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May 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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As we move towards the 21st century, the "space age" is no longer a science fiction fantasy. Technology is evolving at such a speed that the challenge for printers is to focus on ways to use the tools that best fit their particular market. The ultimate goal, of course, is to meet exacting customer demands.

Being aware of current and future trends keeps printers one step ahead of the game. Although there is not one predominant trend in the heatset web offset press arena today, there are a variety of changes taking place.

Bob Brown, president of Heidelberg Web (Dover, NH), observes that more orders are being placed for smaller eight-unit M-110 presses, along with their faster and bigger M-3000 companions. The exec believes this trend reflects printers' growing interest in selecting presses that most closely fit their changing product mix, which requires the smaller configurations as well as the behemoths.

Wayne Perk, marketing manager of MAN Roland, believes high-end commercial printers seek print quality, folding flexibility and makeready speed. These execs represent a sector of the market that is willing to make an investment in a press that offers features such as automatic plate changing, web-up systems and automatic folder changeover.

"Publication printers, however, want efficient throughput, focusing on press speed and pages produced per hour," continues Perk. "These printers may not need all the features that some of the more high-end presses produce. They wouldn't be able to take full advantage of the benefits of these presses because their priority is mostly on cost-effective features."

Then, too, printers are selecting from a wide array of choices when involved in expansion plans. Quebecor Printing (USA), for example recently ordered $45 million worth of web offset printing presses and related equipment from Goss Graphic Systems (Westmont, IL). The order is part of a major expansion and modernization program at Quebecor's Dallas facility. Among the presses ordered are the G25 and G25W publication presses, both equipped with HSPF2 pinless double former folders.

In spite of a slow market for web press purchases, printers other than Quebecor have found the newer technologies of great interest. One option for printers is to use gapless and/or mini-gap presses. These presses target printers who want the benefits of speed, shorter cutoffs and maximum paper savings, i.e., the magazine, publication and catalog markets.

Gapless presses also are finding their way into the high-end and general commercial market, the benefit here being the ability to provide a 1:1 printing unit design for higher speed applications.

Pioneered by Heidelberg Web's "Sunday" press, other press manufacturers now have come to market with variations on the gapless technology.

The "Sunday" press was initially designed as a 54-inch wide, 2 x 6, grain-long press with a 21-inch cutoff. It has now evolved into two basic systems, the M-3000 and the M-2000, available with a variety of speeds and configurations.

Jack Hobby, marketing vice president at Heidelberg Web, explains the difference between traditional approaches and gapless. On traditional presses, when the gaps on each of the blanket cylinders line up under pressure and then separate, smooth operation is interrupted and gap "bounce" can create streaks on the printed product.

"With the faster gapless heatset presses, press performance is improved by eliminating the blanket gap. Once this is done, there is no need for cylinder bearers," explains Hobby. "Without bearers, tubular or gapless blanket cylinders can be made rigid enough to eliminate deflection problems without a large circumference or the need for a 2:1 blanket-to-plate cylinder size ratio."

The quick-change nature of the tubular blanket-which Hobby says can be done in 30 seconds-is a plus. "With these blankets it's easy to match specific blankets to web widths as they change from job to job," continues the marketing vp. "Blankets can be changed as web widths change, then sorted and easily reinstalled when that width is again run. This results in longer blanket life and fewer operational problems."

The disadvantage of tubular blankets, warns some experts, is that they are expensive compared to conventional ones.

Gary Owen, director of marketing and sales for KBA-Motter (York, PA), instead looks to the the mini-gap approach and use of a flat blanket. Flat blankets, he asserts, take up less storage space than the tubular type.

"Apart from being a space saver, the flat blanket is quick, easy to install and performs without complications," he claims. "With a full tubular blanket, there is potential for blanket build-up or bulge distortion. The nature of the mini-gap configuration avoids this problem, and so the trend has been to move away from conventional presses and toward presses that give optimum performance," he concludes.

Commenting on gapless presses, Joe Abbott, director of technical support at MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), maintains that the plates on a gapless press are subject to considerable stress and have shown a rate of plate cracking higher than is found on conventional presses. As a result, MAN is developing sleeve offset technology, which the manufacturer describes as web printing with no-gap blankets and no-gap plate cylinders. A sleeve plate reportedly eliminates plate cracking and allows the press designer more freedom in the size and positioning of the form rolls, Abbott explains.

