The smallest format it can print—35.5" x 53.5"—is a bigger piece of paper than most sheetfed plants have ever handled. Four presses classed as “full size” in ordinary sheetfed terms would be needed to produce what one press of its prodigious VLF (very large format) dimensions can deliver in a single pass. That was one reason why the judges who voted it a PIA/GATF InterTech Award just one year after its launch hailed the KBA Rapida 205 for taking sheetfed press technology “to an acme of productivity in a sheet size (59.5" x 81") that has never been printed before.”

It’s hard to avoid superlatives when describing this lithographic leviathan—it is, after all, the world’s largest sheetfed offset press. But, the Rapida 205 is like a press of any other size in that it has to measure up to the same prevailing standards of print quality and manufacturing efficiency. Those benchmarks are strict, and making a press bigger doesn’t necessarily mean making it better at achieving them.

But, five printers representing nearly half the installed base of Rapida 205s in the U.S. say that in the case of this largest-of-the-large VLF press, performance is every bit as impressive as sheet size. Whether veteran users or recent purchasers, they speak assuredly of the big improvements that the big press has made, or is fully expected to make, to the foundations of their businesses.

KBA Rapida 205

WhatTheyThink’s sources for this two-part report on the Rapida 205 ownership experience are senior executives of Edison Lithograph & Printing Corp. (North Bergen, NJ), which operates a six-color model with interdeck UV and plastics printing option and a six-color model with aqueous coater; The Garvey Group (Niles, IL), with a coater-equipped, UV-capable six-color and a second coater-equipped six-color; Lithographix (Hawthorne, CA), where the press is configured in six colors plus coater and UV; Meyers (Minneapolis, MN), soon to install a Rapida 205 with six colors, coater, and UV; and Rand Graphics (Wichita, KS), awaiting installation of a five-color model with coater and UV.

Few, but Formidable

The Rapida 205s adopted by these plants can’t help looming large in an industry where 40" equipment typically represents the high end of press capacity. As John G. Braceland notes in this analysis of market opportunities in VLF, oversized presses aren’t for everybody. Accounting for just 5% to 6% of all presses worldwide, VLF presses change the nature and the scale of operations at every plant that installs them—a transformation that few printing businesses have the ambition or the resources to undergo.

Accounting for just 5% to 6% of all presses worldwide, VLF presses change the nature and the scale of operations at every plant that installs them.

Something else that has moderated the pace of their adoption is the fact that technologically advanced VLF presses have been on the market for only a relatively short time. Progress in the largest VLF equipment had ceased decades before KBA, manroland, Heidelberg, and Mitsubishi began to reintroduce the VLF format after the turn of the millennium, leaving behind a base of antiquated 60"- and 70"-plus machines that today’s VLFs have gradually replaced.

Launched globally and first installed in the U.S. in 2004, the straight-printing, 9,000-sph Rapida 205 is targeted by KBA at commercial printers and producers of POP, signage, and packaging. About 15 have been installed nationwide, most of them configured in six colors with coater. They have the same digital controls and automation features as other presses in the Rapida line, which includes three more VLF platforms: the 51.1" x 72.8" Rapida 185, the 44.0" x 63.7" Rapida 162, and the 47.2 x 63.7" Rapida 162a.

Accessories Not Included

Bringing in a press the size of a Rapida 205 usually means ramping up production capability across the board—a fact well appreciated by the five printers examined for this report.

Randy Vautravers, president of Rand Graphics, says that the company has installed a VLF platesetter from Fuji in preparation for the arrival of its Rapida 205. Also ready and waiting is a 148" cutter that supports the large-format division where the Rapida 205 will be housed. There, it will join a complement of 10 screen printing presses, some of which can print up to 288" in one continuous piece. The company also has digital large-format capability in a pair of VUTEk 80" six-color UV printers that can feed materials up to 1.5" thick from cut sheets or rolls.

Meyers expects to begin installing its Rapida 205 this month for full operation by the end of May, says Mark Dillon, vice president. The press is part of what he calls a “perfect storm” of recent capital investment by the company, which has spent $10 million to acquire, besides the Rapida 205, a VLF platesetter, a new diecutter, and an eight-color, 98"-wide Durst RHO 900 UV inkjet printer.

Getting ready for a VLF press is about more than just scaling up platemaking or buying an oversized cutter: “You must look at all of your material handling, from floor jacks to forklifts.”

Having run a 79" Harris sheetfed press for many years, Edison Litho was used to VLF production when it installed its Rapida 205s in 2007 and 2008. Joe Ostreicher, COO, says that an appropriately sized Kodak Magnus CtP system was added to support the 81" equipment from KBA. Also in the pressroom is a third large-format press from KBA, a Rapida 162.

Besides acquiring a bigger cutter and platesetter for the Rapida 205s it installed in 2007 and 2009, The Garvey Group also invested in larger material handling devices. “We already owned a 64" press, so we had the space, viewing areas and workflow for large format,” says Ed Garvey, president.

George Wolden is vice president of manufacturing at Lithographix, which became an early adopter of the 81" Rapida in 2005. He notes that VLF computer-to-plate systems “came around at the right time” as VLF presses from KBA and other vendors began entering the market. But, he emphasizes that getting ready for a VLF press is about more than just scaling up in the platemaking department or buying an oversized cutter.

