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Small press, big performance

Aug 1, 2005 12:00 AM

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With the industry’s attention fixed on adding value to conventional print sales through ancillary services—many involving digital print—the outlook for small-format offset might seem bleak. But NAPL vice president and chief economist Andrew Paparozzi says that isn’t the case: “Digital printing and value-added services are not replacing lithography—rather, they are complementing and expanding on it. Lithography will remain a key part of the overall communications mix.”

While three-quarters of survey respondents cited in the “NAPL 2005 State of the Industry Mid-Year Update” plan to complement lithography with value-added services, such as mailing and variable-data digital printing, most expect lithography to remain a significant part of their future business (see chart below).

Follow the revenue:
Where will it come from in six years?
How 381 NAPL State of the Inudstry participants expect their revenue sources to change by 2010
Lithography Digital Printing and Value Added Services
Annual Sales 2004 2010 2004 2010
All 81.4% 62.2% 15.8% 34.5%
$2M or Less 76.1% 56.3% 20.3% 39.9%
$2M+ to $5M 83.7% 60.8% 13.6% 34.9%
$5M+ to $10M 84.4% 65.2% 16.6% 36.4%
$10M+ to $20M 79.6% 60.1% 15.0% 32.5%
$20M+ to $40M 82.0% 67.6% 13.6% 29.2%
$40M+ 72.1% 59.4% 19.0% 31.0%
Source: NAPL 2005 State of the Industry Mid-Year Update

NAPL’s fundamentals to success include quality, service, speed, price, reliability and responsiveness—capabilities press manufacturers have been working to facilitate with increased automation and other productivity enhancements on small-format offset presses.

“The offset process chain, including prepress and postpress, has become a lot more competitive,” says Joerg Daehnhardt, Heidelberg’s (Atlanta) director of product management, small format. He credits a downward trend in CTP equipment and plate prices, a high level of press automation, and current postpress technology with boosting small-format offset’s overall productivity.

Daehnhardt continues, “The technology for both [digital and offset] has evolved and both have gotten more competitive. Thus, the crossover where you would switch from one to the other has not changed.” He places the crossover point from digital to offset at 700 impressions.

High-quality short runs
“For four-color short runs of 300 to 5,000 impressions, the QM DI is one of the ultimate contenders for digital presses,” says Daehnhardt.

Heidelberg’s 10,000-sph Quickmaster QM DI 46-4 Pro now features Presstek’s ProSpot imaging, an enhanced version of Presstek’s Pearl imaging, with a laser spot size and shape designed to optimize image quality. According to the company, the four-color QM DI offers high print quality combined with the ability to handle short print runs cost-effectively, performing makereadies in less than 10 minutes. The press supports 0.04- to 0.3-mm-thick stocks sized from 3.5 x 5.51 inches to 13.39 x 18.11 inches. Heidelberg offers bundling solutions with a choice of plate materials including, but not exclusive to, the Presstek line.

“DI faces competition from both the digital and offset sides,” Daehnhardt notes. “When a printer wants to gain more flexibility to do a five-color job or inline perfecting, the conventional presses become more competitive, as they do for longer runs.”

The evolving landscape
Daehnhardt says while Heidelberg’s most popular portrait press is the Printmaster QM 46-2 (two-color), the small-format offset market is trending strongly toward landscape presses. “The Printmaster PM 52, launched at Drupa 2004, currently is the hottest press we have in the landscape market,” he says, crediting the four-color, 13,000-sph press’ extensive available features—such as AutoPlate for remote registration control, automated blanket washing, perfecting and the Prinect Classic Center console. “The trend in small-format offset definitely is toward automation,” he explains. “We see a lot of interest in the PM 52 because it’s extremely flexible. You can adjust to the specific situation you want to tackle as a printer, and it will offer quite a bit of automation and ease of use.” The PM 52’s new feature for PRINT 05 is automatic inking unit washup. The press accepts 0.03- to 0.4-mm-thick sheets sized from 4.13 x 5.71 inches to 14.56 x 20.47 inches, and it can be configured with an optional fifth unit for laying down varnish.

