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Short story

Mar 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Short-run color-the printing industry's panacea for the 90s. Everybody's doing it-or at least talking about it.

Commercial printers in almost all markets are experiencing eroding run lengths but increasing color volume. As a result, they are buying equipment to cost effectively produce what is often termed "short-run color."

Print buyers, too, are looking at their volume requirements in a new light. In a twin effort to eliminate waste while improving the timeliness of their printed materials, buyers are cutting run lengths, as well as revising, updating and reprinting their mate-rials more frequently.

The sales environment also has changed. Growth in the U.S. economy now comes primarily from small businesses --often entrepreneurial startups. Meanwhile, larger companies re-engineer, downsize and fragment into smaller companies. The smaller companies have requirements for short-run jobs. And, although they seem to have an appetite for color, their skills in creating it often are marginal.

It is in this environment that the refrain, "short-run color--a market about to explode," is belted out.

It also is in this environment that the copier manufacturers and digital press developers assert that their new wave technology is the way to capture the so-called "shortrun color market."

"Not so," retort the purveyors of the new highly automated, but traditional, offset presses. "We have served the short-run color market for years, know it best and anything you can do, we can do better," they assert.

So how short is short?

Short is an imprecise concept whose definition depends upon the average run length commonly found in a specific market, produced by a particular process or, perhaps, even an individual plant.

For example, short-run publication gravure generally starts at 500,000 copies and goes up. For some heatset web offset printers, 500,000 is a mid-sized to perhaps long run length. A short-run web printer and a short-run sheet-fed commercial printer can be expected to produce different run lengths, both of which can be labeled as "short."

The introduction of digital presses and upgraded copiers has fueled much of the discussion about short-run color printing. These manufacturers claim that new technology makes it possible to print work that previously was cost prohibitive. In making this claim, the focus tends to be on run lengths under 1,000.

Digital press aficionados claim to be creating a shortrun color market as well as capturing a significant share of the sheet-fed printers' traditional domain. Over the past eight months, PrintCom has conducted surveys to determine short-run production practices and actual run lengths.

In commercial printing plants employing 10 to 99 people and operating single and/or multicolor presses 20.5 inches and larger (but smaller than 40 inches), the average run length was between 5,000 and 10,000 copies. Variations exist, however, depending on company size, type of product produced and geographic location. Overall, run lengths fluctuated around 8,000, but were higher in the larger companies and lower in smaller operations.

Quick printers and commercial printers with fewer than 10 employees report average run lengths in the 5,000 to 70,000 range. Many of these plants operate high-speed electrostatic duplicators, color copiers and presses smaller than 20.5 inches. Run lengths in this group tend to push upward somewhat depending on periodic jobs with long run lengths. These jobs clearly could have been accomplished faster and in a more cost efficient manner on larger presses.

Quick printers and commercial printers of all sizes produce a broad range of run lengths. In the survey, there were quick printers who never ran more than 1,000 copies for any job, and there were commercial printers whose run lengths customarily exceed 25,000.

An interesting finding of the run length analysis is that there is little discernible change in run lengths when work is converted from single color to spot color (either one or two colors in addition to black). However, when work is upgraded to include process color, run lengths tend to increase, often by as much as 20 percent to 25 percent.

In the data gathering for this analysis, we found almost no offset produced process color jobs with a run length of less than 500 and very few under 1,000.

This data, along with discussions with printers and press manufacturers, leads us to conclude that the 1995 sheetfed short-run market is best characterized as ranging from 1,000 to 5,000 copies.

On the other hand, digital press manufacturers and printers tend to define short-run as ranging from a handful of copies to around 1,000, although substantially longer runs have been reported.

Discussions of short-run printing generally conjure up visions of process color work. However, in the existing shortrun print markets, there is far more spot color produced than process color. PrintCom research indicates that 80 percent to 85 percent of shortrun multicolor work is spot color. Fifteen percent to 20 percent of the short-run color volume is process color.

In 1995, two- and three color work grew an estimated eight percent to 10 percent. Some of this growth has been at the expense of single-color work, which PrintCom estimates has been declining at a rate of seven percent per year.

The growth of two- and three-color work favors small format conventional offset and is the basis for the sales growth of these presses and the increase in the number of models available. Some of this work also is well suited to highspeed copiers or electrostatic duplicators with highlight color capability.

