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Halfsize presses

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Flexible format wins fans

Facing the reality of shorter print runs and faster turnaround times, many printers are using halfsize presses to remain competitive while controlling costs. Bruce Tietz, a technical consultant with GATF (Sewickley, PA), cites lower labor costs, reduced overhead and smaller capital outlays as potential halfsize-press benefits.

According to the consultant, printers typically crew a fullsize press with 1½ to two people, while a halfsize press can be run with 1½ people.

Decreasing run lengths also can make halfsize presses a cost-effective choice. Noting that the average run length is currently about 6,000 impressions, he observes, “The biggest reason for running a halfsize press is that you are actually getting to run the press at speed for 10,000 impressions.

“On a fullsize press, to get 10,000 impressions four-up, you run 1,250 sheets,” explains Tietz. “On a halfsize press you would run 2,500.”

Tietz says halfsize presses may enable printers to run more impressions in less time. With larger presses, the weight of the sheets may constrain press speed. A halfsize press running the same paper, albeit smaller sheets, may run up to 15 percent to 20 percent faster than a fullsize press.

And then there's the price. “You might spend $1.5 million for a fullsize press while a halfsize one with all the bells and whistles might cost you $1 million,” suggests the consultant. Smaller presses also occupy less space, which can result in lower overhead costs.

The halfsize format is probably best suited for printers with typical run lengths of 10,000 or less; with a fullsize press, a better bet for run lengths is 25,000 or more impressions. Here are real-life examples of how some printers are using their halfsize presses.

From typographer to digital/conventional printer

For CrossTech Communications (Chicago), installing a halfsize press was simply one in a series of transitions. Originally called Typesmith, the company was founded in 1981 in the city's trendy River North gallery district. As the name suggests, Typesmith specialized in setting type for corporate and ad agency clients.

With the advent of desktop publishing, many clients began tackling their own typography. Typesmith responded by becoming a prepress specialist, adding scanning and electronic keylining and Linotype output services in the early 1990s, followed by Scitex flatbed and drum scanners in the mid 1990s.

In 1994, Typesmith became CrossTech Communications, a name chosen to reflect the crossing of graphic-arts technologies. “Typesmith was a good name when we opened, but it became [a liability],” says Richard DiPietro, president. “We'd call customers and they'd say, ‘We don't buy type, we set our own.’”

In 1999, CrossTech installed an Indigo TurboStream press, which it upgraded to an HP Indigo 3000 in November 2002. “As prepress was beginning to go away and more scanning was going in-house because of digital photography, we had to evolve into the print world,” explains DiPietro. “The Indigo was a good first step.”

The company's second step, installing a halfsize KBA 74 Karat direct-imaging press, was preceded by a relocation. Following the 2000 merger of Davidson Graphics and Award Printing, DiPietro asked Jerry Davidson for a tour of his now-vacated digs at 111 N. Jefferson.

“We knew if we wanted to get into commercial printing, we couldn't do it as tenants in River North because of the weight of the equipment,” says DiPietro. “So in July 2000, we purchased this building. We needed to be downtown because it gives our clients a sense of security — they can come over for press checks.”

After extensive rehabbing, CrossTech moved into its new three-floor 15,000-sq.-ft. location in May 2001. In February 2002, the company installed the Karat press. Earlier this year, a press equipped with an inline aqueous coater replaced the original model.

Prior to installing the Karat, CrossTech was losing some jobs to competitors equipped with Indigos and conventional presses. The Indigo is typically used for runs of 750 or less, while the Karat can handle jobs in the 750 to 20,000 range.

“Beyond 20,000, a 40-inch press would be more competitive,” says the exec. “We're not doing 32- or 64-page books because the number of forms you have to run is more economical off a larger press.”

DiPietro adds, however, that size, rather than run length, may dictate which press is used. “There have been times when we've run very short runs on the Karat, because the job didn't fit the Indigo,” says DiPietro, “such as a run of 25 posters.”

The exec likes the inline-coating capabilities on CrossTech's upgraded Karat. “It gives you a nicer product while speeding up your production,” relates DiPietro. “If anyone is looking for a halfsize press, they should really look into an inline aqueous coater. It helps production, especially when you're trying to turn jobs as quickly as we do.”

Because the Indigo and Karat presses are often both referred to as digital presses, CrossTech has found some clients don't understand that one is a laser electrophotographic printer while the other is an offset press. “We try to be careful so they know the difference,” says DiPietro. “We emphasize the Karat uses conventional waterless offset inks and aluminum plates, but that we're going direct-to-press — that the plates are imaged on press.”

Halfsize is a strong niche

Halfsize presses have been a fixture in The First Impression Group's (Eagan, MN) pressroom since it opened its doors in 1995. The $5 million printer serves small to midsize ad agencies, as well as larger companies such as Target and Northwest Airlines.

