Big Iron: offset press update

With the focus on digital printing, it seems as if nothing is happening with traditional sheetfed offset presses. Clearly digital printing technology is making great advancements in format, quality, speed and cost. The ability to do variable imaging is clearly digital’s unique value proposition. Beyond that, digital has almost completely replaced investment in 2-page presses; the half-size market, moribund for years, is even more challenged with by the success of B2 digital presses. Yet offset remains the dominant printing technology. According to research by Smithers (The Future of Digital versus Offset Printing to 2024), offset makes up more than two-thirds of all global print volume (including packaging), with digital not expected to reach even 10% until at least 2024. Despite the advantages of digital in a market with ever-decreasing run lengths and shortened turnaround cycles, offset has managed to continue to compete. In the immortal words of Monty Python, “I’m not dead yet.”
It’s not just print volumes that have held up, but printers continue to buy new presses. “All sectors of the Canadian market are quite healthy,” says Aleks Lajtman, Regional Sales Manager for Koenig & Bauer. While packaging shows the most strength and continues to grow, offset is still competitive in the commercial segment. Sean Springett, Chief Executive Officer at manroland Sheetfed USA & Canada, notes that despite the challenges, there hasn’t been “as big a reduction in market demand as what might have been thought three to five years ago. There has been some transition and attrition of work to digital, but not as much as a lot of experts had thought there would be.” Ray Fagan, sales specialist at Heidelberg Canada agrees. “Our order intake last two years and [current] backlog is better than it’s been since the early 2000s.”
While the purchase of a new press is still often driven by the need to expand capacity or to obtain a capability to meet a specific customer need or market requirement, increasingly the newly acquired press replaces multiple older presses as printers consolidate equipment and press crews. Almost all presses sold today are 40” or larger. The format and productivity of sheetfed offset is hard to match. Packaging still can have million-sheet runs. While run lengths have decreased in commercial, it’s still difficult for digital to compete at even modest volumes. And anything that requires or benefits from a larger format than B2 requires a traditional press.
Perhaps the main driver of the continued need for offset presses is the ongoing improvements in technology, to the point where offset can be competitive with digital at 500 to 1,000 sheets. One way presses have done this is through reducing the cost of production, particularly consumables. New presses optimize ink, have minimal paper waste, and require less solvent, for example. But perhaps the press development with the greatest impact has been increases in automation and efficiency that keeps reducing the run length threshold. Presses are increasingly controlled by computers and software rather than the operator. “It’s the natural evolution of technology,” says Doug Schardt, Komori’s Director of Product Management. The faster we get on presses, the more we have to take out human element. It’s not just because the press is going fast, but because it’s hard to find good people. It’s not just beneficial, but also necessary.”
Increasing press productivity and efficiency means greater capacity. As a result, printers are consolidating their work to fewer presses. “You can cut costs just by doing that,” says Schardt. Because automation makes the new presses so efficient, offset can be priced advantageously compared to digital. For a shop with older presses or issues with floor space, volume, or labour, digital’s cost might make sense. “But in head-to-head competition, it’s really hard to make the numbers work for digital.”


Heidelberg remains the largest press vendor with the most comprehensive sheetfed offset press portfolio. The venerable Speedmaster line meets the needs of most printers with sizes from 52 cm to 162 cm and features ranging from basic SX and CX presses through Peak Performance. Heidelberg has long focused on improving the productivity of their presses. And while most of the focus has been on the larger presses such as the Speedmaster 106XL and Speedmaster 162XL, they have not neglected smaller formats. The Speedmaster XL 75, XL 75 Anicolor and CX 75 have been redesigned to offer even greater use of comfort and efficiency in handling. The Speedmaster XL 106 was the inspiration for the improvements brought to the new machines. These include a new gallery concept as well as the feeder and delivery gantries.

