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Buying a used sheetfed press

Jan 1, 2002 12:00 AM

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On one hand, you've got more machines coming onto the market through auctions and bankruptcies, and on the other hand, you have a lot of people who are putting off buying a brand-new machine for a year or two but still need to grow, and are buying higher-quality, pre-owned equipment," observes Bill Litviak, sales manager of pre-owned equipment at MAN Roland (Westmont, IL).


Such was the case with Hammond Printing (Clarksville, IN), a general commercial printer founded in 1984 that serves the Louisville, KY, print market, and specializes in four-color brochures, booklets and pocket folders with coating. President Gary Hammond notes that, from 1985 to 1994, he preferred only new equipment. “It just felt more comfortable, and you get the war stories from the new-equipment salespeople about how the sky was going to fall if you bought used,” he explains. Hammond's prepress department and bindery are stocked with new equipment as well.

The company, which has 35 employees and $4.5 million in sales, had purchased several new two-color Heidelberg presses in that time span, and then a new five-color Heidelberg in 1991. In 1998, Hammond Printing needed to increase its printing capacity again, as well as expand its multicolor capabilities.

That's when used machinery became an option. “For 60 percent of the cost of a new press, I can put in an additional multicolor press with coater, still satisfy our customers and not have the press idle 50 percent of the time,” the exec explains. The printer bought its second multicolor press — a five-color, halfsize Heidelberg with coater — in 1998 through a used-equipment broker. The experience was so positive that, in 1999 when Hammond needed to increase capacity again, it opted for a used press.

Hammond's requirements included: a minimum of five printing units with coater and no more than 65 million impressions. It also had to pass a print test by the company's pressroom foremen.

After getting a reference from a used-equipment broker, Hammond contacted Howard Graphic Equipment Ltd. (Mississauga, ON), a used-press reconditioner and supplier. There, the printer found a five-color Heidelberg Speedmaster 102F with coater and only 50 million impressions. Hammond's two pressroom foremen traveled to Howard Graphic to evaluate the machine; after running a thorough print test and examining the press' mechanics, they brought print samples back to Hammond for final approval.

Now with three five-color presses with coaters, Hammond Printing can print jobs twice as fast as before. This helps the printer consistently meet its deadlines. “Customers count on our turnaround times and delivery dates. Those two things keep our client base intact,” Hammond says. He adds the printer is also more competitive on longer-run jobs.


According to press manufacturers and used-equipment dealers, there is a surplus of presses that may lack automation but still have a lot of life left in them — particularly halfsize one- and two-color models. “It's really a buyer's market on the older machines,” notes Nick Howard, president of Howard Graphic Equipment. “You've got printers that are trading in one or two machines to buy one new press. You've got a lot of machines coming into the market that are not automated, which is causing their values to fall. Those buyers are getting pretty good deals now because they have a lot to choose from.”

Those in search of a late-model, 40-inch automated press with networking capabilities will have a lot of competition. Howard reports a great deal of interest in Heidelberg's CD 102 packaging press, which reportedly is attracting sheetfed printers with its reputation for printing on paper without marking.

Litviak at MAN Roland concurs that newer, fullsize presses are a hot commodity. “The big ones are popular — 40-inch, six colors with a coater and automation, low impressions, and networkable,” he says. Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) observes that four-color GTO units are especially popular among its smaller print customers.

Presses with high impression counts also abound. And, just as used-car buyers tend to shy away from cars with mileage greater than 100,000, some printers are wary of presses that clock more than 100 million impressions. Some pundits, however, question this generalization, maintaining that impression count is not an accurate determinant of a press' printing quality or reliability.

“In general, a major-brand press that's 29 inches and above has a useful life of 200 million to 400 million impressions, depending on how well it's been taken care of,” explains Ray Prince, senior technical consultant at GATF (Sewickley, PA).

Although he admits that impression count should be considered, Prince asserts that the press' maintenance history is just as crucial. Most press vendors keep a service history on all of their machines. If you have a press' serial number, Heidelberg, for example, can tell you what needed to be repaired or replaced on that machine while under the vendor's care — and at no charge.

“There are always areas of a press that are going to be weak,” Howard concedes. He adds, however, that maintenance plays a greater factor in the press' mechanical integrity, and he takes that into consideration when purchasing his own stock. “We have several presses in stock right now that have in excess of 100 million impressions,” the exec reports. “We bought them for a reason: They were good, sound pieces of equipment for the money. That doesn't mean I don't wish they had 50 million impressions, but it doesn't affect the way the press prints.”

