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Web printing shifts – did anyone notice? Andy McCourt’s commentary

Wednesday, 19 March 2008
By Print21

Two imminent technologies and one not too far away may change continuous web printing forever. Vague terms such as Tipping Point, Fragmentation, Cultural Shift and Event Horizon take on new serious meaning for both coldest and heatset web offset printers. Regular Print 21 columnist, Andy McCourt, offers his thoughts on what it all means.

In printing’s illustrious 600-year history, humanity has experienced 100 years of the offset process. Of one thing I am certain; it will not experience another 100. Offset will be fortunate to last another 40-50 years.

The glamour side of offset – continuous web – is most under threat and we need look no further than two announcements this year to identify web offset’s harbinger of doom.

Océ, followed by Hewlett Packard, announced high-speed inkjet continuous web presses operating at 600 x 600dpi and speeds of up to 150 meters per minute. Oce’s Jetstream has a 520mm web width for over 2,000 full-colour A4 impressions a minute while HP has elected for a wider 762mm web traveling at a slightly slower speed but delivering about the same number of impressions per minute. Kodak is also in the frame with its slightly slower Stream technology.

While both of these web machines are initially aimed at the trans-promo market; it requires not too great a leap of faith to see that, with Muller Martini, Ferag, Scheffer, Hunkeler or other advanced web publishing machinery tagged onto the back-end, what you have is a mini publication web press that required no plates, can vary jobs on-the-fly and personalize each page if required.

Before web offset zealots (and I’m one) go for their guns; yes, there is currently a huge gap between a 2,000 page a minute 600dpi machine and, say a MAN Roland goliath capable of 3 million A4 pages a minute at the equivalent of 2400dpi or higher. The duality of offset and digital will be with us for many years to come but in the end digital will win. MAN Roland has had a foot in digital web for some years with its Dicoweb.

Remember, the owners of the Pony Express messaging system back in the old West were faced with a new technology challenge called the Telegraph and their answer was: ‘faster horses.’ Faster offset presses anyone?

Fragmentation has begun

The main reason why digital will win is more to do with market fragmentation than stunning new technology. Boom markets, like red dwarf stars, tend to consolidate on a grand scale and then fragment. We can already see this happening with short-run, on-demand jobs up for grabs by a multitude of printers, whereas only the bigger shops could handle the work when the prepress was tricky and the runs longer.

News Ltd has just opened its Herfordshire, UK center housing 12 Man Roland ColorMan XXL presses capable of outputting over one million newspapers per hour. On this, Simon Biltcliffe, a web offset veteran and proprietor of online print management firm Webmart, commented: "… undoubtedly the last ever investment of this size in Europe as the market fragments."

The fragmentation of the web offset market will be driven by the availability of smaller, faster and more versatile digital inkjet presses. If I were any newspaper or PMP, IPMG, Bluestar, AIW, Cadlillac, Rotary Offset or Quality Group; I would be forming a task group right now to plan for the gradual shift.

High-speed continuous digital inkjet’s resolution probably needs only one more ‘version’ – 1200 x 600dpi – to be good enough. Printing on newsprint and recycled, uncoated stocks favours inkjet anyway and there will be more publications going this way due to environmental pressure.

No time to lay low, Lilo is coming
As if this is not enough to send shivers down a web offset printer’s spine, consider LILO – Light Initiated Liquid Offset.

LILO – pioneered by a Cambridge University, UK start-up called Inkski – uses a photonic trigger (light to you and me), to initiate an ink droplet ‘event horizon.’ No ink chamber, no nozzles to block. In their own words:

"Inkski’s key insight is that detachable ink drops can be formed in a regular array on the surface of a rapidly spinning cylinder. This creates an ‘event-horizon’ of new drops arriving at a rate of hundreds of thousands of drops per second for each channel (nozzle equivalent). When drops arrive at the substrate they can then be selectively ejected, allowing digital printheads to be made that can output more than a billion drops per second."

The sheer speed of LILO promises presses that can outstrip the throughput of even the fastest web offset press. Bryan Palphreyman, director of business development with Inski and a former Xaar man explains: "At 10m – 20m per second, that takes digital technology to more of the speed of today’s fastest presses – the world’s fastest newspaper presses run at 16m per second – suddenly you can digitise that."

All of this and more will be on show at drupa in May. This drupa may not represent the tipping point for high volume commercial inkjet; but by drupa 2012, I can see shift happening.

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