Taking a Road Trip with Industrial Inkjet, Omnifire and Ritzi

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In July of this year, Ritzi Automotive and Heidelberg hosted a superb open day at Ritzi Lackiertechnik premises in Trossingen, and then afterwards at the beautiful Hofgut Hohenkarpfen Hotel, which is a superb 17th Century hotel perched on the side of a significant hillside, overlooking an inspiring valley on the edge of the Black Forest. I landed in Stuttgart then hired my car to take me down to the venue. Once you are away from the traffic of Stuttgart, it is a great drive as the countryside opens up, the hills begin to rise and the roads begin to empty out and stretch out into the distance. 

Attendees to the event came from some of Europe’s leading automotive OEM’s, and top suppliers and industrial print production specialists to view progress with Heidelberg’s Omnifire 1000. Ritzi, a pioneering 4th generation family business has an innovative reputation for supplying the automotive industry with printed interior trim, and they are working closely with Heidelberg to develop the Omnifire 1000. This event didn’t disappoint in terms of innovative technology, the value of collaboration and the proof of progress. I was fortunate enough to attend, so read on to discover more.

 Montserrat Peidro, Senior Vice President - Head of Digital Print Business

Montserrat Peidro, Senior Vice President - Head of Digital Print Business

The formal content began with a presentation from Montserrat Peidro who is the Senior Vice President - Head of Digital Print Business Unit at Heidelberg Druckmaschinen AG. It was really interesting to be reminded of the significance and importance of Heidelberg, along with some of the key trends that led to the launch and development of the Omnifire technology.

Montserrat explained that Heidelberg is probably the most famous of all the printing names.

“The company itself has been operating for 160 years and has been a key part of driving the revolution in printing – initially industrialising printing with analogue, and now digital printing. The company now employs 11,500 people in 170 countries with 30,000 products across the planet. The company generates €2.5 Billion per year in revenue much of which is related to printing onto paper.”

Montserrat described what led to the launch of the Omnifire. “Looking at what is happening in World we decided to invest in developing the Omnifire. Consumer trends underline the reason. We all need to belong to a tribe. And there is a scientific reason for this, if you build a connection between a product and a particular tribe, then you sell more products. These connections create reactions, emotions and the desire that we have to have the product.”

For those of you unfamiliar with the Omnifire, this machine is a highly sophisticated direct to shape inkjet printing technology that has been developed utilising the considerable talent and resource at Heidelberg’s disposal. For a full explanation check out a previous blog link.

Many direct to shape inkjet-based technology options are available on the market, but much of the focus for these other businesses have been in packaging. Yet Heidelberg has approached this differently, and the applications focused on with Ritzi are automotive.

Montserrat continued. “Omnifire 1000 enables the production of ‘Special Edition’. For example, there is always a Star Wars special edition which is always launched in line with their latest film. This limited edition gets things sold as it promotes scarcity as they are only available for a short time and therefore produced under a short run. For example, we have printed beer kegs for Oktoberfest and we can print special edition basketballs, Suitcases, Motorbike helmets, there really are special editions of absolutely everything!

Special editions are invariably linked to a special event. Everyone wants to belong to a tribe so special editions are economically viable as people are willing to pay more. There is an increased need in society for being different and unique. And building a connection between your product and the individual sells more products. Your name, your interests, your team, your mantra. Consumers will pay a lot more for this!”

Developing Automotive Inkjet

Montserrat gave an example of how Heidelberg collaborated with Smart.

“At the recent IAA Show. We ran a joint venture with Smart. We went for a specific section of the population – youth (Millennials). This market segment is creative, outspoken, loud, confident and individual. The theme was to unleash the colour! We had personalised panels for the radio and some of the trims – each customer could load a picture to the ‘App’ and you could add some patterns and colours, submit the files, then we printed with Omnifire. This puts the consumer in charge of the design options, and it was very successful. 

In the future Smart want to design for the specific location and city. When you use the car logo – the trim elements can be designed with the location in mind.”
Markus Ritzi and Thomas Wittman from Ritzi Automotive are key people in the development and advancement of direct to shape inkjet for Ritzi. I spoke with them both after the event and asked them some more questions. Initially, they explained a little of the background of Ritzi.

“The company was established in 1912 – by Ludwig Ritzi. Now Markus (Ritzi) is the 4th generation. In 1960, we started in industrial print. The modern company is founded in 1988 Lackiertechnik. And now with Heidelberger, we look at the next evolution. Ritzi turnover €20 million per year and employ 140 people.” 

 Markus Ritzi welcomes guests to the Open Day

Markus Ritzi welcomes guests to the Open Day

How did you arrive at the idea of working with Heidelberg on developing the Omnifire 1000?

