Fighting extinction

In the mid-1990s, there were around 100 large and small pre-press and platemaking businesses in this industry. Today, they number around half a dozen. Like typesetters, the vast majority have become dinosaurs.

In the past 10 to 15 years, commercial printers have taken advantage of computer-to-plate (CTP) technology to bring reprographics in-house. Cutting out third-party involvement has given printers the opportunity to guarantee hairpin-turn deadlines, which translates into a higher standard of customer service. This is particularly true in the broad acres of small- to mid-volume printing, where profits turn on adding value, not on massive output. On the downside, margins are brutal, and some offset printers have been forced to offer pre-press as a loss leader to bring the print work in the door. Or as one old hand noted: “They’ve spent a million dollars to do their pre-press free.”

But where has that left what we used to call the service bureau or repro house? A lot of them have packed up. Others have been bought by print businesses. Chatting with some of today’s pre-press bureau owners reveals everything from bold re-imagination to, frankly, paranoia – one Melbourne business did not want to talk on the record because, in the words of the proprietor, “every time someone in our particular sector talks to the trade media, they soon disappear”.

Some have disappeared, to be sure. But a few have reinvented themselves. A well-known NSW business, which also did not want to go on record, told ProPrint about some of its new ventures – photography, artwork, and other below-the-line work for ad agencies, scoping down into pre-media, where its native expertise lies.

Those with survival genes include Melbourne businesses Allardice Graphic Arts in Blackburn and Eastern Studios in Notting Hill. Originally a colour separator from the 1960s, Ken Allardice’s business has successfully reinvented itself over time and today he provides on-site repro services for a range of printers. But more on Allardice later.

Eastern Studios in Melbourne had some of the highly skilled retouchers that came to founding owner Ron Price from the likes of Mentone Offset and LithoColor. He sold the business in the early 1990s to its current owners. Since Roy Aldrich handed the management reins to his daughter Debra Rice, she has morphed the business into a high-end digital packaging specialist looking after contracts such as Cadburys and Amcor.

Four Colour Graphics managing director Jeff Holland, an industry veteran with a gravure background, reflects on how his company moved from bench-planning to a Crosfield, and then into the Macintosh era. But the Sydney company grappled with the puzzle of what to do next, as printers eroded most of its litho repro business. A move into digital print was briefly considered, but was not pursued because Holland figured it would also be taken over by the sheetfed houses.

He instead decided to keep to his company’s core skills but raise these to a level at which offset printers could not compete. Over the past eight years, he has transformed his 19-year-old Auburn business into a supplier of highly specialised flexo and screen imaging, much of it for package printing.

“In litho pre-press, the software has taken most of the skill out. CTP for offset is largely software-driven. You put a disc in and the RIP automatically traps. But in flexo and silkscreen, you’ve got to put everything into special colours and use acquired skills, so there’s a bit of life left.”

With his sons pursuing interests outside the industry, Holland feels the future is sewn up. He predicts that by the time all that flexo and silkscreen acumen has been automated into a RIP, he will long have sold the business and retired.

Four Colour Graphics generates flexo­graphic plates for printing special colours direct onto plastic tube packs, which liberates the package manufacturing for his customers, as there are no delays in waiting for printed labels to be affixed.

Direct-to-plastics printing was previously limited to solid colours and text, he says, but Four Colour Graphics has perfected the printing of quality four-colour images, which gives cosmetics and pharmaceuticals a market edge. “We’re getting really good results, and the clients like it. We’ve got some very big clients asking us to do trials for them.”

Holland estimates that company turnover from the litho days has been cut by a third to around $1 million a year, but outgoings are down. For example, staff numbers have reduced from a peak of 30 in the offset days to just seven, including those who came aboard when flexographer Alfred Johns in nearby Marrickville closed at the end of last year. Consumables costs are higher than with offset plates, but income from highly skilled services keeps the margins safe. The pre-press workflow is based on an Esko CDI Spark XT, but after the 900×1,200mm plates are exposed, they are meticulously processed on a McDermid Lava thermal processor, the only one in Australia. The process uses solvents, a skillset that litho printers have been reluctant to approach. It takes about five hours to make a plate, he says.

With Esko ArtPro package printing software, the small, highly skilled workforce are adept at handling special angles, including screen angles, into the RIP, for fifth and sixth colours, and ridding the job of moire patterns, whereas a standard offset RIP handles only the basic sets of angles. Positive film is then output on a Fujifilm Luxel imagesetter.

“We’re the only ones [in Australia] as far as I know. The ink makers sent samples back to the manufacturers of the machines in Switzerland and they said they didn’t think their machines could do that.”

