Print 05 has been much less severely impacted by the national calamity of Hurricane Katrina than was Print 01 by the international act of terrorism that shut it down four years ago, and it may be hoped that no act of God or crime of man will throw its smothering shadow across Print 09 four years from now. This year, however, Print is taking place within a hard-edged context that it never, in its erstwhile innocence, used to occupy.

The context arises from the shared sense that the printing industry’s recent rebound is all the more remarkable for having occurred amidst the turmoil of events bigger and more potent than any single industry or even all of them combined. It’s a hard-won insight about sudden disaster and slow recovery that is turning Print into a different kind of show and, perhaps, into a better forum for making sound decisions about capital investment and other critical business matters that do not easily forgive poor planning and frivolous mistakes.

Of course, the press manufacturers—the show’s biggest exhibitors, and therefore the most visible indicators of the industry’s economic health—have come to Chicago not to speculate about the tides of fortune, but to sell printing machinery. As the show progresses, all evidence suggests that the big-iron vendors are enjoying more success in the endeavor now than at any other time in the last five years. But, reality raises its hand whenever they acknowledge, as some did at media briefings in the show’s first few days, that their business still is not what it was and probably will never again attain the benchmarks that it set in the industry’s palmier days.

Nevertheless, agreed the chief executives of Heidelberg, Komori, and MAN Roland, the present and the future look satisfying enough on their own terms—particularly now that printers, as the vendors see it, are beginning to appreciate how press automation and other technologies can stem the decline of profit margins and make decreased run lengths an opportunity to be leveraged instead of a trend to be lamented.

Moreover, to hear these executives tell it, nothing that the post-millennial world has thrown at the printing industry has been able to stop or slow the ongoing development of the offset lithographic press. Still the most widely used platform for the widest variety of printed products, the endlessly improvable offset litho press continues to prove that it can be as big, long, and fast or as compact, colorful, and versatile as the job requires, regardless of run length.

Although they do not compete with each other in all market segments, Heidelberg, Komori, and MAN Roland joust fiercely for overall market share and for recognition as the builder of the most advanced printing equipment. As voiced by their senior managers in reports to the trade media at Print, the companies’ views of market realities were as frank as their claims to technical preeminence were self-assertive.

“Very cautious pickup”

Heidelberg chairman Bernhard Schreier wondered aloud whether “the very cautious pickup” of business that Heidelberg is seeing in its global markets would continue. “We are more confident of improvement at Print 05 than we were at Print 01,” he said by way of answer.

According to Schreier, the company has seen its share of “highlights and lowlights” in its most recently concluded fiscal year: highlights in developing countries like China, where robust GDP growth has pumped “a kind of oxygen” into the business outlook; and lowlights in mature markets such as Heidelberg’s home country, where the German print industry all but stagnated from 2003 to 2004.

“Once you get to be a $20 million to $30 million printer, having a web press starts to make a lot of sense.”

—Stephan Carter, Komori America

He said that the industry’s growth in North America was more robust than in other mature markets because many printers there had “reinvented” themselves to accommodate changing market conditions. So, added Schreier, has Heidelberg, having shed its former digital and web divisions in a corporate overhaul that has left the company stronger and more strategically flexible.

“Yes, we have fulfilled our promises, and we are back in profit again,” he said, posing another rhetorical question: “What can a customer expect today from Heidelberg?”

His answer: a “strong and reliable” equipment manufacturer with full ability to offer printers “the right things” for their businesses.

That portfolio includes, among many other items, eight-, 10-, and 12-color perfecting sheetfed presses, of which Heidelberg claims to have installed more than 900. According to Schreier, it eventually also will include equipment in the A0 format: a machine that can print poster-sized sheets of one square meter.

The Heidelberg product panoply also encompasses small- and medium-format sheetfed presses, platesetters, saddle stitchers, folders, cutters, adhesive binders, die cutters, label systems, folding carton gluers, consumables, service/maintenance support, and digital production workflows: “the things that we think are still mainstream in our business,” Schreier said.

