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.