American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Which side are you on?

Apr 1, 2006 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines


Half-web presses occupy a middle zone between narrow-web label presses and the 16-page configuration of full webs. Like all web presses, half-size presses offer the following benefits:

  • Speed.
  • Paper savings, since roll-fed paper generally is cheaper than cut sheet.
  • Inline finishing for streamlined job production.
  • Simultaneous printing on both sides of a substrate.
But many of today’s sheetfed perfecting presses boast similar advantages. Long perfectors—multi-unit machines that can lay down four or more colors on both sides in a single pass—deliver a clean sheet. They can run at high run speeds and be “hybridized” in thousands of ways with dryers, coaters, and even flexographic and gravure printing units. And, when equipped with roll-to-sheet feeders, long perfectors can compete for run lengths that once were restricted to web presses.

Applications are the key to press choice
The gap between what half webs can do and what long perfectors can’t is closing. Nonetheless, after speaking to the major half web and long perfector vendors, it seems that there’s a place for both. Product applications, rather than mechanical capabilities or run lengths, ultimately will dictate press choice. While some vendors agree that long perfectors are challenging half-size webs, several say that in certain cases a16-page, full-size press is a more likely competitor.

Defining the terms
Using various combinations of web widths and cylinder cutoffs, half-web presses print a form of eight 8.5 x 11-inch pages: half the product of a full web. Long-grain half webs are best for annual reports, brochures, catalogs and other higher-end commercial printing products that also are staples for sheetfed presses. Short-grain half webs have been used successfully for direct mail, among other applications.

A perfecting sheetfed press is considered “long” when it has eight or more printing stations—enough to print 4/4 in a single pass (assuming the perfecting mechanism is positioned between the fourth and fifth printing units). The longest of the long perfectors—some consisting of as many as 16 units—are equipped for much more than just full-color printing on both sides. These showboat machines also can deliver specialty inks and coatings, inline foil stamping and die cutting, and other value-adding enhancements.

Recent Developments
Recent advancements in long perfectors have overshadowed parallel developments in half webs. Christopher Clement, senior product manager, Goss Intl. (Bolingbrook, IL), says web offset innovations are equally impressive. “Technology that reduces waste, makeready time and manual effort has made the inherent advantages of web offset applicable to a whole new realm of jobs that once were the exclusive domain of the sheetfed process,” he says. “This includes automatic plate changing options, digital workflows for presetting and closed-loop color control.”

Half-web presses, according to Clement, serve “a limited niche market” consisting primarily of direct mail and various specialty applications. This is one reason he believes the real dilemma for commercial printers is choosing between sheetfed perfectors and full-web presses. “For general commercial and publication printing applications, the vast majority of printers choose a full-web press over a half-web press because of the economics,” he explains. “For a relatively minimal increase in initial investment, they get two or three times as much productivity and far more format and pagination options with virtually no increase in operating costs or labor.”

A niche-specific market
George Sanchez, director of commercial web sales for Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses USA (MLP USA) (Lincolnshire, IL), also sees the half-web market as having developed along fairly niche-specific lines.

Sanchez says the long perfector boom got started about seven years ago. At the time, the traditional “fences” were between 4/2 or 5/1 perfectors on the sheetfed side and 38-inch, 16-page equipment on the web side. Then, two distinct groups of web and sheetfed customers began asking MLP USA for presses to enter the eight-page market. There were web houses that wanted a bridge between their full-web capability and that of 40-inch sheetfeds; and “sheetfed conversion accounts,” typically $12 million to $14 million, 40-inch sheetfed plants seeking the higher productivity of web output. For both groups, says Sanchez, a half-web press, such as Mitsubishi’s Diamond 8, was the answer—as a new or replacement press for the web houses, and as a first web press for the sheetfed conversion accounts.

‘Like a small web press’
For printers outside these categories, however, long perfectors have a powerful appeal that covers many performance benchmarks. Roland Krapp, vice president, sheetfed product management, Heidelberg USA (Kennesaw, GA), says a long perfector “is like a small web press with big flexibility,” thanks to its versatility and superior print quality. Eric Frank, vice president, marketing, KBA North America (Williston, VT), says the contrast in productivity between web- and sheetfed presses “used to be more of a comparison than it is today” because improvements in long perfectors have leveled the playing field.