Another factor to consider is the type of jobs run on the press. A press that ran paperboard three shifts will understandably have more wear and tear than one that ran two shifts of 40-lb. letterhead.


In the past few years, some major press manufacturers have raised the profile of their used-equipment business from an extension of sales to a separate department or division within the company. Heidelberg, for example, dedicated a portion of its Print 01 booth to its remarketed equipment division, which took $30 million in orders at the show. According to Amy Combs, remarketed equipment coordinator, the division has doubled in size in the past five years, and has sales goals of $80 million to $100 million annually.

Heidelberg works primarily with an outside refurbishment business based in Georgia. It refurbishes and warranties presses built in 1990 and later, and sells older presses as-is. Combs says customers are attracted to Heidelberg by its reputation, pricing and warranties, as well as its 21-step refurbishment process, which includes cleaning the press with carbon-dioxide blasting, checking and replacing standard parts, installation and training.

MAN Roland also has its own used-equipment department, which, until recently, served as sales support. In August 2001, MAN Roland established a separate pre-owned department. Litviak notes that the manufacturer performs a complete inspection of a press and produces a report of anything in need of replacement or repair.


Komori America (Rolling Meadows, IL) and Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses U.S.A., Inc. (Lincolnshire, IL) also offer used presses for sale. Both companies post a partial list of available equipment and sales contact information at their websites,, and

Brokers are another source of used presses. They typically don't own the equipment they sell; rather, they try to match a buyer with a seller, or vice versa. In addition to listing equipment for sale, some may even evaluate a press on behalf of the potential buyer. Brokers charge a commission, typically to the seller, and can be a viable source for time-pressed printers.

Used-press dealers are another alternative. Operations vary, but most dealers already own the presses for sale, having purchased them from a manufacturer, printer or at auction. Some, in addition to selling the equipment, recondition it.

Howard Graphic Equipment performs intensive reconditioning — and sometimes rebuilding — of its machines. Presses are either partially or fully dismantled for cleaning. Then, the press moves to Howard's machine shop, where steel parts are anodized and the press is repainted. It is reassembled and then quality-control tested with print tests from GATF or 3M.

Howard also offers appraisal services to banks, financing institutions and printers. Appraisers evaluate a machine's condition, age, impression count and its saleability, which depends on its level of automation and rarity on the market. For depreciation purposes, Howard assumes a 20 percent decline in balance, annually.


A fairly new development in the used-equipment market is the proliferation of Internet sites that aim to bring press buyer and seller together. Commission-based sales are said to be eliminated, since there's no middleman or broker.

“The basic premise is cheaper, faster, easier,” says Doug Hartline, president of TPX (Atlanta), which runs TPX Marketplace (, an online used-equipment listing service. The site was launched in 1995, and according to Hartline, typically features about 6,000 machines for sale. The exec notes that the site also has about 400 subscribers and 16,000 total users.

For $50, a seller can post a piece of used equipment for sale. Although anyone can search the site for free for seven days after registering, thereafter, dealers and other industry suppliers must subscribe. Printers get limited access to the site and free searching indefinitely. Sellers are required to confirm the status of their advertised equipment on a monthly basis. The site itself is updated weekly.

TPX Marketplace also has links on other industry sites, including PIA and GATF's Graphic Arts Information Network and NAPL's home page. As an offline service, it provides monthly reports of some equipment being advertised on the site to members of most North American graphic arts associations.

TEST THE PRESS is a London-based online listing service that boasts more than 31,000 sessions per month, and approximately 4,000 pieces of printing-related equipment for sale, of which 43 percent are sheetfed presses.

Adrian Wiltshire, sales and marketing director, notes that although the site has a truly international audience, 30 percent of visitors looking to buy equipment are from North America, and he expects that U.S. audience to grow.

While the majority of's sellers are European, this doesn't necessarily deter American buyers. Wiltshire cites shorter ownership cycles in Europe and thus a potentially greater supply of late-model presses as a likely attractant.

Online equipment sites don't guarantee buyer satisfaction and generally don't mediate buyer/seller disputes. Hartline and Wiltshire advise potential buyers to approach any transaction — on the Web or otherwise — with caution. “The TPX Marketplace and other features on our site simply make it easier for a buyer to quickly find the seller with the best deal — it's still buyer beware,” Hartline notes.

