How In-plants Preserve Offset’s Place in a Digital World
It would be a mistake to call offset lithography obsolete for in-plants, but there’s no denying that its use is declining throughout the segment.
A survey of the In-plant Impressions audience last year found that while 44% of in-plants continue to provide offset printing services, many shops have switched to digital for the bulk of their printing. Respondents said that an average of just 5% of their revenue comes from offset, compared to 79% from digital printing and an additional 9% from wide-format printing.
These are sobering numbers, but the final chapter of the story they tell isn’t as preordained as it may appear. Offset’s long twilight may, in fact, be open-ended at some in-plants, keeping the process viable for certain applications where digital printing still isn’t — and perhaps never will be — the best way to get the job done.
The managers of the three academic in-plants profiled here say they have no present reason to part company with what one of them calls “our cast iron machines,” although they see operator availability as a concern in the near future. One of the shops got a new lease on life by upgrading its offset capability — a pushback against the idea that digital is the only way forward for in-plants that want to remain relevant and valuable to their parent organizations.
The three in-plants keep offset alive by reserving it for large-quantity, static-content jobs that bypass the advantages of their short-run, variably printing digital equipment. The business that these jobs represent is much more substantial than the industry average for offset production.
Pump Up the Volume
Jeffrey M. Blue, printing services manager for Document Solutions at the University of Texas at Austin, says that the admissions materials, commencement programs, and other items the in-plant handles “are just too large in volume to produce economically, digitally.” This work accounts for about $4.2 million in annual offset sales, twice as high as digital in revenue, and up to four times as much in volume produced.
70:30 describes the ratio of offset to digital in both revenue and volume for the Reprographic Section of the Hawaii State Department of Education in Honolulu, according to Jason Seto, the section’s administrator. He notes that long-run offset is indispensable to the task of supporting a system that serves 185,000 students in 250 public schools across the state’s eight islands.
Far away from the beaches of Honolulu in Chattanooga, Tenn., the Hamilton County School District (HCSD) Print Shop is an in-plant where “we can do a little of everything,” says Manager Grant Crosslin. “Everything teachers can think of, I try to make available to them.” Lithography courtesy of a Presstek CPO 34DI-E direct imaging offset press from Mark Andy produces about 25% of these jobs, printing about the same number of sheets as the shop’s Lanier and Xerox digital presses. The revenue split between the processes is 50/50, according to Crosslin.
He says that when he joined the shop three years ago, the school board had been on the verge of shutting it down. Instead, it was decided to “try to get it back to being a functional print shop” by replacing a single-color offset press running paper plates with something more suited to the workload.
Tool for the Task
This was the pre-owned Presstek CPO 34DI-E, installed in the fall of 2019 along with a parcel of bindery and lamination equipment. The 13.39x18.11˝, four-color press images and feeds waterless offset plates from a built-in exposure unit, eliminating the cost and the chemistry of off-line CTP. The result, Crosslin points out, is precisely registered, consistently printing offset color for about half of what an outside commercial shop would charge.
The UT Austin in-plant’s offset complement includes a six-page Komori Lithrone SX29, printing in five colors plus coating; a 40˝, two-color Heidelberg Speedmaster perfector; and several small-format presses. Installed at the end of February was a Kodak Achieve T800 thermal platesetter, brought in to replace a violet CTP device that Blue says has been operating there since 2006.
The Hawaii Department of Education in-plant is a Heidelberg shop equipped with a two-color Speedmaster 74 perfector, a two-color Speedmaster SX perfector, and a single-color Printmaster 46. Supporting them is a Kodak Trendsetter 400 platesetter and plate processor driven by Kodak’s Prinergy EVO workflow.
These presses together deliver more than two million impressions per month, printing what Seto calls “all the generic, longer-run work.” This consists mainly of booklets, brochures, and envelopes, along with educational materials that include everything from “tardy slips to lesson plans.”
Seto says that, in general, anything requiring more than 1,000 sheets will go on the offset presses. “Longer runs are still cheaper for us when we run offset — no click charges,” he observes, adding that run length isn’t the only consideration. Jobs printed on the shop’s toner digital presses “never really lay flat, so they do not fold or trim as well as the flat stacks coming off our offset presses.”
‘The Only Way to Get It Done’
Quantity works to offset’s strong advantage at UT Austin, where Blue says orders for admissions-related materials can run to hundreds of thousands of copies. Another six-figure job, commencement programs (“one of the real keys as to why we exist,” says Blue), has to be printed in 18 different versions in less than two weeks, with copy often coming in at the last minute.
“The only way to get it done is with offset,” he declares.
It’s often assumed that in hybrid environments, work will migrate from offset to digital, but that’s not an absolute rule. Crosslin notes that although his typical upper limit for digital is 2,500 sheets, runs in color under 1,000 sheets will go to the Presstek CPO 34DI-E for the print quality it delivers. In that sense, he says, “we’re migrating more in a digital to offset direction.”
