There is no doubt that print runs are getting shorter. It has been claimed by reports in the USA that 78% of all color printing is already less than 5,000 copies. Continuing pressure is being placed on printers to print shorter runs and have faster turnaround. Again from the USA is the expectation that by 2005, 33% of all work will be delivered in less than 24 hours. Within this is the push towards digital printing with its capabilities of print on demand and one to one personalization. However, while digital printing may be ideal for meeting some of this increasing demand for shorter runs in printing, a greater proportion of it is still most likely to come from offset printing. With drupa now being just days away, what will be the likely impact of this, and what should printers be considering to cater for these demands?

In my opinion, the key area for meeting this demand is the small press area. By small I mean the B3, or two page press market. This is where increasing competition among press vendors is being seen, and also where considerable press innovation is being shown. In the past this small press area was considered by many to be one where relatively unsophisticated presses were found, and these were targeted at small printing companies with limited budgets to spend on presses. For many years this was predominantly a single color press area, which was often referred to as small offset.

Many printers considered presses in this area as little better than duplicators. Few of these presses were configured for much more than spot color printing. Major press automation developments were not seen in this area, and automation was mainly at the 8-page level, later also being seen in the 4-page presses. Heidelberg with its innovative GTO, was probably the first major press supplier to show that the multi-unit principal could be applied in the 2-page format presses. Other companies, predominantly from the Far East followed, and probably went further than the GTO. This pushed Heidelberg to bring its Speedmaster range down into this market with the Speedmaster 52. It is only at this forthcoming drupa, however, that Heidelberg will stretch the Speedmaster 52 into its long perfector format with an 8-unit version. It is interesting to note that at this stage there is no 10 or 12 unit version as is the case with the larger format Speedmasters.

Heidelberg has set a target for other suppliers with this new Speedmaster 52, but I have to wonder if this is the correct strategy for the short-run printing market. There are many other significant innovations in this market that make we wonder if an 8-unit press is the best option. This is an area where D.I. printing has a real impact because of its ease of use and fast make-ready from digital data is significant. With updated systems coming at drupa from Ryobi/Presstek (KBA and KPG), for higher-speeds and higher quality, and also a brand new Truepress 344 from Dainippon Screen, the 2-page format D.I. market is likely to be an area of great interest.

KBA is also showing its innovative Genius 52 press. This unique press with its very small footprint is like DI presses, a waterless press. It also has significant automation in plate handling, plus keyless inking, and the ability to have five printing units to allow for printing a spot color or a varnish. Waterless printing appears to be a very viable approach for short run working where the absence of water allows for more flexibility and options in four-color printing.

This 2-page market for color printing is also seen as the area of growth for small printers moving into color printing. This is seen by such companies as a profitable growth area, and is also seen by D.I. suppliers as one of their most promising markets. Moving to D.I. printing is seen as an easy transition for small printers moving into color printing, as the process is easy and automatic. This will increase the competitiveness of the short run four-color offset market.

The key factor to being successful with short run printing is the time in which a job can be put on the press and printed, which is very short. The benefits of using a large format press really don't apply. Small presses, which are naturally substantially lower in cost, appear to be the key in this area. With rapid ink drying, as is the case with waterless printing, it is probably almost as quick to put a job twice through a four unit or D.I. press, as through a far more expensive 8-unit long perfector. This is not to say that there is no market for such a long perfector, but its market is probably not in short run printing.

Digital printing is certainly an option for some areas of short run printing. The length of run where such a process is cost effective is difficult to define. I have recently been speaking to printers that use both digital and D.I. printing in the same operation. In their situations they consider the cross over point at somewhere between 500 and 1,000 copies, depending upon the requirements of the job. In some cases where automatic finishing functions of a digital press can be utilised, and a very rapid turnaround is required, then the digital press is competitive well above 1,000 copies.

Where offset is seen as the best process the key factors are how quickly can the job be on and off the press, including the time taken to print both sides of the sheet. In this it appears that waterless printing with CtP generated plates, or D.I. working with an automated and cost effective press, may have the edge over conventional offset and a long perfector approach. Whichever process one takes however, it appears that the increasing demand for shorter run working will be a major growth opportunity for 2-page format presses. This should definitely be one of the hot areas at drupa.