At PRINT 05, Daehnhardt says two Heidelberg Speedmaster SM 52 presses will highlight the small-format offset equipment’s ability to evolve and adapt. He adds, “They also will show ways to stay competitive in the market by adding more inline functions, be that one-pass productivity with 4/4 printing or value-added components that enable inline die cutting or embossing.”

The 15,000-sph Speedmaster SM 52, Heidelberg’s high-end small-format press, now has an optional chamber doctor blade system. Heidelberg offers aqueous coating on four- to six-color SM 52 presses, and supports UV inks and coating as an option. The SM 52 accepts stock from 0.03 to 0.6 mm thick, sized from 4.13 x 5.71 inches to 14.57 x 20.47 inches (minimum 5.51 x 5.71 inches in perfecting mode). The speed-compensated Alcolor continuous dampening system is standard; the optional Vario dampening system’s form roller removes dirt particles from the plate during the run, enhancing print quality and minimizing waste.

“There is quite a bit of large press technology on our small-format presses today, and more will be coming down as the market segment sees fit,” says Daehnhardt. “For instance, blanket washers are automated on all our presses, at least as options. On the SM 52, we had AutoPlate from the very beginning—that’s a component that you see all the way down to the Printmaster PM 52 and even the GTOs with a console.”

The Prinect Classic Center or Prinect CP 2000 Center console is a feature Daehnhardt says printers are adding more than in the past, particularly on four- and five-color landscape-format presses. “As soon as printers really consider putting some automation on the press, they go with a blanket washer and a console,” he says. “The console enables them to tap into the prepress workflow and preset ink keys automatically. And, it’s one of those features where you don’t need to go the whole nine yards at the very beginning. You can go seven and a half yards, then add automated features as your volume grows.”

Heidelberg also offers bundling packages for press purchasers seeking a platesetter. Says Daehnhardt, “Whether they buy a Heidelberg platesetter or not, it’s logical to go with CTP because there are definite savings. But if the printer decides to go with both our press and a Heidelberg CTP device, we can make an attractive offer that includes the press, platesetter and plates.”

Ramping up operator productivity
Dennis James, manager of press products for Presstek-owned ABDick (Niles, IL), says automated press functions are helping printers achieve up to 35 percent increases in productivity. “[Automation] can make a press operator more productive,” he says, “especially in the polyester arena. Polyester is a little harder to mount on a manual press, so [users] see automated plate loading as really helping them to control their setup time much better and generate less waste.”

ABDick offers the Presstek-brand Dimension Excel CTP series and the recently announced Vector TX52. “Both of these are chemistry-free CTP systems,” James notes. “For shops that choose to run polyester, we provide the ABDick-brand DPM 34 HSC.”

ABDick’s hottest press, the 4995A-ICS, is a 10,000-sph, four-color portrait press with automated features such as blanket cleaning, plate inserting and the inking control system (ICS). Says James, “We’ve added the streamfeed function, the vacuum conveyor and the vacuum pull guide, which pulls and smooths the sheet along a vacuum belt instead of rippling it while trying to push it.” The press accepts stock from 0.04- to 0.3-mm-thick in sizes from 4.15 x 5.8 inches to 13.39 x 17.72 inches.

ABDick’s 10,000-sph 9995 two-tower press is available in four configurations: 9995, 9995A (with semi-automatic plate inserter), 9995-ICS (with inking control system) and 9995A-ICS (with semi-automatic plate inserter and inking control system). It accepts 0.04- to 0.3-mm-thick stocks sized from 3.54 x 3.94 inches to 13.39 x 17.72 inches.

