An hour’s flight north west of the sprawling city of New York is the Heidelberg Digital complex. Recently renovated after changing hands from Kodak, this facility houses the development of the Heidelberg NexPress and Digimaster presses.
It has been a whirlwind journey into digital for the company most well known for its contributions to heavy metal press manufacture for well over a century. According to Wolfgang Pfizenmaier, member of the Heidelberg management board, this new digital focus is just another example of how Heidelberg has had to evolve over the years with the global printing industry.
“Heidelberg’s strategy is to provide products to make our customers more successful. If you look at Heidelberg’s history, you will see that Heidelberg had to change its core of products over time. Fifty years ago, we were the world leader in letterpress, and then we became the world leader in offset. Today we see the trend moving towards including digital,” says Pfizenmaier.
Heidelberg’s first move into the digital arena was in 1995 with the launch of the Quickmaster DI press. However, as the world began to embrace digital, it also welcomed the concept of variable data printing, which meant a fully digital solution would be needed. Officially partnering with Kodak in 1998 after lengthy discussions, the two teams began developing the NexPress in Rochester and in Germany in Kiel, which made its first appearance at drupa 2000 before its official release one year later.
However, according to Pfizenmaier, Heidelberg nearly became the victim of its own success, releasing a product that he admits the market may not initially have been completely ready for.
“What didn’t work that well was the marketing side because all the gurus were expecting double digit growth-rates for digital printing, and this today is still the weak point. The market is not growing as fast as expected. Is that a problem? Yes, but only for the time being,” says Pfizenmaier.
“We are all convinced that finally the market will be there for digital. It’s probably a little slower than what everybody was expecting, but it’s going in a digital direction. Offset is more and more becoming a commodity. If you want to compete with offset only, it is a price war. Digital opens up a huge range of opportunities, starting from creative work, asset management, data management, printing, finishing and finally, fulfilment as the way for our customers in the future to offer competitive services to their customers, beyond just putting ink on paper. For all these services, digital is an integral part. So we believe there is a strong future for digital, for our customers, and then for Heidelberg.”
NexPress down under
Compared to the rest of the world, the Australian market was a little later in receiving the NexPress than its North American and European counterparts. Mark Weber, NexPress executive vice president for solution and channel management, says that there are numerous reasons why Australia lagged behind the rest of the world in gaining access to the NexPress. However, he believes it was well worth the extra wait.
“Heidelberg decided that in order to really drive digital in Australia, it needed to start out with a pretty dense volume of printers. So it purchased the Danka analogue production business, and the service reps and some of the sales reps that were driving the Danka business there were hired. Heidelberg was able to start with a fairly good density of products, and have been driving the Digimaster now with a new focus on MICR and also data centres in addition to central reproduction,” says Weber.
“We opened Australia cautiously, not that the product itself was an issue, but we had to set up a supply chain between here and Australia for the operator replaceable components (ORCs), which are an integral part of our value proposition to our customers. We had to ensure that we set up a supply chain that was slick, fast and could get to Australia.”
Despite the wait though, the entrance of the NexPress into Australia was boosted by two early sales, one to Pongrass Digital in Sydney and another to Impact Printing in Melbourne. Since then others have followed as planned, including Excel Australasia based in Melbourne.
One major challenge that stood before Heidelberg’s entry into the colour digital market globally was that it was already well inhabited with the likes of Xerox and its DocuColor 6060 digital presses, and Hewlett Packard (HP) with its Indigo machines. However, Pfizenmaier believes that Heidelberg’s offset printing press background gave it a big advantage when promoting such a high volume, high cost solution as the NexPress.
“Firstly, offset printers hate service contracts. They hate to sign up for a fixed amount of money for months and months, regardless of the business situation. Secondly, they hate breakdowns. They are used to reliable machines which are up and running for years and years. So when we talked to our customers, we learned that Heidelberg will need to go into that business with a different mind set,” says Pfizenmaier.
It is a plain fact that the trend in offset printing over the past 10 years is increasing quality and continually lower runs. Direct imaging technology took offset printing down to that level by providing the ability to sensibly bring run lengths down as low as 300. According to Pfizenmaier, he and Heidelberg have been watching as the demand for run lengths drop toward 300, and sail right on past.
“Now the question is with even smaller runs, down to 50 or 100. Even direct imaging isn’t flexible enough to do those runs. This is one of the markets where digital comes in and is showing big things for the future,” says Pfizenmaier.
“A lot of hype is also around variable printing and the personalisation and full variable content. The problem is that it isn’t developing as fast as everyone was expecting. Variable data was the ideal opportunity for digital printing because no one else could do that, only a digital printer can. We do have beautiful success stories of customers who are doing variable printing, but the problem is that it takes a long time to develop advertising campaigns based on variable data printing. Some of our customers say it can take nine months to develop one advertising campaign with one customer using variable data. When it’s finally done, everyone is happy and everyone measures return rate and see that it is five or ten times better than with traditional printing, but it is a long process.”
Pfizenmaier says the main hurdle to overcome here is one of education, of printers needing to educate the customers with the use of the new technology, and this is something that Heidelberg has chosen to do itself.
“We are educating the advertising agencies to create a pool of marketing for variable data printing. In the end, I think it’s a question of time because the advantages are on the table, and everyone is talking about the success of one to one marketing,” says Pfizenmaier.
Despite sales not being up to Heidelberg’s lofty expectations, there is no denying that the NexPress is certainly finding a home right across the printing world. Weber says, “Geographically, we’re heavy throughout Western Europe and we have NexPresses installed as far east as Moscow. We are primarily centred in Western Europe, where we are very successful right now. We are also strong throughout North America, including some good business in Mexico, and we also see Asia as our growth opportunity.
“What Heidelberg Asia Pacific has done is set up a sales partnership with Canon in Japan and Asia, where they are co-marketing most of our products in a way that Canon can focus primarily on its area of expertise which are corporations and so forth, while Heidelberg focuses on commercial printing. What we are doing is entering into partnerships so we can drive the business faster. Wolfgang recently had a meeting with the Australian management such as Andy Vels Jensen and so forth, and they are very confident that they can drive some business quicker now that we have the foundation set up.”
With the world quickly turning digital, Heidelberg is sure to remain at the front of the pack with the NexPress, flanked by its continually growing offset fleet, leading the way towards meeting customers’ demands for personalisation and print runs that rise and fall like the Atlantic tides.
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