Where Is Offset Today?

As the total size of the print market continues to shrink, a number of other developments are occurring that are affecting offset printing. One is the surging market for shorter run lengths, which appears to be accelerating. Another is an increased need for differentiation through fragmentation, in areas ranging from packaging to magazines and newspapers to commercial work.

Along with these trends, there is a push for cost reduction in printing and an increase in the use of digital print processes in many markets, most notably in the area of book publishing. All of these trends are putting pressure on offset, says Roland Ortbach, vice president of sales for the US-based subsidiary of manroland web systems.

“Offset is still the most cost-effective, versatile, flexible, and reliable printing technology available today, just as it’s been for many years,” he says. “The technology that has evolved over many years still answers the need for 70 to 80 percent of global printing needs. In some markets, it is still very high, and in other markets comparatively lower. Digital printing will capture a portion of the market, and that portion is the part offset was not designed to handle.” Offset was never designed for variable printing, variable format changes, or print on demand, he says. But when it comes to volume, cost to print, inline added value, and flexibility, it is hard to beat offset technology. “The future looks good for offset, as it does for digital and, to some extent, for gravure,” Ortbach says. “There is enough demand for all these technologies for them to do well. I’m confident offset technology will be the most economic and accessible for years to come.”

Brad Kruchten, president of graphics, Entertainment and Commercial Films, Eastman Kodak, says the majority of printed pages are still offset, and will be for the foreseeable future. “People talk about the growth of digital, but it will still be an offset world,” he reports.

Moreover, as new technologies arrive, they will have to learn to play in the offset market, Kruchten says. “We have such a large infrastructure built in the printing industry, success with new technologies will depend on how well they integrate with offset, as opposed to replacing offset,” he remarks.

“The key example is in variable data and digital printing. We believe if you can leverage the offset infrastructure and place print heads into an offset press—on the press itself or in postpress or finishing equipment—you then can leverage the benefits and what’s best in offset, and offer variable data printing as well.”

For instance, he adds, a magazine could be printed in offset, with areas having to do with regionalized or personalized information left unprinted for the later addition of variable data.

 

Meeting Changing Needs

Press makers are responding to evolving needs of printers. “We’ve performance-sized our presses to meet market needs for less emphasis on high volume and more emphasis on makeready, time reduction, flexibility, and waste reduction, and automation, in general,” Ortbach says. “Due to the continuing lack of qualified press operators in many parts of the world, including the US, we have automated many of the process steps in the press.”

To drive down costs, manroland has continued to find ways to trim waste and increase throughput through the use of smart systems and automation, he adds. And given the overall lower demand for offset technology, the company has developed a digital finishing equipment line for the book publication and commercial markets.

According to Chris Travis, director of technology for Dallas-based KBA, which makes both web and sheet-fed presses, KBA has seen customers acquiring printing press configurations unique to their needs, allowing them to enter specific markets, achieve more competitiveness, and also create new opportunities.

In addition, he says, over the past five years, “We’ve drastically reduced makeready times on press and increased quality control measures. The reason for the reduced makeready time is because sheet-run lengths are being reduced. The quicker you can makeready and be up and running, the better. We’ve taken the makeready steps, and instead of those steps being sequential, we’ve made them simultaneous.”

Inline quality control measures have also been drastically improved upon by all press manufacturers in the last five years, Travis says. “For instance, we can now read color inline with our inline camera systems,” he reports. “Inline color control is a key feature when looking at new presses. It will reduce makeready time, reduce waste, and maintain quality. No other feature on the press will achieve those key goals.”

 

Increased Interest in Packaging

It’s no secret recent years have witnessed a steadily increasing interest in package printing. “The beauty of packaging is it is something that’s going to continue to be needed, and there’s going to be growth,” Kruchten says. “Not huge, but steady growth. People are liking what packaging has to offer in the way of versatility—flexo, corrugated—and in the way of growth.”

Winners and losers will emerge, he adds. The market demands higher quality packages and a wider variety of substrates. “What we know is the higher the quality of package, the higher the shelf appeal, the higher volume of sales. People are willing to pay for the quality, because there’s a formulaic return between quality packaging and sales volume.”

Ortbach agrees that while print is seeing some share erosion to electronic media, packaging is not one of the areas losing share. “Quite the contrary,” he says. “I think there will be very exciting opportunities and increased demand for packaging, for both high volume and specialty sides of that business. Printers who have fairly recent equipment say, ‘Where else can I use my equipment?’ Those who can modify their equipment at little expense are looking seriously at getting into this market, to make up for shrinking volumes in other markets.”

Non-traditional package printers will increase price pressure on the overall market, which will create a need for more competitive equipment, a positive trend for manufacturers, Ortbach says.

Similarly, the need for more product differentiation will drive run lengths down, spurring more emphasis on waste reduction and makeready time. And that, in turn, will also create a need for newer, more competitive equipment.

“In specialty packaging, demand for product differentiation should create a greater demand for more inline added-value finishing equipment, or product enhancement that will require additional equipment,” he says. “I’m thinking of RFID labels and coating that changes color with date expirations on food packaging, for example.”

 

What’s Ahead?

Compared to electronic media, print will have to differentiate itself in color and ensure the process is as sustainable as possible, says Kodak’s Rich Rindo, general manager, worldwide graphics and sales development, and VP of graphics, Entertainment and Commercial Films. “The other part is that the offset printing press itself needs to be sustainable or environmentally friendly,” he adds.

“We are focusing on what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of the prepress process, particularly in the preparation of the plate. We have had a breakthrough in the area of process-free offset plate.

“It’s a plate exposed and taken directly to the offset press, eliminating the processing chemistry, the disposal of the chemistry, and any equipment costs, maintenance, electricity, and water. The product is called Sonora.”

On a worldwide basis, Rindo claims Sonora will eliminate the need for 36 million gallons of water, 530,000 gallons of plate chemistry, and 102 million hours of kilowatt energy within the first year. “We do this with the same offset quality and allow the printer to maintain the productivity they have had in the past,” he says.

For his part, Travis envisions an exciting future. “I see things we will be printing that haven’t been dreamt of before,” he observes. “And we’ll be hitting markets that we haven’t approached in the past.”

Concludes Ortbach: “It’s incumbent on offset printers to maintain their equipment well, and exploit it and run it at speeds the equipment was designed for. In so doing, they’re ensuring their continued viability in the industry, and ensuring the continuing funding to explore additional technologies.”

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