“You must look at all of your material handling, from floor jacks to forklifts,” Wolden says, pointing to the need to plan ahead. Proofing can be another growing pain, since standard contract proofing systems aren’t built for the largest formats that the Rapida 205 can print. Wolden says that Lithographix solves the problem by producing its bluelines and contract proofs on wide-format inkjet equipment, which can output to whatever color profile has been embedded in the job.

No One Was “Pressed” for Space

Opening doors to the industry’s biggest VLF press would challenge any printing company in the art of space management, but these firms have found ways to accommodate their Rapida 205s with a minimum of disruption. According to Ostreicher, installing the presses actually helped Edison Litho to save space because adding them was part of a general streamlining of the plant and its operations. The Garvey Group, likewise, already had the floor space it needed. What it found necessary to add, says Garvey, was more electric power to support UV applications on the UV-equipped press.

At Rand Graphics, some pieces of equipment have been moved to make room for the incoming Rapida 205, and Vautravers says it will be “a bit cramped for now” in the areas where those machines have been relocated. But, a major plant expansion four years ago provided more than enough space to accommodate a VLF litho press, and Vautravers expects the floor plan to return to normal once the Rapida 205 is in place.

Opening doors to the industry’s biggest VLF press would challenge any printing company, but these firms have found ways to accommodate their Rapida 205s with a minimum of disruption.

Meyers has reinforced the floor of the press bay where its Rapida 205 will be installed. Overhead, says Dillon, is a moveable track that will be used to lift and remove the Rapida 205’s massive cylinders when they need maintenance. There’s enough room in the 180,000-sq.-ft plant to house the Rapida 205 without building new space or displacing other equipment.

But, says Dillon, “we are getting kind of crowded now” in some areas because of the installation of the Durst RHO 900 and other newly acquired capital equipment. Land adjacent to the plant has been set aside for future expansion when that becomes necessary, he says.

Lithographix’s offset press department features three 38" web presses, and operating this kind of equipment, says Wolden, means being well versed in dealing with very large presses and their correspondingly large needs for electrical power and floor space. He notes that when the company moved to the 260,000-sq.-ft. plant it now occupies in October 2004, reserving space for a Rapida 205 was part of the advance planning.

"The Ultimate Replacement Press"

With its vast sheet size, fast running speed, and end-to-end digital control, the Rapida 205 can be the ultimate replacement press: a high-output platform built to make existing equipment redundant. This certainly has been the case at Edison Litho, where installing the KBA VLFs let the company retire a 79" Harris sheetfed press and much other outmoded Harris equipment—a total of 11 presses in all.

The gain in productivity, says Ostreicher, has been dramatic, with the two Rapida 205s turning out twice as much work as all of the presses they replaced. He says that the company’s three KBA presses run to GRACoL G7 colorimetric standards, a target kept in the crosshairs with the help of built-in Densitronic Professional color measurement and Logotronic job management technology from KBA.

With the impending arrival of the Rapida 205 at Rand Graphics, gone from its pressroom is a VLF workhorse: a 60-year-old Harris 56" x 78" five-color UV. But the Rapida 205s at Meyers, The Garvey Group, and Lithographix, on the other hand, are additions to the equipment profile and represent new capacity.

With its vast sheet size, fast running speed, and end-to-end digital control, the Rapida 205 can be the ultimate replacement press.

Wolden explains that Lithographix installed its Rapida 205 as a step up in capability that would enable the company to stop jobbing out its oversized work. Today, Lithographix can direct its jumbo jobs either to the Rapida 205 or to any of nine grand-format digital devices, including a quartet of 5-m. wide inkjet printers.

Because all of the company’s conventional and digital equipment might come into play in some campaigns, says Wolden, it’s crucial to profile the work accurately across all platforms. (“It can put a lot of strain on prepress,” he says.) Lithographix, a G7 Master Printer, uses the GRACoL G7 specification to calibrate its imaging devices for consistent output.

Smaller Formats, Shorter Runs

Something that may come as a surprise to printers without VLF capability is that in the plants where they are installed, the big presses don’t always process the biggest sheets they can handle. It also might seem counterintuitive to think of a 59.5" x 81" press as a solution for short runs, but that’s a role in which the Rapida 205 has been successfully cast at three of the five plants profiled here.

Ostreicher says that Edison Litho’s Rapida 205s run from their smallest format to the largest size they can print—whatever producing the job efficiently requires. Likewise, says Garvey, “we regularly print smaller formats” on The Garvey Group’s VLFs.

At Rand Graphics, Vautravers says he intends to print jobs of all suitable sizes on the Rapida 205. When that press isn’t the most economical solution for a given job, he can shift it to a screen printer, put it one of the VUTEks, or produce it on one of the plant’s smaller litho presses. He notes that “everything’s relative” when it comes to selecting the most cost-efficient platform, with run length the factor that usually dictates the choice.

In contrast, the Rapida 205 at Lithographix is almost always utilized as a VLF press. Wolden says that about half of what runs on it uses 81" sheets; most of the remainder is 64" or wider. In the beginning, the Rapida 205 at Meyers may be used to print at less than its maximum sheet size, but Dillon says that eventually, the press will run 59" x 81" sheets exclusively as the workhorse of the company’s retail marketing solutions division.

This business unit will rely on the press to produce signage, bins, dumps, POS, and other brand-promoting materials for in-store display. Equipping the Rapida 205 for UV printing extends its versatility for applications like these, Dillon says.

In Part II: 81" makereadies; scalable print quality; ROI; and the overlap of VLF offset and large-format inkjet.