At PRINT 05, ABDick will exhibit the 4995A-ICS along with the KPG 5634DI press, which incorporates Presstek imaging technology. ABDick currently sells the KPG-brand DirectPress 5334 and 5634DI, and is including the DI press in its road shows. “Everybody’s looking at automation as being very helpful to their productivity, and DI really takes that a step further,” says James. He explains that a prepress operator can develop a piece for the press and print it very quickly with high quality, because the DI press automatically monitors ink film thickness. “Press owners see a distinct advantage to using [a DI press] for anywhere from 500 to 5,000 color copies,” he says.

The direct approach
Stephen Sanker, Presstek’s (Hudson, NH) North American marketing director, DI press products, says better imaging and faster makereadies are generating fresh interest in DI presses. “There’s a real focus on improving the quality of the output because of the 16-micron spot size we have available on DI, now,” he says. “Printers are able to produce 300-lpi print using stochastic (FM) screening—that’s a huge improvement over the first generation of DI presses launched at Drupa in 1995.” He also notes the current makeready on a DI press: less than 10 minutes. “Profire Excel imaging technology and Profire Digital Media [plate] are coming together in the latest generation of new DI presses, expanding the market for DI printers,” he says.

Sanker explains Presstek’s approach to bundling CTP with a conventional ABDick press or plates with a DI: “We’re looking really closely at customer requirements in the market segment. If a customer has a need for two-color capability specifically to run PMS and spot-color jobs, we’ll look at bundling a CTP solution because a two-color press can meet those requirements. If a customer requires four-color process, then we feel we’ve got a great solution in DI.”

Quality, productivity and simplicity
“Kodak has positioned itself as a cross-technology vendor to be able to closely listen to customer needs and configure the optimal blend of technology to best meet those needs,” says John Schloff, vice president of digital printing for Kodak Polychrome Graphics (KPG) (Norwalk, CT). “This might include a digital press, a DI press or CTP. Our DirectPress DI family fits well into the small-format offset category.”

Kodak’s DirectPress 5634 DI features fully automated press platemaking, mounting and cleanup; reduced waste sheet counts; and full integration with the KPG Short Run Color Solutions Portfolio. It boasts a maximum running speed of 7,000 sph, portrait paper feed orientation and sheet sizes from 3.54 x 3.94 inches to 13.39 x 18.11 inches. All four plates are imaged simultaneously on the press. Spot size is 16 microns at 2,540 dpi, and imaging time for a two-page, four-color sheet is 4.5 minutes.

Schloff attributes the success of Kodak’s DirectPress 5634 DI press to three things: quality, productivity and simplicity. In terms of quality, the DirectPress’ high-resolution 300-line screen capability supports FM, AM and hybrid screening. “If you go to a traditional shop,” he says, “they’ve got to align well to get really good stochastic printing off a press. Because a DI press has so many of the aspects integrated into the system, it’s a straighter path to no-compromise offset quality.”

Schloff attributes the press’ running and makeready speeds to its productivity. “The makeready time on the DirectPress is very rapid—less than 10 minutes,” says Schloff. A 1,000-sheet job can be on and off the press in 17 minutes. This is made possible by the high level of automation built into the press, including automated plate cleaning, ink roller cleaning and plate writing.

Automation has increased the machine’s simplicity, streamlining operations and eliminating many of the manual steps associated with conventional printing. “This brings operator flexibility and productivity,” says Schloff. “[Eliminating] manual steps makes them available for other tasks in the shop.”

With an expansive portfolio of product offerings, Kodak stresses its flexibility when it comes to bundling. “We’ve got a full line of CTP equipment, digital presses, plates and consumables, and DI presses—so there’s a broad array of products we can put together to meet a customer’s needs,” says Schloff.

Looking ahead, Kodak’s recent acquisition of Creo will show benefits in hybrid printing. “With the acquisition now closed, we have the industry’s leading portfolio of CTP offerings,” Schloff says. “We are very excited about how well we can serve our customers’ growing hybrid print needs.”

