A tale of innovation over two centuries

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Koenig & Bauer, which was the first manufacturer in the world to make a motorised cylinder printing press and is the oldest press maker still in existence.

Today it is a huge operation, the world’s second-largest press maker with a 2017 revenue target of between €1.1bn (£940m) and €1.2bn, but it still remains, at its core, the company set up in 1817 in Würzburg, Germany.

Whether in-house or by acquisition, the company has been a powerhouse of technical and industrial innovation for two centuries. Avid readers of PrintWeek will know that the first Koenig & Bauer press dates back to even earlier: the first steam-driven cylinder newspaper press, was built for The Times in London in 1814, by two Germans, Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer who went on to found the business. 

The really clever bit was the process of moving the bed of type under controlled pressure applied by a cylinder: the application of steam power via drive belt was headline-grabbing but fairly obvious and not difficult to implement once a press had rotary motion. 

Sadly for British industry, Koenig’s English backers weren’t much interested in turning The Times’ achievement into a commercial press business. In 1817, Koenig and Bauer decided to form their own company back home in Germany, so that’s what the company is celebrating this year.

Koenig set up a business in a former monastery in Oberzell, near Würzburg in Bavaria, where Bauer joined him in 1818 after completing refinements to the Times press. It took a while to get started, but by 1822 the company had sold the first Koenig & Bauer press to Johann Spencer in Berlin, soon to be joined by three more. On 25 January 1823 the Haude & Spencersch Zeitung was the first newspaper in Germany to be printed by a cylinder press. 

Koenig died in 1833, but by then the Koenig & Bauer company was well established and his sons Wilhelm and Friedrich carried on with the business. Bauer lived until 1860. In 1875 Friedrich oversaw the development of a web-fed rotary letterpress machine, sold to Magdeburger Zeitung the following year. Over the next 15 years the concept was refined for multiple page formats and twin tower units. 

By 1882, the company was making a sheetfed rotary letterpress machine, and by 1890 this was extended to twin units. The company was still refining rotary letterpress into the 1950 and 1960s, when the 1959 two-colour Rotafolio press was developed for flexible metal and plastic plates rather than cast metal saddles.

By the 1960s it was obvious that offset would overtake letterpress and a major milestone came in 1967 with the launch of a first sheetfed offset press, the Rapida 0. By 1974 the Rapida SR III was hitting 15,000sph, the fastest in the world at the time and still respectable today. In 1972 came the company’s first commercial web offset press, the Compacta. 

In the 1980s it looked as if flexography was a good alternative to web offset as newspapers were still switching from letterpress and starting to consider colour. In the event, web offset largely won out, but not before Associated Newspapers put in eight flexo Courier newspaper presses in 1988. Backing all horses, it was Koenig & Bauer that supplied The Guardian in London with three final letterpress newspaper presses in 1985, a bizarre order placed long after it had become clear that letterpress had reached the end of the road commercially.

In 2000, the firm, now known as KBA, introduced the Cortina waterless web offset newspaper press, a system that proved very successful and is still built today. 

Other technologies

Gravure was also a strong area for KBA in the past. It developed its first rotary gravure press in 1912, followed by a sheetfed gravure press in 1936. 

Worth noting is that KBA-NotaSys in Würzburg handles one of the group’s more low key but nevertheless successful subsidiaries. It makes banknote presses that are used worldwide, but like any security printing operation it doesn’t talk much. The company developed its first coloured banknote press in 1923, then a multi-colour intaglio press in 1952.

While others were spinning off and setting up (see boxout), KBA itself continued to prosper and to expand and develop into new areas. In 1901 the company moved out of its original old monastery to a new factory on the other side of the river Main. It’s still on the site, but the 1901 factory was destroyed in 1945 so a replacement was built post-war.

Würzburg remains the group’s HQ, but it has other sites and factories, mostly by the acquisition of other press and ancillary makers. Most of the subsidiary companies are in Germany, but it does have factories in Austria, Switzerland and Italy, plus a large sales and service centre in the US. 

