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Commentary & Analysis

Offset – Technology for the Future of USA’s Printing!

Please excuse this article coming after my retirement last year and my statement that you had seen my last article. I am taking the opportunity given to me by Randy Davidson to write the occasional guest editorial if I see a subject that I feel needs my own ‘unique’ take.

By Andrew Tribute
Published: February 4, 2013

Please excuse this article coming after my retirement last year and my statement that you had seen my last article. I am taking the opportunity given to me by Randy Davidson to write the occasional guest editorial if I see a subject that I feel needs my own ‘unique’ take.

For many years in the North American market we have been hearing of the demise of offset and that it would be taken over by digital printing. Even the great curmudgeon emeritus Frank Romano last year declared he felt that the offset/digital balance had reached a tipping point in digital’s favor. At drupa Benny Landa claimed his new Nanographic presses would be highly competitive against offset at all run lengths, and many people appear to have concluded that this may be another knife in offset’s back.

I was very interested to read Patrick Henry’s excellent piece last month covering Heidelberg’s annual end of year press event in Germany. Now this must be the first of these events I have missed for at least a decade. In this it was interesting to read comments from Heidelberg’s key executives on developments in offset printing in different parts of the world. I think the comments from Heidelberg executive board member Stephan Plenz really showed how many North American printers appear to have largely given up on offset, and are running antiquated presses. He stated that North America supplied about 12% of the $1.6 billion in sales that Heidelberg recorded in the first six months of 2012, and that the U.S. market has “changed completely” over the last 10 years having experienced a near “collapse” in equipment investment that saw purchasing sink by as much as 65%. He went on to say that this degrades their ability to compete with printers in other parts of the world, estimating that American shops are five years behind their German counterparts in terms of press technology and 10 years behind in postpress. These comments did not surprise me as I had been saying them for some years.

It is interesting to take a closer look at these comments and see just how German and other European printers are moving ahead with major offset printing developments. I was interested to read a recent article in the UK publication PrintWeek. This was about ESP Colour, one of the UK’s most advanced commercial printers. In one week this company using its new Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105 five-color press carried out 498 make-readies, printed 2.1 million impressions running at an average of 17,108 sheets/hour, and earned in that one week on that one press $315,000. Its average make-ready time was 3 min 54 sec. This was achieved by immaculate work planning, utilization of Heidelberg’s latest technologies in areas like blanket washing and the use of double dryer configurations to allow for instant sheet handling, and highly efficient workflow in pre and post press. Everything that can be done to automate processes is being done. ESP has also found by changing it strategy and aggressively going down to the sub 5,000-copy market it has been very successful. They state that their revenue in terms of margins sits in the platemaking and make-ready areas, so the emphasis for the business is trying to get the run lengths down further to perhaps as low as 1,500 copies. That is not to say ESP does not do long runs of around 150,000 impressions, but it tries to schedule these to fit in around the demand for shorter runs. For very short runs and variable data it uses Kodak Nexpress presses, and for display an Océ Arizona large format flatbed press.

Heidelberg has been very successful in Germany in the area it refers to as web to print. This is exactly the same as web to print with digital printing, but where sophisticated ganging programs predominantly that from Metrix Software, is used to plan a range of different jobs onto the same sheet. Patrick Henry comments on this is his article in stating Heidelberg VLF users are operating these presses economically in batches as small as 100 sheets. One gang-printing customer with multiple VLF presses and a web-to-print front end reportedly has executed 500 make-readies for a total of 12,000 jobs in a single day. This is doing what was started by Vistaprint who still carry out most of their web to print work on offset presses. The only real difference between doing most of this web to print work using offset rather than digital printing, is offset cannot do variable data or run lengths of less than 100 copies effectively. The revenue and profit that this offset approach can give is vastly more than be done with any digital printing technology. 

While Patrick Henry commented on what Heidelberg’s customers were achieving, we are also seeing offset printers in Europe with presses from KBA, manroland and Komori achieving similar very high throughput with very fast make-readies allowing them to be competitive on short run printing.

