15 June 2020 Analogue Printing Technologies

Half sheet is not the full shilling for commercial print

The small commercial printer is under increasing pressure and faces tough choices about where to take his business next. There is still a good case to be made for litho printing, but perhaps not in the traditional format.

The B2 format or half sheet litho press has been the mainstay of many a printer in the UK. It has generally been affordable, flexible, and suited to operation in less than ideal factory conditions. On any industrial estate, in any UK town or city, there will be a Speedmaster 74, XL75, Lithrone 26, 28 or 29, perhaps a Ryobi 75 or Sakurai 75. There might even be a Roland 300 or KBA 75. Every printing press manufacturer going back to Solna and Crabtree has been able to offer a B2 format press.

Its popularity stemmed from its ubiquity: nobody could go wrong with a half sheet machine. It was always easier to get into register than a B1 machine so suited to shorter runs. Once a B1 press was in register, it would make sense to run for as long as practical.

There was a huge pool of operators who frankly did not need to be very good to run the smaller machine; the format was forgiving of errors and mistakes, either in estimating or in running, which were not hugely expensive. And it is relatively easy to fit a four-colour B2 press into a low cost rented factory unit.

In the UK, B2 took off during the 1980s when an ambitious team of sales director, finance director and production director could raise some cash and set up shop with a Speedmaster or MO. At that time demand for four-colour printing was high so running a small printing company was not challenging. Even before Covid-19 hit, this was changing fast, reducing the effectiveness of a B2 press. With the pandemic obliterating demands for print from some sectors, the struggle will become more intense and printers with only a B2 press may find themselves hobbled with a machine that cannot compete.

There is little difference in makeready time between a modern B1 press and B2 machine, if any at all. Waste sheets may be slightly more expensive, but plate costs are comparatively lower for a larger sheet. Registration is not a problem, nor achieving colour balance across the full width of a B1 sheet thanks to ubiquitous on press technology. These automated controls mask any inexperience on the part of press operators – Heidelberg's latest technology even has a standard and expert setting, like moving from an automatic gear box into a manual driving operation when the extra finesse is called for.

The larger press is as easy to run as the smaller with no real difference in makeready times or waste. And the larger machine will produce twice the number of sheets on a press that is not twice the investment and requires the same manning levels.

With shorter print runs, the smaller format can justify itself perhaps, but a modern B1 machine is comfortable with an average run length of fewer than 2,000 sheets, perhaps down to 1,000 for some work where multiple jobs can be ganged on the sheet. The larger size makes imposition planning for this sort of work easier. Most online trade printers work in this way.

A B1 press will occupy a greater footprint than the smaller machine, which may be an issue for companies operating from smaller premises. This is one reason why RMGT has enjoyed great success with its 920 series press, a machine which prints eight pages to view on an SRA1 sheet and which is no larger than the majority of B2 presses. And again it is only incrementally more expensive.

And if print runs drop significantly, then the challenge to B2 litho comes from digital presses in this format, either inkjet from Fuji, Komori or Konica Minolta currently in sheetfed presses, or toner from HP Indigo, or with rollfed toner from Xeikon or inkjet from a range of suppliers, Ricoh, Screen, Canon, HP and so on that are cost effective on minimal run lengths.

The current Covid-19 crisis and the recession that is expected to follow will, like the Lehman Brothers inflicted financial crisis in 2008, provoke a reconsideration of how printers respond. Ten years ago the crisis destroyed demand for B3 litho presses as installations of digital machines swept the boards. The conditions are ripe for a digital printing to become standard in B2 and for many B2 litho printers to move into the larger formats. Remaining with B2 litho may not be an option.

Heidelberg was in the forefront of the change in 2008 and as the supplier with more B2 presses in use than any other is again on the front end. Ryan Miles, managing director of Heidelberg UK, knows this. “The mid sized printers will definitely be under higher and higher pressure. They have to look at running costs, overheads, and can they get funding for new investment when they need it?”

The temptation when faced with decreasing run lengths and faster turnarounds might be to increase digital print capacity. “But what is cheaper than litho printing?” he asks.

“There will be a change in the mix between litho and digital and that changes the balance of equipment that is needed: if you only have digital printing equipment you can’t always compete with a company that has litho equipment. It is a very difficult time to take the decisions that create a sustainable and profitable business for them. And using trade printers to handle the longer run litho work is like a form of subscription as you are paying for litho only when you need it.”