But points of comparison do exist, and the principal ones are running speed, print quality, makeready time, short-run efficiency, configurability, minimum run length and the cost of roll stock vs. the cost of cut sheets (including savings gained by using a sheeter). The biggest difference between the two press formats remains running speed, the one area where webs of all sizes are, and always will be, miles ahead of sheetfed presses.

Douglas Schardt, sheetfed product manager, Komori America (Rolling Meadows, IL), notes that in addition to outrunning a sheetfed press, a web makes a further gain in overall production time if it also finishes the piece inline. Andrew J. Fetherman, press division manager, Muller Martini USA (Hauppauge, NY), concurs: “Increased running speed is only relative to the entire process. If you can coat, die cut, perforate, dry, sheet and gap cut inline while printing, the net process throughput strongly favors hard cylinder webs.”

What’s more, Schardt says, “As long perfectors get longer, the run speeds start falling off, so the speed difference between web and sheetfed grows.”

The gap in print quality also has closed. “The notion that a web offset press can’t match the print quality of a sheetfed press is outdated,” declares Clement. William McLauchlan, senior technical consultant, Web Offset Assn. (Alexandria, VA), thinks the difference now scarcely exists: “Webs now produce line screens and stochastic screens that, several years ago, would never have been attempted. It is now virtually impossible to tell if a particular job was printed web or sheetfed.”

Others say that if sheetfed output looks better than print from a half web, it’s the paper that deserves the credit. “You would be hard pressed to claim a difference between the two,” observes Schardt. “Having said that, the two machines typically are fed different paper. A web tends to get web stock, which is quite different from [higher quality] sheetfed stock, creating a visible difference between [output produced by] the two presses. Also, a perfector can have a coater, which can enhance the appeal of a piece.”

How meaningful are these technical distinctions to customers? By themselves, they probably are not deal-breakers. Although Sanchez believes a commercial web press can print as cleanly and sharply as a sheetfed press, he acknowledges that some kinds of work always will belong to sheetfed because of substrate and imposition requirements. KBA’s Frank says people’s preferences remain about the same.

The equilibrium stems from the fact that advances in both printing methods have have proceeded apace, says Yves Rogivue, CEO of MAN Roland (Westmont, IL). “Web press print quality has improved tremendously over the last decade, thanks to advances in color control, register control, prepress, ink and paper. But, sheetfed presses have improved on all those counts as well. The bottom line is that web press quality is better [than it used to be], so you can apply it to more jobs, but sheetfed quality is still superior.”

The makeready is the thing
Krapp notes that job changeover is an equally important index of press performance. Since a sheetfed press can makeready faster with a greater range of stocks, Krapp says this “more than compensates” for a half web’s faster printing speed.

Chris Travis, technology manager for KBA, also gives the edge to sheetfed presses, citing a 20 to 30 percent reduction on the sheetfed side vs. a 10 percent to 15 percent decrease in web makeready time.

But, Schardt says makeready times for both half and fullsize web presses now are on par with their sheetfed counterparts. “These webs are lightning-fast, and that includes the folder changeover,” he says. ”So makeready time is not a factor in this decision, at least on a new web.”

According to Clement, “Innovations have changed the makeready equation—the most important involve automation that squeezes more waste, downtime and effort out of the web offset process.”

Rapid makereadies are less crucial in long-run web work, where job changeovers aren’t as frequent. But in the lower ranges, Rogivue says, “It becomes less a question of running a sheetfed or a web, and more a question of accelerating the makeready process. Do that, and you can profitably produce a wider range of jobs.”

An elusive dividing line
It’s difficult to draw a firm line where one press format should dominate. When, for example, should the flexibility of a long perfector take precedence over the volume efficiency of a half web? Conversely, half webs can do well with short runs, but how short is too short?

Krapp answers the question with a question: “How busy and desperate is the web house?” Sanchez notes that the number depends on whether the half web is printing flat sheets or folded signatures (with the latter driving the crossover point down). The line is as just as blurred at the high end. A job with a total number of impressions seemingly in the web range—say, 100,000 copies—might be better off going to the sheetfed perfector if it consists of numerous signatures requiring a small number of impressions each.

According to Clement, “Web presses clearly can compete at run lengths in the 2,000 to 5,000 copy range on a routine basis.” That estimate would sit well with Rogivue, who reports that one of his customers (a full-web user) typically makes a profit on jobs under 2,500 copies.