Heidelberg Speedmaster 106XL
Heidelberg Speedmaster 106XL

While most of the major press vendors have enthusiastically embraced automation, Heidelberg’s “Push to Stop” concept has perhaps the greatest visibility. By increasing automation features such as auto plate loading, inline colour management, automated measurement and register, and the new Quality Assist software, jobs can be autonomously produced with virtually no operator touch points. Heidelberg realized that offset printing is experiencing a similar transformation to that of digital print. It has the same workflow; the only difference is the output of the plate. All the press information is part of the digital workflow. The press can do multiple makeready procedures inline, which is a digital workflow. Even the plates are hung completely automated with an operator. That’s the “push to stop.” Thanks to the technology on the press, the makeready times are cut in half, with the first measurable result in less than a minute and under 60 sheets.
To help drive demand for Heidelberg’s offering, Heidelberg has developed an innovative subscription program. The program has been well received and now represents 10% of their global order backlog. With this program, Heidelberg supplies the press, consumables, service, advanced training and consulting, focusing on maximum productivity over the five-year life of the subscription. Heidelberg still owns the press, and so it is a way for the customer to increase capacity and improve productivity without making a substantial capital investment. The business model is analogous to leasing a digital press, as the customer pays a cost per sheet, which drops with increasing volume. The program is designed for higher volume printers. “It’s not a program for someone who can’t afford a press and needs to finance it,” says Heidelberg’s Fagan. There are currently two customers in Canada, the Burke Group in Edmonton and Thistle Printing. Both machines are scheduled for 25 million to 35 million impressions per year.
Burke was attracted by the potential increases in efficiency and productivity the technology provides. “The subscription model fits into our strategy for the future, with which we want to increase our overall equipment effectiveness…and achieve our ambitious growth targets,” commented owner Ian Burke. “The contract includes consulting services that increase the effectiveness so that we are competitive in a fiercely contested market.” The subscription contract includes a new 8-color XL 106 with perfecting, a Stahlfolder TH 82 folding machine, and a Polar N 137 cutting machine. This contract is the first time that the innovative LE UV drying technology has been used on the printing press. The benefits range from the increased productivity to the energy efficiency compared with conventional UV printing, the economy, the variety of applications, and the impressive colour effect. “This is precisely what we need to provide our demanding customers with the best products within the shortest time,” explains Burke. Using LE UV means that the sheets are dry when they reach the delivery, and can go straight into post-press. There likely will be additional announcements at drupa, all revolving around further enhancing the productivity and the ability of the presses to carry out more digital processes, more automatically.


Koenig & Bauer (formerly KBA) is the oldest offset press manufacturer. While is perhaps best known for its strength in packaging, they have a strong presence in the commercial markets as well. Koenig & Bauer is a very diverse company, manufacturing a variety of presses. Within sheetfed, the Rapida line ranges from the half-size 75/76 cm through the workhorse 105/106 the very and super large format 145, 164, 185 and 205 cm presses.

Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106
Koenig & Bauer Rapida 106

Automation and productivity are the driving forces behind Koenig & Bauer presses. They offer a variety of standard equipment, including their auto run system that allows for complete autonomous printing. They have the only sheetfed press than can wash up a press unit while simultaneously printing 20,000 sheets per hour. The DriveTronic SIS feeding system guarantees perfect registration, something required for high-speed printing and unique at that speed. The Rapida presses also offer simultaneous plate changing, which can change all plates in 37 seconds. Inline colour control scans every sheet for precise colour management.
“We evaluated a wide array of press manufacturers but in the end it was an easy decision to choose Koenig & Bauer,” says Stewart Emerson, President and CEO of SupremeX Inc., located in Montreal and Laval. “Koenig & Bauer is an established leader and is celebrating its third century in business. We are confident that the addition of the Rapida to our current installed base of Koenig & Bauer presses will further enhance our capabilities, quality, competitiveness, and add much needed capacity. Simply put, we believe that this press is exactly what we needed and is the best of the best,” Emerson added.
With a strong presence in a variety of markets and applications, from commercial to labels and packaging, Koenig & Bauer also offers a variety of options that allows the presses to be configured to meet specific customer needs, and customers are certainly taking advantage of that flexibility. Aleks Lajtman, Regional Sales Manager at Koenig & Bauer Canada, says: “We are definitely noticing special configurations. No one’s buying a 5-colour or 6-colour coater. We’re installing double coaters, printing inline between coaters, cold foil, LED, UV, coat before print. This seems to be the focus; printers differentiate themselves in their offering. Every quote is a special configuration. Koenig & Bauer is traditionally a custom press manufacturer. So we have great success and expertise in that.”
The same can be said of its finishing capabilities, with inline rotary die cutting, embossing, cold foil, gloss or matte effects, multiple coating applications and varnish. Koenig & Bauer also has a number of different service offerings, including 24/7 remote service. They are also starting to offer proactive service, monitoring more than 25 touch points on the press to initiate service in order to eliminate downtimes. Sarah Skinner, President of Ingersoll Paper Box notes that “Support from both Toronto and Dallas has been excellent. The sales and service team are knowledgeable and responsive. It has truly helped to support our continuing growth.” At drupa, Koenig & Bauer will highlight the re-branding of the company. We also anticipate the introduction of a number of important new presses.


