By Patrick Henry, WTT Executive Editor October 17, 2006 –Can the pace of progress in offset lithography ever come to a halt? Don’t bet the farm—or your reputation as a futurist—that it will. No one, not even the noisiest members the of offset-is-dead-long-live-digital crowd, can credibly assert that the day must come when all possible improvements have been made and lithographic printing finally has become as good as it is ever going to get. Sometimes, though, the pace of progress seems less feverish than it has at other times, as if the applied science of making lithographic presses run better, faster, and more efficiently were taking a breather in preparation for offset litho’s next great leap forward. That softer pace keynotes many of the press manufacturers’ announcements at Graph Expo 2006, where the recent business success that most of vendors are enjoying is something they’re even more eager to talk about than milestones in R & D. This isn’t to say that the press makers don’t have plenty of technical innovations and enhancements to boast about—they do, and these achievements are as notable as anything seen at a printing trade show since, well, the last printing trade show. It’s just that for the first time in a long time, these companies actually can report that printers are placing substantial and steady orders for the fruits of their technical labors. The manufacturers, chock-a-block with recent sales volumes that they say bear comparison with pre-2000 levels, naturally want to trumpet these gains as the surest signs that they are back in fine fettle despite the worst that economic doldrums, the Internet, and toner-based equipment have been able to do to them. The New "Good Hands" People? The expansive mood of Graph Expo also is prompting the press manufacturers to say as much about what they intend to do for customers after the sale as about the products they intend to sell them in the first place. At this show, you won’t hear a reference to a press without also hearing references to the field service organization that supports it, the online store that keeps it supplied with consumables, and the partnering program that’s aimed at making its owner a more successful printer. The days of strictly speeds-and-feeds presentations at print shows in McCormick Place clearly are over—get ready for touchier, feelier marketing strategies that occasionally can seem more like the comforting come-ons of insurance companies than the spec-driven sales pitches of press manufacturers. But to give the iron the respect that is always its due, WhatTheyThink is making the rounds of the booths and the briefing rooms at Graph Expo to learn what new opportunities for capital investment the vendors are bringing to the offset litho market. Today’s report summarizes show news from Heidelberg, MAN Roland, Mitsubishi, and Muller Martini; KBA, Presstek, Goss, Ryobi, and Komori will have their turns on Thursday (Oct. 19). Heidelberg “today is in a good mood—we are back on the stage,” declared Dr. Jürgen Rautert, in charge of R&D and marketing for the company that is still the world’s top seller of sheetfed equipment. And with ample reason: Heidelberg, Rautert said, is building and shipping press units at a rate of 15,000 per year, a production pace that is keeping the factory in Wiesloch, Germany, operating at full capacity. Jim Dunn, president of Heidelberg USA, said that because this country has been absorbing so much of that output, “Heidelberg USA had its busiest summer ever” with nary a hint of the sales slowdown that often accompanies the warm months. The factory in Germany is being expanded to accommodate production of what is, for Heidelberg, a new product category that only a market as big as America’s can turn into an unqualified success on the world stage: the VLF (very large format) sheetfed offset press. Heidelberg is developing two such machines, and the construction of the larger of them, a 64" platform, is almost complete. "We expect to do the first test print before Christmas," Rautert said of the big press, which Heidelberg hopes to unveil at drupa 2008. "You can park two cars in the delivery," quipped Dunn. Presses being displayed by Heidelberg at Graph Expo include the 41", 18,000 sph Speedmaster XL 105, a new press of which 20 have been sold in the U.S.; and the 20" Speedmaster SM 52 with Anicolor anilox inking system, being promoted by Heidelberg as a preferred alternative to digital color presses in all but the smallest non-personalized runs. The technological standout among Heidelberg press components is Inpress Control, an on-board sheet inspection system that has, according to Rautert, 100 man-years of R&D invested in it. Built into a printing unit, Inpress Control provides continuous measurement of register and colorimetric data. A related product, Inspection Control, mounts a pair of cameras in the coating unit for very close-range inspection of sheets in jobs where an exceptional level of quality control is wanted. The booth also presents Heidelberg-branded equipment for folding, saddle-stitching, and die cutting for packaging, as well as demonstrations of Heidelberg's Prinect digital workflow software. MAN Roland CEO Yves Rogivue came the closest to telling technical development to take five when he said, in answer to a question, that the efficiency of the company's sheetfed platforms had reached a point where the thing that printers want most from them isn't a bigger set of features, but improvements that lead to further reductions in makeready costs and a greater elimination of process steps through the application of computer integrated manufacturing techniques. Rogivue also reaffirmed MAN Roland's wish to steer clear of the small-press market, which it sees as vulnerable to replacement by digital systems. The fact that MAN Roland does not offer a sheetfed press smaller than 23" x 29" has in no way kept it from achieving what Rogivue called a record sales year, with volume in the first six months of this year up 20% over