The size of the existing short-run process color market is variously estimated at anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion--a substantially noticeable volume, but nevertheless a modest part of the almost $90 billion commercial and quick print markets.

Growth in the process color segment of short-run printing largely has been the applications basis for justifying the new full-color digital presses. While there are widely publicized digital press success stories, it recently has become apparent that some of the newer installations are struggling to achieve their volume expectations. In part, this is because short-run process color requirements are growing much more slowly than the forecasts predicted.

Process color growth is inhibited by the cost and difficulty of creating and preparing full-color work for print taking a color photograph or creating process color artwork is relatively high and is a fixed cost regardless of the run length.

Many small businesses do not have the capability to create satisfactory process color. However, with their office computers they can and do create spot-color graphs and charts.

These companies are enhancing letterheads, envelopes, advertising and general business materials with spot color in lineart, clever designs, and heavy coverage solids.

Fortunately, many small to mid-sized general commercial printers are building volume and profiting from producing this spot-color work on smallformat offset presses.

Short-run color printing that doesn't require the unique capabilities of digital presses (print-on-demand, distributed printing and personalization) can be produced best by conventional offset, except for runs under 500. However, some offset printers claim they can compete effectively with digital reproduction down to the 250 run length level.

As run lengths climb into the high-volume short-run color range of 1,000 to 5,000 copies, small format offset prevails. Highly automated fast make-ready presses have driven down the cost of producing both spot and process color.

When produced in combination with the elimination of film through the use of directto-plate processes now available, small-size press work becomes even more economical.

Recognizing the growing demand for both spot and process short-run color, Heidelberg has added two new conventional small-format presses, in addition to the Quickmaster-DI with its on-press computer-to-plate capability.

The new two-color Quickmaster 46-2 serves a market in which growth is stimulated by small businesses producing their own spot-color designs on desktop publishing systems, explains Eric Frank, Heidelberg director of small press marketing. The Quickmaster two-color, with its bearer-tobearer contact and helically toothed gears combined with automatic plate mounting, running register control, pneumatics and automatic blanket cleaner, enables printers to meet the quality challenges of the marketplace while improving productivity, claims Frank.

Featuring reduced makereadies through automation and 15,000 sph printing speeds, the 14 1/2 x 20 1/2-inch Speedmaster 52 serves a market trending toward direct-to-plate technologies using both polyester and metal plates. The press, which is available in one to six colors, changes over from the computer console with no tools in less than 45 seconds, according to Heidelberg. All Speedmaster 52 models are equipped with the CPTronic digital press operating system, the CPC 1-04 print control and automatic plate mounting.

Also serving the short-run market is the newly revamped GTO 52, which has been rejuvenated and streamlined. The machine features a direct film alcohol and additive-free dampening system.

"With direct-to-plate technologies and a small-format high-quality automated press, the short-run spot color and process color markets can be addressed efficiently and, more importantly, profitably," Frank asserts.

Small-format heavy-duty offset presses fully equipped with enhancing automation, perfecting capability, the option to print waterless and the capability of handling a variety of substrates enable the conventional printer to outperform short-run color competition, declares Larry Fuller, Sakurai's vice president and general manager.

Sakurai's Oliver machines feature automatic perfector changeover systems, cylinder cocking on the fly, single action feedboard setup and interactive touch control. What all this means, Fuller says, is faster make-ready and higher quality.

Sakurai's recently introduced in-line coaler, which features its own individual impression and transfer cylinders, offers conventional offset printers another advantage that cannot be matched with the current generation of digital presses, claims Fuller.

Hamada's analysis of short-run color printing production requirements takes run length, quality and both operating cost and capital expense into account. Hamada's equipment is found primarily in quick print and small commercial plants. These printers often cannot afford a $500,000 digital press, but they can afford a $100,000 conventional press, asserts Mike Dighton, vice president of marketing and customer service.

For printers in these two groups, many of whom cannot afford digital color presses, the short-run color production choice is between the color copier and the offset press, Dighton explains, also noting that many of the plants in these groups offer copying services.

The print quality of a copier does not compare with the quality obtainable from a printing press, says Dighton, so in a sense, comparing their economical run sizes is like comparing apples and oranges. Nevertheless, Hamada's analysis shows that high-speed color copiers can be cost effective at run lengths to 50 copies.

