If you’ve got it, flaunt it… or so the saying goes, and Koenig & Bauer – one of the ‘legends’ of the German printing press industry – has it.
A foundry, that is. And in 2022, the company will flaunt its manufacturing advantage with a giant calendar printed on its newest technology and featuring one of its oldest.
A RotaJet inkjet press – pairing K&B’s wide-web expertise with HP’s scaleable inkjet technology – takes pride of place in the company’s customer technology centre in Würzburg, Germany, while elsewhere during a factory visit in late October, we see the ultra-wide HP T1100s which Koenig & Bauer produces for HP for the digital corrugated market. More than 20 of the industrial single-pass digital presses – with web widths from 1380-2800 mm – have now been sold.
The giant packaging and décor presses on which the company is building its future, quietly seem to put the sunset newspaper market – of which it claims 80 per cent of the local DACH (Germany, Austria, Switzerland) region – in perspective.
Digital and webfed sales vice president Stefan Segger (top left) says he’ll still fight for newspaper orders, two of which were currently in the balance, “but the market is smaller”.
He says the “clear message” is that Koenig & Bauer is looking for “every single newspaper project”, given the potential to still make “a little money”, not least through the 15 to 20 years of after-sales support with parts and maintenance.
I’d spent most of a week in Germany, either side of WAN-Ifra’s World Printers Forum “unconference” in Frankfurt, looking at the printing plants of regional newspapers whose businesses seemed to be partly sustained by their ability to print multiple localised editions with quick-fire changes.
It’s this five-to-six-minute changeover capability to which Segger points when I ask whether there’s a future for newspapers in inkjet.
Apart from inkjet being “damned expensive” with its requirement for multiple print units, he argues that newspapers are well served by current offset technology, with orders driven more by the need to cut costs through automation, higher performance and reduced manning, and also demand for higher print quality.
But it’s packaging machines for which delivery times are “very long, totally different to newspapers”.
On a walking tour of the one-and-a-half kilometre factory site which is the largest employer in the baroque Bavarian city of Würzburg, it’s hard to ignore the ancient foundry building, which has been there most of the time since the company – established in 1817 – came down the hill from the Oberzell monastery in 1901.
Stepping inside is like taking a step back in history, although the computer-controlled pouring technology is in stark contrast to the almost Stygian darkness of the vast hall.
A pour has been arranged for my wife and I, and apart from foundry workers, a handful of students, and our host sales manager Günter Noll, we are the only ones present.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen steel poured – there used to be a mini-mill across the railway tracks from the UK newspaper office I used to occupy – but it’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of the operation. These days, you’d also gasp at the energy requirement.
Its ability to cast and machine large engineering parts is nonetheless a differentiator for Koenig & Bauer, and a service it provides to other machinery manufacturers, including some in the graphic arts industry.
A “misunderstanding” means I take lots of pictures, but am asked afterwards not to publish them. You’d have seen a variety of top-end engineering equipment and an impressive array of testing and measuring gear that would have spoken eloquently of the company’s commitment to quality. Again, I’ve seen much the same elsewhere, but it’s a shame we can’t share them with you.
What you wouldn’t generally see is “staged” presses: Instead a quality management process ensures everything is right, and will fit, before it is shipped out to the customer. Parts up to five metres by three are kept in an air-conditioned room at 22°C for a day before being measured to within 2.7-12µm using a scanning arm which has its own foundation. Photogrammetry – in which a digital picture is compared with a CAD model – is used to check assembly completion and details such as the sizes of drilled holes.
The site, separated from the Main river by a railway track, includes a museum, staff facilities including an excellent canteen (thank you, Stefan and Günter!) and a training school, as well as dedicated sections for parts assembly, security presses, and the smaller digital and webfed area.
Stefan Segger, who headed KBA’s Asia Pacific region from 2004 until his current appointment in September 2016, jokes that the packaging industry is “going through the roof because of my daughter”. Turning 21 the day before we met, she is “every day buying something online” whether it’s on Amazon or elsewhere.
Little wonder the newspaper inkjet market is less important than others in which the German maker can exploit an advantage. “We’re working hard to compensate,” he says.
Inkjet has taken Koenig & Bauer instead into new décor market segments such as flooring, furniture and designer items, “and we’re back in corrugated,” he says, where the company had been a sheetfed leader for board and now also has further access through flexo CI.
Just back from a trade event in Copenhagen, Segger has found his offering most welcome in a market which had previously been dominated by two suppliers. “They had been screaming out for a third supplier,” he says, “and some of these customers may also be super-happy Koenig & Bauer sheetfed users.”
A breakthrough ten-colour print section for beverage cans with keyless inking units in the technology centre (pictured) is also testament to K&B ingenuity.
The company is “super-healthy, with a unique product mix”, and can now to some extent choose “how we play it”, its position the result of “the good management decisions of the past two years”, he says.
One of these has been to get out of gravure, selling its business to Cerutti, whose packaging flexo arm Flexotechnica, it bought in 2013. Cerutti has since been placed in liquidation and sold to Bobst. Segger says the ‘big boss’ of family-controlled Koenig & Bauer told him, “Sometimes you have to let go”.
The stark choice is one which many in the news media industry will have had to make for themselves.
Pictured: Stefan Segger (left) and Günter Noll with the RotaJet