Developments in commercial web offset printing in recent years started with 32-page presslines, moving through 64 and 80 pages, right up to a 96-page printing system. Through ongoing product evolution resulting in ever higher productivity with the same printing quality, commercial web offset printing grew its market share. Why are high volume web presses and especially the new 96-page generation a logical consequence of this development?
A look at the print and advertising market
Printed advertising is growing again, supported by the positive influences of cross media. Things looked different in 2009 when the financial and economic crisis caused the print volume in Europe to decline by around 15 percent, and investments in commercial web offset presses to fall to approximately one third of the average annual value before the crisis. On top of the downturn in the economy, there were additional structural influences caused by advertising spending shifting away from print and towards online media. Nevertheless, in the course of the economic recovery in Europe, advertising spending for print media has grown since the first quarter of 2010, in some cases even by double digit percentages. Also in 2010, paper consumption in Europe for the heatset web offset segment rose by almost seven percent compared with the previous year. A summary of the development trends of the printing segments mainly produced with high volume systems shows the following scenario:
- Household advertising in the form of leaflets and flyers that land in the consumer's letterbox separately or inside other media are still indispensable for trade and industry to stimulate the buying impulse. The central success factors of this advertising form are clever regional distribution, creative product design, and its communication capability.
- In the field of catalogs for trade and industry, the so-called Big Books are giving way to shorter run catalogs that appear more frequently. Especially the printed version of entertaining magalogs, a cross between a magazine and a catalog, remains the anchor for cross media marketing campaigns.
- With magazines and periodicals, the title variety trend continues, above all with medium and short runs. Here publishers increasingly rely on the success model of combining lifestyle topics. The dynamic growth of the Corporate Publishing segment continues unabated. Even in the age of digital natives, printed customer magazines to strengthen customer loyalty and generate demand in a cross media communications mix is still a success model.
- In general, it can be seen that, due to the tendency towards shorter runs and faster turnaround times, publication gravure is losing market share to the competing process of commercial web offset.
The challenges are price and capacity
Meanwhile one can speak of a new era in the production efficiency of commercial web offset. The production volume is increasingly overlapping with that of gravure. Despite tapping new customer groups, a recovery in advertising spending, and positive development outlooks for innovative forms of printed advertising, commercial web offset printers are facing a number of major challenges. Although even before the crisis year 2009 there was a certain consolidation of capacity in both gravure and web offset in Europe, often through shutting down old written-off presses with comparatively low productivity, the massive pressure on selling prices for printed products and in turn on the profitability situation of the industry continues. Therefore reducing costs is the central requirement of all companies involved in the value-adding chain. This also gradually leads to a market shakeout, i.e. further shutting down of uneconomical production capacity. In the future this development will intensify because, over the medium or long term, total print volume will tend to stagnate, at least in Europe.
The market calls for innovations
Precisely on account of these continuingly difficult market conditions, commercial web offset needs innovations that bring more cost reduction potential than merely a few percentage points. Groundbreaking concepts are called for that lift production efficiency to a sustainable new level. One such technological development is a concept demanded by the market – the 96-page LITHOMAN S. The development of a 96-page heatset rotary press with a web width of 2,860 millimeters is thus a logical technology advancement that follows the trend for increasing productivity in web offset through wider webs that has meanwhile been taking place for around 15 years. Altogether more than 350 long-grain and short-grain LITHOMAN presses are in production worldwide, and around 50 of these have a web width of over two meters. The market success of these so-called UWWO (Ultra Wide Web Offset) printing systems started in 2005 with installations of the first 2,060 millimeters wide 80-page presses in Germany, Italy and Spain. These UWWO presses with web widths of 2,060 millimeters up to 2,860 millimeters produce a gross output of between 3.6 and 4.3 million pages per hour. Through this development in productivity, web offset is increasingly entering the domain of publication gravure.
CtP prepress technology for web offset has considerable advantages regarding costs and throughput time compared with printing cylinder engraving and cylinder handling for the gravure process. Here the costs per square meter of an imaged print form for offset are only around 15 to 25 percent of the costs that gravure incurs. The makeready time savings from approval of the print data up to the start of the production run are in a similar ratio. Web offset printers utilize these advantages for inexpensive and fast production of split runs such as imprinting dealer addresses or regionally differentiated price information in leaflets and flyers. Another influence on the technological development of web offset compared with publication gravure that should not be underestimated is the intense competition between suppliers of press, prepress, and platemaking equipment. In past years the manufacturers' high level of R&D funding aimed at gaining competitive advantages in the offset segment has, besides the increases in productivity and quality already mentioned, reduced the manufacturing costs of printed products.
The economic efficiency of 96-page printing systems
The jump to 96 pages and a 2,860 millimeters web width is a logical progression based on LITHOMAN technology that has proven itself in more than 350 installations. Against the backdrop of the market situation described above, the marketability of a 96-page long-grain (4 x 12) press concept was intensively discussed shortly before development started. Here the aspect of high level of economic efficiency through full-width web operation was of central significance. The divisibility of a 96-page sheet through 8, 16, 24, 32 and 48 pages together with one or two combination folders or former folders results in very high production flexibility. The complete working width of the press can be used for a wide variety of jobs, which ensures a high level of economic efficiency.
Based on the experience gained from some 50 LITHOMAN installations with web widths of 2,060 millimeters and 2,250 millimeters, manroland commenced the further development to a 96-page press about the time of drupa 2008. As the development work started, it was evident that this new dimension in commercial web offset would require more than ever a comprehensive system approach because established limits in many areas were exceeded. This applied to the availability of paper grades used in heatset web offset as well as adequately dimensioned printing plates and platesetters, and also handling of paper reels weighing up to seven tonnes, or plates with a surface area of more than three square meters. In 2008, eleven leading suppliers from the PrintCity Alliance got together to clarify these questions and many more. The findings from this project work were published at the time of IPEX 2010 in a special report entitled Ultra Wide Web Offset.
Design modifications for the new LITHOMAN S printing unit compared with the proven 80-page press (2,250 millimeters web width) covered among other things redimensioning of the rollers and the use of new materials such as compound materials to reduce mass and ensure the necessary rigidity. In addition, the wider web width makes it necessary to use gapless blanket cylinders (sleeve technology). The recipe for success of the high volume presses was maximum output through web width and printing speed along with a very high level of automation. This combination permits economical production of both long and short runs with high or low pagination. Therefore, the 96-page LITHOMAN has the same high level of automation as the other manroland high volume presses, including the PPL/APL automated plate changing system for the shortest changeover times. A new, fully-integrated regulation system is used to control the inherent fanout effect of the 2,860 millimeters web width. The press circumferential format of 1,228 millimeters provides optimal DIN A4 production in combination with pin-type folders.
A pioneering spirit safeguards the future
With the structures of the advertising and media landscape changing, the print market has to reposition itself. Printing companies must respond to the stronger market segmentation with improved business and production processes. This development necessitates a pioneering spirit, which the high volume printing system complies with, and enables publishers to reach their goals: they want to be profitable and this entails retaining advertising customers and readers and generating additional business. An important factor here is low production costs in the inserts, magazines and catalogs segments, which extremely productive high volume commercial web systems ensure. In recent years, these cost reductions have enabled printed products to defend their position as an attractive and efficient communication medium for advertisers, publishers, and industry in general.