Arriving at Heidelberg at the Print Media Academy, we were enthusiastically greeted by the digital team headed by Jason Oliver who is the Senior Vice President of Digital and Frank Janssen who is the General Manager of 4D Printing. Immediately it became apparent that the digital culture of this part of Heidelberg is quite different to the more conservative culture that has typified Heidelberg over the years. During the day we talked of developing new technologies within a growing team that has a proven track record in developing cutting edge digital print technology. This team is creating a culture that is conducive to digital disruption, by trying out new things and moving quickly to market.
I asked Frank. As many observers have already commented on, in the past Heidelberg have missed the digital bus many times. So what is different now?
“There has been a shift in leadership and thinking. We now have the culture to enable us to develop digital printing technology. We are permitted to innovate. What is exciting from my perspective is allied to this innovative ‘start up’ kind of culture is that we have the resources to meet demand, to service customers properly and to research and develop new products quickly utilising our considerable experience and expertise which has already proven really helpful with the development of the Omnifire 250 and now the Omnifire 1000.
One of the key things that Heidelberg has been world renowned for is the quality of the engineering. The engineering is very reliable and we certainly know how to develop machines and then provide excellent service.
When you launch a digital machine you must still have great service as you are also launching all of the things that must go with it. When a customer is making an investment for a machine that may represent a new departure for them they really need to know that the same people who sell you the product are there to help you after you have made the purchase. You have to be part of their journey.”
So what else has changed at Heidelberg?
“A lot of renewed focus has been placed on R&D at Heidelberg. The strong reputation that Heidelberg had become famous for in the past and respected for over the years have been put to good use in developing new digital technologies for industrial applications. These days, of the 800 strong R&D team, 400 are fully focused on digital which represents a significant change of focus and culture.This demonstrates that the leadership of Heidelberg is most certainly fully invested in a digital future.
It is clear to us that inkjet has a big role to play in the future production of a number of industries that are still analogue and we see a big role for Heidelberg in this field. We also see the world changing with the rise in self-expression and the need for the production of smaller batches of products that are more locally produced. Of course the feeling you get from consuming something that has value other than just the convenience of a mass produced product is a compelling trend. And we see a true role to play for our 4D Printing technology in line with this trend.”
Tell us more about your 4D Printing?
“We have created, developed and now sold the Omnifire 250 into several industries. With this machine you can print onto 3D objects and the target is to provide users with the capacity to personalise products from a football, to a skateboard, to a number of different items. The application is industrial and the focus is on personalised consumer goods. We will be enhancing this technology further with the launch of the Omnifire 1000 in Milan in November.”
What market is this 4D Printing technology relevant for?
“The main market is Western Europe and the US but the customer base is quite diverse. We believe that the sports market is a huge opportunity in both Europe and the USA. We think that the ability to run special edition designs, customised around teams, players and even individual expressions coming from the consumer themselves is tremendous. This has an application which you can see will create a brand new market.
For the Omnifire itself the target right now is higher end products. The Omnifire 250 which was launched at InPrint 2015 in Munich really captured the attention of visitors. The booth was packed with people during the three days. InPrint plays an important role in helping us access new markets as the technology is designed to help people produce new value with new applications. This whole market is new and we are learning all of the time about the market and this helps us to adapt our products and respond to this continually changing consumer environment.
The market potential for Omnifire is also very diverse which is why InPrint provides us with an excellent platform to engage with different markets. Customers really like the speed, quality and the cost. The print finish is excellent, so we think it is really leading the market. The range of applications is also good, we can print onto a very wide range of surfaces. You simply have to see the quality to understand how revolutionary it is.”
How does it work?
“The technology itself has been developed by us with our own in house software team and the robotics have also been designed in house. We could not find an option available in the open market that fulfilled the precision needed. The head we have deployed is the Xaar 1002.
After receiving the file from the customer we convert this 2D file into a 3D file. Just imagine you are Columbus and sailing onto the flat 2D world as people thought in these days. We would change that 2D flat ocean into a 3D globe. After the file is ready we will scan the 3D object in the machine for any deviations in size. These get calculated back and adjusted so we can ensure a quality print every time, then after that the printing starts.”
This sounds like a complex process. Doesn’t doing all of this before you print simply slow everything down?
“No the ball itself can be printed in 1 minute 30 seconds and the scanning and software calculations are super quick. The quality and sophistication of the product is significant, so we are really going after high added value markets. As you would expect with Heidelberg, we have thoroughly tested the inks, machinery, software, robotics and so on. We have spent quality time testing it and it is different to any other that I have seen going into the market and it has been developed over a period of 7-8 years, so it is therefore very robust.”
Heidelberg is known as a leader in analogue offset printing, how has this been possible within a culture that is not necessarily famous for digital innovation?
“I guess the answer is leadership. We have defined a different culture within this digital team. The reality is that if you want to go digital then you have to use a different mind-set. You have to fail fast. Even if you are not first to market with a concept, your strategy and culture must allow people to try things out and as I have said, fail fast. With new ideas that do not necessarily have a defined market and channel for a new product you have to be allowed to experiment in order to find out where the market is. For the Omnifire we are creating a new market, much like the InPrint Show is doing. So today we have a different culture. Senior management are behind us and if leadership believes in you then you can really make things happen. The digital team is a young team, diverse and the culture has been established with an international outlook. We want to embrace change and move forward. We have something remarkable here, it is the best of both things – we deliver engineering excellence with the focus on innovating and creating new markets.”
So what else for the future, what other industrial print markets are showing interest?
The aeronautical sector is interested in the technology has printing directly onto shape saves time and money and provides flexibility to production. This is an exciting area, so watch this space! More news about this will come in the future.”
For further information please contact Frank.Janssen@heidelberg.com