WATERLESS PROS AND CONS
Although a hot topic, printers are weighing advantages, disadvantages
By William C. Lamparter
Waterless printing has been the headline attraction at almost every industry conference this year. However, this high level of curiosity and interest does not appear to be translating into an all-out rush to embrace the process.
Despite all the presentations and trade press articles, there still is a mystique attached to waterless printing. Some printers continue to question the potential process improvement levels, and others tout waterless as the process of the future.
Some see waterless as a niche market process, principally offering high-quality advantages. Others see productivity improvements and spoilage reduction as drivers propelling the process to an increasingly larger share of the print market.
Some simply shrug their shoulders, believing that the entire approach is either unworkable or lacks any significant advantage in either practical quality or cost reduction. Still others see the longer term development of waterless printing as a new, fundamentally different process whose full impact may not be felt until after the turn of the century.
In an attempt to determine where the industry stands on this issue, American Printer Magazine conducted research on waterless printing attitudes. A sampling of printers and suppliers were interviewed during the past several months.
Because the perspective on waterless is so diverse, there is no statistical proof either pro or con on the subject. As a result, this article offers anecdotal information coupled with analysis and conclusions based on the research.
The effort to take the water out of lithography spans 25 years of experimentation, initially spearheaded by 3M. After a patent rights purchase from 3M and the Scott Paper Co. (who had been working on waterless developments at the same time), a persistent Toray Industries has been promoting the process for 15 years.
The real push to make waterless a main-line process has occurred during the past four years as development efforts have lead to significant improvements in the technology.
Most proponents of waterless believe that the most significant advances have been made in ink technology, but several note that there still is a need for systems integration, including press, plate, roller, blanket, ink, temperature control and paper.
For example, improving paper characteristics so that the substrate and the waterless process are more compatible is an area of process improvement technology that several experts believe is being overlooked. With the elimination of water from the offset process, it should be possible to make changes in paper chemistry that would enhance dry offset. This represents a missed opportunity for paper companies and their waterless printer customers.
Today some 300 offset sheetfed presses installed in the U.S. are fully equipped for waterless printing. Virtually all of these machines also are equipped with dampness so that they may be operated conventionally or waterless.
Of the waterless-equipped sheet-fed presses, it is estimated that only 25 or 30 are dedicated machines or run waterless more than 90 percent of the time.
Another 25 or 30 presses run waterless more than half of the time, but less than 90 percent of the time.
Overall, we can reasonably state that there is a hard core group of some 50 presses that can be described as primarily producing waterless printing. Many of these installations are specialty printers producing products that require high quality and consistent process color reproductions.
Of the remaining 250 presses, about half rarely run waterless or are primarily experimental. About 125 sheet-fed presses run waterless about one-third of the time.
It must be stated, however, that it is common for printers to install waterless presses and run relatively long-term experimental work before offering the process to commercial customers. Jack Palmer, waterless press consultant, even recommends at least a three-month learning period for new implementers of the technology.
In a 23-plant survey, the Waterless Printing Association (WPA) reports that 35 percent of its membership operates their presses in a waterless mode 75 percent or more of the time. On average, WPA members devote a little more than half of their operating presstime to waterless production and the balance to conventional lithography.
This data clearly indicates that most waterless printing is a part-time activity; an approach that many technical experts believe is less than optimum for maximizing the benefits of dry offset.
Overall, waterless printing penetration is relatively small at present. About 20,000 plants operate more than 41,000 sheet-fed larger than duplicator-size presses. Waterless' maximum 300 installed sheet-feds represent a drop in the bucket.
Although the sheet-fed printer may be slow to convert to waterless, press manufacturers now routinely equip most of the 20 X 28 inch, five-unit and larger presses with hollow core rollers ready for the addition of temperature control devices.
While some waterless proponents have accused press manufacturers of dragging their heels because waterless presents complications without a major profit opportunity, that charge is generally unfounded. Every sheet-fed press manufacturer has strong champions of the waterless process and does support their waterless installations.
Perhaps more importantly, press manufacturers note that with the increase in sheet-fed press speeds, temperature control by itself is becoming an important part of process control. Its addition, even to conventional lithography, can have a positive impact on both quality and productivity.
While some sheet-fed press manufacturers report a continuing high level of interest in waterless, others note that the interest appears to be waning somewhat.
Randy Siver, Mitsubishi sheet-fed manager, is typical of this latter group when he notes that there is considerable interest in waterless printing as measured by requests for demonstrations, inquiries and the structuring of quotations in response to customer requests. However, he adds, the demand for waterless is "slacking off." On the other hand, claims Siver, supplying sheet-fed presses with temperature control is a given.
Fred Valentine of Tri-Service, a supplier of temperature control systems, reports that "sheet-fed folding carton printers recently have expressed an interest in waterless printing. This primarily is because of their need to achieve better color consistency throughout a press run and for reprint work from run to run."
