With all its advantages, why hasn’t waterless offset gained more ground?
If there is a bright side at to the coronavirus pandemic, global pollution levels have declined due to the massive number of people under quarantine. But that doesn’t mean we can take our eye off that ball, even while we are fighting the war on the virus. Keeping the planet healthy is as important to the survival of the human race as keeping the population healthy with respect to the virus, though perhaps not quite as urgent. It’s worth noting that, according to a study reported by The Washington Post, lockdowns, reduced driving and flying, and industrial cutbacks earlier this year drove emissions down to 2006 levels, a 17% reduction in greenhouse gases. The plunge is equivalent to more than a billion tons of carbon dioxide that never made its way into the atmosphere.
Another important aspect of environmental sustainability is protecting our potable water sources. Clean water is not a resource we can take for granted, which makes me wonder why waterless offset printing has seen relatively little adoption in North America, while it is much more popular in Europe. Even so, the experts I spoke to agreed that less than 5% of offset printing is produced using waterless technology.
Why Use Waterless Offset?
According to a white paper published by the International Waterless Printing Association (IWPA) in 2011, there are a number of proven advantages to waterless versus conventional offset printing, including:
- Both yield acceptable quality prints based on the G7 guidelines. However, because there is less dot gain with waterless printing, it delivers better technical performance.
- Waterless offset delivers a slightly larger color space.
- There is less make-ready time and paper waste with waterless offset printing.
- The press using waterless offset printing technology appeared to reach and maintain stability faster than conventional offset.
In the IWPA study, which produced the same job on the same press, once with conventional offset and once with waterless offset, the waterless offset portion consumed more ink (2.742 pounds more). This increased ink consumption was offset by the fact that waterless offset printing does not use a fountain solution, which amounted to 4.582 liters of fountain solution for the conventional run.
So why hasn’t waterless offset seen more adoption? In the early days— back in the 1980s and 1990s—switching from conventional to waterless offset was perhaps a bit more difficult than it is today.
According to Toray, a manufacturer of waterless offset printing plates who first demonstrated waterless offset printing in North America at Print 1980, the key to waterless printing is a plate that uses an ink-resistant silicone rubber coating. The rubber coating eliminates the need for achieving ink/water balance as required with a conventional dampening solution. It also requires a press with temperature-control capability—for silicone coating to function properly it requires a consistent temperature of about 32 degrees centigrade.
“Any modern press that has a temperature control system on the ink train can be used as a waterless press,” explained Eric Friedman, sales manager Americas Verico Technology LLC. Prior to taking on the role at Verico, where he has been since October 2019, Friedman worked for Toray for 15 years and held other operational and vendor roles in the industry. “While water is still used in the platemaking process,” said Friedman, he added, “there are no toxic chemicals or water used during the printing process, resulting in less impact on Earth’s precious water resources.”
Barriers to Adoption
In the early days, printing firms, particularly in North America, were leery of switching to waterless offset because there was only one provider of printing plates (Toray), and the cost of waterless offset inks was high and only available from a limited number of suppliers.
Another factor, according to Friedman, was the general resistance to change among shop foremen and press operators, sort of the “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality.
The Situation Today
Today, not only can modern presses be converted to waterless offset relatively easily, but there are also multiple providers of plates and inks. Verico manufactures its plates exclusively in North America, and Toray IMPRIMA plates are manufactured in Japan and the Czech Republic.
There are also presses explicitly designed for use with waterless offset. Koenig & Bauer initially introduced the KBA Genius 52UV sheetfed press with waterless and UV technology, targeted at printing on plastics and cartons. In 2004, the company introduced its Cortina web press for waterless offset printing, targeted primarily at the newspaper industry. It was rapidly moving to add color to its papers and saw an advantage to waterless offset due to the lower quality paper stocks used in newspapers.
Winfried Schenker, senior sales manager at Koenig & Bauer, said, “When we brought the Cortina to market, we were concentrating our efforts more in Europe. By the time the technology matured and stabilized, we were hit with the financial crisis in 2008–2009, and investments in the newspaper industry went south, especially in North America. A major issue in North America at that time, as well, was plate availability. Even though there were benefits to waterless, printers didn’t want to risk a daily operation because of supply chain issues.”
