Waterless Offset: Growing After Dry Times

By Tom Williams, Ink World Associate Editor | 09.02.05

A market that showed so much initial promise is coming back to life on the heels of new technologies.

As environmental regulations toughen and VOC reduction becomes a more prevalent concern around the world, it would seem that a virtually VOC-free printing process providing the benefits of reduced waste, faster makereadies and improved print quality would be an attractive investment for printers and ink manufacturers alike. In spite of this, waterless offset printing, which was introduced more than 10 years ago and showed so much early promise, has yet to gain more than a stable foothold on the mountain of printing market prominence.

The initial inability of Toray, which originally held the patent on waterless negative plates, to meet early market demand has been cited as the primary reason for waterless offset’s failure to climb higher. According to Dick Drong, Sun Chemical’s marketing manager, sheetfed offset inks, Toray’s supply issues “shook the confidence of people interested in waterless printing, essentially shutting down demand for waterless plates, inks and ancillary equipment.”

Art Lefebvre, executive director of the Waterless Printing Association, agreed, stating, “I would say as many as 20 to 30 percent of our members gave up waterless as a result of plate availability.”

This, combined with wariness on the part of many American printers to enter into a single-supplier market, resulted in market growth greatly below predicted levels. Today, however, several ink, press and plate manufacturers, including Sun Chemical, Presstek and Karat, have recently made moves to increase the size of the waterless offset market as well as their stake in it. In addition, Flint Ink recently premiered a prototype single fluid ink formulation that is a technological offshoot of the waterless offset process and has the potential to greatly affect the ink market as a whole.

The DI Market
Without presses running waterless offset, there is no need for consumables that go along with this process. Therefore, plate manufacturer Presstek’s active growth, which is evident in the fact that independent analysts predict record revenues of nearly $100 million for the company this year, is a positive sign for the waterless offset market as a whole. Traditionally, waterless offset has accounted for 1 percent of the worldwide market. While Toray’s market share has been declining since the early 1990s, Presstek’s share has been growing, according to the plate manufacturer. The reason for Presstek’s increased presence in recent years has been the ignition of the fuse on the DI powder-keg that, fueled by the success of Heidelberg’s Quickmaster DI press, seems ready to explode.

“Presstek introduced Pearldry in 1993, and since that time it has been the media of choice for DI presses,” said John O’Rourke, plate product manager at Presstek. There are currently more than 1,500 presses running Pearldry plates around the world. In addition, a recent study performed by CAP Ventures, a Massachusetts-based research firm, declared that users of the Quickmaster DI, equipped with Presstek’s DI technology, enjoy profitability at levels well above the industry average. In fact, Presstek’s industry position has been given a major boost by its cooperative agreement with Heidelberg, the world’s largest press maker.

As a result of this agreement, the majority of Heidelberg Quickmaster DI presses, of which there are more than 1,000 in the world, run Pearldry plates. According to Mr. O’Rourke, “The vast majority of DI presses that have been shown, tested or sold are waterless. This is good for our business, since we specialize in waterless plates, and we believe that waterless printing will continue to be a factor in DI technology in the future.”

If the future does hold true to the course Presstek predicts, then the company is in an excellent position for continued growth. This is witnessed by the impact DI presses had at Drupa 2000. Presstek showed six new products at the exposition, and the exhibits of 17 other companies included Presstek’s technology. As Mr. O’Rourke maintains, “Direct to press technology has been growing steadily and will be accelerated because you have more and more parties signing up. The technology has been validated by the fact that major vendors such as Adast, Akiyama, Didde, Karat, Komori, Heidelberg, MAN Roland, Ryobi, Sakurai and Xerox as well as other plate suppliers like Agfa and Kodak have become involved.”

This fact has not been missed by several ink companies, who are positioning themselves to be a part of this growing market. According to Harvey Brice, president of NY-based Superior Printing Ink Co., his company’s efforts now will bode well for the future. “We are using waterless inks for direct imaging and have worked very closely with Heidelberg,” stated Mr. Brice. “We are right on track with DI.”

Growth Area: Short-Run Printing
According to a number of industry insiders, short run jobs are the area where the waterless offset process may have the highest potential for growth. Sid Jain, marketing manager, Karat Digital Press, North America, believes that as waterless technologies continue to develop and receive more widespread acceptance, a number of printers will begin to incorporate waterless printing systems. “Great demand exists for short- and medium-run, high-quality printing, but cost and time barriers have prevented its use on a broader scale,” said Mr. Jain. “As the benefits of higher productivity and lower costs associated with preparing waterless presses like the Quickmaster DI and the 74 Karat take hold, the short-run market holds the potential for explosive growth.”

With this in mind, in 1999 Karat Digital Press introduced the 20.5 x 29 inch 74 Karat press. This digitally integrated waterless and keyless offset press is optimized for short to medium run, 4-color print jobs. It features automated 15-minute makereadies with direct imaging to aluminum plates and is targeted at those printers who want to address the needs of the short- to medium-run offset market. In and of itself, the fact that Karat chose to enter a market where Heidelberg had already dug in so strongly is a positive statement regarding the future of waterless offset.