On the web offset side of the industry, waterless can generally be described as experimental and under development. While only a handful of of web printers actually have produced salable products, there is a high level of interest in the process because of its potential for improving color consistency and reducing waste.
At its Nashville demonstration and training center, Heidelberg Harris maintains an M1000B equipped with multi-zone temperature controls. Some major we offset printers worldwide have conducted trials at this facility.
Ink supplier Sun Chemical, working in conjunction with Toray plate supplier Polychrome, has conducted more than 30 field tests at existing web press printers. Currently available dry plates are not thought to be capable of the run lengths required in most web offset situations, including magazines, catalogs and direct mail. The use of water by a skilled web press operator frequently is used to hide mechanical problems such as gear streaks, roller bounce, poorly set rollers and bearers, and other mechanical problems. Elimination of the water-ink balancing equation may make these problems more evident. As a result, better adjusted and maintained press equipment is a necessity.
Nevertheless, publishers such as Time and printers such as Perry are making waterless overtures.
Although there's lots of discussion about the pros and cons of waterless, the hard-core group of sheet-fed printers successfully producing with dry offset on a daily basis is highly enthusiastic. The often don't understand why everyone doesn't' jump to realize the benefits that they believe are obvious.
Phoenix Color Corp. (Haggerstown, MD), a producer of book jackets and covers, is an enthusiastic and outspoken 1994 convert to waterless.
When asked about his reasons for converting to waterless, Phoenix Color president Louis Lasorsa exclaimed, "To do it any other way you would have to be an imbecile! This is what the industry has been waiting for the past 50 years."
Lasorsa says that he made the move to waterless in order to improve the quality and color consistency as well as to reduce make-ready times and to achieve a critical savings in paper waste. He points out that the paper-to-labor cost ratio is about three-to-one. "It just makes good business sense to be able to reduce material costs while at the same time improving quality," asserts the Phoenix president.
In spite of missionaries such as Lasorsa, what many printers are waiting for is proof that the process works on a daily basis and that it adds to sales volume and profitability. our research indicates that although there are a number of suppliers that believe the process meets these criteria (and there are vocal printer advocates that confirm this), there also is a large majority of printers who are skeptics.
Following are some of the pros and cons that surfaced during our research.
Quality or productivity benefits? Early in the development of driography, the principal benefit of the process was seen to be in the areas of labor and material savings and productivity improvements. The focus then switched to the quality advantages of the process, principally the ability to run more consistent screens, higher screen rulings and to achieve color consistency. Whether these quality benefits are achievable on a consistent basis is controversial.
Process skeptics point out that they can meet their customer's requirements using quality 150-line to 200-line screens. They believe that any difference between their standard screen rulings printed conventionally and the higher screen rulings possible with waterless is, at best, marginal.
Others claim that quality improvements required can be achieved through the utilization of stochastic screening without running waterless.
However, virtually everyone agrees that dry offset does provide for a higher degree of color consistency.
Cost reduction and productivity improvement potentials include shortened make-ready time, reduced make-ready and running waste, elimination of dampening maintenance, faster restarts after a press stop, quicker customer okays, and the availability of additional production time resulting from reduced individual job time cycles.
The quality issue appears to be in the eye of the beholder, and the productivity issues in the experience of a limited number of waterless practitioners. While quality continues as an important issue, the current focus appears to be shifting to productivity improvements and material savings. The best of the waterless printers claim to achieve both quality and productivity advantages.
Proofing limitations. Almost everyone associated with waterless acknowledges that achieving suitable contract proofs that can be signed off by the buyer and used to achieve a press match is one of the current weaknesses of the process.
Cost vs. pricing. Should a printer charge a premium for higher quality work produced by dry offset? Some printers insist that they need to get a premium price in order to pay for the increased costs associated with waterless. But are there really higher costs for waterless and what is a proper pricing strategy?
Several waterless producers tell us they simply cannot get a premium for their work. Some add that they didn't expect a premium and that waterless quality helped them achieve a competitive edge, keeping existing customers loyal and adding new customers.
Whether or not waterless actually costs more also is problematical. While plates and inks are more expensive, make-readies are faster and both make-ready waste and running waste are reduced. In a survey of its members, WPA reports an average paper waste savings of dry offset over wet lithography of 9.6 percent.
At this point, it would appear that when a press is dedicated to running waterless day in and day out, labor and materials savings offset the increased costs associated with the process. However, occasional users have difficulty in achieving maximum savings.
Plate availability. Several printers queried for this article flatly stated that they would not be interested in dry offset as long as there was only a single plate supplier.
Toray positive plate patents have expired and there is speculation regarding the appearance of another positive plate supplier in the short term.