“Initially, our business started digital printing with a standard wide format digital flatbed printer.  And for the rim of the Mini Cooper speedometer, it took 20 minutes and the quality was not so good.  The Omnifire gives us the performance we need. The same job now takes 5 mins with the Omnifire and the automation is very useful and compelling.”

Normally when you have a process established as the OEM’s like this and it is a complete change? A change in ink? How do OEMs react when you present something different?

“For us, it was important to have the first digital print solution for BMW. This places us into the pioneering position – we passed all the tests with the speedometer – and now the other OEMs are thinking about it. It may be a relatively small application, but it is a start. This helps. These are examples of the Mini and the Smart.

For some of the more expensive models, you could, for example, print the owner’s name in subtle points in the car, inside the interior or exterior. We have interest here from the prestige market as well as the younger market. 

The application possibilities also exist for accessories. For automotive exteriors. It has a lot of economic value with helmets and suitcases for example. When it comes down to the normal industrial automotive model – one design is made and then it is mass produced and the Omnifire approach really is the opposite.

But we are in competition with other processes such as foil. We counted and tested we are on the same level – but we have the opportunity to change now and do 500 parts for Italy and 200 for Switzerland and come back for the serious production. It is not only individualisation it is another process for serious production including individualisation.”

How do you see designs developing?

“We have a lot of people from Bosch and Mercedes who study and work with the machines and they print designs that are quite amazing as they are redefining the possibilities. Our clients know more than we know as they see every day the possibilities of the application. 

What is also interesting is that these people in OEM’s perhaps did not realise that a tier 2 supplier (Ritzi) can be creative and offer a solution that is new for them and links with these megatrends. The same thing is happening in aviation and racing and helmets. “

How important is the Omnifire Beta Programme?

“The Beta programme is important as it gives us the chance to try new things out and put the machine through extreme things and try new substrates and software. By doing this you take all the bugs out – you improve it, and you develop new ideas.

As well as individualisation, the Omnifire can help cost efficiency and can reduce the cost of production. This also helps the creative process – this can also help prototyping tremendously by making it quicker to bring an idea to life and truly test the process. It gives you the chance to trial things and make errors.”

Open Ritzi

‘Open’ is an accurate word to describe the event and the business. Quite happy to show everyone their business and tour them around – many companies would be nervous of doing this – but Ritzi are confident as they know they are at the forefront of development – so they feel they have nothing to hide. The team at Ritzi from Gunter Ritzi, Markus Ritzi and Thomas Wittman are all very open and forward thinking as are the Heidelberg team. They are prepared to try things out without a guarantee of success. They also had a good knowledge of digital printing as they have a POS wide format digital printing business that has been using digital printing for some time, so they had confidence in line with success albeit in a different application base.

Thomas continues, “We previously had a digital inkjet flatbed printer. But the quality is much better with the Omnifire as it has been designed for this purpose. The clients really saw the difference before and after. They said this is a new level and we have a lot of development from clients who want to see samples.”

Do you sense that with this machine you are on the tipping point of growth in demand?

“We have some really interesting products, but in terms of volume of work, the machine is not full. I think it needs 2 more years. Everyone is very interested but I think it will take more time, then we get the results we are sure of it. We are gaining a lot of experience, delivering a lot of presentations, but generating business is taking time as people need to see the potential for them.

However, it has moved beyond merely being an idea. We wanted to broaden awareness of the possibilities by running this event so that they will come to us with their ideas as well. 

We must remember that the innovation cycles in automotive are long. Mercedes has the longest term – BMW is fast – Porsche is fast – they are all different but with all of them, one year is a short amount of time. So you really have to manage your own expectations as change just takes time.”

How difficult for you was it to use this technology? 

“Our production director is brilliant and very good at bringing new technologies out. With him and Heidelberg it was not really a big issue, to be honest - he made it easier as he had a lot of knowledge about it. Also, the Heidelberger guys call him to develop new things. We can answer any questions from our clients, it was quite straightforward. The ink itself proved challenging for adhesion, but this has largely been solved.”

Tell us more about the ink?

“This is the bigger long-term challenge. For example, the development of metallic colours including a popular colour used in automotive, silver. This will be a big challenge for the next few years. The ink producers seem quite slow at developing new inks, to be honest. As there is not a huge quantity as you don’t need a lot of ink so it presents a commercial challenge for them.”

Where did the idea come from printing the Mini (Cooper) speedometer rings? 

“We are close to OEMs and this helps us.  I knew they had a problem with the John Cooper works ring – the design was not possible with for printing onto the rims with an analogue printing process. So I said no problem for us, give me some rings and we can try it! 