“We've always been a 29-inch shop and [will remain one],” says Kevin Finley, a First Impression partner. “It's a strong niche.”

While the printer has always been a halfsize shop, it hasn't always been a four-color shop — originally it offered high-end one-, two- and three-color printing. In 2000, prompted by customer demand as well as the opportunity to expand its business, The First Impression Group installed a four-color press. “We have always had strong customer service and quick turns, but designers didn't feel comfortable sending us four-color work until we had the four-color press,” explains Finley.

The Minnesota printer previously ran two two-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 74s — one straight and one perfector. Today, its 23,000-sq.-ft. plant features two halfsize Speedmaster perfecting presses: a four-color high-pile model as well as a two-color press.

“We are taking business away from the 40-inch printers as clients have shortened their run lengths,” reports Finley. “With our new equipment, we've been able to handle the higher-end four- and five-color work.”

Typical jobs include two-over-two four-color projects, such as sell sheets and two-color financial prospectuses. Run lengths are typically less than 10,000 impressions, with most in the 5,000 range.

“We have gone from a $2.5 million printer in 1999 to about $5 million last year,” says Finley. “The majority of this growth [has been accomplished] through adding new press capabilities and CTP technology… In 2001, we grew 34 percent, and last year we grew 12 percent. While it may look like our sales growth diminished, we were actually able to increase our total sales in a negative sales climate.”

Getting a competitive edge

Green Street Press (Pasadena, CA) didn't start out as a halfsize shop. In 1988, Don Romine, president, and Tim Wikle, vice president of finance, launched their business with an AB Dick duplicator. (“I still wake up screaming about running 2,000 sheets with no water,” says Romine.) Eventually Green Street added two small-format presses to handle one- and two-color jobs — four-color jobs were either brokered out or printed in two passes. Adding midsize, multicolor presses let Green Street keep more work in-house while eliminating the tedious process of printing four-color work on a two-color press. Moreover, there is a definite demand.

“We interviewed our larger customers,” says the exec. “Everyone was willing to give us a shot at bigger press work.”

Because there are several 40-inch printers within a few miles of Green Street Press, a halfsize press also provides a competitive edge. “For the price of a used 40-inch press, we can get a state-of-the-art 28-inch press with all the automation and upgrades,” notes Romine. “We can makeready our [halfsize presses] and print and bind the job while a guy with a 40-inch press is still getting up to color.”

In 1998, the printer installed its first 28-inch press, a five-color Mitsubishi 1F-13. A few months ago, it installed a second halfsize press, a six-color Mitsubishi Diamond 1000 LS with coater and extended delivery, as well as a Heidelberg GTO.

Having the two halfsize presses provides the flexibility to do longer runs when necessary. The small-format GTO is used for short runs, ranging from 500 to 1,000.

“Our typical run length is about 5,000,” says the exec. “Most of our jobs are full-color. Our customer base is really a mix, with some ad agencies, some corporations and a lot of high-tech/electronic companies.”

The 22-employee, 22,000-sq.-ft. shop has strong prepress and bindery capabilities and is currently mulling its CTP options.

Camped in the halfsize market

A quick peek in Oakland Printing Services' (Troy, MI) pressroom reveals a great deal about the company's past as well as its future. Founded in 1967, the $7.5 million printer's largest press is a two-color, perfecting 40-inch Speedmaster in its second decade of service. Although the old press is still going strong, according to Dave Hilty, vice president, Oakland is “firmly camped in the halfsize market.”

The Michigan printer installed its first halfsize press, a four-color Heidelberg Speedmaster, in 1986. In the mid-1990s, it added a MAN Roland 300 six-color perfector with inline aqueous coating. And, several months ago, Oakland put in an HP Indigo 3000 six-color digital printer.

Oakland specializes in five- and six-color marketing, mailing and advertising work for agencies, as well as two-, three- and four-color catalog, publication and advertising printing.

“When we had to decide what equipment to grow with in the mid-1990s, the obvious choice was 40-inch equipment,” relates Hilty. “But when we assessed the number of competing printers with ample 40-inch capacity and the extremely competitive nature of that market we [decided] to stay out of it.”

Declining run lengths also made the halfsize format a more attractive choice. Rather than trying to keep a 40-inch press busy, Oakland can target short-run, fast-turnaround jobs.

Prior to adding the HP Indigo press, jobs ranged from 500 to 100,000 pieces. “The HP 3000 makes us competitive on extremely short-run, high-quality color work and gives us the added revenue for totally personalized marketing print and the added value of performing the mailing addressing/indicia printing inline,” reports Hilty. “It's an extension of our strategic decision to stay lean and mean with halfsize equipment.”