Four Colour Graphics has also cracked the merchandising and fashion markets, combining its ArtPro software with highly specialised skills to produce plates for silkscreen designs on t-shirts. The plates are for printing up to 150-linescreen, which Holland believes will soon become the new benchmark for this type of product, placing his company in poll position in Australia.

Hub model
Allardice Graphics has morphed from a film-based trade house in the mid-1990s, with a Wright Technologies imposition maker taking pride of place, into a company that offers hub-configured CTP, digital printing, and web design.

Owner Ken Allardice, who runs the 47-year-old business founded by his father, says the CTP hubs, which started some 10 years ago, are located in Melbourne’s east, west and centre (Ringwood, Coolaroo and Richmond). The hubs have de-centralised the repro services formerly based at its Blackburn head office. Allardice has taken on CTP-equipped printers by moving its own kit to where the work is. “It saves enormous overheads on travel – handling first and second proofs, then running back and forth with plates.”

Each of the hubs does business with a single major printer, and a string of smaller clients. The major printing house, in each case, has been able to divest itself of its own in-house CTP facilities, saving considerably on capital equipment, maintenance and labour.

The Allardice Graphics branches each run Fujifilm Luxel violet setters on a Celebra workflow, with an upgrade to the vendor’s new XMF workflow on the cards, says Allardice general manager Cameron Young, processing anything “from business cards, to publications, to high-end work”.

But CTP only makes up 30% of income, he says, down from 90% 15 years ago, with graphic design and layout services, as well as digital printing – mainly A3-plus production print from Océ colour and mono machines – all at Blackburn.

Allardice Graphics offers website design, HTML and flash animation. A revenue stream from producing multimedia work – e-mags burned to CD/DVD, with a digitally printed edition from the same artwork – flourished some years ago, but nowadays, the disc version is more likely to be direct-to-web, says Young.

Changing times are reflected in the numbers and mix of staff. Down from a 1990s peak of around 70 – mainly camera operators and film specialists – to 25-35 currently, today’s personnel include fresh recruits with online creative talent – and some veterans who have retrained.

Reef reimagined
Reef Colour Media is a compact but dynamic digital print business in Artarmon, Sydney. It has four staff and churns out B3 colour commercial work on a Canon C7000, an Epson in a corner for wide-format, and even a bit of DVD and CD replication for good measure.

But as recently as three years ago, it was known as Filmac, a repro house, which as the name suggests, worked in film separations. Proprietor Ian Dimmock, who had been running the then seven-year-old business since 1997, saw the writing on the wall and closed shop – re-opening as Reef. He describes staying clear of CTP as “a survival strategy”.

“I couldn’t see the dollar value of investing in CTP equipment. For a $300,000 to $500,000 investment [in a platesetter and consumables], all I was getting was a chance to do what I was already doing [with film], so that I could compete with printers who were providing the same sorts of services.”

Reef still provides its own pre-press, but has ceased being a trade provider, and Dimmock says he has never looked back. The company produces oversize A3 work and offers various finishing services. Its wide-format services include mounting and laminating.

Brokers have entered the pre-print space in force. Pure Colours Digital of St Peters in Sydney estimates only 15-20% of its services are still direct to the trade. New revenue streams had to be found, so the company adopted a two-fold strategy, says owner John MacLulich.

Firstly, it diversified into printing, both digital and offset, essentially playing printers at their own game, and secondly, it increased expert offerings in pre-press.

The 10-year-old company, a former film house, never took the CTP route, says MacLulich, opting for decidedly greener pastures. Today, what was a repro-only business is a diversified company with
11 staff, offering digital print, wide-format printing, offset printing, bindery and trade finishing, as well as print management with graphic design and magazine layout.

“This is on top of our traditional pre-press services, which include scanning, re-touching, proofing, layout, Quickcuts, and so on,” says MacLulich.

Pure Colours still has a platemaking operation for its own SRA3 printing, using a four-colour Heidelberg Quickmaster DI press and Presstek polyester plates.

“We have three dedicated pre-press gurus,” he says, “and every file is not just pre-flighted, but treated to give the best possible results on press – including strict colour management and image enhancement.”

And perhaps the best indicator of how fleet of foot a repro house must be to survive in today’s dynamic and competitive market is Pure Digital’s plan to re-purpose work to non-print media, including an app for the Apple iPad. 

Comment below to have your say on this story.

If you have a news story or tip-off, get in touch at  

Sign up to the Sprinter newsletter

Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published. All fields are required


Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.