Toray's negative-working patents run until 1999; therefore, unless someone can approach negative-working waterless printing with a technically different plate, a second supplier will not appear for at least another five years.
Toray's patents do not cover computer direct-to-plate materials. Currently the specialized Presstek plate used on the Heidelberg GTO-DI is the only waterless direct-to-plate product on the market. However, it is logical to expect that Toray and others will enter this market in the near term.
Capital investment costs. Some printers complain about what they consider to be the high capital investment of waterless. However adding waterless capability to the total cost of a five-unit 40-inch sheet-fed press adds very little to the all-inclusive budgeted hourly rate for these machines.
The cost for hollow-core vibrators and multizone temperature control (for a five-color, 40-inch) runs between $100,000 to $120,000. If a new press comes factory-equipped with hollow-core rollers, the bill for temperature control can be reduced by about $60,000.
Plate fragility. While the handling of the Toray plate requires more care than a conventional litho plate, most dry offset printers report few handling problems that are unique to that plate.
Plate life. As with any offset plate, the achievable run length of a waterless plate is highly dependent upon the condition of the press, general operating conditions and the circumstances of the particular job. The current nature of the waterless plate imposes a limitation on the most suitable applications for the process. However, the run length limitations are well within the range for a high percentage of the sheet-fed work produced.
Recycled paper use. Contrary to some opinions, several waterless printers report that recycled papers performed better on a waterless press than they do on a wet lithographic press. Toray's John O'Rourke explains that recycled stocks contain short fibers and that the water in conventional offset printing weakens these fibers. This can result in problems such as linting. Without water, this phenomenon is substantially reduced.
Ink costs and mileage. Inks specially formulated for dry offset carry a premium of five percent to 25 percent depending upon the supplier and the specific type of inks being purchased. Conventional wisdom suggest that not only is the price higher but the mileage obtained is less.
Not so, says Richard Drong of Sun Chemical. "If you want to print the same density with waterless as you do with conventional lithography, then the mileage that can be obtained is equal," he explains.
However, continues the inkmaker, "a virtue of the waterless process is that you can carry more ink and print it better. Therefore many printers will do just that, which is what increases their overall ink consumption."
Waterless deskilling? One of the benefits of waterless that seems to be perceived by managers is that the process deskills the press operator. The theory is that achieving ink-water balance and manipulating this relationship for optimal results is the most difficult task that a press operator must perform. Therefore, with the elimination of water the need for this skill is eliminated.
True--but only to an extent. Waterless does have its own peculiarities, including achieving ink temperature balance. These are new skills that must be mastered. While printing waterless does remove the vexing variable from the equation, the rest of the press remains the same and must be expertly managed. The best five-color lead press operator remains the best, whether running dry or wet.
Dedicated or occasional? Considerable controversy surrounds the debate regarding the necessity to run a press only waterless or only on a as-needed basis.
Some contend that waterless offset is anew process and should be run exclusively. They point out that waterless has unique operating requirements, particularly rollers and blankets.
Others, however, point out that although waterless has unique considerations it does not necessarily mean the rollers and blankets are unsuitable for conventional lithography.
Generally, better performance is obtained with waterless if harder rollers and quick-release blankets are used. These rollers and blankets can be used for either wet or dry printing.
The disagreement starts when press operators believe that different rollers and blankets are required to optimize both processes. Like any process, waterless printing has its operational peculiarities. The more familiar you are with the process, the more skilled you can become. For this reason alone, dedicated waterless operators usually feel more comfortable with the process and obtain more consistent quality and productivity benefits.
How to get started. Waterless printing is a system involving many elements but there is no single system supplier, lament many sheet-fed printers. How do I get started?
To successfully enter into waterless production, Robert Plant, Superior Printing Ink marketing manager, suggests that printers team up with a non-competitive successful waterless printer, use an experienced consultant and create a practical working partnership with a series of vendors that provide equipment and supplies.
"It is not a process to be started on your own. To implement waterless printing and maximize the benefits in the shortest possible time, it is necessary to dedicate time and resources to properly train press operators. Waterless is anew process with its own requirements," Plant points out.
And what should a printer do? Given the current state of waterless development, we recommend that any sheet-fed printer should thoroughly and objectively investigate the potential of waterless as it applies to its specific situation.
This investigation can start by contacting the Waterless Printing Association, PO Box 59800, Chicago IL 60645; phone (312) 743-5677. you can also contact the National Association of Printers and Lithographers, 780 Palisade Avenue, Teaneck, NJ 07666 or the Graphic Arts Technical Foundation, 4615 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.
It is clear that waterless is not for everyone, but failure to thoroughly investigate the potential of the process could result in the loss of a possible competitive advantage.
Reprinted with permission from the October, 1994 issue of American Printer. Copyright 1994. All rights reserved.
This site is hosted by: