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EPC celebrates five years of waterless printing (with Video)

Eco Print Center (EPC)
Lokeren, Belgium

Eco Print Center (EPC) in Lokeren, Belgium, has declared waterless printing as the industry’s ‘way forward’ after its pioneering approach to adopting the environmentally conscientious technology on an industrial scale. “That pioneering phase is now over,” says Wim Maes, Technical Director of Persgroep Publishing, EPC’s owner. “Our five years of experience have proven that ‘waterless’ was the right decision. It offers a highly automated and environmentally friendly way to print coldset to the highest quality. Waterless printing is the way forward for our industry.”

Wim Maes admits he was sceptical about the waterless concept at first: “Five years ago, waterless printing of newspapers had really only be demonstrated on a small scale. But we needed it to work in an industrial environment.” Nevertheless, De Persgroep was convinced that KBA’s new waterless Cortina press had many advantages to offer that others could not, Maes explains: “De Persgroep needed a plan for the future, as capacity on its existing presses was running out. Circulation of its two major national newspapers, Het Laatste Nieuws and De Morgen, had been growing substantially for years and it became increasingly difficult to get all the papers printed in time. Also, there was a growing demand for more colour.” Instead of refurbishing four presses and adding a fifth, De Persgroep in 2004 boldly decided to start from scratch: “Only KBA offered fully automated plate changing on its new Cortina press. That would not only allow us to become much faster and more productive, but also eliminated the need for a fifth press.”

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New opportunities

Replacing all EPC’s presses with a Cortina offered new opportunities as well. At Lokeren, a new and fully customized production site was built. De Persgroep could switch to the preferred Berliner format and start to offer full colour on all pages. By adding a dryer, coldset and heatset printing would be possible on the same press. And waterless printing, although still fairly unknown in Europe, would enable De Persgroep to offer the highest possible quality in coldset. Maes explains how waterless printing is different from conventional offset printing: “By using special plates with a silicon layer, there is no need anymore for water to keep the ink away from non-printing areas. So, instead of constantly monitoring and trying to maintain the very difficult ink/water balance, in waterless printing you actually only have to ensure that a perfect temperature curve is created - according to the speed of the press - to transfer the ink to the paper.”

Waterless means less waste

“Eliminating water from the printing process has many advantages,” Maes continues. “There is far less waste paper during start up. We now only need an average of 100 copies to get the quality right, and I expect we can get that number down to maybe 80 or even 50. That is very important to us, as we have many plate changes during production because we print over 20 different regional editions of Het Laatste Nieuws. Now, during production, we experience hardly any web breaks- as they are often related to water problems. And waterless printing is much cleaner, as water causes ink mist on fast running presses. So we need less time and materials for cleaning and maintenance.” And waterless printing is environmentally friendly: “First of all, we save huge amounts of water and additives like isopropyl alcohol on our presses. Also, our Toray waterless plates don’t need any on press chemicals. Even better: we now use rainwater to clean our plates after imaging! And these savings add up, as we use some 2,500 to 3,000 plates per night to produce our newspapers.”

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The importance of ink

On March 22, 2006, the first Cortina press started production at the brand new Lokeren-site. It had six months to prove it could deliver on its promises, says Maes: “Of course we were prepared for some pioneering. The Toray plates, for instance, were completely new to us. But they soon exceeded our expectations: scratch-resistance proved no problem, and the plates easily managed run lengths of over 70,000 impressions.” Unexpectedly, the real issue was the ink: “At that time, there had been no demand for any large quantities of the special ink you need for waterless printing. So, European ink manufacturers had had little experience in producing it. As a consequence, the quality of supplies varied. And that caused us major problems during printing.” Supported by Toray, Maes travelled to Japan to talk to experts in waterless printing and find out more about what could be causing the problem in Lokeren. “Ink for waterless printing turned out to be very sensitive to contamination - even the smallest change in the composition during manufacturing can disturb its performance on press.” A test with qualified ink from Japan - only days before the six months trail period came to a close - managed to convince Maes that the issue could indeed be solved: “The problem immediately disappeared. So, we decided to go ahead as planned.”

Eco Print Center

Today, the Eco Print Center in Lokeren runs a KBA Cortina waterless press featuring 12 towers, 4 folders and 1 heatset dryer. It is surrounded by a fully robotized warehouse storing at least 3,000 tons of paper. The prepress department runs five fully automated computer-to-plate installations; while the finishing department houses four lines that complete and assemble all sections and supplements of up to 45,000 newspapers per hour ready for transport and distribution every night. From January 2008, both De Morgen and all 22 editions of Het Laatste Nieuws have been printed at Lokeren six times per week - adding up to over 400,000 copies during weekdays and over 450,000 copies on Saturday.

Improving productivity

Wim Maes has some more impressive figures to share: “At EPC, we now have 12 operators running the newspaper production. Before, we had 24 people doing that. At the same time, we have managed to speed up production. That is very important to us, because it allows the editorial deadline to be pushed back - enabling our newspapers to bring the very latest in news and sports – but guarantees we finish printing on time.” Maes emphasizes the benefits of the high level of automation and the efficiency of waterless printing: “Improving your productivity in this way will offset all extra costs that may be involved. Our inks and plates, for example, may be more expensive than conventional consumables, but in the end our total costs per copy are lower. And that gives us another important advantage over competitors.”

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New business

He continues: “Our new press has also enabled us to enter the semi-commercial print market, and that means we run our presses during the daytime as well. We now print all of our magazines and supplements ourselves instead of outsourcing them to others. Additionally, we now have 65 external customers that we print for. These are mostly former heatset productions that we now can do in coldset. We are able to provide them with the same high quality they are used to, at around the same costs, but in a very environmentally friendly way. This new business - which we only started in 2006 - has grown rapidly to generate a healthy turnover and we expect this to continue."

Always improving

After five years of waterless printing, the pioneering is over, says Wim Maes. It has earned EPC various Eco Awards and people from all over the world have watched the presses in action that now run non-stop from 8pm on a Sunday to 6am on a Saturday. Maes is already looking for new ways to further improve quality and productivity: “We have recently implemented a new colour register and density system, called 3TControl. That will allow us to move towards a truly ‘closed loop’ production system, enabling to do even more with even less people. And I think we can also speed up the presses further, creating more capacity for even more regional editions or higher circulations.” Maes is also impressed by the efforts from Toray to keep improving its waterless plates. “The new plate has an extended lifetime of up to 200,000 impressions, and I am convinced they will go up even further in future. That is an important development for us, because it means we will need less plate changes during high run lengths. And that will save us time, adding greater capacity to serve even more customers during the day.”