He also noted that when Heidelberg’s non-compete agreement with Kodak—which acquired full ownership of the Heidelberg-Kodak joint venture in the NexPress digital printing system—runs out next year, Heidelberg will keep its options open with respect to non-impact digital printing. He said that interest in developing a Heidelberg-branded digital printing product remains, but that no commitments have been made.

Schreier noted that Heidelberg sees its role as that of a dispenser of “business consultancy” through its Print Media Academy and other educational programs. The company will also continue to provide financing for equipment purchasing: something it would venture to do, he pointed out, “only if we are in a healthy economic condition ourselves.”

“Here in the U.S., we are in great shape now,” Schreier declared. “We are more confident about the business than we were two or three years ago.”

Commercial webs revisited

Similarly sanguine was Stephan Carter, president and COO of Komori America. He was happy to report that by growing its business by 30 percent last year, Komori America now accounts for one-third of the parent company’s worldwide volume.

The full-size (40") segment of the market has been especially fruitful for Komori, said Carter, who claimed the company now supplies about one-third of it with its Lithrone Super Perfector and LS lines. The Spica series and other equipment in half-size formats have given the company a comparable slice of the “typical commercial shop” market, Carter said.

He also announced Komori’s return to the commercial web market with the 16-page System 38, a highly automated, 38" wide machine now available in “American” cutoffs of 23 9/ 16" and 22 3/ 4 ". According to Carter, as industry consolidation continues to meld small printing companies into bigger ones, it’s a good idea to be ready with a web press for firms that are starting to outgrow their sheetfed-only profiles. “Once you get to be a $20 million to $30 million printer, having a web press starts to make a lot of sense,” he said.

Still, noted Carter, “there is no press out there that answers all questions.” He said that Komori would try provide as many answers as possible by concentrating “on what we’re good at”: offering high-quality, high-speed multicolor perfectors as exemplified by the Lithrone LS1040, a 5/5 convertible machine with an advanced sheet-turning mechanism that can be seen at the show.

According to Carter, printers now should be having less trouble financing their press purchases than has been the case recently. “The banks have come back very aggressively into the capital equipment marketplace,” he said.

“Devastation,” pure and simple

Yves Rogivue, CEO of MAN Roland, was in no mood to sugar-coat as he summed up the industry’s rough ride through the last five years, declaring that shipments and profits had been no less than “devastated.”

“Opportunities and rewards in the graphic arts went into free fall after 2000, and they have not come close to fully recovering,” said Rogivue. “Is it any wonder that competition for printing projects is turning ugly?”

He said that helping printers find alternatives to this tooth-and-claw scenario was the “collective challenge” of equipment vendors and the trade media that cover them editorially. However, he expressed frustration at the difficulty of reaching printers by the customary techniques of business-to-business communication.

“Opportunities and rewards in the graphic arts went into free fall after 2000, and they have not come close to fully recovering.”

—Yves Rogivue, MAN Roland

Despite spending what he said was “millions” on trade advertising and equipment expos like Print 05, MAN Roland, according to Rogivue, is “still only reaching a fraction of the printers who can use our help”—a number that he put at 5,000 to 6,000. (The figure is partly explained by the fact that MAN Roland does not cater to the thousands of printers in the small/quick end of the market.) In a rhetorical question of his own, Rogivue asked whether MAN Roland might not have to find better ways of reaching printing companies than printed ads and printing trade shows.

At Print 05, however, MAN Roland does not appear to be stinting expense as it mounts a handsomely staged exhibit of its capabilities in sheetfed and web presses and digital workflows. Its stand features the largest sheetfed press to be seen at the show, a 47" x 64" Roland 900 XXL in six-color-plus coater configuration. This press has been purchased by Superior Lithographics in Los Angeles for installation later this month.

Showgoers can see everything the company has to offer by signing up for daily excursions to the company’s technology center in Westmont, IL, where they can inspect the 29" Roland 500 and 41" Roland 700 sheetfeds along with the Rotoman and Lithoman webs. Driving the iron digitally is Printnet PECOM, MAN Roland’s press operating and automation system.

At the show, MAN Roland also announced “printcom” and “printservices”: expansions, respectively of existing programs for press consumables and technical support/repair.