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Focus On

I Love Litho

The litho press is the product of the first great information revolution. Genevieve Lewis delves into its history via one of its most iconic applications and assesses the wider sector’s future

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The great web-offset newspaper press has a solid future ahead of it in markets such as the UK where newspaper print volumes and the span of the market plays to its strengths

How do you like your newspapers in the morning?

Newspapers are something that are read every day, but when you are sat there reading about the recent general election, I bet not much thought is going into how the paper was produced. When I started my first week at Print Monthly as its newest reporter, I did have this thought, and so went on a journey to discover the answer. What I found is that I love litho printing; I could never have imagined the complexity and power of this amazing technology. So here is an odyssey into one of its most iconic applications, newspapers, and also a look at where sheet-fed is as a sector and its prospects for the future.

The readership may be declining thanks to the rise of the internet and social media, but it is thought the first recognisable ‘paper’ in England was produced in 1622. It was called The Weekly Newes, and followed the original pamphlets that were used to spread political campaigns, syndicated stories, and grizzly tales on crimes and the decisions of the courts. The first ‘real’ newspaper was The London Gazette, which was created in 1666.

Newspapers were once hand-produced through typesetting. Each individual letter and sentence was set up by hand, before being printed onto the newspaper. This was a lengthy process, and was like this up until Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the Linotype machine in the late 1800s, in Baltimore, America. This made typesetting a lot quicker.

Mergenthaler created a machine that printed the letters and sentences using hot lead. The words and letters were written through the use of a keyboard. The lines were then set up on the paper by hand, before being sent to a stereotyping room. There, a metal plate was created from the page form, which was then put on the printing press to create the final product.

The printing process has advanced since then of course, but traditional newspaper printing still uses the same fundamental skills. Whilst there are a couple of printing styles for creating newspapers, most daily papers still use the traditional process as it is fast and can produce a large batch of final products.

The vast majority of traditional newspaper printing still use a web-offset press, as they need to sell many thousands of copies each day. Some daily newspapers such as the Metro still sell over a million copies each day.

Is new better?

Though litho printing is still the preferred method for the national dailies, digital inkjet printing is knocking on the door, especially in Europe. It is also making a lot of headway around applications such as versioned newspapers, which need to go out in shorter runs to multiple regions with variations on advertising and even stories to suit the demographic of readers in that geography.

Nick Lazell, sales manager at Agfa Graphics UK, who works alongside newspaper printers day in and day out, explains that he is in no doubt that litho printing will still be the preferred methodology for this iconic application for some time.

 “Over the next ten years, fundamentally I believe that newspaper printing will stay the same,” explains Lazell, who continues: “Digital print technology still hasn’t caught up with the speed of production [of litho printing] and I don’t think it will for a period of time yet.”
 
Lazell also points out that newspaper printing is an extremely complex process, and that print houses have a lot on their plate when it comes to producing the daily national newspapers in the UK.

He also points out that The Sun tops the list of circulation figures for April, and most months, with approximately 1.6 million copies sold every day. This is closely followed by the Metro and the Daily Mail at around 1.4 million copies sold each day.


Interpress NI managing director, Dominic Fitzpatrick receives his award from Agfa Graphic’s sales manager, Nick Lazell at the News Awards



“If you think that The Sun needs 1.6 million copies per night printed, you can imagine the press firepower you have to have, they take over three sites over the UK, The Sun because it’s part of the news printers portfolio,” he continues, adding: “But even so, to print 1.6 million, and the other thing you’ll have to understand with newspaper printing is the print slot they have is only two hours every night.”

If you think that The Sun needs 1.6 million copies per night printed, you can imagine the press firepower you have to have


Lazell went on to explain that the timing is extremely tight, particularly if there is a late sport match, or breaking news late in the evening: “If you think about it, and you take The Sun newspaper, they don’t finish writing stories until 10 o’clock at night.

“If there is a late football match or an extra-time football match, they’ll want to hang on, or if there’s breaking news to print the next day, they’ll hang on as long as possible.

“The last copies coming through at half past ten at night. Then the printers have to make all of the plates, which I think are thousands of plates per evening on these print sites, thousands and thousands.”


RMGT (Ryobi) have made great strides in perfecting its LED UV curing technology (pictured at The Print Show), with sales now in double digits for the UK



Once the newspapers are printed, they have to be distributed around the UK, and this usually takes place in the early hours of the morning.