Schardt says common sense should prevail. “A long perfector offers flexibility with straight or two-sided printing, the ability to print on paper or board and multiple sheet sizes,” Schardt says. “Webs were designed for, and are very efficient at, longer runs. This is not to say they are inefficient on short runs, but why tie the web up for what could be done effectively on a long perfector with a lower machine cost?”

Whatever the true extent of the competition between long perfectors and half webs, sheetfeds currently have more sales momentum on their side. So what about half webs? Competitively squeezed by long perfectors on one side and full webs on the other, they will continue to provide a bridge between the two capabilities—an alternative to an either-or decision that might commit a printer to a less-than-ideal solution. Sanchez, for example, says it would be a mistake for a printer to “overcapitalize” by investing in a hybrid long perfector if the bulk of the company’s business is standard commercial work. In such cases, a half web would represent what it always has: a reasonable compromise.

The comfort-zone factor
“The mindset of printers plays an interesting role in the sheetfed-or-web debate,” says Clement. “Printers who are very familiar with either sheetfed or web printing, who have built successful workflows and business models around one process, often are inclined to stick with what they know best rather than take what they perceive to be a risk in pursuing an alternative process.”

Minneapolis printer adds next-generation long perfector
Founded in 1934, Bolger Vision Beyond Print is a 200-employee, $28 million printer in Minneapolis. The family-run company has expanded beyond its offset printing base to offer a full range of services from design through fulfillment, including 180 Creative, its onsite agency. (See “Online fulfillment,” April 2005.)

A print-on-demand department features a variety of Xerox color and monochrome devices as well as two small-format presses. But the real buzz is in the sheetfed pressroom where preparations are under way to install a massive KBA Rapida 105.

Eric Frank, vice president of marketing, KBA North America, says special cylinders after the perfectors are the key ingredients behind the behemoth press: “KBA is the only press manufacturer that can print five colors, coat and perfect and then do five color and coat all with UV [in this configuration].” Other press highlights include automatic plate changing, sidelay-free infeed, single-suction belt tables, and adjustment-free gripper bars. Operational information is fed into Bolger’s Hagen MIS for later data analysis.

The press won’t have a roll-to-sheet feeder initially, but Bolger hasn’t ruled it out—the printer is putting a pad in for it, just in case.

The new press will replace one of the company’s four existing 40-inch, multicolor presses. “When you buy a press like this, it’s kind of like buying two presses,” says Bolger. The printer has two existing perfectors: a 2/4 used for matte paper and a 1/1 generally used for uncoated paper. “With those perfectors, [we’d have marking] if we didn’t allow for gutters.” The Rapida 105’s UV drying and coating on both sides of the sheet will eliminate these issues on the new press.

Visit Bolger Vision Beyond Print online at

Boyd Brothers is on a roll
Founded in 1931, Boyd Brothers (Panama City, FL) is a $13.5 million printer that specializes in high-quality, short-run publications and general commercial work. In 2001, the all-Heidelberg shop almost invested in a half-web press but ultimately went with a long perfector, an eight-color Heidelberg SM 102. The press was among the first in the U.S. with a CutStar roll sheeter.

Jim Boyd, Jr., president of Boyd Brothers, says the roll-fed option answered the 75-year-old company’s quest for greater efficiency. “One of the huge things that separated the half-web press [we evaluated] from traditional sheetfed preses was the paper savings. But then Heidelberg told us about its new CutStar technology.”

Boyd and his team tested a variety of papers on a demo press equipped with the CutStar roll sheeter and liked what they saw. The company, which had no web press experience, could stick with the familiar and more flexible sheetfed format. Unlike a five- or six-unit halfsized web, with the SM 102, Boyd Brothers could opt for 4/4 to 8/0 while running a wider range of paper basis weights on a larger 28 x 40-inch format press. “We liked it so much we bought another one just like it,” says Boyd. The second SM 102, also equipped with a CutStar, was up and running in May 2005.

Boyd says the sheeter has posed no problems. “My press operators had never seen a roll of paper, but now they would much rather run things off rolls than sheets. There’s no issue with doubles. The CutStar shingles the sheets—it’s a very efficient way to feed paper.”