I think a large number of North American printers have largely ‘lost the plot’ in thinking that digital printing is the only solution. When you assess how much more work can be put through a modern automated offset press with digital pre and post press workflows, the potential earning are so much greater than with digital presses. I am not saying don’t use digital presses, that would be stupid. Digital complements modern offset to allow very short run and variable data allowing printers to participate in multi-channel communication marketing solutions. The Landa effect is being seen in North America with many commitments to move to these still unproven presses with their high initial and ongoing running costs. I think for many printers it would be better to look to Europe and try to understand what is happening there in companies like ESP Colour. (http:// http://www.espcolour.co.uk/)



By Cary Sherburne on Feb 04, 2013

Andy, how nice to see you on WhatTheyThink! You have been missed! And while you know I am a huge proponent of all things digital, I totally agree with you here. But I think the bigger issue is lack of overall investment in North America, not just investment in offset, but investments designed to keep production platforms current across the board, both hardware and software as well as employee skill sets.

It would be interesting to have Dr. Joe Webb weigh in with trending data on CAPEX in commercial print to see if there is a downward trend that bears out my conjecture.

Maybe with the economy looking a little better and some of the uncertainties removed--if our do-nothing Congress would ever get its act together--we will see an uptick in investments. This will be good for the industry as a whole, both providers and vendors, of course.


By Erik Nikkanen on Feb 04, 2013

Andy, I have to agree that there is a lot of life left in offset. Maybe not the way you portray the advances in Europe but in more fundamental and less costly ways.

I also agree that in general, people have given up on offset. I gave a two day seminar on the theoretical issues on what was required to have offset presses have very short makereadies and run consistently in a predictable way back in 2005. This was for a large printer in Kansas City.

The seminar went well but in talking with their executives, they were actually not so interested in developing offset because they felt that inkjet was going to meet their needs in the near future.

The solution is not just about buying new expensive offset technology. The real problem is that the process is still not understood well enough by the industry to develop better technologies for a lower cost.

That is where the potential of offset will be in the future and when that happens, it will make it harder for non variable digital printing to compete. The Landa sweet spot is in danger if this happens. And it can happen even with retrofitting existing offset presses.

Offset is not dead yet. Totally agree.


By Greg Imhoff on Feb 04, 2013

Well stated Andy. I have always encouraged N.A. printers to see what European printers achieve in higher quality standards workflows operations and profits - because these tools are fully transferable.

One issue between the markets may be that Euro print market(s) have always been smaller there so a built in bias existed here in Offset against the need for shorter runs. Couple to this our l o n g recession, loss of revenues and the climate Carey outlines to see the US printer is experiencing here wide economic challenges.

The best printers are adapting and innovating here. Not all need to buy new presses either with the above market uncertain-es.

One advantage I think not often discussed is the higher Resolution output of Offset. When Digital presses match resolution parity then it will be more up to the markets.

Print market leaders do lead in all directions and you have given a good template for an offset printer to meet more demand. Businesses in the know are automating their presses and workflows on their existing investments, favorably.

Being an innovator I admire how the offset / digital lines are drawn and the market will speak. There remains a gap needing to be filled with so many just holding on given all the turbulence. Not all need to buy new presses as printers can now add in new workflow tools, to retrofit on their existing presses quite effectively.


By Steven Schnoll on Feb 04, 2013

I think you have all missed the point. The decline in offset print in North America has nothing to do with digital vs offset. Just take a look at the declining revenue streams of Donnelley, Quad, Consolidated, Cenveo, etc.The critical issue is the lack of demand for print overall. The volume of print is being eroded by new technologies like mobile devices and tablets. As long as the world is finding alternatives to delivering content in more economical mediums the volume of print will continue to decline and it has nothing to do with advances in print technology.


By Erik Nikkanen on Feb 04, 2013

Steven, of course you are right about the decline of print but the discussion is still valid with respect to the future of benefit of one technology relative to another.

No improvement in technology is going to change the overall decline in printing. This discussion is more a matter of who are going to be the winners and who are going to be the losers in a smaller market.

Some people will do very well at the expense of others who make wrong technology decisions in a shrinking market.


By Stan Najmr on Feb 05, 2013

Welcome back, Andy! I knew you will be back.

Europe definitely has a better plain yogurt. Some hotels in Germany are also very nice.

When we talk about anything digital, especially digital workflow and internet, I think executives from European press manufacturer missed at least a decade. If they would fly to USA and visit advanced print shops back then they would discover that entire prepress has been eliminated, digital print engines were collecting dust and offset was producing very fast short run. Some of these companies branched out to Europe. They continue making money here and there. It was done.

