KBA Looks to Jump-Start the Waterless Printing Industry

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.16.09

Printers, ink makers and other suppliers will be closely watching the performance of the new Cortina waterless newspaper press of Koenig & Bauer-Albert (KBA) when it is launched commercially over the next several months

Printers, ink makers and other suppliers will be closely watching the performance of the new Cortina waterless newspaper press of Koenig & Bauer-Albert (KBA) when it is launched commercially over the next several months.

Not only will those considering entering the waterless sector in Europe be keeping an eye on the progress of the web offset machine, but also those already involved in it.

High sales of the Cortina could considerably alter the production costs of waterless printing. In fact, the success or failure of the Cortina – the first of its type to be specifically developed for the newspaper market – could well determine the future of waterless printing in Europe.

The number of European printers adopting waterless technology has been reduced to a trickle. Some printers are even withdrawing from the waterless sector because of what they regard as high costs and problems with supplies of consumables.

“We are seeing no growth in the market at all at the moment in what is a niche sector anyway,” said an executive at one European producer of waterless inks. “The sector has effectively been going nowhere.”

Enter the Cortina

The introduction of the Cortina, which has been under development for four years, could kickstart a revival in waterless in Europe. It could also provide a platform for a big expansion of waterless systems not only in the newspaper industry but in other segments as well, particularly sheetfed.

There is a belief that if waterless can make big inroads in newspaper printing, it will stimulate a much broader selection of ink producers, plate makers and other suppliers to move into the segment.

Lack of suppliers is considered to be a major obstacle to growth in waterless due to printers’ reluctance to be dependent on a limited number of sources of items like plates.

“Waterless printing has been around for 30 years but has never developed into a big market,” said Klaus Schmidt, KBA’s marketing director.

“We consider that the Cortina could provide the big breakthrough for the technology,” he continued. “Because of the small size of the sector, plates and inks tend to cost more. The creation of much larger market for waterless should mean that inks and platers can be produced on a bigger scale and hence at a lower price.”

The main impetus behind the spread of waterless in Europe was initially the need to comply with environmental regulations and the demand from some customers for ecologically-friendly products.

The European Union has recently implemented legislation on the control of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which has put pressure on printers to reduce their use of solvents. The objective of the regulations, which are being applied throughout most of Eastern Europe as well, is to reduce VOC discharges to a third of their levels in 1990.

There have been moves in individual European countries to cut down the use of solvents for health and safety reasons. There have been measures, for example, to reduce reliance on isopropyl alcohol (IPA) in fountain solutions because of its high flammability.

The attraction of waterless inks is both the absence of solvents and the requirement for a dampening solution, making it easier for printers to keep within the rules on health, safety and the environment (HSE).

The biggest uptake of waterless printing has been in countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian states that have introduced the strictest HSE regulations, and where there is a higher level of consciousness about environmental protection.

In areas with a lower degree of environmental awareness, printers have been much less enthusiastic about waterless technologies.

“The share of waterless in Britain’s printing sector is very small because printers do not give as much priority to the environment as in some parts of Europe,” said Jo Harris, printing portfolio manager at Envirowise, a U.K. government-backed agency which has just mounted a drive in support of waterless printing.

Selling the advantages of waterless systems is also not easy in the current poor state of the European printing market, particularly in segments like sheetfed.

“A switch to waterless would be a huge investment for a small commercial printer in today’s economic climate,” said Ms. Harris. “So we have been thinking about the bigger printers for whom it is a more feasible proposition. But even with them, our objective has been to make them aware of the benefits of waterless now so that they can think seriously about investing in it when the market picks up.”

The squeeze on printers’ margins in recent years has led to more emphasis being placed on the ability of waterless systems to provide environmental benefits and higher quality printing while at the same time saving costs.

Envirowise has done case studies showing that printers can cut costs by around 5 percent to 15 percent through waterless systems. This has mainly been achieved through reductions in waste of paper and other substrates and elimination of the use of IPA and other fountain additives.

Savings have also been generated by shorter press downtimes for cleaning and maintenance and longer lifetimes of both presses and rollers due to no corrosion from dampening solutions.

Quality improvements have included reduced dot gain, higher screen densities, sharper contrasts and more consistent color because of the avoidance of dampening solutions.

Absence of water also enabled higher quality printing to be provided through a wider range of paper types. Waterless printing is also better suited to substrates like plastic.

Overcoming Drawbacks

Nonetheless, many printers have been deterred by examples of waterless systems pushing up costs rather than reducing them.

“The biggest worry is the way temperature control procedures can raise your energy costs, depending on the nature of the machines and the premises,” said a financial manager at one London printer. “We know some printers who have had to pull out of waterless because of horrendous electricity bills from cooling systems.”

Another major drawback for printers has been the danger of running into technical difficulties with plates because of the lack of choice of suppliers. At the moment, Europe has three plate suppliers – Toray Industries, Presstekand Kodak Polychrome Graphics. The market tends to be dominated by Toray, the first to successfully commercialize waterless plates in the late 1970s.

“We have had no problems with waterless inks because they perform extremely well,” said Peter Horrocks, managing director, Beacon Print, Uckfield, southern England, which has won awards for its eco-friendly printing. “We are now having to cut back on the amount of waterless printing we do. We had problems with plates when we switched to a computer-to-plate system and Toray was not able to sort out our difficulties. It is very frustrating having to depend on a single supplier and it is a major reason why printers are reluctant to move over to waterless.”

Flint Ink is developing a single fluid waterless ink system which could be used on conventional plates and should make waterless inks more attractive to printers.

However, KBA is hoping that theCortina will attract so many more plate makers into the waterless sector that supply and cost difficulties will no longer be an issue.

“We know that at least one plate maker is considering moving into the sector,” said Mr. Schmidt. “We need up to five more waterless plate producers on top of the existing three. That would lead to more competition and help to reduce prices.”

“Per square meter, waterless plate prices in Europe are currently around two-thirds higher than conventional plates,” he added. “But they were about three times higher a few years ago, so obviously they will come down further as the size of the market increases.”

KBA also expects that its new machine will attract more ink producers into the waterless market. Initially, a lot of the research work on the inks for the Cortina was done in an alliance with Sun Chemicals. But now Flint Schmidt, Akzo Nobel Inks and Huber are among the companies who will be providing inks as well.

“We quite understand that KBA does not want the Cortina to be specific to the inks from one supplier,” said Harry Bower, Sun’s head of coldset research in Europe. “We will try to make sure that ours is the best system available. The challenge has been to develop an ink that without fountain solution does not tone on the non-image parts of the plate and does not have a problem of build-up on the press.”

KBA, which is the global market leader in newspaper presses with a share of approximately 33 percent, is hoping that the Cortina will account for 30 percent to 40 percent of its sales to the newspaper sector within 10 years. This will provide a potentially large new market for waterless inks and, with medium-sized newspaper printers using up to an average of 35, 000 square meters of plates a year, for manufacturers of waterless plates as well.

The German company expects that cost savings from the machine will amount to 6 percent to 12 percent, a high proportion of which will stem from reducing paper wastage.

The biggest advantage of the Cortina, however, will come from the way its print quality will shift coldset into areas at present served mainly by commercial printers.

“The waterless plates on the machine can be imaged at 60 lines-per-centimeter screen, which not only would a conventional offset newspaper press find impossible but is the standard in heatset,” explained Mr. Schmidt.

“As a result, a printer with a Cortina can print newspapers at night and do supplements and advertising material during the day,” he added. “The next step could be to develop a machine with a dryer which would enable the technology to be used on coated paper and would bring the density up to 80 lines. This shows the tremendous prospects for this waterless system.”