Having our sister company Ritzi Display Technik gave us confidence in digital printing. We had a flatbed wide format printing machine – and we spoke about the problem and he said yes that digital printing could do this – so we made some samples. Anyway, the design centre was excited about it and wanted to know more and this opened the door and inspired us to connect with Heidelberg.

By doing this we solved a design and production problem for our customer. This really is the essence of our value. We want to solve problems before others. But to solve problems you have to be innovative so we must be open, flexible and forward thinking.

This is the same thinking that the company has had from the start. For example, Gunter Ritzi who is the father of Markus Ritzi was the first person to print onto plastic parts with the flatbed machine. He worked until he and the team found a solution. This is a big effort but it really pays off.”

So you are developing new ideas in automotive, but why is this not growing more quickly, what in your view is the problem?

“As I said before this takes time as the innovation cycles are not so fast. People don’t see the market opportunity yet. It is easier to spend money on a machine where you know the market is there. So I think the demand isn’t yet visible. The market is interested but risk is holding them back. It takes time, this is normal. But as the awareness grows and people begin to see success and advantage, I know it will accelerate. To some extent, we need to find more applications and they do not have to only be decorative. They could be functional too. If we develop an application (Which we are currently working on) which enables a new possibility with the function of the car in some way – then we think this may open up greater volume in demand.

So there is a design market. But also a technical one – it opens up more possibilities – then you come to volumes in this case so there is a future which could be more functional here.”
I also had an interesting discussion with Dr Bernard Beier, the Technical Leader for the development of the Omnifire. I was able to spend some time asking him a few questions…

So was the Open Day a success for you?

“Yes. We had a great group of 50 people from the top automotive businesses in attendance. The important point is that it is always good to see it working in the factory environment as it looks real and you can visualise it more effectively than you can perhaps at an event which is not a natural working environment.

I think that in the past they (automotive customers) saw the machine but doubted how realistic it would work in production. Now at the event, it is visible and now they start to think about how this is going to be implemented into their manufacturing.

At Ritzi, the Omnifire 1000 has been installed for around 9 months. It is a beta test and is the first machine and it took some time to get to this point. In parallel, we worked with Ritzi for the process. We have one ink we use for the Omnifire. We have to focus on one ink only, as to change an ink doesn’t really work as we have spent time on developing it to ensure quality. It isn’t only the ink formulation as with inkjet you need to develop a spectral waveform etc. For that reason, we concentrate on the process, the parameters, the pinning power and pre-treatment.

In fact, we have performed over 400 tests! And in this way, we have found a way to get a stable print result – the process focus and parameters we could find ways to print onto many surfaces. And there are probably some of them that you can print with another ink. The ink may be fixed, but the process parameters we can change and optimise by working so closely with Ritzi.

The important point is the examination of the result as this has to be done with the end customer. Ritzi has 10-12 tests for water, climate, atmosphere, etc. They have the deep knowledge of the customer requirements. We give them the materials and they can do this. We also did this together with Ritzi – every week they got a new material – it takes time and work but finally we have found a way to make it stable and realise the print process in the right timescale.”

So do you see the Omnfire working at fast, high volume output?

“No, this is not high capacity. But then it is not designed to be. We are fast in digital terms – but compared with the analogue alternative – it is slower but obviously, the flexibility and variability are key.”

In technical and development terms what led to the launch of the Omnifire?

“Before we started with the Omnifire we had some experience of working together with Krones – and we looked at beverage bottles. This was similar in design to the Hinterkopf machine but not as flexible. This gave us the necessary direct to shape experience and then we connected with Ritzi who obviously wanted an inkjet solution for automotive.

So we worked on this and we worked especially on the pre-treatment for production. 
During this development phase, we decided we wanted to create a direct to shape technology that was truly flexible with the geometry in front of it. We wanted to bring to market something flexible to print onto many different objects so it is ideal for people like Ritzi for small batches of identical products – which enabled a production to change with so many jobs throughout the day. We discovered that even the same type of products the geometry was different. 

Take a motorcycle helmet. Every helmet (size and shape) is different and the creative process takes time. The whole timeline is huge. Our system cuts this down in time, enables personalisation throughout and at a much lower cost. 

This is an important point. If you know exactly what you want to print and make many of the same design, there are possibly faster alternatives. But if you need a machine that has the opportunity to change shape and design then we have the best option with Omnifire. 

The immediacy to which an order can be finished has come down in time tremendously. It is now 3 days instead of 3 weeks. Plus the cost is so much lower it is quite compelling as set up time is so low.”