A question of quality
According to Tim Kirby, national sales manager for xpedx Import Group/Ryobi (Lenexa, KS), the small-format press market is concerned with two things: “Quality demands are going up and run lengths are coming down.” A manufacturer of both conventional and DI presses, Ryobi is confident in its ability to meet those industry demands.

Ryobi has seen an increase in small-format four-color press sales, Kirby says, citing the popularity of the 3404E-DI, 3404X-DI and 524HE. According to Kirby, four-color small-format presses are a “must,” as they allow printers to do press proofs, minimize paper waste, lower labor cost and turn jobs faster.

When it comes to digital vs. conventional, Kirby says the 3404E-DI and 3404X-DI as well as the 524HE conventional offset press—all of which will be on display at the upcoming PRINT 05—are prime examples. Both DI models will print a 300-line screen—Kirby says they offer the smallest dot size as well as the largest inker of any small-format DI press. Both models are equipped with Presstek’s ProFire Excel imaging system and support FM (stochastic) and AM (conventional) screening. The imaging head on the 3404E-DI contains three laser modules, each emitting four beams. Imaging time is about nine minutes. The 3404X-DI has six laser modules for imaging in about four minutes, 30 seconds. The 3404X-DI runs at 7,000 sph.

The 524HE produces 3,000 to 11,000 sph and its plate size is 20.08 x 15.75 inches. The Ryobi Semi-RPC semi-automatic plate changer comes standard.

“Many people believe the DI offers the fastest makeready,” Kirby says, “[but] it no longer does. If a customer has a CTP system with a highly automated press, that press will makeready faster than a DI will.” The 524HE will makeready in about 10 minutes, while a Ryobi DI will makeready in 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the model.

Advantages for DI presses include a “greener” operating environment, ease of use and competitiveness for short-run work. “DI is popular with non-printers or printers who don’t have CTP and just want digital technology,” he says. Ryobi sells more conventional than DI presses, he continues, adding, “A conventional press with a high degree of automation, used with a CTP device, will be as cost-effective and, in many instances, more cost-effective [than DI].”

On July 19, xpedx announced its Ryobi division will expand and strengthen its national sales and technical support network through 2006. Don Harvey has been named vice president and GM of the Ryobi division. Additionally, the company is finalizing plans to build a new national demonstration center in metropolitan Kansas City.

Smart small-format
KBA’s (Williston, VT) Genius 52 is a conventional five-color landscape press. “It’s a space saver above any other press,” declares sheetfed product manager Michael Iburg. “It has a nine-sq.-ft. footprint, so you can fit a five-color in where ordinarily only a two-color press would fit.” The Genius 52 runs at 8,000 sph and combines waterless offset with keyless inking units. It is offered as a four- or five-color unit, and it handles substrates from 0.06 to 0.35 mm thick and up to 13 x 20.5 inches in size.

Iburg says printers are adding inline UV drying and the ability to print thicker substrates more than they were in the past, to offer their customers a broader range of print products. “The [Genius’] speed system is replicated from our large-format presses to enable feeding at higher speeds more consistently and with thicker substrates,” Iburg explains. “We’ve also updated the inking system and the control console.”

With an open architecture, KBA presses accept any vendor’s CTP equipment. “We have a partnership with Creo, so we refer [customers] to them because of their quality and consistency,” says Iburg.

At PRINT 05, KBA will demonstrate the Genius 52’s plastic, cloth and lenticular printing abilities. Iburg concludes, “We see a trend toward making a press easier to operate. We’re trying to make it more pushbutton-like. Removal of the dampening system and making it waterless means the press requires very few quality-control adjustments.”

Total automation
Hamada of America (Yorba Linda, CA) will exhibit its 14 x 20-inch, five-color B552HIRC press at PRINT 05. The 10,000-sph landscape press will feature inline aqueous coating, which vice president Mike Dighton cites as a popular technology coming downstream from the large-format presses into the two-up market. “We also incorporate CIP3 technology,” he adds, “and the infeed registration system is integrated into our small presses.”