the same period in the year before. "What is good news for us," he said, "is also good for the graphic arts, because it means that the profit freeze is thawing." Rogivue devoted most of a Sunday morning press briefing to pointing out cracks in the ice in the form of recent high-profile sales by MAN Roland, including, on the web side, the installation of the first MAN Berliner web press in North America to the Gannett chain's Journal & Courier newspaper. The Berliner prints in a compact 12" x 18" format that falls between the traditional broadsheet and tabloid newspaper sizes. Vince Lapinski, in charge of MAN Roland's web operation, said that the press could help struggling newspapers survive by enabling them to print in an attractive new format with very high production efficiency. Noting the additional use of newspaper webs for commercial work by many newspaper publishers, Lapinski said that webs can compete economically with long perfectors and can even be profitable in volumes as small as 2,000—a run length territory that used to belong exclusively to sheetfed. Lapinski was himself a part of MAN Roland's Graph Expo news in that the company used the occasion to announce that he will succeed Rogivue as CEO of MAN Roland USA on Jan. 1, 2007. Rogivue, preparing to leave the position after six years, said that when he first took the job, putting the sheetfed operation back into the black was a task that sometimes seemed "impossible." Things are much different now, he said, claiming that "every day, we are closing the gap on the sheetfed front runner." He declined to discuss his next career move, saying he would make those plans known next month. Mitsubishi Lithographic Presses USA (MLPUSA), like MAN Roland a maker of both web and sheetfed equipment, uses the Graph Expo and Print shows to highlight its developments on the sheetfed side. The 40" Diamond 3000LX long perfector that MLPUSA has brought to this year's event is equipped with one such development: the SimulChanger plate-changing system, capable of replacing old plates with new ones on every unit of the press in one operation. Preloaded plates are taken up and mounted automatically as the old metal is ejected. Mitch Dudek, MLPUSA's sheetfed business development manager, said that the entire process could take as little as one minute and 15 seconds, regardless of the number of units on the press. Changing all plates at once in a minute and a quarter, he noted, is a far cry from and a vast improvement upon makeready routines in which plate replacement is a 90-second drill on every unit. The SimulChanger is available as on option on new presses, but not as a retrofit. Also of interest from MLPUSA is the MCCS-V image scanning spectrophotometer, a press-side device that can scan an entire pull sheet or proof by scanning image only, color bar only, or the combination of the two. Closed-loop connectivity to the press lets the data be used to control ink keys and maintain color consistency. The MCCS-V, which can support input from four straight presses or two perfectors, also can read OK sheets from previous jobs to speed the setups of reruns. Another use is scanning multiple-up sheets to find the best-looking instance of the image. The color data from this portion of the sheet then would become the numbers to which the entire sheet is run. The perennial challenge of maintaining registration may get a little easier for printers who take advantage of the new, portable version of Mitsubishi's Digital Register Analysis (DRA) system, which assesses the mechanical integrity of a press by measuring unit-to-unit registration in micron increments. Until now, press sheets intended for DRA evaluation had to be sent to Mitsubishi for inspection. The portable unit, consisting of a 4,800 dpi Epson scanner, a computer, a printer, and specialized DRA software, lets Mitsubishi technicians perform the task on site. Unlike the full version of DRA, which is available for use only with Mitsubishi equipment, the portable system can analyze output from any press. Muller Martini is not primarily a manufacturer of printing presses, but any press vendor would be happy to equal its sales performance this year. The company's president, Werner Naegeli, said that in 2006, Muller Martini is on track to ship a larger volume of equipment than in its previous peak period between 1999 and 2000. Most of that will come from sales of the highly automated postpress equipment for which Muller Martini is best known. However, the company also makes narrow-web presses for direct mail, packaging, and labeling applications. One of them, the variable-width Alprinta V, is being presented for the first time in North America at Graph Expo in the form of a printing unit. The Alprinta V's lightweight plate and blanket cylinders can be delivered in any width up to their maximum, although a range of about 8 to 30 widths is commonly used in packaging. They can be changed easily and quickly without removing the entire cylinder insert from the servo-driven, 1,500 fpm press. Makeready is fully automated, and the plate cost, according to Muller Martini, is about one-tenth that of plates for flexography. But eclipsing equipment in Muller Martini's Graph Expo news was the announcement that the company is an equipment partner in a highly automated coupon printing factory that will be, according to Muller Martini's Roger Bilodeau, "the closest thing I've ever seen to a lights-out facility." The 470,000-sq.-ft. plant, being built in Largo, FL, by Cox Target Media, will produce 20 billion coupons and 500 million envelopes per year in 10,000-piece lots. Everything will be printed on two Goss Sunday web presses feeding a robotic binding line provided by Muller Martini, which also will furnish the buffering and roll handling equipment for the printed matter. A master control system from Muller Martini will assure JDF and JDF integration with the presses and the binding line. The plant is scheduled to go into full operation in the first quarter of 2007.