Lazell continues: “They then have to put them on the press, print The Sun, they have to finish it and put it all into bundles. Then it goes off to the distributors to go off to retailers, supermarkets, news agents, and will leave at two or three in the morning. The printer only has two, or two and a half hours to print 1.6 million copies.

“That’s the same for all of the nationals, whether it’s the Daily Mail, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Star, the Express —they’re all exactly the same.”
 
Lazell also explains that life at newspaper print sites gets even more complicated when it comes to the weekend.
 
He says: “What gets more complicated is then when you pick up a Saturday or a Sunday paper, you’ll see they’re a lot bigger, and with magazines inside.
 
“They print the magazines, the magazines have to go inside, you have to have special equipment to insert the magazines.”


Which technology is best for your business? There a range of factors influencing which drying system for litho is best for your specific circumstances



This may be the case for the national daily newspapers in the UK, but over on the Channel Islands, things are done a little differently. This is because Jersey and Guernsey require fewer copies of newspapers, they are printed digitally.

Lazell says: “There is a digital print site on Jersey that prints for the Channel Island titles. And that’s been set up digitally now for a year and a half using Kodak Prosper presses.

“They print all of the titles, all the national titles and all the locals, like the Jersey Evening Post or The Guernsey Post, they’re all printed digitally on the island. It suits that because it will all be very short run, only about 200 or 300 of each paper.”

He continues to explain that the digital way of printing newspapers suited these smaller places because of the logistics, whereas in the UK and Ireland, it is easier to use the traditional web-offset press.

“Obviously the logistics of getting papers to the Channel Islands suits the digital technology there. Apart from that, all UK and Ireland national papers are all printed in traditional cold-offset/web-offset because of the speed,” he says.

Despite digital print technology flourishing in the Channel Islands for newspaper printing, this method is a lot more time-consuming page for page, and only suits the production of a small batch. So, it is unlikely that digital newspaper printing will make major inroads in the UK for another decade, as the readership of our daily nationals is too expansive and have reached a level of stability following a period of market contraction following the internet boom. It is said that if something is not broken, then do not try to fix it, and that can be rightly said about web-fed litho newspaper printing—for the moment.

A cure for all?

So, what about web-offset’s sheet-fed cousin? Well, the development of that technology is being strongly influenced by UV ink curing systems, with an overall drive to reduce power consumption and drying times without sacrificing quality.

I spoke to David Pelling of DLP Associates, who is an expert in this field of 40-years standing and is now an independent UV consultant: “40 years ago we had what we call today standard UV. The curing system comprised a mercury vapour lamp housed in a polished, sheet aluminium, reflector with air cooling which maintained the correct lamp temperature and removed ozone generated by the short-wave energy from the working environment.”

Pelling explains that standby power modes were always an issue, and in the early stages of system development reflectors were mechanically rotated, so that the energy was pointed away from the substrate. But this meant that this heat energy was directed to another part of the machine. To improve this, a system of shutters were introduced which covered the lamps and with additional cooling allowed the lamps to sit at standby for an unlimited time.


KBA UK’s managing director, Andrew Pang, explains there has been a good recovery in demand for litho presses, driven by a re-growth of applications such as high-quality book printing



Pelling continues: “So that’s all history now. But today the basics of 90 percent of all standard UV system available still have the main component parts in their design. Lamp power has gone up to 600watts per inch (160 watts per cm), reflector design has been greatly improved with extruded housings, which incorporated water channels, and standby powers have gone down to less than 30 percent.”

Pelling goes on to explain the issue with ‘standard UV’ is that only a very small part of the lamp’s output is in the spectrum that is absorbed by the ink chemistry and system manufacturers have searched over the years for ways of increasing this short-wave output. This is almost impossible due to the physics of mercury vapour lamps, as any additive in the lamp uses the shorter wave lengths to enhance the longer ones. This means that, whilst it is not simple, it is with the bounds of possibility that by adding various metal hydrides to a medium pressure mercury arc lamp, it can provide enhanced outputs in the longer wave lengths.

“Over the last few years chemistry has been improved, photo initiator costs have come down, and it has meant that a longer wave length output lamp working with new ink chemistry can cure at full press speed with a lot less energy. These inks are referred to as ‘low energy cure inks’,” explains Pelling.

He continues: “With some cleverly UV lamps design and some clever ink chemistry it has now become possible. The systems launched by many of the system providers have given them various names. Such as Komori with its HUV, IST with their LE UV and Benford UV with their Eco-UV to name but a few.