Heidelberg will continue to sell large numbers of B2 presses no doubt. There are applications, in pharmaceutical for example, where the format is ideal, says Miles, and there are business models that suit the format. But there are perhaps fewer of them.

M PartnersMurray Lock has enjoyed great success with the RMGT9 series SRA1 press in the UK. Installations have replaced B2 presses in numerous businesses. When Precision Printing moved to its new factory it had already decided on the SRA1 format instead of the B2 machines it has long used.

Precision Printing has likewise moved from the smaller format to SRA1. The press is a similar size and investment, but delivers eight pages to view instead of four A4 pages to view.

Companies with two B2 machines can move to one SRA1 press with no loss of capacity, but with reduced overheads and manning levels. With LED UV to deliver fully dry sheets ready for finishing and the printer with SRA1 will be more competitive than his B2 rival. It will also be more competitive than many digital printers with a number of machines, including B2 formats. In terms of cost per sheet, loaded with with workflow, consumables and the all too often ignored, maintenance and service charges, SRA1 litho is more competitive than digital at 500 sheets.

This is what Northend discovered after Drupa in 2016. Then managing director Nigel Stubley spent more than two days in Düsseldorf looking at ways that the Sheffield business could go completely digital, and called by the RMGT stand while he was there.

He recalls: “I could not make the figures work for any of the B2 digital presses, but the RMGT press was different. It looks like a B2 press rather than an SRA1 because it is so compact.

“We checked our work and also with paper merchants we use and both came up with the finding that 90% of work is on SRA sized sheets in this country.”

M Partners will create the business case for the format based on cost per page from using SRA1, adding in its absolute lack of maintenance contracts and the benefits of pro rata lower consumable and manning costs. “It makes no sense for a printer to be operating two B2 presses in these days,” says Lock.

The RMGT presses are every bit as advanced, perhaps more so. RMGT had planned to have robots in operation at Drupa had it taken place this year. It is an indication that automation can help keep print competitive.

And RMGT is not ploughing a lonely furrow. Heidelberg installed a first SRA1 format machine last year, as a replacement for a B2 press, and Komori has sold an eight-colour perfecting Lithrone 37 in the UK this year.

“And that was because of the need to be more efficient and to produce at minimum cost,” says Komori Europe’s Peter Minis. “Sheet size becomes relevant and we sold the Lithrone 837 for this reason.” The sheet format of 620x930mm allows eight A4 pages plus a colour bar to be printed.

“And the investment is less than for a 40in press that may only be needed for section work. There is a clear benefit too in terms of buying wash cloth, blankets and plates. The slightly smaller press will also consume less power.”

Komori is probably in a unique position: it has litho presses at 29in, 37in and 40in, can offer the NS40 which is the 40in press with Landa’s imaging technology and it has a B2 inkjet press. “We try to look at the portfolio of work a customer is producing and can offer the different production technologies. We are almost neutral in terms of trying to offer what is best for customers.

“We don’t need to see one technology as the replacement for the other. It’s an addition to the portfolio. And in recent weeks we have seen higher traffic through our website as printers are investigating their next move.”

Miles at Heidelberg adds: “Each printer is quite unique in its capabilities, staff, workflows and the needs of its customers. Colour management is increasingly critical as a way to ensure that you can deliver consistency: there are so many factors that customers need to really really consider.

“It is very very important that print companies make good decisions. In 2021 if you make the wrong decision, there’s no coming back.”

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B2 prsses have been a mainstay of UK print.

B2 prsses have been a mainstay of UK print.

The B2 press offered many advantages to companies setting up: it was less expensive than a B1 machine and far more productive than B3; it was easier to makeready and get into fit than the larger press; it would fit into a smaller, cheaper factory unit with matched finishing if needed.

But the market for B2 is being squeezed by B1 or SRA1 on the one hand and by digital from the other direction

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Nigel Stubley with RMGT9 series

Nigel Stubley with RMGT9 series

There has been a swing from B2 to SRA1 formats in the last few years, with RMGT leading the way. The SRA1 press prints eight A4 pages to view, twice the B2 machine, with the same running costs, relatively lower plate costs and can fit in the same space.

Northend discovered this when it came to replacing its B2 presses, choosing an SRA1 RMGT press rather than B2 litho or B2 digital offerings.

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Premier returns for second RMGT

Dayfold is first with Heidelberg SRA1

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