Fighting back!

18 May 2009

How offset litho technology is coping with the global downturn

It seems scarcely possible that in the 12 short months since drupa 2008 the global economic situation has changed beyond all recognition and the mood of buoyant optimism that was so palpable in Düsseldorf has mostly evaporated like a politician’s promise.

Serving, as it does, all sectors of the economy, the printing industry has borne the brunt of this downturn in demand and while certain sectors, notably supermarkets, have seen some growth, the volume of print being produced has fallen. To find out how this has impinged on the offset market, Converting Today spoke with a number of leading technology suppliers to what remains one of the largest sectors of print for converting.

According to KBA, demand for packaging presses has dropped by 40 per cent since the middle of 2008, with large format machines hit worst. But all press manufacturers tell of a level of depressed demand that will see press sales scaled back until 2011, and maybe beyond.

All agreed that with demand dropping and run lengths continuing to shorten, the pressure on price is placing production efficiency at the top of every converter’s agenda. Greater integration of processes, increased use of automation, and further reductions in downtime are setting new challenges for the press manufacturers’ R&D personnel. Integrated processes and the possibility of off-line makeready, for so long the territory of in-line web presses, are beginning to make inroads into sheet-fed technology, with the resulting improvements in productivity and lower levels of work in progress.

At KBA, optional direct drive on the plate cylinders known as DriveTronic SPC (Simultaneous Plate Changing) is allowing users of high end multi-colour presses to prepare print units off-line while the remaining units are running at the full 15,000 sheets/hour production speed. This is of particular interest to converters specialising in short run work, like Catalent Pharma Solutions, in Dublin, who will be taking delivery in June of a 10-colour Rapida 106 with this facility. Its 2/8 perfecting configuration will offer new levels of flexibility without compromising quality, according to the company’s vice-president, Victor Dixon.

Designed to run at low energy consumption levels, Catalent’s new Rapida also ticks the ‘green box’ for customer and manufacturer alike; and for improved and consistent quality that reduces needless and expensive waste levels, KBA’s QualiTronic system provides full sheet scanning with closed loop automatic adjustment of detected faults.

It is on-press facilities that have shown the major changes in recent times, with control and measurement to the fore. KBA’s series of ‘Tronics’, namely LogoTronic, ColorTronic, DensiTronic, and QualiTronic, tell their own story of how production management can now be monitored from press pre-setting, through colour control on each sheet to 100 per cent inspection, all tied together by an open design of computer architecture known as KBA Complete, a non brand specific system.

Speaking for KBA UK, managing director Christian Knapp explains that the Rapida 106, launched at drupa 2008, is a perfect fit for today’s market conditions in that it targets short run work and has the ability to undertake a number of jobs in one run. This was demonstrated at drupa, where a Rapida 106 printed 520 sheets each of 15 different jobs in less than 60 min – a feat unlikely to be repeated too often in real life, but a useful pointer as to how KBA is responding to the change in market requirements.

Cutting costs and enhancing results is a theme taken up by Steve Cavey, product manager sheet-fed presses at Heidelberg UK. He believes that packaging printers have been slow to appreciate the potential of print colour management, which reduces production time and waste, while improving uniformity of product appearance that is so critical to brand managers who are desperate to retain market share.

He says Heidelberg has colour measurement systems to suit all requirements and, significantly right now, to suit all budgets. He describes it as a way of beating the recession because it differentiates one converter from another, and believes it won’t be long before packaging printers are governed by the same ISO 12647 specification already adopted by their commercial counterparts. “The future is printing by numbers,” he says.

At a time when funds are short for large capital investment programmes, it is the converters who invest in ancillary technology that reap the benefits. With out and out running speed of less importance than flexibility to packaging printers, the trend towards shorter run lengths places heightened importance on fast makeready and repeatability. Heidelberg claims its Prinect closed loop colour workflow provides a seamless link between prepress and press, while its Star series of peripherals help reduce waste, time, and cost of production.

Acknowledging what a buyers’ market it is at present, Steve Cavey says printers are asking for press technology that can run UV or conventional inks, use little or no alcohol, and have in-line foiling, die cutting and coating facilities. Maximum flexibility to compete against Eastern European and Asian rivals is now essential, and with delivery times shortening, the quest for local supply is mounting.

Over the past 12 months, Heidelberg claims to have been successful with its super size presses, the XL 145 and XL 162, which are now available with double coaters and interdeck drying as well as Autoplate, the company’s new multi-plate change-over system. It is standard fitting on the large format machines, and allows a full plate change in less than 2 min. In the medium format range, the Speedmaster XL 105 has secured numerous orders, including one from Benson Box, who claimed its 18,000 sheets/hour capacity was a clinching factor, while Tipografic, which has installed an XL 105-6+L, committed to what it believed to be a proven press concept.