This clever ink technology has also allowed for chemistry to perform at even longer wave lengths


“This clever ink technology has also allowed for chemistry to perform at even longer wave lengths—bringing the use of lower cost, longer wave length, UV LEDs. The issues to date have been that whilst LEDs have some real advantages, the cost for short wave length LEDs were very expensive, making them totally unviable for this application. However, with the introduction of lower cost long wave photoiniators, as used for low energy cure, it has moved the cost of LEDs at these longer wave lengths down and has started to make LED UV cure a reality.”

Indeed, a good example of this reality is RMGT (Ryobi), which is a pioneer in this sector and has had tremendous success with its series of LED UV presses. Its UK distributor Apex Digital Graphics is now seeing sales in double digits. In addition, almost every major litho manufacturer now offers a system based on LED UV curing.

Pelling concludes: “The real benefit of using UV curing technology is the instant drying of the print and coating. This is what brings all the other benefits. These include immediate work and turn, immediate re processing, and immediate cut and creasing. Fast delivery from print to customer is the gain, which also reduces work in progress and shop floor space required. The elimination of all spray powder and a cleaner working environment are other key benefits. Then the chemistry brings high scratch and scuff resistance and with coatings high gloss.”

From the horse’s mouth

So, it seems that it is ink curing that has been a key factor in a ‘litho renaissance’, but what of the wider factors influencing this sector? Andrew Pang is the managing director of KBA UK, and he is very positive about the future: “There is a lot going on for KBA, with our new Auto Run autonomous printing system now launching and a growth in demand for B2 presses.


The mighty Komori Corporation has put a huge amount of research and development funding into creating a new generation of ultra-efficient litho press technology that can work in a hybrid workflow with its new digital inkjet technology



“The other important trends are that we are seeing the packaging sector continuing to boom and that is driving investment in new presses. In fact, the majority of presses to go into the UK for the packaging market have been from KBA in the last year. The specific factor driving demand here is for technology to do special finishes inline.”

He continues: “The number of presses sold into the commercial print market is also improving, and this has gone in cycles for the last few years. There has been an amalgamation of several companies, and some big operations that were struggling and fuelling price wars have gone under. Those which have weathered the storm are now in a more stable market with less competition for the same work. Those companies are now starting to invest.”


Andrew Pang, managing director of KBA UK, is confident that litho press technology has a stable future due to the incredible advances made around reducing turnaround times and wastage, as well as increasing overall press efficiency



Pang also agrees with the assessment above in terms of ink curing being a key factor in litho’s current renaissance: “Low-energy UV printing for commercial printers has been a major area of interest for many of our customers. Newspaper printing is also currently stable after a period of contraction, and it is still a major source of revenue for us.”

Other important success areas for KBA are its large-format presses, where it remains strong with very impressive worldwide sales. Its B1 Rapida 106 is also a key success story for the manufacturer, as its incredible levels of automation and a speed of 20,000sph is stimulating its customers to invest and drawing over print houses from its competitors. 

Back to curing, and Pang explains its own experiences in this area: “We saw an opportunity in low-energy curing and we were the first manufacturer to launch a B1 LED UV Press. Blackmore was the first printer in the UK to buy one, and our partnership here with AMS makes for a very strong package.

“We saw huge benefits for LED UV, perhaps versus other variations such as H-UV and LE-UV, which I think really are now stepping stones to LED UV. It is a mature technology, and another case in point is J Thompsons in Glasgow, which have an LED UV press that has really helped underpin their ongoing success.”

O Factoid: Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854 –1899) was a German-born inventor. Dubbed ‘the second Gutenberg’, he invented the linotype machine, the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses.  O


Of course, a key issue for LED UV press technology is the ink costs, which are prohibitive for very long-run applications such as direct mail printing. But if you are doing shorter runs, on difficult materials or plastics, then it is very difficult to beat in terms of overall cost per page.

Pang makes another important observation on another area where litho is performing well: “People are still buying 18,000sph long perfectors. A good example is Bell and Bain, who recently renewed their technology in this area. They went against all the advice, as they identified that digital printing has its niche but is not a cure-all. They have two long-perfectors now and they have very little in the way of competition, because of how cost-effectively they can produce it.”

With this in mind, Pang summed up very well why litho press technology is remaining relevant, and what the future has in store: “Litho does what it says on the tin and it works across all the substrates, but I think hybrid is the future. A digital and litho workflow where you have a product that is both litho and digitally printed for personalisation and versioning, with both digital and litho finishing for these two elements.”


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