What is the message from this European manufacturer? Use "web to print" plus better imposition so you can still purchase offset press and compete in the marketplace where demand for print is going down?

I have a message for them from America. If you want to help print today, sell more devices and make decent profit, stop existing status quo, learn from companies like Google and make that PRINT BUTTON on any mobile device to print on your press in the nearest print facility. For that to happen you need to get rid of your inker, get rid of plates, water, and seriously partner with those who are doing it already.


By Pete Basiliere on Feb 05, 2013

Andy’s argument is sound – if yours is one of the few very large or large printing companies that remain in our industry.

I don’t know what a new Speedmaster goes for, but I quickly found a 2008 Heidelberg Speedmaster XL 105-6+L for sale on eBay with a “buy it now” price of $1.5 million.

The search also turned up a news report about a newer Speedmaster in which “Heidelberg claimed this super quick press had the potential to produce up to 60 million sheets per year even when it was fitted with the most basic specifications.”

Andy also wrote “One gang-printing customer with multiple VLF presses and a web-to-print front end reportedly has executed 500 make-readies for a total of 12,000 jobs in a single day.”

Think about that – 12,000 jobs per day.

Coincidentally, I posted two tweets yesterday:

Shrinking print industry 1 - 2009 #PIConnects top 400 printers from $11.5b (RRD) to $8.95m. 2012 range fell to $10.6b (RRD) to $5.1m

Shrinking print industry 2 – 2009 #PIConnects no. 10 printer was Consolidated Graphics @ $1.1b; 2012 is Standard Register at half that: $0.6b

Think about that – 28,600 of the roughly 29,000 printing companies in the USA have annual sales BELOW $5.1 million.

There is no way the vast majority of printing companies (1) receive the 12,000 jobs per day or 60 million sheets per year needed to justify a big Heidelberg press or (2) have the capital to make such a huge investment.

Will offset continue to have a place? Absolutely, yes. Can most printers improve their workflow and become more efficient? Absolutely, yes.

Is the potential earning with offset so much greater than with digital presses, as Andy claims? That answer depends on the printing company, its equipment, its workflow and, importantly, its staff.

By the way, the same eBay page for the used $1.5m Speedmaster also had an ad for a used AB Dick 9995 Ryobi 3995 Two Color Press with a buy it now price of $4,950. That is not the answer, either.


By Rossitza Sardjeva on Feb 05, 2013

Andy I thought you are now somewhere at Komo lake??? But anyway, I agree with you about offset future...


By Greg Imhoff on Feb 05, 2013

Each post is positive with the main issue being our rapidly shrinking market, followed by investment and technology opportunities, in order for printers to gap fill and support new demand models to survive then grow.

Enterprises that recognize this is first about serving the changing client needs efficiently and profitably also know this applies to Heidelberg etc. as well as John Q Printer.

Innovative printers make technology adaptations to their existing presses for example in Sheet-Fed by retrofitting make-ready automation tools, to Webs by adding inline ink jet personalization, plus.

One clear remaining advantage beyond productivity or sweet spot discussions is in Offset print quality, which if sold to end users is meaningful. This remains mainly in the RIP Resolution for better output of client prints. One reason companies buy print is to have a improved image message and this needs to be sold.

Choices given to end users even from "hybrid" printers find clients normally want to see their best-image color paper etc so capturing the available market dollars is also about smart updating knowledge production and fit.


By Barry Burke on Feb 05, 2013

Very interesting article, there is still lots of life left in Offset printing, whether short or long run, ESP are one of the many businesses who have gone from strength to strength in a very aggressive market place such as the UK.
We happened to stumble across ESP Colour some time ago when we were in the market for an Estimating/MIS. They use a very clever piece of Estimating software (PDQ Estimating) which decides the best production route for that particular project which we also opted for and have benefited immensely since, we also do very well with our Komori G40 “Offset press” which challengers both ends of the scale, being Web Offset and Digital production.
So contrary to the belief from the last 15 years that the old art of Lithographic Offset Printing is going away, I beg to differ, investment in the right pieces of kit and software, intelligent planning and refinement in work flow processes I think we’ll be having the same debate in another 10 years.


By Stan Najmr on Feb 05, 2013

Print buyers were replaced by companies promoting internet presence. They now offer print as an extension of their services.

