PRESSMAN Alan Doyle grabs the 15th color print that rolls off the whirring Heidelberg press and examines it for quality. Alas, an errant splash of ink mars the cherry-red hair of the clown on the print.
Mr. Doyle had predicted that this press run would achieve usable quality by the 15th copy; instead, it takes until the 30th.
Still, that's not bad for a process that traditionally would take 100 or more copies before quality is up to par.
The inventors of this system say it may open up a fast-growing market for commercial printers: short press-runs of 500 to 5,000 copies that used to be too expensive because of the large up-front costs of color printing.
"That's the market that [traditional color] lithography can't touch," says Michael Bruno of Bradenton, Fla., who publishes a newsletter on graphic communications.
Whether the new press will prove viable in the marketplace remains to be seen; it now is being tested at Digital Quickcolor Inc. in Irvine, Calif.
"We should be able to at least double the productivity of the press" using the new system, says Bob McKarney, president of the Digital Quickcolor, a subsidiary of Sir Speedy Inc. printers.
The press - the offspring of a joint venture between Presstek Inc., a small New Hampshire company founded in 1987, and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, a large German pressmaker - is revolutionary in that it is "dry." In the traditional process, water is applied to each plate to prevent ink from transferring to the non-image part of the plate. Great skill is required to adjust the water-ink balance every time the press is stopped, with waste of both time and paper.
In addition to its proprietary waterless plate technology, Presstek saves time with a "direct-imaging" technology that bypasses the conventional photographic method of making the four plates for a color print.
Presstek sends a document in digital form from a computer directly to the press, where the four plates are simultaneously imaged, or "burned," in 14 minutes by electric sparks. Using traditional methods, the pressman spends some time getting the plates aligned properly. Heidelberg has a 20-year conditional license on this technology, which aligns the plates in perfect register.
Still, 14 minutes is a lot of idle time for the printing press, compared to stopping for a few minutes to switch plates, notes Peter Dyson, editor of the Seybold Report on Publishing Systems. For the Heidelberg-Presstek process to succeed, "the critical ingredient is going to be getting the setup time down," he says.
The Heidelberg press, which costs a hefty $464,000, can print 8,000 sheets an hour.
The Heidelberg-Presstek system is coming on line at a time of rapid change in publishing technology. The 1980s saw evolution of "prepress" equipment that enables graphic designers to create color documents using ever-cheaper desktop machines. Today, photographs can be cropped, text edited, and the whole package positioned on a page using computer workstations. And more and more computers are being adapted to full-color display.
But once a promotional flyer, product brochure, or newsletter is ready to go from computer to printing press, the customer runs up against high, fixed costs.
For large press runs - 10,000 or more copies - these one-time costs are not so significant. But they are substantial for short runs. Bill Ohm, Presstek's marketing manager, estimates that printing a run of 1,000 copies would cost $526 by traditional methods and about $115 with Presstek's patented system.
Color photocopies, though of lower quality, are competitive in price with Presstek up to about 150 or 200 copies, according to Frank Romano, who runs a printing center in Salem, N.H. But as quantity goes up, the per-copy cost stays the same - $850 for 1,000 copies - and quality suffers, Mr. Romano says.
Currently, 56 percent of all print jobs are batches of 500 to 5,000 copies, according to market research done by Romano's consulting business, GAMA Communications. The survey took photocopy jobs and computer printouts into account, as well as commercial printing.
Of this short-run segment of the market, only 4 percent of the jobs currently are done in color. Mr. Bruno projects that color printing is likely to grow by 1995 to 16 percent of all jobs of 500 to 2,000 copies, and 24 percent of the jobs of 2,000 to 5,000 copies.
Other companies, among them Printware Inc. in St. Paul, Minn., and Gerber Scientific Instrument Company in Hartford, Conn., are coming out with advances in direct-imaging technology, often using laser technology instead of electric sparks. Presstek's system is different because it is waterless and makes the plates on the press in register. (Mr. Dyson says a different waterless method has been in use for several years for the longer press-runs of newspapers.)
The traditional photographic system of plate-making still has advantages, Dyson says, such as the ease of storing film - as opposed to memory-intensive computer data - for making new copies of a plate. But he foresees a growing role for new technologies in the industry.
Presstek, whose stock is traded on the NASDAQ market, is also developing an off-press, direct-imaging system in cooperation with Lino-Hell AG, a leading maker of prepress equipment. Plates made off-press could then be used with presses other than Heidelberg's.
Bruno says the Presstek system requires fairly high-quality paper and therefore would not work well with newsprint, the paper used in newspapers.