Ink Companies Look for Opportunities To Collaborate with Co-Suppliers

By Sean Milmo, Ink World European Editor | 10.02.09

Increasingly, there is a trend toward cooperation throughout the printing supply chain

Collaboration has tended to be seen by most ink producers as a means of strengthening their relationships with customers and suppliers. They have had little interest in building anything more than routine ties with others in the printing sector.

This attitude may be starting to change. Increasingly, there is a trend toward cooperation throughout the printing supply chain. In fact, it may be important for the future for ink makers, both mainstream and specialist suppliers, to be part of alliances or collaboration networks covering all or parts of the printing process.

In some cases ink producers themselves have been broadening out beyond the manufacture and sale of ink.

Press Manufacturers

With computerization affecting all stages from pre-press, printing through to the finishing of the products, integration has become a key objective within the industry. Consequently, suppliers and operators are working more closely than ever before. Ink producers cannot afford to be left out.

Digital printing has tended to act as a catalyst. Much of the equipment and software for digital printing can be provided by single suppliers. With consumables they are even making and providing the inks as well.

Manufacturers of conventional printing equipment have, in particular, been reacting quickly to the strong potential competition from the digital sector. While they have been providing their own digital printing products, they are also endeavoring to become single-source suppliers in the digital area as well.

Inevitably they are also beginning to try to apply a similar concept to conventional printing as well. One way of doing this is by forming alliances or loose networks of suppliers.

The other option is to try to exercise as much direct influence as possible throughout the supply chain.This approach has been taken by Heidelberg, the German-based printing equipment manufacturer, which through acquisition has been gaining strong footholds in the manufacture and supply of hardware and software throughout the printing process.

Heidelberg, however, stresses that it also aims to benefit from partnerships and cooperation agreements. “It is not our objective to control all important stages of the printing process through acquisitions,” said a Heidelberg official. “In the segments where we don’t have special products, Heidelberg works together with the best-in-class companies – even competitors – to provide its customers with the right solution.”

MAN Roland and Koenig & Bauer-Albert Group (KBA), Heidelberg’s two big German rivals, have adopted a strategy based more on collaboration and openness of printing systems.

MAN Roland also emphasizes the need for balancing the benefits of integration with open choice. “In the graphic arts industry, isolated solutions are less and less often focal points of interest,” said Gerd Finkbeiner, MAN Roland’s chairman. “Customers increasingly ask for integrated, and above all, open overall solutions.”

As the global market leader in web offset printing systems and European market leader in automated and digital workflow systems in newspaper production, it sees its role as an integrator, working with a variety of suppliers in the printing sector.

Four years ago, MAN Roland joined Sun Chemical, Kodak Polychrome Graphics, Sweden-based paper maker SCA and a number of other suppliers to form the Web Offset Champion Group.

This group aimed to use the technical knowledge of international suppliers to the web offset market to improve performance within the sector, mainly through the publication of best practice guides.

“The Champion Group has assisted customers through its best practice guides,” said Josef Aumiller, MAN Roland’s marketing manager, customer segments. “But it has also helped its members in the development of new products because the discussions between the different experts in the group have helped generate new ideas.”

The World of PrintCity

Out of the concept which was the impetus behind the Champion Group has emerged PrintCity, a federation of approximately 50 printing sector suppliers, including most of those involved in the web offset project.

Initially, PrintCity’s sole purpose was to provide a marketing platform for its members at Drupa in Dusseldorf, Germany last year, so that they could demonstrate how their pre-press, printing and post-press products operated together.

They could also combine their products in several different but integrated work flows so that printers at the exhibition would still have a choice of open solutions.

The PrintCity companies participating at Drupa included Apple Computers, Adobe, Agfa, Oce, Xerox and Shinohara, as well as MAN Roland. Among ink suppliers were Sun Chemical and Epple Druckfarben GmbH of Germany.

The alliance was seen immediately as a rival to the traditional huge presence at Drupa of Heidelberg. PrintCity took up nearly two-thirds of Messe Dusseldorf’s largest hall.

The Drupa display made such an impact that PrintCity has since evolved into a permanent organization. Its next appearance will be in April, 2002 at IPEX, the U.K. printing industry show, where it could occupy as many as two halls at the National Exhibition Centre, Birmingham, England.

Furthermore, PrintCity’s members are looking to do more to exploit the advantages of collaboration.

“By organizing into non-competitive associations, such as PrintCity and the Champions Group, each member benefits from the creative ideas of the entire group, allowing each to enhance its offering to customers while retaining its individual personality,” said Marc Frankel, Sun Chemical’s director of corporate communications.

“For example, PrintCity at Drupa was both a showcase for each member company that participates under the PrintCity banner and a shining example of what leading companies can accomplish by combining their resources to provide seamless system solutions,” Mr. Frankel said.

PrintCity now has a management team intent on enlarging the membership of the group and broadening the scope of its operations.

“Our success at Drupa proved that it is possible for a large number of companies to successfully work together in spite of their different sizes, specialties and cultures,” said Helmut Dangelmaier, European president of MEGTEC Systems, a supplier of web offset equipment, and newlyelected president of PrintCity.

“In the future we will no longer simply focus on exhibitions, but we will network our strengths within our giant cross-functional organization to extend our activities and provide new functions and services to the industry,” he said.

Among the options being considered for expansion of PrintCity’s services is the provision of technical advice and best-practice guides to the sheetfed and digital printing segments. Similar guidance could also be given to whole printing sectors like publishing, packaging and commercial printing.

“We could set up groups within PrintCity which would work in much the same way as the Champion Group in web offset,” said Mr. Aumiller, who is vice president of PrintCity. “In areas like digital printing, we might organize seminars. In sectors such as packaging, we would give advice in areas like workflows for foil packaging, labels and folded cartons.”

Nonetheless, in its efforts to increase its membership, PrintCity could face a dilemma. New members are approved through a system of weighted votes so that the larger companies theoretically have the opportunity to block new entrants.

“In the PrintCity displays at exhibitions, for example, the idea is to give printers the chance to cherry pick so that they are given a choice of products,” said an executive at one PrintCity participant. “It is important to preserve that openness. On the other hand we can’t have everyone joining.”

Ink companies other than Sun and Epple are also seeing the advantages of being members of PrintCity or of an organization with similar objectives.

“PrintCity is a wonderful concept,” said Leonard Walle, Flint Ink’s director of new business development. “It enables people participating in the graphic arts industry to communicate with each other about what is going on in each other’s sector.”

Flint believes that a forum such as PrintCity can provide a means for keeping in touch with technological developments in different parts of the world.

“There may be certain applications first developed in Europe which people in the U.S. are not familiar with,” Mr. Walle said. “This happened with computer-to-plate, which was first introduced in Europe. A forum of different sections of the industry would enable information on such developments to become more easily available. We then could ensure that our inks work properly with these types of new applications on a global basis.”

Flint has been building up a one-to-one relationship with MAN Roland in Europe which has just been extended into a cooperative agreement between the two companies in North America.

The alliance started with an arrangement under which MAN Roland used its consumables operation to distribute Flint’s inks in Switzerland, Netherlands and Belgium.

MAN Roland helped test some of Flint’s new inks, one of the latest of which was Flint hybrid UV inks for sheetfed applications.

“In today’s business environment we can’t work in a vacuum,” said Mr. Walle. “We have to work with manufacturers of the presses, the plates and other suppliers in the printing process to be able to assure printers that our inks will achieve optimal performance.”

As sectors of the printing industry begin to cooperate more, a mixture of relationships is likely to be created, ranging from bilateral ties, like that between Flint and MAN Roland, small technical advisory groups through to relatively large organizations like PrintCity.

“For many years, there have been speeches and presentations about the need for cooperation in the industry,” said Mr. Aumiller. “Now we are making a lot of progress, and what has been talked about for so long is coming into reality.”