CutStar can process paper rolls with stock weights between 30 lbs. of text and 112 lbs. of cover. In the early days, Boyd met some resistance from its paper suppliers, but persistance has paid off—getting roll stock is no longer a problem.

Having run 110 million impressions on the first SM 102 and 40 million on the second, Boyd reports that running 4/4 in one pass on roll-fed presses results in “tremendous paper savings” of up to 25 percent. Fifty-lb. coated stock, a prior sheetfed challenge, runs with the ease on the CutStar-equipped presses. The printer can now run No. 4 and No. 5 sheets, opening up opportunities once restricted to web printers. An automated ink delivery system, technotrans’ Inkline has reduced ink waste to less than two percent while boosting print quality.

The sheeter also provides a competitive edge when it comes to cutoffs, which can be adjusted anywhere from 19 to 283/8 inches. The printer typically produces runs of 25,000 or less, but also does some longer runs with unusual cutoffs. Whereas as a 83/8 -inch x 107/8 -inch is almost a commodity page size in Boyd’s market, the printer can now efficiently produce 9 x 13-inch and other “different” page sizes.

In addition to the new SM 102, Boyd Brothers has added a Suprasetter platesetter, a two-color Printmaster PM 52, a five-color and Spreedmaster SM 52 with coater. Bindery additions included a Stahlfolder TD 78 with pallet feeder, ST270 saddlestitcher and Spiel punching and coil binding equipment and Videojet BX63000 inkjet unit. The printer uses CIP4 data, CP2000 press consoles and Prinect PrintReady workflow to maximize operational efficiencies. A remote service option for the SM presses, PrintReady and platesetter helps minimize downtime. “We’ve rebuilt our plant over the last four years to leverage every man hour,” says Boyd. “That’s the only way to stay profitable.”


Komori launches two new perfectors
Visitors to PRINT 05 may have noticed Komori’s booth was bursting with perfectors—no other configuration could be seen. Highlights included the 10-color Lithrone 40P, a 5/5 covertible press, as well as a double-decker 10-color Lithrone 40SP with a Magnum roll sheeter.

At Ipex, Komori will launch its half-size press series, the Lithrone LS29, in straight and perfecting configurations. Many features from Komori’s full-size LS40 series have migrated to the smaller press.

The 29-inch press features fully automatic plate changing—a first for Komori in this format. The Lithrone LS29’s speedy plate changing (four plates in 150 seconds) will enable users to tackle short-run, fast-turn jobs and, in some cases, compete with digital presses.

Other highlights:

  • 12,000 sph at start-up—the LS29 reportedly can reach 16,000 sph in seconds.
  • Six-minute changeover.
  • Skeleton transfer cylinders for maximum stock flexibility.
  • Three double-size perfecting cylinders for full-speed sheet transfer.

On the web side, Komori’s 16-page System 38 now is offered in “American” cutoffs of 239/16 and 223/4. At Drupa, the vendor showcased the System 38’s automation by demonstrating the press completing three jobs in less than 15 minutes.

Komori also will debut its Lithrone LS40SP Super Perfector. The double-stacked press offers a compact footprint, five-minute fully automated plate changing across 10 units, minimal gripper changes and an output that’s competive with web press productivity.

It all stacks up
Millbrook Printing Co. (Grand Ledge, MI) installed an Akiyama (Cerritos, CA) J Print 40-inch 5/5 perfector press this past fall. The stacked press occupies about half the space of a conventional perfector, a key consideration for the $7.5 million, 25,000-sq.-ft. printer.

“We chose the Akiyama because the footprint worked very well for us,” says Larry Winkler, CEO and president. “The stacked configuration allowed us to place the press in the same spot [previously occupied by] a five-color perfector with two feet to spare. We just did not have room for a long perfector.”

With a rated speed of 13,000 sph, the J Print press is CIP3/4-compliant. It features X-Rite closed-loop color control and a redesigned feeder and delivery.

“We also like the fact that there are less than half the sheets in the press than a long perfector when running and that the press uses the same gripper [edge] all the way through the press,” Winkler adds.

Simple plate mounting speeds makereadies, enabling Millbrook to run short- and long-run multicolor jobs. “We needed to be able to produce more work quickly to continue to meet our customers needs,” says Winkler. “ To do work in one pass is a huge advantage.”


Patrick Henry is the director of Liberty or Death Communications. Contact him at