The company currently has about 40 Cortina presses installed worldwide.
The newspaper business is quite different in Europe compared to North America, as well.
“In Europe, they do coldset, heatset and newspapers on the same press with the same inks,” commented Friedman. “In Europe, individuals want their own newspaper. Also, in Europe, quite a few label printers do waterless printing with the Codimag and other semi-rotary presses, especially for shorter runs. Anyone that is running a lot of labels is likely to use flexo, but a flexo plate costs about $12 to $20 per square foot, versus about $1.00 per square foot for a conventional offset plate, and an average of $1.75 to $2.00 per square foot for a waterless offset plate. So for shorter runs, waterless can make more sense for boutique wineries and the like. And the higher quality and reduced waste that can be achieved with waterless can offset the extra cost of those plates.”
Some newspaper printers are implementing a hybrid waterless/conventional production process to increase their production options. One example of a company using this hybrid process is Belgian company Coldset Printing Partners. The company has invested €35 million (U.S. $39 million) to update its press and mailroom capabilities to achieve increased productivity, quality, and sustainability in its operations. The company now has a press line consisting of 11 towers and five folders. That includes four new Koenig & Bauer Cortina waterless towers with two folders, and seven towers of the existing Koenig & Bauer Commander conventional coldset web press with three folders.
According to CEO Paul Huybrechts, this configuration positions the company to broaden its offerings. In a recent press release, he said, “Including a varnishing unit and using an appropriate white paper quality allows you to achieve a top-quality product, which is really comparable to heatset. This is important because we believe that for the future of this site, we need to have a good answer for a certain quality level. It also gives us the opportunity to print magazines that are currently printed in heatset. In fact, this is already beginning to happen.”
The release noted that the plant is producing about 500,000 newspapers per night and about 40 million copies a month in total, about 30% of which is third-party work. According to Huybrechts, there are productivity advantages, stating, “It takes around 30% longer to make-ready the Commander than the Cortina, and the start-up waste can be double or even more. Waste on the Cortina can be as low as 80 copies of white paper and 40 printed copies.”
Heidelberg has also partnered with Toray to bring waterless offset to market, including placing a Heidelberg press in Toray’s Czech Republic demo center. Ralf Elsler, Heidelberg’s product manager for sheetfed, notes that one reason waterless has been adopted more in newspapers than in commercial print is the fact that newspaper operations are much more standardized, and commercial printers need more flexibility.
“That’s one of the reasons waterless isn’t picking up as much as it could,” he said. “There is also a limit in the range of inks for waterless—you might not be able to get all the inks you need, such as metallic inks. Also, in conventional offset, presses are more automated these days with closed-loop color control and automatic dosing of fountain solution if adjustments are needed to stabilize print quality.”
He also agrees that, in principle, every press is capable of ink temperature control, thus capable of running waterless. “It’s not about the press, though,” he said. “It’s about the operator and print shops being willing to make the switch.”
Friedman added, “As older press operators are aging out of the industry and new talent is coming in, they are less resistant to change and don’t have the same habits older press operators have developed over the years. When they see something new, they are more likely to say, ‘Wow, I can do this?’ Even some of the owners see the advantages, especially with plastics and security printing.”
What’s Needed to Drive Change?
Toray continues to increase its number of plate products with specialized plates for just about every application, as does Verico. The company presented a new plate to the Cortina Users Group last year that can use regular offset inks instead of specialized waterless offset inks.
“The customer can just take ink off the shelf, put it on the press, adjust the temperature control, and run,” said Friedman. “While this new plate is still under development, we expect it to be available commercially on or before drupa 2021.”
These are a few of the developments that continue to remove barriers to adoption of waterless offset. In the end, though, adoption comes down to how much resistance there is to change, what value is placed on the perceived benefits—more environmentally sustainable, less waste, less dot gain—and, of course, the cost calculations. Supply-chain considerations will also be a factor, though less so since there are more sources now for consumables.
We’ll keep an eye on future developments. It will also be interesting to see if the experiences of companies like Coldset Printing Partners will encourage more adoption of waterless offset by other companies hoping to improve quality, productivity, sustainability, and drive increased flexibility in their offerings.
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