Waterless Offset's Future Remains Uncertain

By David Savastano, Ink World Editor | 09.02.05

Process remains stagnant despite productivity, quality benefits

Process remains stagnant despite productivity, quality benefits

In the early 1990s, waterless technology seemed to be the wave of the future in printing.

As environmental pressures continued to mount in the printing industry, many printers began to examine the merits of waterless offset, which appeared to be numerous. The quality of the printing was sharper, and the printer would have one less major variable, the water-ink balance, to worry about. There would also be less make-ready time.

There was a significant cost to switch over presses, ranging between $50,000 to $100,000 to set up temperature zones, but many printers believed the savings could add up.

However, all was not good on the waterless offset front: Toray, the lone manufacturer of analog waterless plates, was unable to meet the growing demand for plates. As printers found themselves facing significant press downtime, they began to look elsewhere.

Today, plate problems have been overcome, but whether waterless offset has seen its window of opportunity shut remains a concern to many in the industry.

Promise of Waterless
Waterless printing became a consideration in light of environmental concerns, particularly in Europe, where waterless offset has gained a larger foothold. The elimination of the fountain solution provided benefits for the printers.

"The fountain solution or dampening system is dispensed with," said Art Lefebvre, Waterless Printing Association (WPA) president. "Typically, fountain solutions have wetting agents to wet plates which could contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). You don’t have any dampening equipment to deal with."

With these possibilities, printers soon began to examine the benefits of switching to waterless offset.

"The issue we looked at was to eliminate one of the biggest variables we as offset lithographers face each day: ink and water balance," said Glenn Thore, vice president of manufacturing at L&E Packaging, which was recently named U.S. Printer of the Month by the WPA. "It’s something you can do if you work at it diligently, but there are a lot of costs involved in terms of labor and materials."

"The fact that you don’t have ink and water balance to worry about is a big advantage," said Adam Pangrace, owner of Adam Pangrace & Sons, which recently received the Waterless Direct Imaging Award from the WPA. "The ink won’t get emulsified, and you can run higher screens. The job runs absolutely consistently, and when it is restarted, you’re off and running again. There’s a significant reduction in waste."

Ink manufacturers also became interested in this new technology.

Harvey Brice, president of Superior Printing Ink, began looking into waterless offset in 1991 during a trip to Japan. Mr. Brice said he liked what he saw.

"We started working on it right away," Mr. Brice said. "I went to Japan and saw how important this was going to be. We thought it would really take off in the states.

"I think the waterless process makes lots of sense," Mr. Brice said. "When you don’t have water ink balance, you eliminate a variable."

"There’s a lot less waste, and people are looking to cut down make-ready time," said Joseph Casper, vice president of sales service for Kohl & Madden Printing Ink.

"A lot of people are stressing the environmental benefits," Mr. Casper said. "It eliminates fountain solutions and the use of water. We have a great following in Europe for environmental reasons and for the print quality. More people now want to print better, and waterless gives you better dot gain."

"With the absence of dampening, there is a savings on pressroom chemistry and disposal," said Charlie Molicki, sheetfed product manager for Flint Ink.

Plate Problems
Just as many printers began examining waterless offset, a major problem developed: Toray, the lone manufacturer of analog waterless plates, could not keep up with the demand. Once printers began facing a lack of supply, their interest in waterless cooled.

"A few years ago, we were caught in a crunch related to unexpected growth of the market," Mr. Lefebvre said.

"I think the plate situation set us back years, because people couldn’t wait for the plates," Mr. Casper said. "I think we lost a few years, but there are plenty of plates now."

For printers, not being able to get plates could prove catastrophic.

"It’s a legitimate concern," Mr. Thore said. "Everyone was getting interested, but Toray couldn’t supply it."

"In the beginning, there were problems with getting plate supply," Mr. Pangrace said. "I ordered 200 plates a couple of months ago, but I still haven’t gotten them."

Toray officials contend the shortage has been eliminated. "That’s everybody’s question, and that problem has been solved," said Fred Fusci, technical manager, Toray Waterless Plates.

The additional costs of waterless plates were another deterrent to printers. Industry experts say that conventional plates cost about $10, and waterless plates are more than double that price.

"When waterless was introduced, there were a lot more printers experimenting with it, but a lot of printers have found that it is hard to justify the added costs of plates and inks," noted Van Conroy, central regional manager, Toyo Ink America.

"Plate costs are higher, but compared to reduced costs in manpower, you can recover the costs," Mr. Thore said. "What if we save 10 minutes a shift, times three shifts and five days by not fooling around with this. I challenge anyone to tell me they don’t spend time fooling around with dampening."

"There is a cost factor, but more importantly, there isn’t a substantial number of plate competitors," said Mr. Lefebvre. "That’s one of the major reasons it’s not growing by leaps and bounds."

The other major plate manufacturer is Presstek, which makes plates for Heidelberg’s Quickmaster DI system. Presstek manufactures computer-to-plate (CTP) products, and reports growth.