Today KBA maintains a major presence in its traditional fields of analogue printing processes: web and sheetfed offset and flexo, though letterpress has long gone. And these are likely to form the mainstays of its business for the foreseeable future. 

However, it’s impossible not to consider digital in today’s world. KBA has not been a major player in digital to date and its efforts have been concentrated on products for specific niches and markets rather than competing in the mainstream digital press market. Its focus on industrial applications could be about to come good: digital presses for the decor and corrugated contributed to a big jump in sales last year.

Current digital projects are the largely in-house RotaJet L, an 800mm web width inkjet web press first shown as a prototype at Drupa 2012, and about to be added to with the RotaJet VL, a 2.2m width press for industrial print such as decor. An alliance with HP has led to the huge 2.8m wide PageWide Web Press T1100S, a sheetfed corrugated inkjet press. Another alliance was announced with Xerox at last year’s Drupa to develop the VariJet 106, a modular hybrid press that can be configured with offset, inkjet, screen, coating, foiling and die-cutting units inline.

We can expect to hear more about the new technologies as well as the more conventional mainstays of KBA during its official bicentenary event in September. 

Friedrich Koenig, Andreas Bauer, their successors and those who learned from them and set up elsewhere, have given us many aspects of today’s printing industry. Very few companies make it past the first 50 years, fewer make it to a century. KBA has survived two World Wars and the destruction of its manufacturing plant. For KBA to remain successful, relevant and forward-looking after two centuries is an unmatched achievement in the industry. 


Albert Frankenthaler

As one of the first powered press makers in Germany, Koenig & Bauer was the training ground for a lot of press engineers, some of whom left to found their own companies. Notable among them was a foreman, Andreas Albert, who left in 1861 to set up his own company in Frankenthaler. He worked with Andreas Hamm, a bell-caster who had set up a foundry in 1850. They called their company Albert & Hamm. 

When Hamm left in 1873 to concentrate on bell casting, the company was renamed Albert Frankenthaler. It became a successful and respected press company over the next 120 years, building its first rotogravure web press in 1913 and its first web offset press in 1922. 

In 1990, Koenig & Bauer acquired Albert Frankenthaler and became Koenig & Bauer-Albert, or KBA. Although today, KBA officially stands for ‘Koenig & Bauer AG’.


Meanwhile, in about 1890, Andreas Hamm went back to making presses together with his son Karl. When Andreas died in 1894, Karl sold the business to Wilhelm Müller in Heidelberg, who called it Schnellpressenfabrik AG Heidelberg. Today the full name is Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, but mostly just known as Heidelberg. 


Manroland also has roots linked to Koenig. In 1844, a nephew of Friedrich Koenig, Carl August Reichenbach, together with Carl Buz, established the Reichenbach’sche Maschinenfabrik in Augsburg. After going through a series of ever more complex Germanic company names, in 1909 it was simplified to Maschinenfabrik Augsburg-Nürnberg AG, or MAN AG for short. In 1979 it merged with Roland, yet another German press maker, to become MAN Roland, today operating as two separate companies again, Manroland Web Systems (in Augsburg) and Manroland Sheetfed (in Offenbach but UK owned). 


In 1898, in Dresden a former Albert field engineer, Joseph Hauss, together with partner Alfred Sparbert, founded Dresdner Schnellpressenfabrik. This later moved to Naundorf (Radebeul) and changed its name to Planeta, after a planet drive it developed in 1906. In 1932 it launched the world’s first four-colour sheetfed offset press. 

Planeta’s factory was completely destroyed in 1945, but in 1948 the company was restarted with a new factory in Radebeul. While East Germany was not noted for for the quality of its manufactured goods, Planeta proved an exception, supplying not only the communist bloc but Western printers, on a combination of innovation as well as price. In 1964 it introduced the world’s first unit press, a configuration that became standard worldwide. 

East and West Germany were re-unified in 1990. KBA bought a majority stake in Planeta in 1991 and the rest in 1994, renaming it KBA-Planeta. The Rapida sheetfed offset line was transferred there and is still built today. 


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