Day 6: Back to DRUPA

I returned to DRUPA today to resume my review of the latest and most important technologies in the print media industry. The DRUPA directory divides the categories of our business into six distinct subgroups. These sections are:
1. Prepress and premedia
2. Printing
3. Bookbinding, print finishing
4. Paper converting (including packaging production)
5. Materials and consumables
6. Services

This is a good breakdown — and it should be since they’ve been doing this for decades — of all the aspects of the print media industry. If you overlay the six items I set out to investigate on my trip onto this list, you will see that my categories of interest only intersect with three of the DRUPA categories. This is how it looks:

1. Prepress and premedia=color management, publishing workflow solutions, web2print solutions
2. Printing= digital printing equipment & web offset press equipment
3. Services=MIS systems

Since I’ve already written about digital printing, color management and web2print, I now only now need to complete my review of publishing workflow solutions, MIS systems and web offset press equipment … sounds easy doesn’t it. But not so fast … there are a few other things I need to write about.

As you can tell, I’ve used this blog to talk about a lot more than just technology. This is because I believe the most interesting discussions about technology require some idea of the history of the things we are talking about; where did they come from, why are we doing it this way and what is likely to happen to it in the future. This is not a guessing game. It is possible to anticipate what will become of one technological innovation when you have a grasp of the things that have come before it and see the parallels that it has with the past. No technology completely repeats the path of the ones that have come before it; however, there are important similarities.

For example, the replacement of letterpress technology (metal type and relief printing methods) came into existence with Gutenberg’s invention of 1450 (as discussed my Day 4 blog). Letterpress, in turn, was replaced (eventually) by a combination of offset (1909) lithography (1793) and photoypesetting (1949). Although these technical achievements came together in the first half of the twentieth century, they did not overtake letterpress in terms of the total volume of printed matter until sometime in the 1970s after magazines and newspapers adopted the offset method of printing.

With offset lithography dominating the printing landscape for the last quarter century and more, the question is: what will replace it and when will this happen. Although we cannot predict these things with certainty, DRUPA 2008 provides — fortunately for us — a guideline to the answers to these questions.

Some experts in our industry predict that digital printing, in some form or fashion, will displace offset lithography as the dominant printing technology by the year 2020. This bold assertion has been made by Frank Romano and a group of students at RIT in a report sponsored by Canon entitled: The Insight Report: Digital Printing Directions, Trends & Opportunities.

This conclusion is derived not only from a depth of historical knowledge of our industry technologies, but also from interviews with 619 current print producers, industry observers and others. I would highly recommend that readers of this blog download and read a copy of this study: 

http://www.canon-europe.com/Images/Digital%20Printing%20Directions_v4_tcm13-514221.pdf

While digital printing’s cost is coming down and quality is coming up, offset printing will continue to be the most cost effective and highest quality printing method available. And even after digital becomes dominant, offset will continue to exist side by side with it. The traditional press manufacturers know this and they are continuing to put huge investments into offset printing technologies.

This is very evident in the web offset arena. The DRUPA directory lists 41 exhibitors of what they call “offset presses, web fed.” Of course, I could not possibly visit all of the suppliers, so I picked out a few. The market for this type of equipment is has been expanding rapidly in recent years, especially in Asia. 

There were at least four web presses running live on the show floor. I was able to see three of these presses. One was a 16-page newspaper press from a Russian manufacturer called Litex. The Litex model was called POG2-84 series press and it contained one roll stand, one four high unit and a combination folder. It was running at a speed of 35,000 per hour. The second was a four unit Komori commercial heatset web. Komori was running the System 38S press at speeds up to 60,000 per hour. The third was a four unit commercial web from Goss International called the M600 Folia press. This press is designed to compete with high volume sheetfed as it prints from a roll to a specially designed sheeter at speeds up to 30,000 per hour, without an oven and with sheetfed inks.

You can see brief clips of of these three presses in the video below:

In the case of the Komori press, there were several important technical developments that point the direction in which offset lithographic presses are moving. This press ran 3 separate jobs requiring startup, makeready, and saving 1,500 good copies. The third of these projects also included a folder changeover. This sequence was done in under 14 minutes after the operator pressed one button on the console. Automatic plate changers, optical scanning of the press sheet for approval of good copies, automated speed up and slow down of the press and automatic folder setup were used to achieve this result.

One of the challenges facing the offset market is the cost and waste associated with the makeready. Since digital printing has no makeready (the first copy is, at least in theory, as good as every other copy), the makeready cost and process goes away. Many of the new technologies being developed are aimed at reducing the makeready cost and waste down to its absolute physical minimum. Another example of this is a new sheetfed press technology from Heidelberg that claims good copy within 5 impressions.

KRD
June 5, 2008 

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