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://