“It is impossible to evaluate printing machinery online,” concurs Wiltshire. “I wouldn't buy a first-edition comic book via e-Bay unseen, so how could someone consider purchasing a press worth anything from $35,000 to perhaps $500,000, without making an inspection?”

So if you can't check it out, don't buy it.

A used-equipment glossary

Before starting your used-press search, it's important to know how preowned and remarketed equipment are typically described.

Nick Howard, president of used-press supplier, reconditioner and rebuilder Howard Graphic Equipment Ltd. (Mississauga, ON), says “reconditioned” can be a vague description. Some printers “find out that what they thought was ‘reconditioned’ was actually what is called the ‘golden rag’ — basically a guy cleaning the press with a can of solvent and an oily rag.”

Agrees Bill Litviak, sales manager of pre-owned equipment at MAN Roland (Westmont, IL), “‘Reconditioned’ and ‘remanufactured’ can mean anything from cleaning the press and putting new rubber into it to a complete overhaul and rebuild of the machine. There's no industry standard.”

Here are some common descriptions and what they really should mean.


Synonym: rebuilt. “Not many people truly remanufacture sheetfed presses,” says Ray Prince, senior technical consultant at GATF (Sewickley, PA). This costly procedure is typically reserved for the more expensive web presses, he notes. If a sheetfed press is advertised as “remanufactured,” however, Prince says the least you should expect is a complete teardown and rebuilding with new gears, replated cylinders and new electrical components.


Synonym: refurbished. “‘Remanufacture’ can be an ugly word,” says Amy Combs, remarketed equipment coordinator at Heidelberg Used Equipment (Kennesaw, GA). She adds that Heidelberg, which does not perform a complete teardown of its used presses, prefers to use the term “refurbishment” for its 21-step process that includes cleaning the press, refitting small parts, checking and replacing parts, as well as installation and training.

Prince adds that presses advertised as “reconditioned” should be completely degreased, have new rubber components, new wiring and meet all safety standards. In addition, any damage to the cylinders should be repaired and there should be no run-out on the bearers. And finally, “I want it to look new on my floor,” Prince states.

As-is, where-is

You accept the condition of the press, with all of its possible defects, with no warranty or guarantee, and you will be responsible for moving the machine to your location and installing it (the latter service can often be purchased from the vendor). This greater risk brings a lower selling price. Some sellers, however — especially press manufacturers and some press refurbishers — will try to resolve any major issues a buyer may have with the press, even if it has been sold as-is, where-is. This is never guaranteed, however, so be sure to get in writing what you can expect from the seller in case a major problem arises.

When evaluating any press, ask the vendor to define what exactly has been done to prepare it for sale.

Guidelines for buying used equipment

  1. Set a budget and stick to it

    Research the market value of the press. Determine your format, features and impression-count requirements. Shop around — check with several used-equipment vendors for press availability and pricing.

  2. Research the vendor

    Ask the vendor how long it's been in business and to describe its facilities and capabilities. Get customer references, and ask them about the vendor's service, the condition of the press and any post-sale problems.

  3. Have a skilled technician evaluate the press

    It's a good idea to hire an independent technician to provide you with a thorough report on the press' condition. Amy Combs, remarketed equipment coordinator at Heidelberg Used Equipment (Kennesaw, GA), observes that, unlike your own press operators, an independent technician will also be able to evaluate the press without comparing it to the machinery you already own — a fresh perspective that can ensure a truly impartial evaluation.

  4. Print test the press

    This seems rather obvious, but vendors recollect printers that either ran inadequate tests, blindly accepted whatever job was running on the press or didn't print test at all. The industry standard print test is GATF's sheetfed test form, a diagnostic tool that evaluates register, resolution, color control and reproduction, dot gain, trapping, slurring and doubling. Ray Prince, senior technical consultant at GATF (Sewickley, PA) advises, at the very least, to perform a breakaway dry solids test, which can reveal cylinder damage undetectable by other means.

    Kenneth E. Rizzo's “Testing a Multicolor Press” details the materials, press settings and specifications, and diagnostic press-run and analysis phases of a complete test run. The former GATF consultant describes tests for disclosing specific mechanical problems, including cylinder damage and faulty dampening. The article is available for free download at

  5. Just say no

If a press has major doubling, register and fit problems, it's probably a lemon. “These problems are expensive and hard to correct,” notes Prince. And then there are presses that you shouldn't even waste your time on. “The worst-case scenario is buying a press that's on the floor, has no power and hasn't been run in six months, or it's all in pieces,” the consultant says. “That I'd be scared to death of.”