Interview: An inkjet insider with global expertise


Bernd Zipper had an old companion sitting at the table who actually doesn’t look that old. Ralf Schlözer grew up in the printing industry. He studied in Stuttgart, Berlin and the USA, was deeply involved in research at MAN Roland and knows the exciting way through the jungle of figures at Infotrends (now Keypoint Intelligence). A man who researches markets and technologies and then draws his conclusions from them. He publishes on English-language blogs and has an almost inexhaustible knowledge. This knowledge came in handy for Bernd Zipper, as inkjet printing seems to be the technology of the future. Ralf Schlözer was on hand to answer questions and provide some insights into break-even, technology and business models.

Read an abridged version of the podcast interview here or listen to the conversation in full on ZIPPERS INSIGHTS or on Spotify.

Bernd Zipper: It’s always so nice when you have an “old” companion sitting at the table. Ralf Schlözer is here today for an interview.

Ralf Schlözer: Hello, nice to be here.

Bernd Zipper: My impression is that you are more the researcher type in various fields.

Ralf Schlözer: Researcher, that sums it up quite well. I started in research. Currently more market research, so positioning and things like that. I am active in different markets. I work globally with companies in Europe, in the USA, in Japan or in specialized markets.

Bernd Zipper: But it’s all about print, especially inkjet. Your path led you via your studies in Germany and the USA to the industry at MAN.

Ralf Schlözer: More precisely, in the research department of MAN Roland. I did my diploma thesis in Germany with the then head of research in the area of the latest printing systems. That has been my subject ever since.

Bernd Zipper: That’s what people know you for. You were at Infotrends from 2002 to 2019, most recently even director there. A well-known company that determines industry figures and trends, but also looks at technologies and, above all, how these technologies are developing.

Ralf Schlözer: 17 years at such a company is quite a long time for this kind of industry. The job has been exciting and has taken me through the different technologies and stages.

Bernd Zipper: You’ve been self-employed for almost four or five years now, so you’re practically the Independent Print Analyst for print technologies?

Ralf Schlözer: Yes, I write very actively for US publications on the web, i.e. and Inkjet Inside.

Bernd Zipper: I think it’s great that you can position yourself accordingly by doing research. Your expertise is in demand. We recently published a two-part article (Part 1; Part 2) by you on Beyond Print about the whole topic of online printing and inkjet. I found your ideas on this very interesting. You wrote in the article; online printers tend to play it safe. It makes me wonder, why are so many companies still so cautious about inkjet now? Do you understand that?

Ralf Schlözer: Not quite. I think it’s a marriage made in heaven, inkjet and online printing. Because minimal waste. You can go straight to the press, print in the smallest of runs, and that should actually be a perfect fit. Of course, inkjet still has its limitations. You can’t do everything as predetermined as in offset. Offset printing is a technology that has been practiced for years. Inkjet is still at the beginning of these developments. It may be worthwhile in 95 percent of cases, but not for everyone. You have to find that out individually.

Bernd Zipper: I was just in the Netherlands at a relatively large online printer. There’s a Komori and a Landa press next to it. I found it interesting that they want to do everything via Landa. This is not a Landa advertising block, but I find it exciting to see how the technologies and quality are developing.

Ralf Schlözer: This is currently the top end you can have in inkjet sheetfed printing. They will probably say that not all jobs look one hundred percent like offset. But in the end, it’s a much simpler workflow when I don’t have to make plates anymore. I can print signatures one after the other and it’s just an incredible relief. You can’t just look at the press, but at the entire system.

Bernd Zipper: What distinguishes inkjet printing from electrophotographic printing, i.e., digital printing with toner?

Ralf Schlözer: Toner is an established process. The limitations in toner are simply the format, the speed and the cost of the toner.

Bernd Zipper: But aren’t inkjet inks expensive?

Ralf Schlözer: There is a statement that ink is more expensive than the most expensive champagne. That’s not true if you buy the 100 liter barrel. We haven’t reached the end of development yet. The new inks are already really high-tech and there is a lot of potential in them, more than in the print heads, I would say.

Bernd Zipper: Which machine are you most excited about at the moment?

Ralf Schlözer: The right machine for the right application. Let’s take a rather unknown machine. The Valezus from Riso manages 320 pages per minute. The quality is just not that good.