True digital presses take over at the 50- to 500-copy range, according to the Hamada analysis. Conventional sheet-fed offset presses become cost effective between 100 and 500 copies.

Dighton points out that there are many presses available on the market that can run multicolor jobs. With older equipment, however, it often takes longer to set up and run these jobs than is profitable. Newer presses, such as the Hamada C248 landscape press or the RS/VS series of portrait presses are expressly designed for fast setup and simple, straightforward operation.

In the works, but not yet available is a short-run color system that includes a plate and proofmaker from JVC, polyester-based plate from Toray and a two-color Hamada C2F2E-SF press.

Shown at DRUPA by Ryobi is a unit the company dubs "the world's first four-color portrait 13.4 x 17.7-inch press intended to meet printers' requirements for quick multicolor printing, quick setup and easy operation."

The press configuration consists of two sets of twocolor printing units, each sharing a common impression cylinder and connected by a triple-diameter transfer cylinder. According to Ryobi, this design reduces the number of gripper changes and provides for more accurate registration. The press utilizes a newly developed alcohol-free dampening system--called the SuperDampener--featuring motordriven fountain rollers. Currently in testing, the new press is expected to be available later this year at a price somewhat more than $200,000.

Also available from Ryobi is a new 20.5 x 14.4-inch five-color offset press with in-line coating and a high-pile delivery. The press provides a fifth unit for special inks such as gold, silver or other colors, according to Don Trytten, ResourceNet vice president, distributor of Ryobi in the U.S.

In the pipeline from A.B. Dick is a computer-to-plate (CTP) device called the Digital Platemaster 2000. It is designed to output film and paper or polyester plates. According to A.B. Dick, the device combines the key functions of a typesetter, graphic camera, stripping table and platemaker into a single machine. Currently in beta testing, a commercial release data has not been established as yet.

Mating the digital platemaker with A.B. Dick's Century 3500 13 x 17 3/4-inch press will provide printers with an interesting self-contained production system.

Major large-format press manufacturers such as Komori, MAN Roland, Mitsubishi and KBA-Planeta, also offer small format or so-called half-size multicolor sheet-fed presses. The smaller presses from these manufacturers generally provide printers with half-size equipment that features most of the automation available on larger size presses.

Although most include quick make-ready, their economically competitive shortrun production range is generally somewhat higher than the smaller format presses. These presses produce excellent quality and offer an effective choice for printers who are producing both short-run and longer run work, albeit at somewhat higher prices than other options.

Selecting the sheet size that is optimum for a particular multicolor work mix is a critical, often overlooked factor, both in terms of profitability and the size options that a printer can offer to customers, according to Tony Kenney, senior product manager of sheetfed presses for MAN Roland.

In the so-called half-size press market, Kenney notes that printers can achieve a significant market advantage with a six-up press such as the Roland 200 or 300 series, available in the 23 1/4 x 29 1/8-inch size. Roland also offers the smaller and lower priced Practica in the 14 x 20-inch size in two-color and convertible twocolor perfector versions.

A small footprint press, the Roland 200 is available with low- or high-pile delivery in one-, two-, four-, five- and six-color configurations.

The Roland 300 parallels the larger Roland 700 in features with perfecting capability as standard.

Dubbed "the fastest running sheet-fed press at DRUPA," the two-color KBA Rapida 72K 18,500 iph press also is available in a five-color version with automatic perfecting after the first printing unit. It also features an additional varnishing tower and delivery extension running straight through and in perfecting mode at 15,000 iph.

The Komori 20 x 26/28-inch Sprint 2 series is targeted at the small- to mid-sized commercial printer that needs to produce high-quality shortrun products. The series features semiautomatic platechanging, automatic ink roller and blanket cleaning, quick plate clamping, paper cocking and delivery-side push-button controls, as well as an optional print quality system.

Printers serving the shortrun multicolor market have a wide variety of production options available. Critical to selecting the proper equipment is careful assessment of the run length requirements that need to be satisfied. Research shows that the booming market is in two-color printing while process color grows at a moderate rate. However, printers may find different conditions in their specific markets.

And don't forget, the determination of exactly what color quality the print customer will pay for also is critical in the selection process.