Offset upsets digital
Offset upsets digital
In recent years, the rise of digital presses has come to the detriment of sales in offset, which had been the traditionally dominant method. As digital continues to grow, is there room in the print market for both methods or will something have to give? Dave Howell speaks to industry experts to gauge the current health of offset.
Throughout the converting industry, offset has consistently proved its value. Even with a sustained attack from digital presses, offset remains the workhorse for converters who understand the technology and the cost centres it represents.
The integration of offset and digital processes is a clear trend across the converting industry, as print service suppliers seek to offer the diverse output their clients demand with presses that are multifunctional. However, when specific jobs are required, pure offset output is still the choice of many converters.
Heidelberg for instance has been refining its integrated Prinect Packaging workflow. The automation of workflows enables converters to have a hybrid print environment consisting of offset and digital presses, all controlled from a single integrated workflow. Its Speedmaster range of presses continues to be a mainstay across the converting industry.
A good example of an area where customer demand has driven innovation is the flexible packaging sector. VARIOMAN, the newly designed packaging printing press from manroland web systems, is specifically designed to meet the needs of today’s converter. “With the VARIOMAN, we want to provide a new production system to our customers at the first configuration level for flexible packaging printing,” Alexander Wassermann, managing director of manroland web systems, explains. “The market asks for press systems that meet the demands for brand differentiation, enhanced comfort and additional packaging sizes. Therefore, we have developed the VARIOMAN.”
Compared to flexo printing, digital printing or gravure printing solutions, offset technology reproduces a high printing quality with a huge benefit in cost-per-copy. Compared to the latter, the production costs can be decreased by 25% – depending on each particular job structure. This can be achieved through the use of offset printing plates instead of gravure cylinders and a significantly faster job change.
Flexible packaging continues to be highly popular with brands that are seeing a shift in consumer attitudes toward reducing waste and packaging where possible. Offset of course has been used as a mainstay across many traditional packaging form factors, which, in turn, use multiple substrates. Figures from Research and Markets puts flexibles commanding a 25% share of the packaging market by 2021, reaching $126 billion. Most of this growth is not surprisingly within the food sector. Almost 90% of the food packaging market in Europe is stand-up pouches, resealable bags and flexible packaging in a wide variety of form factors. The vast majority of this packaging uses offset as their primary print technology. Digital output is gaining pace but, for converters serving what can be vast markets in food packaging, including rigid, cartons and labels, offset still commands the lion’s share of this output.
With offset maintaining its preference across the converting industry, the OMET Open House that took place on 20 and 21 March enabled the company to launch its Varyflex V4 Offset – a mid-web machine featuring OMET patented offset technology combined with inline flexo units, the first of its kind to lead the way towards premium quality, flexibility and a consistent cost reduction.
“Offset technology is the best solution to ride these market trends,” explains Marco Calcagni, OMET commercial director. “The low cost as well as the short lead-time preparation of the plates allow for quicker and more frequent job changeovers, a crucial advantage to be responsive to market necessities without profit reduction. It provides more flexibility compared to rotogravure or flexo printing, the printing tools for which could take days or even weeks to be available and ready to print. For short and medium runs, offset technology is absolutely the most cost-effective solution, combining low production costs with high-quality results, especially with CMYK printing, vignette printing, light/dark areas and fine lines.”
Every offset unit features the Easy Sleeve Format Change system, with independent pressure adjustment and automatic register control, which allow quick and easy job changeovers in few minutes. This press is designed to work in different configurations: Wet-On-Dry with interdeck UV curing or Wet-On-Wet with UV or EB curing at the end of the line. The configuration showed in the Open House comprised seven offset groups plus one flexo Wet-On-Wet with EB curing, with the addition of another Wet-On-Dry flexo unit with hot air drying system.
The march of digital presses seems unstoppable. However, it’s clear that converters will continue to use offset, as it remains the primary choice for specific output.
Converters are clearly not yet ready to completely abandon offset in favour of digital output. The resilience of the technology is solid when you consider the development roadmaps of machine vendors, who are continuing to evolve their current offset machines. More hybrid presses have been coming on to the market, as converters see the need to react to their clients’ demands for shorter print runs, personalisation and serialisation on their packaging. But offset in its pure form still holds its own when sustained print runs are needed.
“In an ever evolving market, the ability to easily adapt printing systems to meet a change in market requirements is critical to ensuring the long-term profitability of a business,” comments Bert Schoonderbeek, managing director at Contiweb. “The Thallo web offset presses are designed with this flexibility and future proofing in mind.
“As their equipment gets older, flexo and gravure converters have some difficult investment decisions ahead. They must assess whether international brands will continue to pursue shorter run lengths and multiple SKUs for ‘mass customisation’, or whether these practices are marketing fads that will pass in the next couple of years.”
Many in the converting industry still believe that offset is here to stay, as Walter Chmura, vice-president of technical sales at KBA North America, tells Converting Today: “Brands are still able to leverage offset to deliver their packaging printing requirements. Brands want the printer to deliver repeatable CIE colour space and LAB DeltaE values throughout the run when matching the brand’s corporate colours. KBA developed quality pass reports for the printer to monitor LAB DeltaE values during the entire production run using ErgoTronic online or QualiTronic inline colour management solutions on the Rapida product line.
“Packaging trends affected the use of offset printing. Packaging printers are looking to purchase a sheetfed press that can provide the fastest make readies, least amount of set-up substrate waste, ease of operation and consistent colour with little to no press operator involvement. Packing printers want to build a sheetfed offset press with multiple printing units, multiple coaters, inline cold foiling and inline colour control throughout the press configuration. This type of press configuration allows the packaging printer to complete the printed piece in a single pass,” he says.
What is clear across the converting industry is that the demands being placed on suppliers by brand owners continue to diversify their packaging output. Traditional long print runs will remain the province of offset for the foreseeable future. Digital presses have made vast leaps in the speed and quality of output that they can deliver across many varying substrates. The long-term future of offset does remains in question, as converters understand shorter that print runs with variable capability delivered with digital presses will continue to expand, but they are not turning their backs on offset yet.
Bert Schoonderbeek, managing director at Contiweb, discusses the enduring role of offset.
How have packaging trends affected the use of offset printing?
Bert Schoonderbeek: The fast decline in average run lengths has forced packaging converters to focus on minimising image and set-up costs, which had significantly less impact on long runs. Additionally, the need to reduce set-up time has made web offset a more interesting option for packaging converters, since it facilitates higher print quality, shorter run lengths and just-in-time/enough ordering.
A growing number of offset modules are being integrated into systems that previously only used flexo, and a growing number of traditional flexo suppliers are now offering web offset-based solutions, further demonstrating the growing popularity of offset.
Is offset holding its own against digital, in your view?
Yes. For selected short/micro-run jobs, personalisation and on certain substrates, digital has its place, but for the vast-majority of FMCG packaging run lengths, the break-even point is too high to make digital print truly economical. However, hybrid web offset systems that combine offset and digital processes blend the best of both systems, turning marginal short-run packaging jobs into sustainable, profitable ones.
Are brands still able to leverage offset to deliver their packaging printing requirements?
The Contiweb Thallo web offset is designed to meet the needs of short, medium and long-run applications. This hybrid web offset system delivers flexibility without compromise, and printers continue to benefit from a wide range of coating and finishing options. Combining a wider array of technologies into a single integrated system provides the converter with adaptability, in terms of designs and effects; economy, in terms of time to market and image costs (offset’s biggest advantages); and print quality, in terms of image detail and effects.