In addition to bringing in short-run direct-mail work, the new press adds a different dimension to conventionally printed jobs. Hilty cites the example of a tool manufacturer's catalog. For years, the tool manufacturer provided its distributors with a 192-page, full-color catalog featuring its full line of wares. The recipients of the catalogs, however, don't carry identical tool inventories, and in recent years, print budgets have gotten tighter.

“This year the catalog was printed black and white on the two-color press, with the exception of a 20-page full-color application section,” says Hilty. “Where the Indigo comes into play is for two- and four-page, four-color data sheets.” The exec explains that distributors can order the color documents — tailored to reflect the line items carried and personalized with their contact information — as leave-behinds for their customers and prospects.

Flexibility is key

Sam Zhong, owner of Allstate Printing & Graphics (Clifton, NJ), a $4 million specialty printer, says halfsize presses gives his company benefits that full-size presses can't. Founded in 2000, Allstate operates three presses: two halfsize Komoris and one small-format Ryobi. Zhong launched the company with the Ryobi 20-inch press — the Komoris are more recent additions.

Although Allstate Printing and Graphics primarily caters to small businesses, Zhong says there is no such thing as a typical job. Every job is different and often includes specialty finishing, such as personalization with variable inkjet printers.

“The key is to be flexible,” explains Zhong. Allstate does everything from simple stationery to full-color packaging and phone cards.

For Zhong, having a halfsize full-color press like the Komori provides several key benefits. He says he values the ability to achieve quick changeovers and faster makereadies while keeping labor costs down. “With a halfsize press, we can get the job done with one person. With a fullsize press, we would need two people.”

Although its print runs are typically less than 5,000, Zhong says 10,000 or more impressions aren't a problem — the printer would simply add another shift.

In keeping with his efforts to make his business as flexible as possible, Zhong says he likes the fact that the new Komori can handle thicker stock and plastic, and he has been experimenting with various stocks since he purchased the press a few months ago. The exec chose this particular model because of its inline UV coating capability, plus its ability to handle media of various thicknesses, including plastic and thick board. He is thinking of venturing into package printing down the road, which would give his customers yet one more option.

The New Jersey printer has no plans to step up to a 40-inch press. “We would lose money with a larger press,” relates Zhong. “We see other printers with larger presses waiting to get jobs to fill up their fullsize presses.”

Why buy?

Graphic Arts Marketing Information Service (GAMIS) (Alexandria, VA), a GATF/PIA special-interest group, recently published “The Market for Offset Lithographic Presses.” The report examines the installed base, capacity utilization and market dynamics for offset lithographic presses in North America.

According to the report, the decision to invest in capital equipment is generally influenced by:

  • Losing a major customer(s)
  • Gaining a new customer with new capability demands
  • Relying on trade/outsourced services to the point where management is compelled to bring that capability inside
  • Losing business to a differently skilled competitor
  • Recognizing pricing is out of line with the marketplace due to improper equipment
  • Identifying missed opportunities because internal skills/equipment don't match marketplace needs.

“The Market for Offset Lithographic Presses” is one of five research studies that GAMIS will provide free to dues-paying members this year. For membership information, contact Jackie Bland at (703) 519-8170 or e-mail

An unusual installation

While the typical purchaser of a halfsize press is a printer, there are a few exceptions. In 2002, ink manufacturer Flint Ink (Ann Arbor, MI) installed a five-color MAN Roland 300 press in its 86,000-sq.-ft. Global Research Center.

“While we have had smaller, single-color presses in the past, this is the largest press we have had onsite,” notes Rodney Balmer, Flint's technical director. “It's equipped with an anilox coater and an interlocking UV system, so it provides greater flexibility for a wide range of testing setups.”

Although the ink vendor uses the press only for R&D work, it derives some of the same advantages from the format as printers. “The halfsize press correlates well with both smaller- and larger-format lithographic presses,” submits Graham Battersby, vice president of R&D. “Also, it's a good value based on both price and the space needed to house the press.”

While many commercial printers select their presses based on specific product niches, the R&D folks at Flint Ink didn't have that luxury. “There is no such thing as a typical job on this press,” says Battersby. “It is different every day and includes conventional drying, process printing, spot colors only, paper or plastic substrates, water-based or UV coatings.”

Halfsize press highlights

According to some observers, midsize presses (26 inches to 29 inches) have evolved from little brother to near market leader for some press vendors in terms of new units sold or installed. The popularity of this format is due, in part, to market realities. Facing declining print runs, printers are wary of adding too much capacity. But getting fullsize press features at halfsize prices is also part of the allure. Most midsize presses offer automation on par with that of fullsize presses as well as comparable configurations of multiple units, perfector and inline dryer. A selection of recent halfsize press introductions follows.

  • Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) reports it has installed more than 26,000 Speedmaster SM 74 (20½ × 29.13 inches) printing units worldwide. Rated at 15,000 sph, it is tightly integrated with the CP 2000 centrally operated digital control system as well as Heidelberg's Prinect computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) solution. Depending on the chosen perfecting configuration, the SM 74 can handle jobs with one or two colors on the reverse side, as well as four-over-four or five-over-five work. For non-perfecting applications that require heavy ink coverage, Heidelberg offers the CD 74. The 23½ × 29-inch CD 74 handles substrates ranging from label stock to 32-pt. board. It offers speeds up to 15,000 sph and features oversize cylinders and air-cushion transfer to eliminate marking. The press is also equipped with Heidelberg's CP 2000 control system for automated makeready and consistent print quality. A UV version of the CD 74 features an ink agitator, UV-compatible roller sleeves and DryStar UV dryer.

  • Komori's (Rolling Meadows, IL) Lithrone 2800 is built on its Lithrone platform and is positioned as a press for printers expanding into multicolor work or seeking to expand existing capacity. It is available in four- or five-color configurations and can be equipped with an inline coater. Komori also offers the Lithrone 28P 20½ × 28⅜-inch perfecting press. With speeds of 15,000 sph for a single-sided pass and 13,000 sph in perfecting mode, the press offers fully automatic changeover between both modes. Other features include a front/back plate-register remote control, and compatibility with Komori's PQC System, which is designed to reduce the load on the operator imposed by perfecting.

  • MAN Roland's (Westmont, IL) Roland 300 press reportedly offers short makeready times and fast changeovers, high production speed and efficient operation. The press is available in two- to eight-color configurations for printing on sheets up to 23¼ × 29⅛ inches in either straight or perfecting modes and can be equipped with up to three perfectors and a coater. It offers a rated speed of 16,000 sph in straight production. MAN Roland's Roland 500 is a six-up, 23.23 × 29.13-inch press. It has a rated speed of 18,000 sph, and can handle substrates up to 40 pt. thick. The Roland 500 also features optional inline anilox coating; fully integrated drying for aqueous, UV or combination coatings; and inline finishing.

  • Mitsubishi Lithographic Printing (MLP) U.S.A., Inc.'s (Lincolnshire, IL) Diamond 1000LS (20 × 28 inches) is rated at 15,000 sph and handles stocks ranging in thickness from 0.0016 to 0.024 inch. Remote-controlled frontlay register and an auto-preset inking system are standard. Double-sized impression and transfer cylinders are positioned in a seven o'clock configuration with plate and blanket cylinders. The impression cylinders do not pass the sheet to the transfer drum until the sheet is fully printed, ensuring markless transfer of printed sheets. Makeready adjustments such as ink-key settings, ink-fountain roller speed, dampening-system settings, sheet size and press speed are controlled from the Centralized Operator Makeready and Control (COMRAC) console. Ink rollers, blankets and impression cylinders can be cleaned between jobs with the touch of a button.

  • Grafitec America's (Jacksonville, FL) Polly Prestige 74 is a 20 × 29-inch press available in two to five colors, with coating capability. The Prestige 74 is available with semi-automatic plate changing and features redesigned frames and electronics. An open architecture control console allows presets of job parameters from any CIP3/CIP4 prepress system. Rated at 13,000 sph, the press has a 19-roller inking train and 23-zone ink fountain that reportedly react rapidly to ink adjustments. An optional dampener coater — an interchangeable system for the fifth printing unit — provides the flexibility of fifth color or coating capabilities. Grafitec also offers the Polly Performer C66 Perfector, a 19 × 26-inch press available in two to five colors with computer control console.

  • KBA North America Inc. (Williston, VT) offers the 29-inch Rapida 74 conventional offset press. An integrated aqueous coater is now available for the 74 Karat halfsize direct-imaging press.

  • Ryobi, distributed in the U.S. by xpdex (Lenexa, KS), offers the 23 × 29-inch 754/5/6 XL press with coater. The 755 XL has the same features as the 754/5/6 20 × 29-inch press — including standard semi-automatic plate changer, automatic ink roller, blanket and impression cylinder washing — but is larger to accommodate six-up work. The press is rated at speeds up to 15,000 sph and handles stock from 0.0016 to 0.024 inch thick.

  • Sakurai USA, Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) is introducing the 566 SI with coater and extended delivery at Graph Expo. This 26-inch-wide press is a five-color version of its four-color 466SI (18½ × 26 inches). Both presses are fully automatic, four-color, convertible-perfector presses with compact footprints and rated speeds of 15,000 iph. Standard features include automatic plate changers, perfector changeover, sheet preset and roller washers, as well as CIP4 capability.