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Litho on a Budget

With the lost initial cost of digital printers often dominating headlines, Harriet Gordon changes the conversation by examining the options in entry-level litho

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Printers could be afraid of a litho operation because of the intial cost

Litho on a Budget

We all know that digital printing has opened up opportunities for all types of print firms. With this comparatively new technology, short-run and personalised printing has become possible for all, while the much lower initial capital outlay makes investing in new digital equipment easier for smaller print companies.

Indeed, there is a perception now that litho printing has become the domain of the larger firms only. And while these machines do represent a significantly greater investment than their digital counterparts, litho manufacturers are keen to insist that entry-level options are available.

Professional class

These companies are aware, however, on the face of it, the prices that accompany lithographic printers are intimidating. Paul Chamberlain, presses product specialist at Heidelberg UK, comments: “Anyone used to buying digital might take a deep intake of breath at that capital cost. The B3 format Speedmaster SX52-4 would be the lowest point of entry for a Heidelberg press, with a list price from £400,000. Yet, from that point on, there are no click charges, so it is worth looking at the total cost of ownership over a period of time.

Heidelberg’s lowest point of entry press is the B3 format Speedmaster SX52-4, with a list price from £400,000


“The write off period on a litho press is typically seven to ten years, and remember that, unlike digital, there is a relatively good resale value too. Heidelberg calculates that the per sheet cost of litho is competitive from 250 sheets with an Anicolor inking system and from 500 sheets with a conventional inking model.”

The write off period on a litho press is typically seven to ten years, and remember that, unlike digital, there is a relatively good resale value, too


Chamberlain says that Heidelberg does not use the phrase ‘entry-level’, but prefers the term ‘professional class’, because these are technologically advanced presses that are real workhorses for busy printers.

He continues: “For anyone wanting to enter at the larger B2 format, the Speedmaster SX 74 with a starting price of £570,000 would be the answer. On two other presses, the Speedmaster CX 75 and the SRA1 Speedmaster CS92, there is the potential to take advantage of a Heidelberg subscription model too, which lowers the initial capital cost with monthly repayments then calculated on a bespoke basis.

“The Speedmaster SX 52 range was developed from the proven Speedmaster SM range but which incorporated some of the advanced technology of the top of the range Speedmaster XL series. There are already over 40,000 units of Speedmaster SX 52 installed worldwide which is testament to its success and popularity. It can be tailored to a printer’s specific needs, for instance with a UV option (for dry sheets off the end of the press), Anicolor short train inking (for short runs and reduced paper waste), and configurations of up to eight units, including perfecting. The Prinect Press Center 2 makes the press easy to operate and means it can be linked in to a Prinect workflow for quick set up and information feedback.”

There are over 40,000 units of Speedmaster SX 52 installed worldwide and it can be tailored to a printer’s specific needs


Indeed, Heidelberg is unusual in the industry for having a workflow that can link in both litho and digital equipment seamlessly.

Rapid progress

Another firm offering entry-level versions of its presses in both B2 and B1 format is Koenig & Bauer, as product and marketing manager, Craig Bretherton, explains:

“In B2 we have the Rapida 75Pro and the high-speed, high-specification Rapida76. The machines are built on the same platform with the same print towers, but the press speed and the range of options that can be specified are different. This is exactly the same with the B1 format. However, we have three models, the Rapida 105, Rapida 105Pro and Rapida 106. Once again, all three are built with the same print units and transfers systems but the output speeds and range of options that are available increase as you move up the range.

Bretherton states that the options available on the Rapida 75Pro, although reduced from the premium range, still enable make-ready saving automation and colour control


He continues: “These offer a reduction in price of around 15 percent. We use a platform method of construction for all our presses; our customers will get identical print quality from the press regardless of the model purchased.

The print towers, ink trains and transfer systems are identical. The Rapida 105 has a top speed of 16,000 SPH compared with up to 20,000 SPH on the 106 model. Print runs are reducing in most cases. Therefore, 16,000 SPH would be considered a high enough production speed for some printers. The range of options available on both the Rapida 75Pro and Rapida 105, although reduced from the premium range, would still offer a customer an opportunity to add the latest in make-ready saving automation and colour control if the features are required.”

While the focus here is on entry-level technology, Murray Lock, joint managing director of M Partners, warns against moving into this sector with the wrong machine. He comments: “Within the current market, it is hard to recommend that any printer enter the litho sector with anything less than a four-colour SRA3 press, such as our RMGT 524GX machine. This machine would provide a company with a press capable of producing up to 15,000 sheets per hour. The dangers of entering the market with anything less would be that a printer is unlikely to be competitive in terms of either price or delivery time.”