"Business is good," said John O’Rourke, product manager for consumables for Presstek. "We’re inextricably linked to waterless and Quickmaster DI, and we’ve established a market base fast approaching the size of Toray’s. Presstek’s Pearl Dry plate sales account for 90 percent of all the growth in the waterless plate business worldwide."

"More of the smaller on-demand presses using Presstek technology are growing, while the Toray plates seem to be dropping off," said Ken Ferguson, technical director, Van Son Holland Ink.

Mr. Fusci said that Toray is readying its own CTP products, which will be introduced shortly.

Mr. Lefebvre believes that other competition, particularly from Kodak Polychrome, may be the boost that waterless printing needs.

"The main competition is expected from Kodak Polychrome, which is going to be a digital waterless plate that’s in alpha testing right now," said Mr. Lefebvre. "Beta testing is expected to begin in the third quarter."

Even with the plate problems, waterless offset does offer advantages to printers.

"The quality is outstanding, but there are also printers who are in the game for productivity, whose motivation is eliminating waste and gaining consistency of color," Mr. Lefebvre said. "Printing consistency can be highly variable due to dampening systems."

"It is a really big plus, and I’m surprised more printers haven’t gone in that direction," said Mr. Conroy about eliminating the water-ink balance variable. Mr. Conroy said that reduction in waste is also an important facet, as presses come up to color within about 200 sheets with waterless, as opposed to 750 sheets or more in conventional offset printing.

"I do have a number of printers who have chosen to print waterless, and they say the paper waste is drastically reduced and make-ready time is decreased," Mr. Conroy said. "For them, it has really helped productivity and decreased the bottom line."

Better color is one important factor that printers cite in favor of waterless printing.

"One of the biggest costs is color variation," said Mr. Thore, whose company has been working with waterless offset since 1991. "The chemistry you have to maintain takes a lot of energy. We said that’s one area we would like to try to avoid. We’ve tracked our color variation, and in comparison to what our customers were used to getting, our customers see nothing wrong. We’ve virtually eliminated the issue of color variation from our plant."

"You can put a lot more ink down because you don’t have to worry about the water," said Mr. Ferguson. "There’s no water, so it dries faster, as there is no water emulsifying into the ink. This allows greater saturation since you can lay down a heavier film, which allows for more vibrant colors and a denser look."

"You can get better finish, and you’re getting a truer transfer of ink to the blanket, and blanket to the paper," Mr. Brice noted.

Improvements in Inks
Over the last few years, ink manufacturers have been making improvements in their inks.

"In the beginning, there was a narrow temperature range the inks would run in, but it seems that the manufacturers have changed their temperature ranges, and it’s not as critical as it used to be," Mr. Pangrace said.

"Ink manufacturers have made their products very good very quickly," Mr. Thore added.

Mr. Molicki said that all facets of the waterless industry have improved during the past few years.

"There has definitely been gains from all areas," Mr. Molicki said. "From the ink standpoint, the quality has increased. Press equipment has become more sophisticated with upgrades in cooling/heating systems which is critical in waterless printing. From the plate end, the use of digital imaging (laser ablation) has improved the quality of print as well as predictability of print."

Mr. Molicki said that in the area of ink, there have been improvements in rheology, critical toning indexes and printing characteristics.

"More and more research is going into the ink to improve print performance and consistency as well as understanding the mechanisms involved with successful waterless printing," Mr. Molicki said. "There has to be a dynamic viscosity that will lend itself to clean printing without any toning or runnability concerns. Improving on and perfecting this has been an ongoing project. Let’s face it, your ink needs to be bullet proof when it comes to waterless and be forgiving with a wide Critical Toning Index."

The Future of Waterless
One area where waterless offset is growing is in the small offset market.

"There has been a significant increase in waterless printing in the small offset press market primarily in the 18" to 28" format," said Mr. Molicki. "These are smaller printers that produce on demand printing for their customers. Many have found great success with the smaller presses that use digital technologies and waterless inks. It suits their application well. They can sell their customers on faster turnaround and a high quality print job.

"In the larger format area we do not see the business increasing as most would like," Mr. Molicki continued. "There is a select group of printers that have chosen to print waterless and it works well as long as the commitment is there."

Most industry experts agree that waterless offset can best hope for slight gains, unless the government starts to push for further environmental reforms.

"I think someday that the U.S. is going to wake up and find new environmental regulations," Mr. Casper said. "I think that one of these days, the government is going to start pushing it again."

There are other possible areas that could lead to waterless offset’s resurgence. Mr. Brice said that more plate manufacturers could be a key to waterless printing’s growth.

"I think there will be a resurgence, as competition drives prices down on plates," Mr. Brice said.

Time alone will tell whether waterless offset with find its earlier promise of growth, but industry officials don’t really expect that to occur that quickly. "I think it will be a slow growth," Mr. Ferguson concluded.

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