The B552 press accepts up to 20 15/32-inch sheets, and standard automated features include a CIP3-compatible ink key control system, blanket washer and semi-automatic Easy Plate Setting system. “We have total automation now,” says Dighton. “Auto plate loading, blanket washers, streamfeeders—those are all things the small printers in our market weren’t really that interested in at one time. But now, everyone wants speed in changing plates, and fast makereadies. That’s been a huge change in the small-format press market.”

For CTP, Hamada’s dealers sell the Mitsubishi DPX polyester platesetter. “I’d say 80 percent of our four-color presses go out with that type of CTP device,” says Dighton. “Some will buy a metal CTP device, but most are buying the poly Silver Digiplate [Mitsubishi] technology.”

Denise Kapel is managing editor of AMERICAN PRINTER and Carrie Cleaveland is assistant editor. Contact them at

DI vs. Offset
By John Zarwan

DI presses are the logical extension of the digital workflow and, compared to off-press imaging (CTP), eliminate a number of steps, which is always desirable. As the plates are imaged on-press, this approach provides fully automated, “in register” printing. It’s a much more streamlined workflow. As with CTP, this leads to shorter makereadies, and the press comes up to color faster. Today’s DI presses have a less than 30-sheet makeready, producing saleable sheets for a job-to-job changeover in 10 to 12 minutes. Because of their short makeready, DI presses are particularly suited to short-run and quick-turn work. While they can run jobs as long as 15,000 impressions or more, they are most appropriate in runs from 250 to 5,000 impressions, which makes them very competitive with toner.

The case for DI
Several scenarios exist in which buying a DI press might be more appropriate than acquiring a conventional two-up press. For the smaller two-color printer who is moving into four-color work, direct-to-press can be quite attractive. The quality that can be achieved on a DI press is much higher than a portrait-style two-up press, and less expensive than a new landscape-style, four-color, 20-inch press. The DI presses are fully automated, and the skill level required to achieve high quality typically is much lower. Indeed, it’s very likely that even a small printer might be able to acquire this additional capability and capacity without adding any labor.

DI presses also make a good complement to prepress companies who might already have digital output capabilities. Adding a DI provides a lower cost per page, higher-quality images, a greater range of substrates, greater volume and longer run lengths, without introducing a more complicated manufacturing process.

Big printers can go DI, too
At the opposite end of the spectrum, a direct imaging press can make sense for some larger commercial printers. With the continuing fall in run lengths, they’re able to keep their smaller jobs in-house instead of sending out their short-run and quick-turn four-color work, thus keeping their larger presses for longer runs without disrupting that workflow. Similarly, a number of in-plant printers have taken a serious look at acquiring a DI-type press; the ease of use, environmental friendliness and training are particularly attractive to cost-centers looking to improve the quality and turnaround of their color work.

For those who haven’t adopted CTP, on-press imaging has all of the same barriers, including capital cost, and the requirement for a digital workflow and digital proofing. Moreover, unlike CTP, the technology and imagers are tied to a specific press and size. You do not have the flexibility to change presses or sizes as production and scheduling requirements dictate. And, most of these DI presses are two-up portrait format, which limits the kind of work that kind be manufactured.

The press/platesetter combo
A conventional two-up press with an off-press CTP workflow might be more suitable for many printers. They offer more flexibility, a larger format, additional colors, coating and perfecting. Off-press imaging is suitable for printers that run jobs longer than 10,000 or 15,000 impressions on a consistent basis; typically require a format beyond a 17 3/4 x 13-inch imaging area; or already have CTP with capacity and existing two-up presses with metal plates.

The best solution depends on a printer’s business model, markets served and level of expertise. The continued development of the technology and the introduction of new presses warrant a fresh look at DI—particularly for those who are looking at an initial installation of a four-color press, are running a mostly digital shop, and want to add capacity and improve quality while lowering cost per page.

John Zarwan is a consultant who has worked with suppliers of both types of presses and printing. Contact him via