Murray Lock of M Partners states that, page for page, litho is more affordable than digital if the machines are run effectively


When considering a lithographic investment, Lock suggests that printers do some careful calculations, as in-house production may not always be a wiser option: “Page for page litho is certainly more affordable than digital if the machines are run effectively. But make sure you have done your sums! Buying in print from an outside source has never been more affordable. It would be important to keep a running check on prices from external printers to make sure that your in-house service was giving value for money.

It would be important to keep a running check on prices from external printers to make sure that your in-house service was giving value for money


“If your department is being run as a stand-alone operation, it needs to show a profit on the work that it produces, and this may entail your bringing in work from outside the company to fill any available space. If this is the case, you need to be competitive on price and on quality. Also don’t try to take on work that is not suited to the equipment that you have installed - there may still be some jobs that are more economical to have produced externally, such as very long-run work that would be more suited to a larger sheet size for example.”

He continues: “The big plus, of course, of having print in-house is having control over deadlines. If your in-house customer needs a job today, you have the control over production to make it happen. You also have control over production costs, meaning that you will be the one to source the right stock and consumables at the best possible price.”

O Factoid: Lithography was invented in 1796 by German author and actor Alois Senefelder, as a cheap method of publishing theatrical work O


If you do opt for in-house, Lock has some further recommendations: “The 520GX offers numerous automation and labour-saving devices, including semi-automatic plate loading. Colour adjustments, dampening supply, and registration adjustments can all be made by the operator at the control desk using the touch sensitive LCD display. The operator can also input paper size and thickness via the screen to set the impression pressure and pull-side-guide to the optimal position. The maximum paper size that can be handled by the Ryobi GX Series is 520 x 375mm, whilst the machines will take sheets as small as 100 x 105mm. The press will handle sheet thicknesses from 0.04mm through to 0.6mm, and will print at up to 15,000 sheets per hour.”

Eyes wide open

For any printers considering purchasing entry-level machines, Heidelberg’s Chamberlain also suggests look beyond the initial capital cost to the total cost of ownership. He comments: “You need to discuss with the supplier the way the press will handle existing work and how it might open up new opportunities that you can’t tackle with digital equipment. Also assess the likely consumables costs, service and maintenance costs and potential resale values.

There is no harm in looking at various financing options, too. For instance, Heidelberg offers a scheme where a consumables deal will fund part of the capital cost and repayments are in line with the usage of the plates, inks etc called off each month. Another option is to buy second-hand. Heidelberg UK can help there, too; buying from the original manufacturer means it will be fitted with original parts and checked over by the real experts.”

He continues: “Only buy a brand which you can trust and which has a reputation for offering robust and reliable equipment and which has the service and support levels to ensure you make the most of your investment.

Question idle claims, check the detail and talk to users.”

Koenig & Bauer’s Bretherton similarly advises exercising caution when taking advice from dealers. He comments: “Listening only to a select group of advisors can be risky. Get a bigger picture from people such as the BPIF, financial advisors, and equipment manufacturers. We all have a vested interest in companies in the UK succeeding, so the advice should be of great benefit. Reference visits to users can also be a big advantage in establishing what type of equipment you need. Keep it simple: if the machine has the capability to produce far more than you require it can bring incredible pressure to fill the capacity.”

Craig Bretherton of Koenig & Bauer


So is litho an option for those looking for entry-level options? Chamberlain certainly believes so, commenting: “Litho is affordable and delivers a profitable return, or it would not have survived against a range of new digital printing options. Litho continues to thrive because it still has the best cost per copy and ROI on all but the shortest runs and bespoke commercial print.

“Most litho printers have a digital arm now so digital printers need to add litho to compete on an even playing field. Buying litho equipment can be more technical than buying digital, but the effort is worth your time: litho is absolutely here to stay.”

Bretherton concurs, stating that, while the initial price of a lithographic press is not going down, printers need to take other costs into account: “Digital is great for personalisation and short run. However, the efficiencies in making ready and accelerated low-energy drying systems, such as LEDUV and HRUV, has made the output levels of a litho press much closer to that of digital presses on short-run work. Additionally, the amount of waste a litho press will produce has been steadily dropping.

He concludes by highlighting the benefits to be gained from making the leap and investing in litho, stating: “The range of materials and finishes that can be produced on a litho press are still far greater, as is the volume that can be produced through the machine. So, if run lengths are predicted to rise in a business, litho should be considered.”
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