According to MAN Roland the speed of correctly equipped presses could be doubled through the use of the sleeve offset concept. Look to Europe for the first installations, expected sometime this year.

Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses (MLP), Lincolnshire, IL, also offers gapless designs. Two presses are available: One is designed for publications, the other for commercial work.

"The GPX publication gapless web press uses a stacked arrangement featuring fast makeready and preset capabilities. These features enable catalog and magazine printers to meet the decreasing run lengths and target marketing emphasis of advertisers and publishers," comments George Sanchez, marketing director of web offset at MLP.

"The stacked unit arrangement with floor level access to the lower printing unit aisles eliminates the need for web turning devices, reduces the total length of the press and minimizes the web lead within the press. Color and register corrections are accomplished faster than with in-line or duplex press configurations," claims Sanchez.

As an extension of gapless, shaftless presses are making their mark in the heatset web offset market. KBA-Motter offers the Compacta 215, an automated 16-page commercial web offset press featuring decentralized individual drives and controls. This press typically targets printers with small to medium runs, as it is rated at 50,000 cph.

"Although this is the primary target, the Compacta 215 can be used for longer runs as well," explains Owen.

Other advantages of the press include the mini-gap feature on plate and blanket cylinders which, in conjunction with the pinless F3 gripper folder, cuts paper consumption.

According to Claus Bolas, executive vice president of engineering and development, KBA's decision to install shaftless drives in its commercial presses was prompted by the success of the Drivetronic shaftless AC drives launched on the KBA Comet in 1995.

In contrast to other commercial presses, which have a main shaft running between the printing units for power transmission, the Compacta is shaftless with a total of 14 AC drives, according to Bolas.

Not all printers, however, are convinced that gapless/ mini-gap presses are the solution for them. Many have stayed with conventional presses, but a few are experimenting with waterless in order to meet the demand for increased productivity and higher quality.

Although some sheet-fed printers have embraced the waterless process, adoption has been slower among web printers. "The issue with waterless web is whether printers can justify the increase in material expense, i.e., the additional costs for inks, plate material and ink temperature control systems added onto the press, or the cost of starting over with new waterless equipment," explains MLP's Sanchez.

The marketing exec believes reduced waste and skilled labor can cost justify waterless.

Akin to waterless technology, development is progressing on single fluid lithography. The patented Goss system, currently under development, uses the same lithographic process and consumables as traditional approaches. The main principle of this technology, however, is the use of a premixed ink and water emulsion as the only fluid within the printing process.

"There will be no need for a dampening system on the press, leading to a less complex design and simpler operation and maintenance," explains Dr. Alan Sheng, vice preident of technology and global development at Goss Graphic Systems. "Second, the problem of achieving ink and water balance will be eliminated. This will give benefits in print quality, faster start-ups and consistent color."

Designed to work in conjunction with single fluid lithography, Goss has already developed a keyless inking concept that currently provides consistent high-quality color and minimizes waste in newspaper operations. The ColorFlow keyless inking system is being adapted to commercial heatset presses.

ColorFlow uses standard offset inks, as well as quick-change ink modules, which provide benefits in terms of flexiblity and efficiency. The Goss inking system meters the correct amount of ink onto the ink train at all times. Unlike other keyless systems, ColorFlow requires no anilox roller replacement, according to Goss.

One common denominator in all web press discussions is increased automation. With this, comes the issue of training press operators how to use the equipment for maximum benefit. Investment in training has become a necessity for operators on all levels, including packers and roll handlers.

With highly automated presses, the person working the end of a high-speed system has a more complex job than ever before. A thorough knowledge of the delivery end of presses, and what the roll tender needs to know to keep the press running at high speed, is as important as it is to get the job going at the front end. (For more on the effect of automation on crew sizes, see the article in this issue on page 48.)

As advertisers target their messages to specific consumers, printers will be forced to provide even lower unit-production costs with shorter run lengths. Investments in both technology and training that help increase throughput, eliminate waste and generate new business opportunities are essential.

The bottom line is that web offset printers will be facing a variety of challenges in the future. The rules have changed over the years and may continue to change as this active industry segment is taking stock of where it must go as the next century approaches. Systems that focus on automating and simplifying press operation will definitely be in demand.