Japanese manufacturer Komori, sold through Komcan Incorporated (Georgetown, Ontario) concentrates primarily on 40” presses but also offers 37” and 29.” Their Lithrone line prints at 15,000 to 18,000 sheets per hour and has all the automation features one might expect, including automatic plate change, non-stop delivery, and full-sheet inspection and colour and register control. Today’s presses can be on “auto pilot” for a series of jobs.

Komori Lithrone G40
Komori Lithrone G40

Toronto’s Lowe-Martin has been running a Komori GL640C since they first came available. Jim Theakston, Manager of Print/Digital Operations, says “The levels of automation and reliability are what led to us buying our second GL640C. Couple that with the service and responsiveness of Komcan Inc. and Komori and to this day we are still very pleased with our decision and know we made the right choice—in fact, we just purchased a new Komori Impremia IS29 as well.” Graf-Pak, a packaging printer out of the Montreal area also recently purchased a new Komori GL640C. “Our new Komori has actually surpassed our expectations. What a joy to work with! It has increased productivity to a point that we can now fully justify the investment we recently made in more production equipment downstream in order to keep up with the increased demand.
“Business is good!” enthuses Graf-Pak’s President, Gerry Djerrahian. “Even those jobs or plants that might want to look at a sheet to make sure it’s right or that require a customer OK can still benefit from automation,” says Doug Schardt, Director of Product Management at Komori America. “We use technology to get those first sheets as good as they can be.” For example, Komori’s camera inspection uses an “AI”(Advanced Integration) to handle all the choices an operator might do to makeready, such as setting ink keys or adjusting press speed. They are all automated, not just in preset but in the intelligent application of settings in response to shop conditions, stock, speed, coverage, etc. “It’s automatic and very accurate. We’re stable with ink and water balance in 20 sheets, and even to target density in that time as well. If we’re not, the software corrects for that, will tell the program where it missed and why, and make the appropriate adjustment,” notes Schardt. “It’s intelligent enough for different stocks. So makereadies can be really tight…that’s the level we’re looking at on our presses. A lot of tiny things that add up…we can get to a level of output that couldn’t [previously] be considered. We’re trying to get the knowledge out of the operators’ head and into the press. Consistency has gone through the roof. That’s the path Komori is on.”


Manroland Sheetfed is a leading German producer of sheetfed offset litho printing presses. Founded in 1871, the company is currently a wholly-owned subsidiary of the privately owned UK engineering group, Langley Holdings. The product line ranges from small-format all the way to as wide as the 1850 mm (64 page) Roland 900 XXL. Manroland’s mandate is to squeeze as much automation and throughput as possible with “one pass productivity” and its trademark “highest efficiency, highest quality” approach. “We were first to come up with Direct Drive technology; simultaneous makeready; and the first to inline color control,” says manroland Sheetfed U.S. & Canada CEO Sean Springett.