Blue says his shop hasn’t transitioned much besides business cards from offset to its Xerox digital presses. Offset continues to be used for letterheads in color because of concerns about the toner smearing that can occur when printing digitally. Blue also points out that the choice of process sometimes has more to do with deadlines and operator availability than with sheet count or even job cost.
This was the case with a recent order for 3,500 5x7˝ color postcards, he says — a rush job requiring 1,000 sheets of paper, the smallest number that the shop typically prints on its offset equipment. The quoted price for the job on the shop’s four-color Heidelberg GTO was $1,100; the quote for printing the cards on its Xerox Iridesse digital color press came to $1,200.
The $100 savings to the customer ordinarily would have called the shot in offset’s favor. But Blue says that with his GTO operator out on the one day in which the job had to be turned around, the Iridesse got the nod instead.
Undaunted by Digital
Apart from circumstances like this, however, offset retains its credentials as the most cost effective form of printing that in-plants can do. The Hawaii DOE shop, for example, has to produce 90,000 envelopes per month, and at that volume, according to Seto, “digital doesn’t make sense.”
Other than short-run economy, digital has no special edge over offset in environments that aren’t called upon to provide variable-data printing, such as Seto’s in-plant. There, he says, “information is almost always generic — nothing is personalized.”
With digital, notes Crosslin, “each sheet costs you the same amount,” and there is no opportunity for the volume discounts that offset makes possible. But, declining per-sheet cost is far from being the only reason to preserve the traditional process.
Blue says that if the UT Austin in-plant were to go all-digital, it would have to outsource its long runs — including time-sensitive “hot jobs” over which it’s crucial to maintain control. There is also the human element, given that abandoning offset probably also would mean dismissing some of the personnel who spent years running the equipment. “I don’t like to have to see good people go if I can keep an operation profitable otherwise,” Blue declares.
Craftsmanship accounts for some of the loyalty in-plants continue to feel for offset, although in-plant managers understand that their circle as keepers of the flame is shrinking. As Seto observes, “we are a public school system, so pleasing color is good enough.” But he and his operators come from commercial print backgrounds, and those are the standards they try to uphold — “even though our customers might not notice it, or appreciate it,” Seto acknowledges.
After more than 30 years in the industry, Crosslin has seen the demand for color quality go “from an absolute necessity to almost second-hand.” Quality, he admits, “is not as much of a deciding factor as price is,” but he draws a line when it comes to faithfully reproducing the branded colors of his school district on the HCDE Print Shop’s offset press. “If the color is not right,” he declares, “it really bothers me.”
Not Anytime Soon
Offset’s future can’t be assured indefinitely at any in-plant, but there are reasons to think it will be hard to dislodge from shops that can keep giving it the kind of workload the process thrives on.
Assuming that the volumes are sufficient and the content remains static, the economy of offset is unbeatable. It is also protective. “Basically, all I charge for is materials,” says Crosslin, who is able to keep outside commercial printers at bay with his shop’s low prices.
Seto’s billing structure is similar, with labor chargeable from a separate budget. The result, he says, is that commercial competitors “don’t really want our work.”
Blue says that because his shop lacks the right of first refusal, it tries to forge mutually beneficial partnerships with print providers in the area.
“We are by far the largest print buyer at UT Austin, so they should be coming to us,” he observes.
Offset jobs that are too big for the in-plant’s presses to handle by themselves, or that require UV or other special touches the shop can’t provide, are bid out just for the printing — the in-plant buys the paper and drop-ships it to the partner. The shop outsources millions of dollars’ worth of printing annually in this way, according to Blue. In return, the vendors are asked to “stay off the campus” with their competitive bids: a rule that he says they generally abide by.
The main threat to offset in in-plants like these comes not from commercial competition or alternative printing technologies, but from the difficulty of keeping an offset pressroom staffed with skilled personnel. Seto thinks that because his operators are still in their early 50s, his shop ought to be secure in terms of talent for another 10 to 15 years. But after that, given the fact that so few young people want to enter the field, he isn’t sure.
‘Pain’ of the Search
“I know the pain of trying to find qualified individuals to operate any type of press,” Crosslin commiserates. What may help him groom future operators of his shop’s Presstek CPO 34DI-E is the fact that with this waterless offset press, there is no ink-water balance to maintain — a feature that, according to Crosslin, makes the press much easier to get good results from than conventional litho equipment.
“I wish I’d had it 20 years ago,” he says. He believes that after just two weeks of learning how it works, a young trainee “could run that press as well as I can.”
Time undoubtedly will give Crosslin an opportunity to test this idea. For now, he speaks on behalf of many in the in-plant industry who continue to rely on offset for all the right reasons.
“Without our offset press, this would not have worked out the way we wanted it to,” Crosslin concludes. “We could not get done the volume of work we have to turn around without offset."
Related story: Offset Endures and Thrives In Missouri