Offset's Enduring Place at the In-plant Table
Managers of in-plants are nothing if not pragmatic. When something works, it works, and they’ll stick with it — even if it isn’t necessarily the newest or the most technically advanced production option available to them.
This tough but fair attitude explains why offset lithography retains a place of respect at in-plant printing departments. In-plant veterans know that while digital printing may be preferable for some jobs, in others, only the quality and cost efficiency of conventional sheetfed offset will do. That’s why Keith Hopson, supervisor of the mkPRINT in-plant at Mary Kay Inc., in Carrollton, Texas, speaks for everyone interviewed for this article when he says, “Offset is going to be here for as long as it makes sense.”
Not surprisingly, offset’s share of in-plant print production isn’t what it was in the days before digital. More than half (56%) of respondents to a recent IPG survey said they provide sheetfed offset printing services. Virtually all of them reported having digital printing and copying, and 45% described their shops as digital-only environments.
Digital printing is also the top revenue generator for in-plants, according to that survey, accounting for 61% of the average in-plant’s revenue. Sheetfed offset produces about 19% of their revenue.
Offset’s share could slip further as in-plants look for opportunities to shift work to their digital platforms. In-plant managers are unsentimental about doing this.
“There’s nothing keeping [work] on offset. We seldom run a job offset that we can produce digitally,” reports Bill May, director of the University of Alabama’s in-plant, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. He makes the call first and foremost on the basis of cost efficiency. But at UA Printing and elsewhere, offset has a life insurance policy in the high-volume work that digital printing can’t produce as economically as the conventional process.
Taming the Clicks
“Offset is still the least expensive option for larger quantities,” insists Susan Sombeck, director of Publications, Printing and Mailing Services at Illinois Wesleyan University, in Bloomington, Ill.
Stephen J. Amitrano, director of Print and Mail Services for Rowan College at Burlington County, in Pemberton, N.J., notes that being able to print jobs eight-up on offset-sized forms with his in-plant’s four-color Ryobi 524GE “saves us a lot of clicks” and the charges that come with them in digital production.
The offset equipment at the in-plants we spoke to ranges from duplicator-sized machines to the press at UA Printing. All of the shops have four- or five-color capability. They also have corresponding numbers of monochrome and color digital presses, some with in-line bookletmakers and other finishing attachments.
Coming off the litho presses at all four locations are the kinds of work traditionally associated with the process. The three higher-ed in-plants produce student recruitment kits, alumni materials, postcards, posters, brochures, newsletters and business cards. Packaged product inserts form a large part of the offset workload for mkPRINT, which turns out more than 3 million of them per month along with flyers and other marketing collateral in six-figure quantities.
Time on Its Side
The fact that each of these in-plants has its own definition of a “sweet spot” for offset volumes indicates how flexible the process can be in terms of run length economy. All of the in-plants weigh digital click charges against the fully loaded cost of offset impressions and predicate their decisions about which method to use primarily (although not exclusively) on cost.
Sombeck, for example, says that offset can get the nod over digital for color jobs in runs as low as 300 to 400 pieces unless the work has an especially tight deadline.
“If we have time, we will always go with offset,” she says. With black-and-white work, the upper limit for digital and the low end for offset falls somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000.
Offset has to compete a bit harder at UA Print, where May says a job could consist of up to 5,000 clicks on a digital press before he would consider switching it to offset. But he also has used his sheetfed offset equipment for quantities in the low hundreds, calling the process generally suitable “for as many or few as you want to run.”
The cutoff can be even higher at mkPRINT, where Hopson says the separately located digital department sends the offset pressroom whatever work doesn’t fit its profile: usually quantities in excess of 10,000. Amitrano, who sets the bar at about 2,000 clicks for color jobs, has to work within a vendor-imposed “umbrella system” that limits the total number of clicks he can run up monthly on his digital equipment. He relies on his offset presses to siphon off the overflow and keep digital production under the umbrella.
Run length isn’t the only factor that determines which method will be used. Tight turnarounds favor the push-button simplicity of digital; offset’s larger format sizes make for more efficient impositions. Decisions about color also come into play, cutting both ways.
Hopson says he will choose the heavy ink coverage of offset for jobs with the most critical requirements, even if the quantities are small. Amitrano, on the other hand, says that if the piece looks like it is going to be a heavily saturated “paint job” on an offset press, he may opt for digital color to avoid drying issues and delays.
The processes play to each other’s strengths in the production of digitally imprinted offset shells, a hybrid variable-data printing (VDP) application that all of the in-plants provide. Digital print over offset-printed static content continues to be an attractive way for the shops to personalize. Sombeck, for example, says that she produces about 140,000 pieces per year this way.
Somebody Up There Likes Us
The best friend that a sheetfed offset press in an in-plant can have is a supportive parent organization. Hopson says that even though Mary Kay buys printing from sources other than his shop, corporate management didn’t question his decision to invest in the Heidelberg Speedmaster SM52 last year and doesn’t instruct him how to divide work between it and his digital presses.
At the University of Alabama, likewise, May and his staff are recognized as “the document repro experts on campus” and so have the school’s confidence in their ongoing use of offset.
When offset passes the green-eyeshade test, its place becomes even more secure. An audit of Sombeck’s shop showed that the in-plant could save the school money by acquiring a four-color press and bringing back some of the work that was being outsourced. Now her offset equipment co-exists happily with her digital assets.
“Having a good balance — that’s the best of both worlds for us,” she says.
But maybe, if it’s properly positioned, offset can be perceived as the better of the two. That’s certainly what Hopson has in mind as he educates his quality-conscious customers at Mary Kay about what five-color offset lithographic printing can do for them.
As word gets out, he says, “I can see them beating down our doors, trying to get press time.”