Manroland R708 Evolution
Manroland R708 Evolution

That trend continues with the Evolution series presses. In recent years, manroland Sheetfed has added new features to improve performance, drive productivity and help reduce operating costs. These include simultaneous plate loading, precision sheet guiding technology, printing speeds up to 18,200 sph, an upgraded Inline Inspector and InlineColorPilot that enhances quality control with a fully automatic system to ensure consistent colour, a sheet-numbering system that speeds up error detection, low energy UV drying technology that reduces energy costs, and an Indexed Inline Foiler that creates less waste, among other advancements. Springett indicates there will be more introduced at drupa in both printing process features and an entirely new press model introduction in large format.
Altona, MB-based Friesens recently installed an 8-colour Evolution R700 Perfecting Press. The press is equipped with SAPL, autonomous and simultaneous makeready feature; Friesens can now exchange plates in under one minute while simultaneously washing up the press. Byron Loeppky, Vice President and GM of Friesens, says, “What impressed us most was the [InlineColorPilot system’s] ability to calibrate the system, including print register, without needing to draw a sheet from the delivery. This saves us time and keeps press stability intact reducing the overall makeready waste and time.” Steve Voth, Pressroom Manager notes, “The addition of the optional LED UV upgrade allows for quicker job-turnaround, running more unique papers that dry slowly, and obtaining some of the requested effects you can achieve when running LED UV.”
In addition to improvements in the press, manroland has made a concerted effort to increase its partnership with their clients and become a larger part of their production efficiency, says CEO Springett. “We’ve taken Autoprint even further and coupled with our exclusive TopAnalysis system, we can monitor production daily and report the findings over a 30 day period to discuss press performance and OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness). The only way to do this is to partner with customers and ensure they receive the support they need.”
In addition to the increased flexibility and autonomy it provides in manroland Sheetfed products, Frank Giorgio of AIIM Printing in Aurora, ON also points to the ongoing support from manroland Canada. “The support from them has been excellent. It’s also much easier working with the same supplier and equipment. Whether the issues are hardware or software, problems are usually diagnosed immediately and fixed remotely. And if we do need on-site support, we can count on manroland reps to arrive within 24 hours.


The OEM’s RMGT 9 Series Press is still leading the way. RMGT was the first press manufacturer in the world to put LED-UV curing systems into commercial production for offset presses. A cleaner and environmentally friendly LED-UV system increases print quality since it instantly cures ink on the paper even at high speeds, producing sharper images with exceptional vibrancy. It also provides faster turnarounds due to the instant drying of the ink – there’s no wait time between running a second pass or moving a job to the bindery. Also, RMGT’s InstaColor technology covers all facets of the makeready process. Fast, precise plate changing with a choice of simultaneous, sequential and semi-automatic systems is available. In addition to LED-UV instant curing, 2-colour to 10-colour configurations are possible, as are convertible perfecting and automation packages.

RMGT 9 Series Press
RMGT 9 Series Press

The 9 Series features maximum print speeds of 16,200 sph, varnish coating, offset quality with short-run quantities, and a maximum sheet size of 24” x 36.” RMGT has found a niche with a press this size. For years, said the OEM, printers seeking growth beyond the half-size format press are investing in the 40-inch market. “Many budget-conscious printers today are choose more profitable press formats, such as the 8-up RMGT 9 Series Press. As a result, RMGT has installed more than 50 LED-UV presses in North America.”
The OEM cited several advantages of the RMGT 9 Series over other similar presses in the industry. These included a 33% lower investment, 34% savings on plate costs, a 35% smaller footprint, 70% less energy consumption, no spray powder needed and instant drying. “Offset printing is still the dominant print production method for commercial, packaging and advertising print,” Ryobi added. “RMGT’s rapid technological advancements have had the largest positive impact on the industry. In the past decade, LED-UV instant curing has made the most dramatic technological, financial and environmental impact on the offset print world – and RMGT has led that movement.”
In summary, my advice if you’re looking to make an offset equipment purchase, would be to be absolutely certain of the equipment’s ability to upgrade – including software, productivity, colours and stations, inline processing and automation.

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