Between web pages, reputation management, presence at local searches, customized email programs and representation on social media outlets, print is used to either enhance online messages or attract new prospects to online presence of their clients. While this may look as an excellent opportunity for the offset printing, in reality one has to wonder what kind of profit margins printers achieve. In last 2 years I was evaluating many “demand creation” companies in the United States. Some are nationwide and others are local. For illustration I will use an example from Boston area. We all know benefits of online advertising. Clients like an immediate feedback on their investment and an immediate correction, if it is required. Print can’t beat it. Print was reduced to an inexpensive delivery vehicle. You will pay $65 per 1,000 addresses if you want to distribute your flyer together with a local weekly paper. This includes design of your flyer and printing! Would you like to be a printer who prints these? Profit margins are in internet based products and monthly fees. Clients are not buying quality of the print, personalization, one-on-one marketing pieces. They are paying for addresses. In Greater Boston Area there are at least 120 weekly newspapers today. Some of them have circulation as low as 454 copies, the highest circulation is 28,000. Free local newspapers bring more addresses. If you distribute free newspapers you may achieve 30% subscription rate. Compare that to 8-11% subscription rate for paid weekly newspaper. Free distribution is great for companies selling addresses. It is not such great news for value of print. Mind you, we are not even talking about digital printing, color match and other technical issues we care so deeply about on this forum.

I ran an experiment and ordered 4-pager from one of the printers known for their print quality near Boston. I also ordered the same 10,000 with “demand creation” company from Boston. Considering pricing I listed above it makes no sense to even start comparing prices between those two. Let’s focus for now on customer experience only. “Demand creation” company utilized “look and feel” from the web page they were hosting already and in 4 hours I received PDF of the complete design. In 2 hours I received spreadsheet with information about each address (I could select household income, families with kids, singles... you name it). I did not actually work, but let’s say that everything was done in one day with exception of printing and mailing.

Printing company required a design from me and when I submitted the design it took them 2 days to call me back and inform me that postal regulations will require some design limitations. When I submitted corrected design again with certified proof they asked me what type of paper I would like to use. When I selected one from my own sample book they said their recommended stock would be something else. Then I was asked if I can come over and sign their proof, even when I already gave them certified proof. I mentioned this to them and I was informed that this is their standard procedure. I scheduled the visit. During the visit I was told that because this is only 10,000 run they will bundle it with something else and print it in 5-8 working days. Needles to say, “demand creation” company expedited 10,000 next week to 10,000 addresses while I was still waiting for printer to finish printing.

I am trying to use this example to show what printing business in the United States requires more than new equipment.

Unfortunately, almost all printers missed the online opportunity completely, they became commodity printers. Manufacturers could bring the value of print back and help printers to eliminate various processes, middlemen, internal requirements, simply: Remove all barriers between printed piece and the client.

I worry when we start emphasizing print quality. Quality is there but the overall process is too slow, cumbersome and isolated from online presence. This needs to be fixed.


By Greg Imhoff on Feb 05, 2013

Stan I empathize with each eloquent point yet I am far more sympathetic to Barry's conclusion as a solution to the market, not as a problem within the market.

All points in this thread are true especially the observation on print as a commodity.

Sales lead to Profits the best way out of declining market shares and one way to this is to update or maximize investments on the floor to meet the changing market needs. I think this is better than to reinvest or fight the changes.

If a printer has the investments on the floor updated and the clients demands have shifted then selling the best solution allows those worthy, to live and fight another day.

Innovation is not seeing all things the same way.


By Peter Schwarz on Feb 06, 2013

This is all real interesting but printing besides in packaging will be a thing of the past in not so distant future, Digital or Offset. As much as I hate it and as much as I love this industry this is a fact and reducing profitability to almost nothing or increase efficiency or even looking at Europe will not change it. I believe that our printing technology is 10 years behind Europe’s but that only means that Europe loves their traditions and traditions last there much longer than here.


By richard gray on Feb 18, 2013

A valuable balancing argument from Andy. It is not just in the US that overall assessment must be made of the balance of investment need. Clearly many printers will need digital print as they develop fresh services. However for many the core of their print demand will be most economically produced by offset for many years to come and yet many printers are ducking the need to stay competitive in that portion of their market demand.


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