Consumables Market
A thought that has been at the forefront of ink manufacturers’ thinking regarding the increasing number of DI presses running waterless offset is that the expansion of this market means the demand for waterless-specific consumables will be on the rise as well.

At Drupa 2000 Sun Chemical premiered its Instant Dry W2, the first commercially available digital, waterless and water-washable sheetfed offset ink.

Instant Dry W2, which was a joint collaboration between Sun and Heidelberg for application to the latter’s Quickmaster DI presses, is a single fluid ink that eliminates VOCs in both the ink and press wash areas, as well as in the spray powder used in the sheetfed printing process. Mr. Drong of Sun Chemical predicts that due to the advantages this ink formulation presents, sales will be strong. In addition, Mr. Drong also believes that this product will help to grow the waterless offset market as a whole.

“It will expand the market in a significant way to existing wet litho printers that exceed VOC thresholds in their geographic areas,” said Mr. Drong. “Where some printers might be inhibited by local agencies to add new equipment to expand their sales because of VOC generation potential, to adopt this new ‘no VOC’ technology will eliminate those barriers to growth. It could very well be that this development could triple or better the existing waterless market as it stands today.”

Certain limitations, however, do exist for the use of this product. The most obvious is that printers using presses other than the Quickmaster DI will not be able to run Instant Dry W2. To address this, Sun has also developed a separate line of single fluid inks suited for other sheetfed offset presses, including larger format presses.

Another concern of potential Instant Dry W2 users will be its cost. Initially, this technology will run at a premium. However, Mr. Drong believes that this will be negated by the environmental and finished job cost advantages to the printer and the print buyer. Mr. Drong also asserts that over time per unit costs will come down to reflect increased demand and improved manufacturing efficiencies.

Never one to be outdone, Flint Ink also unveiled a new technology at Drupa 2000. Despite the fact that this product, SFI single fluid ink technology, is still a concept technology, its reception has been outstanding.

“The overall reception SFI received at Drupa was overwhelming,” stated Les Watkins, director of new technology, Flint Ink. “We had no idea quite what to expect, but the response has been very, very high. As a result of this I can say that SFI will be commercially available before the end of 2001, and maybe even a lot sooner.”

Whereas Sun Chemical’s Instant Dry W2 is a product designed for use with waterless offset presses, Flint’s SFI is suitable for use anywhere conventional lithography is used. This means that Flint’s SFI allows printers to receive the benefits of waterless offset printing without having to use special waterless plates or to make press adaptations. “We haven’t answered all the questions regarding the limitations of whether it works on all the plates and all the printing presses that are out there,” said Mr. Watkins. “However, I think it would be unrealistic to expect that one ink can do all of these things. We may need more than one version. I do think, however, that it has the potential to replace almost any printing that is done conventionally.”

After spending six years in R&D, the feasibility of this product has already passed numerous early tests. According to the company, the long development period associated with this product was necessary for several pieces of technology to reach the point where they were capable of being put together in a working manner. In the last year, however, Flint has been running tests at Port City Press in Baltimore, MD, that, according to Mr. Watkins, “Have worked out very, very well.” Flint Ink is currently utilizing the test runs at Port City Press to examine issues such as run length, quality and plate life.

As was the case with Sun’s Instant Dry W2, certain questions still remain about what sort of impact SFI will have upon the market. One factor that will influence its effectiveness is whether or not SFI is cost efficient. “We have not scaled up manufacturing to a level or started to buy raw materials in a quantity that will optimize the price,” stated Mr. Watkins. “The chances are it will be more expensive than a conventional ink, however, not to the point that the overall process will be more expensive.” In other words, just as is the case with Sun’s new product, Flint expects an overall cost reduction in the unit cost of pieces produced due to reduced waste, maintenance and the removal of fountain solution.

Given all the upsides that seem to be associated with Flint’s SFI, it may seem feasible that this technology will negatively affect the waterless offset market by taking away business. According to Flint Ink, however, this will most likely not be the case. “I don’t foresee SFI reducing the market for waterless,” remarked Mr. Watkins. “There has not been a disproportionate interest in this technology from people who print waterless.”

Potential customers that Mr. Watkins does foresee signing on to use this new product include printers who had earlier rejected waterless as a viable option. In addition, he also predicts that some of Flint’s pre-existing customers may switch over to SFI. “Inevitably it is going to replace some of the business we already have,” said Mr. Watkins. “We expect, however, a judicious blend of new business and old business in relation to this product when it becomes commercially available.”

The Future
While the waterless offset market may never reach the heights originally expected, it has once again begun to climb on the back of new technology. As Mr. Drong maintains, “The situation today is different due to larger batch manufacturing improving efficiencies and driving down real costs. That, coupled with the technology available from a number of companies, has made pricing more competitive.” For this reason, in spite of the fact that the future of the market as a whole has not yet been determined, its stability and promise continue to grow with each convert. In addition, these facts have a number of industry insiders extremely excited about its prospects. “Once printers understand that waterless offers other very tangible benefits, it will gain a place in mainstream offset printing,” commented Mr. Jain. “And as usage increases, the costs of consumables will decrease, serving to spur demand.”

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