From Komori comes a similar story of how depressed demand for printed packaging has changed the way converters view their press requirements. According to Neil Sutton, MD of Komori UK, the main thrust is efficiency. Nothing new in that of course, except the manner in which converters now seek to respond to increased demand pressures from their customers, the end users.

Flexibility is now the keynote, and with added value now taken by all brand owners as a ‘given’, the drive is to bring more processes in line. Recent on-press developments by Komori include in-line foiling, UV coating and embossing, and according to Neil Sutton the market has responded positively.

At drupa last year, the firm showed its latest Lithrone series press running these three ‘finishing’ techniques in-line, and crucially, as it was the SX model not the LX, it had the larger sheet capacity of 610 x 750 mm. This extra 12.5 per cent image area is perfect for labels, small format cartons, pharmaceutical work, and CD/DVD covers, as it offers better multi-up image capability. Available, but not shown in Düsseldorf, was the facility to die cut in-line, too.

At manroland GB, sheet-fed sales director Gary Doman pitches in with views on the “price of quality”. Nobody, he says, wants a cheap product, but the drive is definitely on for more sustainable production methods, with lower waste levels, less work in progress, reduced handling and strong working practices focused on flexible capacity.

He explains that with end product prices reduced, there was a ‘knock back’ effect on every stage of the supply chain, and that most certainly included the press manufacturers as the largest single capital equipment cost centre. With the value of print now more of a quantifiable science than a qualitative art, manroland introduced its Colour Pilot automatic measuring and correction system at drupa, and has enjoyed success with it in the 12 months since.

Designed to assist the increasing number of offset printing companies that are required to work to ISO standards, the market is beginning to see a greater uptake on this type of technology by packaging printers, who initially lagged behind their commercial counterparts. With the cost of each sheet so high as it comes off the press, and the potential for reduced downstream stoppages so reduced, it’s an investment area few converters can ignore.

Reacting to the common clamour for more processes in line, manroland has concentrated on converting off-line cost centres to in-line profit makers. The company’s Prindor in-line foiling unit, shown at drupa, offers an alternative to printing on foiled board – it’s cheaper and greener, and by allowing greater creativity, has the potential to open new markets for offset printing houses.

Waste reduction, says Gary Doman, was part of the industry psyche long before the current crunch, and will certainly attract long term investment and technological development. Indeed, he adds that R&D advance has, in many cases, a three-year gestation period, which will also (hopefully) stretch beyond the present situation. He suggests that manroland was well placed to cope with the recession and its inherent problems, thanks largely to an internal re-structuring that took place three years ago. This allowed key management and strategy decisions to be made and fulfilled before the pressure of today’s crisis built up.

When quizzed on the competition from other printing techniques, namely digital, flexo and gravure, opinion was largely similar. Digital has its place and will continue to grow both as a stand-alone technique and in combination with other printing forms such as offset. Indeed, manroland claims it is looking closely at this area.

Gravure is still seen as the top end method for volume, combined with high quality, but without the flexibility to compete with offset in mainstream converting.

And what of flexo? Well, it has threatened to break through in the shape of in-line carton production for some years, but to date it is a process that has found little popularity outside of its native USA. And CI flexo, while more adaptable and cost effective than before, is still perceived by many as incapable of competing with offset in the short run cost/quality arena for cartons. However, for flexible packaging and corrugated board, the arguments change and draw different conclusions.

In general, the leading exponents of sheet-fed offset technology, while having to endure the worldwide slowdown, are far from pessimistic about the future. Klaus Schmidt, of KBA, a company that offers other print technology, says: “Offset will remain the first choice for carton printing from short to long runs.” It is a view taken up by Steve Cavey, from Heidelberg, who states: “Offset litho will retain the lion’s share of the market because it is a proven manufacturing process with the right quality-cost balance.”

Komori’s Neil Sutton comments: “Times like these fuel the demand for efficient production processes, and market response to in-line processes has been high.” But, the concluding words from manroland’s Gary Doman make a succinct summary. He says: “I feel the state of offset in 2009 will not turn out to be as bad as many predict. Things will be tight, but demand will still exist. Those who look closely at doing things better, will emerge all the stronger.”

KBA's QualiTronic system in action Speedmaster secures orders Komori contender In-line foiling from manroland

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In-line foiling from manroland In-line foiling from manroland
Speedmaster secures orders Speedmaster secures orders
Komori contender Komori contender
KBA's QualiTronic system in action KBA's QualiTronic system in action

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