Bernd Zipper: But it’s okay for transactions.

Ralf Schlözer: It’s okay for that, or for a newsletter and forms or similar. So, there are some use cases for that. At the other end, we have high-end, for example the new Colorstreams from Canon, the new HP, the Ricoh or Screen, they all produce super quality. In the meantime, you can no longer say that one machine stands out in particular. There is a decent selection. What’s still a bit lacking is in the sheetfed sector, where there’s still some way to go.

Bernd Zipper: I’m a bit of a Durst fan. If you’ve ever been there and looked at what this “small” group does. I was recently at Probo in the Netherlands again and took a look at what they do with Durst machines in the large format sector. Then I saw elsewhere what is being done with labels in this area. So, I find that fascinating.

Ralf Schlözer: Definitely. Not in the commercial sector, but in the packaging sector. They have launched a press for direct printing of corrugated board. Now in a joint venture with Koenig und Bauer, they have developed a joint press for the folding carton sector. I’ve seen the test prints. It’s a fantastic machine.

Bernd Zipper: How do you see the whole subject of primers?

Ralf Schlözer: In the past, I was rather skeptical. But in the meantime, I’ve changed my mind a bit, because in certain areas it will be necessary to primer for a long time, in order to make the ink adhere properly to foils or to coated cartons. You can jet it; you can apply it with a roller. There are a number of ways to do it. I’m neutral by now, or even say, why not prime?

Bernd Zipper: Do you think that we will eventually reach the point where we completely replace offset with inkjet?

Ralf Schlözer: I’m a bit cautious about that. In my Infotrends days, I always predicted that the big, very thick machines would come in inkjet, and they would be able to print catalogues and magazines and everything. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the market has moved more towards medium-speed systems. I don’t see it changing drastically at the moment. Will it replace offset? No, it’s just a side-by-side. And where exactly the breakeven is, that will be decided by the current technology and the workflow of the company. But there’s room for both. You mentioned earlier the example in the Netherlands, which is now putting everything on the Landa. There is the possibility to really optimize in one area and then you have the advantages here.

Bernd Zipper: If you look at the developments in the offset sector, most recently the plate changer from Heidelberger that was installed at Saxoprint, the push-to-stop technology that is part of it. If you then compare it with digital, you have to ask yourself where the break-even point is. How can I calculate it exactly?

Ralf Schlözer: Oh, that is one of the most exciting tasks and I am always asked about it. I was once at a conference in Russia, where someone really wanted to know the break-even point between digital and offset. Unfortunately, I couldn’t give him an exact figure.

I was busy at MAN Roland with break-even calculations. Where are the digital printing systems suitable and where does offset go from there? You can calculate it theoretically, but it depends on each company and each individual case. There are many variables in the calculation. I would say a good management information system (MIS) should be able to do that. But anyone who operates an MIS in a really extensive way knows how much data goes into it. You have to average out, take into account various factors, the people and the qualifications, and then it becomes incredibly complex. That’s why, unfortunately, there is no figure. Not even today.

Bernd Zipper: Thank you very much for your assessment. There are many criteria, and you certainly have to consider more than just paper, machine and time.

Ralf Schlözer: I have spoken to online printers who have offset and digital.  It’s always a matter of deciding on a process here. They have corresponding MIS and can say that pretty accurately. It depends on the job and the job length. Regardless of the break-even point, some still stay on the inkjet press simply because the workflow is easier. Less can go wrong!

Bernd Zipper: If we take a look here in Germany, I have the feeling that market penetration with inkjet is not yet as high here. In the Benelux countries and England, penetration is stronger. How do you see it?

Ralf Schlözer: Germany is probably not the leading nation in inkjet printing. But there are more machines than you might think. And you don’t necessarily hear about all the machines that are being installed. Let’s take the printers in data centres, where inkjet has already replaced toner on a massive scale. There are hundreds of machines out there that you don’t know about. The other thing is book printing. There are big players there who don’t disclose which machines are being used.

Bernd Zipper: Is it just my feeling or are entrepreneurs in other countries sometimes more open to new technologies?

Ralf Schlözer: A little bit. In the USA, entrepreneurs say, this is the new technology, we have to go there. That’s true in other countries as well, but it’s more common in North America. But Germany is not the most conservative country. There are very visionary companies here that say, this is where I see the future, this is what we want to do.

Bernd Zipper: There are different inkjet processes, both for web and sheetfed. Do you think inkjet is heading in a particular technological direction?

Ralf Schlözer: Even at MAN Roland in Augsburg, people said, why not just make web offset presses? It’s much easier to build. And then I was once in Offenbach with a colleague. They said, why not just make sheetfed offset presses? They are much more variable and flexible. There were already the two warehouses in one company. One thing is clear: there are markets for both. With inkjet, it’s more roll at the moment because there are more applications that don’t require the highest quality. Sheetfed presses usually have to deliver top commercial quality, which is more difficult. Inkjet sheetfed is still lagging behind there. I see great potential for more to be done there.

Bernd Zipper: I’m curious to see what’s still to come. There is supposed to be another Drupa soon.

Ralf Schlözer: First of all, the Hunkeler Innovation Days are at the beginning of next year. This has become a bit of a class reunion for the inkjet industry. More commercial here and not so much packaging, but we will definitely see some innovations there. This is a focused show for high-speed inkjet printing, where you can go and see the different systems side by side.

Bernd Zipper: There are a few hot topics for me in the area of packaging. From time to time, we have to deal with direct printing on cardboard cylinders for one of our customers. How do you see the further development in such areas? Especially where the object is moved?

Ralf Schlözer: That is an exciting area. In the end, it will expand into thousands of markets. I see the decor or textile printing. There’s printing on tile, on glass, on metal, on all sorts of things, and then of course on 3D bodies. It all has its raison d’être. Everywhere we find the same trends, just in time production, industry 4.0, no inventory, new designs, no restriction with repeat. Inkjet is so flexible that you can use it in all areas. Of course, not the same heads, the same machines, but there are an insane number of specialists who now do something like this in any area. For example, printing on hollow bodies. There are seven or eight manufacturers who already offer machines for this purpose, and we haven’t reached the end of the line.

Bernd Zipper: How do you view the topic at Heidelberg, keyword Omnifire?

Ralf Schlözer: I once asked Rainer Hundsdörfer (former CEO of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG) what was happening with these Omnifire presses. Two years ago, he said that this would not become a standard press. Since then, not much has happened. Exciting topic with this robot head. I have seen demonstrations from other companies. Everything can be done, but it takes time.

Bernd Zipper: I’m curious to see how this will develop. I think the use of robots can be very interesting, especially for short runs.

Ralf Schlözer: That’s where general progress makes things easier. For example, the requirement for storage space used to be a killer criterion for a digital machine. Some things are done automatically. Robotics is not driven by the printing industry, but it will benefit from these advances.

Bernd Zipper: Now let’s look into the crystal ball. Where will we be in 30 years with inkjet?

Ralf Schlözer: It will still be an interplay of inkjet/offset and I would say flexo in certain areas. There will be much more inkjet than today and inkjet in very different areas.

Bernd Zipper: Do you think that digital printing will get additional impetus from the metaverse, the Internet and new types of Internet? Maybe through local smaller machines? I’ll say locally printing a cup with inkjet directly in the 3D AR environment.

Ralf Schlözer: There will be, because inkjet technology is flexible enough that you can realize the smallest systems. It’s going more in the direction of local printing. We see it within the whole supply chain issue that “local” is a real advantage factor. Print locally and process locally. More will be done locally in the future than centralized, globalized and shipped. In connection with new media and with social media channels, there will be further opportunities. I don’t see an insane intersection with print here, but two worlds coexisting. Example: book. Even though young people are using social media, the printed book is still insanely popular. They don’t use it at the same time, but you can advertise on social media. You can export a book from social media, so printed blogs. There’s some intersection there, but it’s not going to be insanely large.

Bernd Zipper: When I was doing some number crunching through Zipcon, I noticed that print on demand is having a real revival due to the pandemic. You could say that the market has slowly caught on. How do you see it?

Ralf Schlözer: Sometimes it just takes a little time for the big players to catch on. The infrastructure and the technology have to be there. Print on demand has been standard in the industry for a few years now, and it will continue to grow. No one really wants to put things in storage and then have them sit there forever. I’m thinking of the story of the fire in a large book warehouse in Leipzig. Millions of books were destroyed, and many small publishers sued. The remaining print run was destroyed, but it wasn’t worth reprinting. They had had real problems. Something like this no longer happens with an established print-on-demand concept.

Bernd Zipper: I think Bücher AG is a big player for DTV. There are some books that Amazon has printed practically overnight at service providers.

Ralf Schlözer: Amazon has quite a few printers. But you don’t find much about them officially.

Bernd Zipper: I think it’s logical to get closer to customers, closer to the warehouse. With large mail order companies, we’ve already had the issue of printing catalogs practically on demand, tailored to the customer, and enclosing them in the parcel. In my opinion, inkjet is the key to these projects.

Ralf Schlözer: I agree, simply because of the speed, quality and costs. In the end, inkjet is simply the most suitable process for this.

Bernd Zipper: I think it’s very good that there are companies that manufacture different machines. This makes the field of inkjet machines very exciting. This is also reflected in the various ideas on how to finance the machines, such as pay per click. What do you think of such a process?

Ralf Schlözer: There have long been a wide variety of models for paying for the press, consumables and other things. Heidelberger is very far along with these different operator models and procedures. The presses are no longer purchased but leased and paid off over print volumes. This has been around for a long time in the digital sector, there is just the “click”. In the inkjet sector, it is often the case that you pay for the ink alone. Then there are certain flat rates for the service, depending on the meters printed, and so on. I think customers have become a bit more flexible. In the beginning, click costs were not popular. In the meantime, some have found that it’s actually quite good and gives me planning security. You can’t always calculate the coverage for every small run. I think press suppliers who are clever make a wide variety of models possible.

Bernd Zipper: Print shops that bought a press before the pandemic and then had nothing to print during that time had to service the debt even though there was no revenue. Conversely, manufacturers with pay per click models have been hit hard. It always eats someone, I think.

Ralf Schlözer: Yes, definitely.

Bernd Zipper: If we assume that we see offset, inkjet, and perhaps digital flexo on the horizon of the future, where do you see newspapers and the like?

Ralf Schlözer: A few years ago I was at IFRA and gave a presentation on inkjet, i.e. digital printing in newspaper printing. At that time, the industry was positive about such things. Inkjet newspaper printing, printing on the different islands. Then you don’t have to fly there, you print it locally. You can print the Bild, the Times and whatnot on one press. Even in the smallest print runs and personalized. Hotel chains can then produce a customized newspaper. That has fallen asleep a bit. It’s a shame, but it’s part of the overall situation of newspapers.

Bernd Zipper: I’m curious to see how this will develop with individualized newspapers under the new operator models. Personally, I would find that very exciting. It would be better to have several small publishing houses and production sites, and then to have the same daily news. The biggest drawback of a newspaper that I have at my breakfast table is that it often already contains what I read on the Internet the day before.

Ralf Schlözer: But you can read it again in the printed newspaper.

Bernd Zipper: Yes, but for me the value of the newspaper is not the news, which I have beforehand, but the curation of the news, the opinion.

Ralf Schlözer: Exactly.

Bernd Zipper: That’s the important thing for me, and unfortunately many newspaper editors forget that. I’m thinking of conversations with editors at Funke. We were told that we now have a central editorial office, where the news comes together, and then it is processed and published. I think that’s the secret of the success of the Süddeutsche or the FAZ, that there’s still opinion in it. That’s what makes newspapers strong and gives them a right to exist. Curated information.

Ralf Schlözer: Definitely. Paid journalism that doesn’t have to follow sponsors.

Bernd Zipper: Oh, that’s a great topic. We’ll talk about that another time. Ralf, thank you for taking the time.

Interview: An inkjet insider with global expertise
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Interview: An inkjet insider with global expertise
Bernd Zipper had an old companion sitting at the table who actually doesn't look that old. Ralf Schlözer grew up in the printing industry. He studied in Stuttgart, Berlin and the USA, was deeply involved in research at MAN Roland and knows the exciting way through the jungle of figures at Infotrends (now Keypoint Intelligence). A man who researches markets and technologies and then draws his conclusions from them. He publishes on English-language blogs and has an almost inexhaustible knowledge. This knowledge came in handy for Bernd Zipper, as inkjet printing seems to be the technology of the future. Ralf Schlözer was on hand to answer questions and provide some insights into break-even, technology and business models.
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