By unveiling a whole series of digital print solutions, Heidelberger Druckmaschinen has (finally) adopted a new digital print strategy. The “Fire” series is being showcased to dovetail with the topical issues of packaging, labeling and mass customization. Is this Heidelberger’s path into the future?
Anybody who is aware of my relationship with the major printing press manufacturers knows that I usually ask challenging questions and am not particularly keen on just swallowing the corporate strategy commentaries issued by the relevant press departments. But this time I seem to have been caught out somehow… I was recently invited to visit Heidelberg with a couple of colleagues and got the exclusive opportunity to learn more about the company’s plans for the future. Well, it has been obvious for a long while now that Heidelberger has been working on a new digital print strategy, which it wants to unveil at the world’s leading printing industry trade show in 2016, alongside other innovations. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting much.
You can find out full details about the new presses in the trade media – I am more interested in what’s behind this new machinery and above all in getting an answer to the question of how can you earn money or even develop new print-sector business models with these new presses? And what’s been happening at Heidelberger Druckmaschinen? For the mechanical engineering giant’s crisis was and is common knowledge. Here are the five reasons why my faith in Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG has been restored:
Dr. Linzbach, who has been CEO of Heidelberg for nearly three years (during one of which he was unfortunately faced with health issues), is no technocrat. Well now, he will have gotten used to printing presses, but he tends to be regarded as a manager rather than a “technophile chairman”. Detractors say that Linzbach is a restructurer – yet Dr. Linzbach is more than that. He is a hands-on pragmatist. Anybody who wants to drive things forward at Heidelberg first has to prove that their idea a) makes long-term commercial sense and b) is pursued in line with a genuine strategy. Just unveiling a piece of machinery, “because, yes, you can” is not his thing. He has already done the hard miles together with his Management Board team – downsizing the workforce, restructuring, relocation and the development of a new overall strategy. That is no walk in the park. And Dr. Linzbach does not mince his words – he remarks on anything that bugs him and changes it. Times are changing in the Electoral Palatinate region of Germany, but there is still a long way to go …
But the pillars for this business model are already in place – Equipment (printing presses), Consumables (materials) and Service (customer service) – so far, not so necessarily new. But what is new is that Linzbach is gearing the company up to embrace “smartness”, i.e. providing customers with a response to the issue of Industry 4.0. There is still a long way to go before the corporation as a whole adopts a new “mindset”, but what this does show is pure, unadulterated “Linz-Fire”.
The new service concept is pretty impressive! In future printing press customers will not only be able to buy materials at the online store (that is already the case), but will also be provided with improved support via a service hotline. The service division, which already accounts for a not inconsiderable portion of total group sales, is being expanded. Customers will in future be interlinked in the Heidelberg Cloud, the service cloud. That not only means that more than 3000 technicians will be able to maintain the more than 10,000 printing presses already in service better and faster, but also that neutral performance data can also be collected. This will enable customers to see very quickly whether their performance is improving or worsening. The technicians, who can also be booked online, log in to the relevant printing press and are able to rectify initial problems via remote access or at least investigate issues properly. Help is also at hand from the new “Heidelberg Assistant” – a multifunctional service platform, which is connected to the cloud. Those who fancy it, and I know quite a few print providers that like to brighten up their vacations like this, can in future check via cellphone to see if everything is OK back at the ranch and activate the service. That existed before, but now the concept has been well thought through. All in all a concept that makes all-round sense, of which customers of other (offset) providers can unfortunately only dream. However I have to say that there are similar offerings in the digital print market. This market still holds a slight advantage, especially in relation to the needs of online print providers. However I see Heidelberg getting set to catch up fast.
As previously mentioned, Heidelberg’s new range of digital printing presses is called “Fire”. People can make up their own minds as to whether this is throwing down the gauntlet to its competitors. But what is important is the unambiguous message that Heidelberg is sending out to the digital print market – “we’re back”. Featuring 1200 x 1200 dpi, water-based inks, a more than decent drying unit and a pretty ingenious “conditioner” (others call that primer), the Primefire 106 is an impressive piece of kit. This printing press will be incorporated into the Heidelberg systems environment, once it sets out to conquer the market in 2017, and will not only be able to tackle yet another color space, but will become part of the “smart print shop” concept. Although in this case “print shop” should be understood as “print room/hall”. The single-pass press (a turnaround detail is expected at a later stage) is initially aimed at the packaging sector and is based on the latest Dimatix/Samba printheads. Fujifilm, the owner of Dimatix technology, has in this case provided a fair amount of engineering input. And as much as I believe in this concept, believe in the overall functionality of the Samba heads and am impressed by this piece of kit, I really wonder how Heidelberg will master the challenges posed by this technology.
At this juncture a brief inkjet digression, which perhaps clarifies why I regard the partnership with Fujifilm as so exciting. In contrast to others, like Kyocera, Dimatix does not lay down specifications in terms of printhead activation, ink feeding and printhead electronics. The challenge for Heidelberg’s developers is to continue to create concepts of their own. The new head also requires new inks. That means that existing inks need to be adapted and the company will initially need to go up a time-consuming and cost-intensive learning curve. One point of criticism in relation to the Samba head is that the nozzle plate is highly sensitive. If the printhead comes into direct contact with paper, the head is usually ruined as a consequence. In conceptual terms Dimatix also basically distinguishes between printheads and electronics, which is likely to cause a new problem however, as there are currently no standard electronics available anywhere in the world. That’s another challenge for Heidelberg’s developers. Ultimately that means there is not likely to be a rapid fall in printhead prices, which of course will be reflected in pricing over the long term. Another tricky issue is the small size or narrow width of the Dimatix printheads – although if a nozzle fails (this is also termed “printhead demise”) individual units can be replaced really quickly, although the effort involved to install them should not be underestimated. Heidelberg has announced that it will be launching a kind of replacement module.
