Heidelberg-Ricoh tie-up is improvement on its Kodak partnership

By Adam Hooker, Tuesday 01 March 2011

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When Heidelberg chairman and chief executive Bernhard Schreier announced at Ipex last year that Heidelberg would be re-entering the digital printing market, through an alliance, I felt somewhat apprehensive as to just what sort of agreement this would be.

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I, like many others, was somewhat dubious as to whether such an agreement would be possible or if Heidelberg really understood the digital market it planned to re-enter.

Look at the last time Heidelberg was in the digital market when it partnered with Kodak. Heidelberg brought its knowledge of offset printing and heavy engineering to produce the Nexpress 2100, which utilised imaging and toner technology from Kodak.

While the Nexpress was a great imaging engine it was greatly over-engineered with a manufacturing cost around the targeted planned sales price. The product did not fit the needs of the market – it could not connect to inline finishing systems, nor could it run more than one substrate at a time. It was not suited to the traditional Heidelberg customer as it was too expensive and had too great a duty cycle. It was, in fact, a typical engineering-driven rather than market-driven product. Since the machine was taken over by Kodak, it has re-engineered and most of the initial problems have been rectified – it is now a highly competitive line.

I was therefore delighted to find that Heidelberg's re-entry into digital printing would be via a market-driven approach. The company carried out major research across all segments of the commercial printing market to ascertain the area in which it would be most likely to succeed in providing a suitable package for the substantial Heidelberg worldwide user base. It will not go head to head in the "professional" or "high-volume" digital markets, nor does it plan to compete in the highly competitive office market. Instead, it is targeting is the "value" segment – the area in which digital presses would have a speed from 60-90 A4 pages per minute, with a monthly target volume between 80,000 and 300,000 pages per month.

Heidelberg's requirements in entering this market are for the press to conform to the value segment specification, but also to have a quality equivalent to that available in four-colour offset and the "performance" digital printing segment. The other unique selling point of the Heidelberg digital print offering is that, while the press may be sold separately, it is ideally configured as a package with the Heidelberg Speedmaster 52 Anicolor short-run offset press. Both presses would be driven from the same colour-management system to give comparable colour output.

Heidelberg has analysed the short-run colour market and found that the true economics of digital print show a crossover point of digital and the Anicolor at around 200-300 pages. It has found that when both the digital and Anicolor presses are driven from the same Prinect workflow system that the true economics of every job can be ascertained prior to printing, allowing the printer to choose the best system for the job.

But, how will it work in reality? I think it is the ideal solution for the small and medium-sized printer entering the digital field and is, in fact, something I have been suggesting for many years. A key factor, however, in this is quality –can the digital and offset presses give the same quality of work? With a few exceptions, they can.

Heidelberg, in choosing Ricoh as its partner, has been astute. The Ricoh C901 Graphic Arts Edition press is really challenging the established players in the market for both speed and quality. While Ricoh has a great distribution channel into the enterprise and office markets for both sheetfed and continuous-feed printers and presses, it has a limited presence in commercial printing. This provides a great opportunity for Heidelberg to use its worldwide distribution to really establish itself as a key digital player.

Heidelberg will also move slowly into the market as it develops its expertise and offerings. It is not setting its sights on the specialised personalisation markets of sophisticated direct mail, but will no doubt offer software to allow its customers to handle personalisation of output.

The agreement with Ricoh should not just be looked at in terms of the initial offering. Heidelberg and Ricoh see this as a long-term partnering agreement under which Heidelberg will work with Ricoh on the development of future presses to expand the product range, perhaps incorporating Heidelberg's expertise in paper handling and colour control.

One must also look ahead to think what may happen. Through its Hitachi Printing Systems division, Ricoh is developing its own inkjet print engines. I could envisage that such engines could be sold through Heidelberg into the graphic arts markets for publishing applications. Heidelberg is a leading supplier of finishing systems for commercial printing, but makes nothing at this stage for digital print finishing. If Heidelberg moves into continuous-feed inkjet printing with Ricoh it could become a key supplier of finishing systems for this market.

This provides a great opportunity for Heidelberg to use its worldwide distribution to really establish itself as a key digital player.

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