So packaging applications were not considered in their potential?

“Obviously, we started at packaging. Heidelberg has been working with inkjet for 20 years now. At Drupa in 2000 we presented a small print master with an inkjet printing unit behind it – to start discussions – since then we have a good knowledge of inkjet. This was always in development. We have constantly been asking, what is the right application? We didn’t want to bring out a wide format machine as the market is so saturated. Then, one day we started to build a bottle printing machine with Krones. This was shown at various different events. The technology is owned in total by them. So when we started to think of new markets, we asked ourselves, what is the core competence of Heidelberg? We know about printing for offset, toner and inkjet, we know how to produce print technology, we have software experts and we have the engineering competence!

The other core competence we have is developing precision machinery and mechatronics. You need both the electronics and the software. During this time we started to think that today we only really print on flat materials with inkjet. However, we live in a 3D World. We asked, why is it not possible to print onto 3-dimensional objects? We started to go to automotive OEM’s, and they were interested. They told us if there is a way to print onto a car, they would be interested in personalising the inside and outside. 

But we didn’t start right away with automotive. Initially, we found a customer who wanted to print onto a soccer ball. This is a good object to start with as we thought as it is spherical it would be so much easier than other objects. However, we discovered it is not even at all – it is complex.  Even the edges in between are all different sizes. A football is more like an egg as opposed to a sphere. This was completely different to what we thought. This we started to develop when we had a customer who wanted the machine. Then 10 months later – the machine (the smaller Omnifire 250) was installed at BVD in Lichtenstein. The balls are now available www.balleristo.de. We solved problems as we went along.

Balleristo immediately started to set up their website – which is important for personalisation so they get enough customers to fill the machine. Peter Goebbels did a great job and signed up several soccer dignitaries at FIFA. This success story provided a new 3-dimensional application was made possible by the Omnifire 250 proving that the concept and the technology has a future.”

What was one of the most challenging aspects of developing the technology?

“I have to say the development of the robotics. Initially, we thought we would be able to invest in an industrial robot and adapt it for our application.  But we discovered these robots were simply not precise enough, so after a year testing this technology – we decided to build our own. So with one of our core competencies we were able to make the robot in 4 months – it was precise as it was predicted in advance. And this is our USP – if you look to other companies that work in the field, they are probably not able to do this.

In parallel, we looked at the market and asked customers what their ideas were and it was clear the was a demand for printing onto larger objects. So we decided to build the (Omnifire) 1000. We also worked hard on finding the right person looking into the future – we wanted to start and take the risk. When Ritzi saw the machine, they wanted to see what they could do with the machine. In the paint industry, you get a major disadvantage – if it’s not precise – the fog of the paint literally goes everywhere. In comparison, it is really an advantage to do inkjet printing which is precise and clean whilst producing less waste.”

What in your view is key when developing something new?

“How you think. It is best to not focus on new technology’s limitations, it is much better to look at the possibilities and exploiting the unique advantages it can provide. The speedometer rings in the Mini Cooper are iconic. The ring itself is simple in geometry but you need all axis printing inside and out. It is relatively small and well defined so you know exactly what paint is on the material and is exactly the same and he has the right feeling and positioning to find out if it works.”

What is key in your opinion to the successful development of new business?

“Finding the right people and partners. When you start a new business – you find someone to look at the possibilities instead of thinking of every reason not to try something new. Solve problems, take time, and make new possibilities! There are now a huge number of ideas to develop into the future.

Today, we produce the electronics for charging system for cars – you wouldn’t necessarily think that Heidelberg would do this – we also produce converters for solar cells – we produce parts for keys for cars. If someone is interested in developing the Omnifire robotics to be used elsewhere then I am sure we would be happy to help.

But first we must focus on automotive and we have some great meetings coming up with some famous brands who are under pressure to find new ways to decorate cars and personalise them and we can help”!

What has helped you internally to develop this non-paper based printing technology?

“Essentially leadership. The mindset of the (Heidelberg) board has changed towards developing new technology and this has helped tremendously. All the automotive industry is on the way to try to think about how to make the car more interesting for customers as this makes sense as it is a saturated market. You no longer buy a car because of its reliability. All cars are now reliable. So you need something new to differentiate, so a solution that can help the customer make a statement about themselves is popular, it has value. The automotive industry is now on the way to find out how to individualise whilst still mass producing and I think Omnifire has a key role to play in the future.”

I spoke personally with many delegates at the event and whilst their needs were quite varied their interest in digital, and Omnifire, in particular, was high. I am sure that we will see further development for industrial inkjet as it continues to take its particular road trip into the automotive industry.

Check out the Demo here: