has been there," agrees Susan Roberts Cilia, director of sales and marketing for Tri Service (Melrose Park, IL). "Printers have always needed to cool web presses because of the equipment's speed and heat buildup."

But, that chilling generally is a single-zone type. To run waterless, this system must be enhanced through additional controls that allow shops to introduce warm water into the stream (when a press has been sitting and is cold) and also control the temperature of individual units.

But, this scenario is only one option for running waterless, emphasizes Tom Thompson, commercial sales manager for KBA-Motter Corp. (York, PA). Indeed, manufacturers are experimenting with alternatives or new twists to the above configuration.

Rockwell Graphic Systems, for one, is investigating a new type of ink delivery system that's optimized for heat flow, which conventional offset lithographic inkers aren't, relates Larry Bain, director of printing technology for the Westmont, IL-based company. "You can't make a large change in a basic element of the process--the plate--without making equivalent technology changes in the rest of the system. Just adding more cooling isn't an appropriate technological response."

In addition, MAN Roland recently installed a full-size, 16-page Rotoman press in Switzerland. "It has no dampener and is equipped with a device that provides cool air to the surfaces of the plate and blanket cylinders to keep cylinder surface temperatures correct for waterless printing," explains Joe Abbott of MAN Roland.

Finally, Heidelberg Harris offers the M600 SRW (shortrun waterless) web press. It's purchased without a dampener, comes with temperature control and "provides cooling to the blanket and plate cylinders, as well as the ability to cool the fountain ball if required," relates Ron Bartell, product manager for Heidelberg Harris (Dover, NH). "The M600 SRW also comes with four vibrators that have increased journal sizes and greater water flow."

According to Doug Graf, market specialist for AEC (Wood Dale, IL), mostly large firms invest in waterless printing; smaller companies can't justify the additional costs. These brave initial adopters use waterless for high-end brochures, catalogs and newspaper inserts, as well as technical and medical journals.

"We reproduce X-rays, photomicrographs, etc. for scientific journals," remarks Dick Samuels of Cadmus Journal Services, Inc. (Easton, MD). The quality potential of dry offset lassoed the company into the arena. "Our key motivation was image reproduction--waterless is the best image reproduction methodology that exists, and quality must be top-notch because the science is in the picture as well as the text. Also, waterless is environmentally right and offers the potential for paper savings."

The firm retrofitted two six-unit Hantscho presses--the first nearly a year ago and the second two months ago.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Lithotone, Inc. (Elkhart, IN) retrofitted a four-over-four Hitachi. "We get a superior print," sums up Ken Priebe, CEO and founder of the company, which produces high-quality publication work. The firm prints up to 500,000-copy run lengths.

Two months ago, still another printer, Kings Web (Mississauga, Ontario), installed a six-unit Mitsubishi web to reap the benefits of less waste and spoilage and better quality. "We hope to run a 200- to 300-line screen (currently we run a 150- or 133-line screen) and see 10 percent less waste than we'd see from a conventional web," relates president Terry Slater. Kings Web produces annual reports and items for the automotive market.

Not only is quality reportedly superior, "shops also can get a much higher ink gloss using waterless because the ink dries through oxidation as opposed to absorption and will sit up on the sheet more; colors become vibrant," explains John Zenner of Toray Marketing and Sales (Lake in the Hills, IL).

Productivity is another potential boon. "The web printers we talk to consider opting for waterless due to productivity benefits; quality is a secondary issue," LeFebvre says. "After all, operators don't have to worry about ink and water balance so they get up to color much faster," which shortens makereadies and cuts waste.

Indeed, Lithotone's press can get up to saleable color 2,000 sheets quicker than it can using conventional equipment.

To some, this touted savings in spoilage isn't so important for web shops, which handle much longer runs than do sheet-fed printers. "With a 500,000-piece run, saving 5,000 on a makeready won't change the economics much," believes one expert. "That's why there's more application in sheet-fed."

What exactly are the economics of waterless web? Is this technology a viable alternative to conventional printing? "With today's technology? No, it's not there yet," asserts Bain of Rockwell.

Heidelberg Harris' Bartell is more optimistic. "Waterless is economically beneficial with run lengths of 60,000 copies and fewer."

A key issue is ink cost and consumption. "Waterless inks cost 10 percent to 15 percent more than conventional types," reports LeFebvre. He further points out that the cost of multizone temperature control adds $80,000 to $150,000 to the price of a web press. The price tag on the plate processors required for the technology? From $17,000 to $30,000 depending on size.

"But, plate prices seem to be the real bone of contention to some. In fact, they're nearly double that of conventional plates, according to Zenner. In addition, Toray recently issued a 20 percent price increase effective," continues the company spokesperson.

Unfortunately, web shops, with long runs, tend to use a large number of plates. "These presses run so much faster than sheet-fed that they're not as friendly to waterless plates, which are more delicate than aluminum," explains Rich Stratz, graphic arts sales manager for Applied Web Systems (Elgin, IL).

Indeed, waterless plates reportedly wear out more quickly than aluminum. "These plates have a silicone non-image surface," explains Zenner. "Run lengths on negative types generally are between 150,000 and 200,000 impressions, although some function to 800,000 impressions. But, most positive-working plates (which most web printers use because of their increased durability) offer up to one million impressions. Printers, however, are used to getting about two million impressions from a set of plates."

Just how important are these facts? "Most comments made to us by printers who haven't gone waterless have been their fear of plate life," adds Jim Leveille of Master Flo Technology, Inc. (Brossard, Quebec). "The process just isn't economical for long runs because of plate life. Plate cost is so significantly higher than that for conventional plates it's a deterrent for high-volume printing."

Another big problem is lack of competition for and availability of Toray plates, says LeFebvre. However, the company recently modified its manufacturing line to increase speed and output and provide increased capacity.

Nonetheless, "people are reluctant to base their business on a single source of supply," states Abbott of MAN Roland.

Toray's patent on its negative plate expires in 1999; the patent for the positive plate expired two years ago. According to Zenner, Toray most likely will see some competition in the marketplace this year.

"Although plate availability was a factor in our decision to go waterless," relates Samuels of Cadmus, "it hasn't been a problem. We outlined with our vendor predicted needs during the coming 12 months, and discussed what the company could supply."

Another challenge for web? "Temperature becomes more critical on web presses than on sheet-fed machines due to web's faster speeds (from 1,800 fpm to 2,000 fpm; sheet-feds near 15,000 iph) and longer run lengths (webs average 60,000 to 100,000 impressions, while sheet-feds go down to 500). The combination of speed and run length generates higher temperatures," according to Terry Gren, technical manager for web products and digital imaging systems for Komori America Corp. (Rolling Meadows, IL).

"Webs run at high speeds and generate more heat than sheet-fed presses," concurs Harold Versten, vice president of Electro Sprayer Systems (Elk Grove Village, IL). "But that just means we simply design a temperature control system that's more powerful."

Finally, not only are waterless inks more expensive than conventional types, shops use more of the material. "With waterless printing, shops will utilize four to 14 percent more ink than they would use in conventional printing, so the process is more costly," remarks one expert.

Whether or not waterless web will take off depends upon the extent to which these costs are overridden by waterless' benefits. "Such costs must be offset by improvements in makeready waste, but new conventional presses have decreased makeready times, diminishing improvements from waterless," argues Bartell.

Plus, some waterless benefits are limited by the fact that printers, who generally leave press dampeners intact (although deactivated), often switch from dry to conventional printing and back, instead of running waterless 100 percent of the time.

"We switch back and forth and run the web waterless about 40 percent of the time," offers Samuels of Cadmus. "We didn't want to overwhelm the press and lack backup in case it went down. Then we wouldn't be able to deliver the product on time. But, now that we installed a second press, we'll have some redundancy and can boost our percentage of waterless printing."

How long does the process take? "It's just an ink change; just like a color wash," Samuels says. "It takes approximately an hour and a half."

Does it hurt productivity to switch back and forth? "Absolutely. No question about it," replies Samuels.

"The only way to realize the full benefit is to run waterless all the time," agrees LeFebvre. "It costs money to switch."

There are ways around waterless' challenges--it's just that no one has realized them yet. "If someone produced ink with an operating temperature compatible with that found on the plate cylinder, we wouldn't need temperature control," asserts Bartell. "It also would be a boon if plates were more resistant to toning and ran at higher temperatures without taking ink in the non-image area. If either of these improvements were achieved, we'd see an overnight breakthrough."

He cites paper improvements as necessary as well. "High-tack waterless inks pull paper fibers from the paper surface, which pile up on the blanket," Bartell adds. "We also need lower ink cost and consumption, as well as reduced plate costs."

How much will waterless encroach on traditional printing? According to Zenner, waterless will nab 20 percent of the printing marketplace. "Keep in mind," he adds "you also will be dealing with other media, such as CD-ROMs, and much of conventional printing will diminish."

"Waterless technology for webs will grow slowly; a second source of plates would be a great help," relates Abbott.

Is waterless economically viable for your shop? Do you produce jobs requiring extremely high quality? Are your run lengths at or below the 60,000-copy limit one expert suggests? To achieve the best results, analyze your customers' needs, your printing workload, etc., before embarking on a waterless oddessey.

Are blankets treated any differently with waterless versus conventional printing? We put this question to John Genest, technical service manager for Reeves International (Spartanburg, SC).

* The type of blanket used is the major difference in the processes. Water or fountain solution is a major lubricant in the release of ink and paper from the blanket, so we recommend a super-release fine buff to get the necessary release characteristics. The higher tack inks involved in waterless also complicate release.

* Be extremely critical about packing height in the blanket. It's more critical than it is in conventional printing. Again, without fountain solution, shops should pack on the lower side of a press' packing tolerance. It goes back to release. The higher you pack, the more it might interfere with release characteristics.

* Use more care in cleaning blankets since, due to lack of fountain solution, inks can dry more thoroughly on the blanket, penetrating its pores.