However what is sensational and in my opinion also key for Heidelberg is the Samba printheads’ ink feed-through. Here the ink is fed through the warmed-up head and not just squirted like with Kyocera. In the case of Kyocera this can lead to clogged heads; if Heidelberg gets to grips with the Samba heads and ink feed-through, then it will have by far the more superior system at its disposal. One or two heads will really get “lathered up” from time to time – excuse the engineering joke. ? OK, I will put an end to my display of my technophilia. But nevertheless, first impressions are that this is a really superb printing press! And the more I tackle this topic, the more I understand the challenges that Heidelberger and others face with this ingenious inkjet technology.
“New printing presses, new integration concepts and software products are all evidence that the company really means business, given the messages it is sending out. The conceptual approaches are good, usually well thought out and above all make sense in terms of serving the existing customer base.” – Bernd Zipper
Soccer balls, golf balls and muesli packaging – the Heidelberg Omnifire 250 (previously known as Jetmaster) can already print all these items. What seems totally logical to normal consumers, i.e. that a printing press manufacturer supplies printing presses for all sorts of purposes, is a giant leap forward for Heidelberg. Any regular reader of my blog knows that I have been monitoring this technology for quite some time now, playing my “mass customization freak” role. While the 250 is better able to print objects that are round, cylindrical or rectangular, the 1000 model will also be able to print other items like sneakers, thanks to its modular robotics involving up to 6 axes. This piece of kit, which could easily be mistaken for a garage housing a Smart, features a printing system involving one to four standard colors, with opaque white and protective lacquer as options. The idea here is quite clearly is to gain entry to the mass customization market, printing boxes, furniture or similar, for example. However speed is something that still needs to be worked on, as full production processes can only be completed if a lot of manual labor (to load/equip presses) is involved. But this represents a great start and the dawn of a new era.
This investment will already start to pay dividends in a couple of years, yet the learning curve is still incredibly steep. That’s because in contrast to the purely B2B printing press business, this type or class of press will not only be located in printing companies, but above all in normal manufacturing facilities for products like shoes etc. – but in this environment the demands on the machinery are quite different. The printing process is not the only thing that needs to be capable of being automated, so does access by customers to the machinery. In the case of mymuesli (as reported in 2015), this customer access was provided online using a web-to-print solution. I wonder what responses Heidelberg is able to provide in the future.
I am also curious about how the issues of print quality and quality assurance in an industrial process will be handled. That’s because in contrast to a sheet of paper, a pair of sneakers is a tad more expensive. If they are “misprinted”, then the sneakers end up in the trash. That lowers the manufacturer’s margin and won’t go down particularly well.
But be that as it may – if Heidelberg gets to grips with the a.m. details, this marks the start of a new era in printing. But why, for Heaven’s sake, the term “4D Printing” is still being retained is probably a secret known only to Heidelberg’s product marketing team and to the Almighty.
For the sake of completeness and for information purposes, I should like to mention at this juncture that the Linoprint range is now called “Versafire” and the Gallus presses are called “Labelfire” as of now – well, at least that makes sense.
Well now, you can moan and say that Heidelberg, which has always been pretty good at marketing anyhow, is only relabeling its “old junk” as “smart” and then hoping to flog it off quickly. But I have to contradict you there. New printing presses, new integration concepts and new software products are all evidence that the company really means business, given the messages it is sending out. The conceptual approaches are good, usually well thought out and above all make sense in terms of serving the existing customer base. In the past conventional print companies attached particular importance to an integrated and consistent manufacturing set-up. In this respect they learned a few (and unfortunately only a few) lessons from online print providers. Integration, the interlinking of individual system components, is the magic word, which in future is supposed to lead to the “smart print shop”. In this respect Heidelberg makes a persuasive case and is able to help conventional print companies quickly to action new concepts. Unfortunately things then get a little tight however as far as online connections are concerned. There are hints of initial solutions, but a strategy is still a long way off. I wish that the corporation would make use of its power and launch more than just a few software products. Because ultimately a proper software architecture would also benefit customer access to all other production solutions. Here you notice that Heidelberg and its recent acquisitions don’t (yet) have an online mindset.
What´s the beef?
Given all this “fire”, I wonder, as an old BBQ hand, what’s the bottom line if you aggregate all these innovations and announcements? And, believe me I am usually fairly questioning, I can’t think of anything that I would criticize at first glance. OK, here and there they are still in the early stages and a decent online strategy for print companies is not yet on the horizon, but they are heading in exactly the right direction. Heidelberg is certain to charge a lot of money for the new presses and solutions, but what has been developed over the last few years, despite the crisis, makes definite sense. I only wish that the oft used cliché “we have spoken with our customers and learned our lessons” is meant seriously. Because you still occasionally notice that (in)famous “Heidelberger arrogance” in certain individuals. If the corporation learns that it needs customers of all sizes in all segments of the printing industry as agile partners and not just customers that dutifully pay their invoices, there soon won’t be any more traces of the crisis. And what’s more, if Heidelberg learns that cooperation, transparency and agility will in future help the industry and the corporation to manufacture faster and more cost-effectively, if the company still understands how to help print providers make the transition to online, then Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG will be a mainstay of the renaissance of printing.
I almost feel a little weird because I am so positive about all of this. But if I consider the last ten years of Heidelberg’s history and what progress the company has made in the last 18 months alone, then my faith in the future of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen has now been restored. Right, that‘s enough gushing praise, I’m off to find something that I can really grumble about…