This article originally appeared in the InPrint Industrial Print Blog, April 13, 2017, and  has been reprinted with permission.

By Marcus Timson
I recently spoke with Stephan Plenz, who is the Head of Technology for the largest and most famous print brand in the world, Heidelberg. He talked about his career, his view of print, and of industrial inkjet. Being at the company since print’s heyday back in the late 1980’s he has certainly been part of significant change in the industry and within the print giant itself.

So, Stephan, it appears that you have been at Heidelberg since you left University?

Yes, that is correct. I studied mechanical engineering in Mannheim and I joined Heidelberg in the late 1980’s.As a business,Heidelberg always invests in people, and I have always been offered jobs that I liked.

Initially, I started in the production division and then moved into product development. Actually, I have always worked in the interface between production and R&D with a focus on how to get products into use and I am still doing this today.

Since 2008, what do you see as being the key changes in the print sector and more specifically with Heidelberg?

Everything has changed since the Lehmann Brothers episode!

Generally speaking, prior to the Lehmann financial crisis in 2008, we have sold 1000’s of units per product line every year. Generally speaking there seemed to be guaranteed growth.

However since 2008, our customer base has completely changed. Print production volume dropped by 6% in output and the investment in new machinery has halved.

How has this affected product development?

Today we have a clear focus to develop what the customers need in order for them to make money and be successful in their business. Saying this, we are today much more customer driven as opposed to technology driven. Crucial points are: What are the customer needs? What will change in the market place in the next 5 years and what do we do to support our customers on this journey? Those are the most important questions we are raising to ourselves and how we have changed.

We see a clear increase in the demand for late-stage customisation and this is why we developed the Omnifire technology. We see a future where people will expect to receive a personalised product very quickly, and this is where we can help them to customize and to personalise. Not only on a label, not only in the first step of production, but also at the end of the process. The world is changing and we enable our customers to unlock new possibilities in line with this demand.

What advantages are there being a large brand and company like Heidelberg? What are the disadvantages?

The advantages of being Heidelberg are considerable, not least that the entire global print community really trusts the quality of our engineering. In the end, we have to deliver and we invest in making our products the best that they can be. We don’t want to lower quality or reduce technical uptime to compete.

However, I do not see any disadvantages of being a large organisation. If you do not have the people close to your customers in the field, then you do not service your customers effectively. If you do not have the expertise like we are able to deploy, just to name software and robotics with the Omnifire,then you can’t bring quality and innovation to market.

As a result, our culture is more about agile development today. Things are moving far faster and collaboration is the biggest change as it is required in order to remain competitive and agile.

Some say that Heidelberg was late to incorporate digital print technology, would you agree?

15 years ago we ventured into digital but at this point, it was too early! Our current journey began in 2011. We started in the commercial market first, then we looked at packaging and label and started to develop the Primefire, Labelfire and then the Omnifire for printing on three-dimensional objects.

If you consider Heidelberg as a high-quality brand, then it is only relatively recently that the capability of printing 1200 dpi arose. Having this in mind, I don’t think we are too late, I think the timing is actually perfect.

The market feedback after drupa has been extremely positive. For the Omnifire, the quality standards are different to the Primefire and so we develop different solutions for different heads and inks. People expect the print quality to reflect the quality standards that Heidelberg has set in the market for generations.

PrimeFire 106
PrimeFire 106

How has the launch of the Primefire been received? Have you sold any units?

The Primefire launch has been phenomenal. There is no other inkjet machine in this format right now, nor is there any machine available meeting the needs of industrial digital printing. It is currently in the field test phase and we have confidence to reach a good market share so we are confident for the steps to come. The second field test contract is also signed and will take place late summer. By end of the year we will be ready for serial shipment.

Industrial digital print in the packaging market offers great unleashed growth potential. If you look into the future of packaging printing, digital technology will open new doors and possibilities. We see offset and digital technology living together as well in the future, so it is not a question of either/or, it is more about which technology works best for which job. This is how the future will look like.

20 years ago Benny Landa predicted that all that could be digital will be digital. Yet we still have offset today. I see the market for digital is wonderful, but you have to sell a different type of print product, for example personalization, versioning or ultra-short runs. You have to add value to the process, otherwise it will not fly. Offset is highly competitive and will continue to be so for longer runs. This is why Digital has to offer new things. When you operate both technologies then you can choose the right technology for each job.  It is just a question of whether your customers will make money out of this and if they approach the market in the right way.

We know from our research that the need for greater collaboration for the development of industrial inkjet – what is your view?

As I mentioned already, a more collaborative approach is what we have already seen as important. So I agree, for inkjet development collaboration is crucial. For the Primefire, Fujifilm with its inkjet heads is a crucial collaboration partner for us. But also the other elements of the technology chain including ink, heads, drying, data handling, workflow, color management, ink supply are also critically important. It is far more than just transporting paper and spitting ink onto it. If you don’t work together with the strongest partners in the market, you don’t get the quality. On one side, we have Gallus with the handling of the substrate; we have our own digital front end and a partner with Fujifilm who wants to work with us to develop excellent products with the Primefire as well as the Labelfire. Without collaboration real innovation is simply not possible.

Where does Heidelberg believe the key markets for inkjet will be?

Well they are various:In the packaging market it is always industrial inkjet as we offer it with the Primefire, of course the same on the label side and finally it will be used for direct printing on objects for late stage customisation.

What are the biggest challenges for industrial inkjet?

To develop a complete system is the major challenge. In order to do so, you need to have reliability, color management, substrate transportation, inks which are compliant to low migration standards. Again, the total application development is definitely the biggest challenge in that market.

How important is leadership and culture to the future success of Heidelberg? Is there different leadership and culture for digital?

Leadership and values are the essence of any company. Bad leadership and no common values results in a bad company. It is not a question of any end product or technology being used.Saying this,there is no difference between offset and digital technology in this context.

When we talk about Heidelberg going digital, we do see this much broader as just digital printing.We also focus on the digital business process. In the future, you will see more innovation from the business model side, on how to work with customers, how to interact with the market and the solutions offered to our customers.All this will be the main target for the next year.Let’s put it like this: Heidelberg will continue to go digital but we see this clearly extending beyond digital printing only.

Heidelberg will be exhibiting at InPrint USA 25-27 April 2017 in Orlando with their Omnifire technology