Chronicle
Decades ago an older gentleman wandered into the foyer of a five-star hotel. He was carrying a shopping bag and dressed in less than appropriate garb for such an establishment. He asked for a room. The front desk clerk, assuming him he was a bum, suggested he try another hotel down the street. The bum, however, owned the hotel property. Looks can be deceiving. Some of the richest people in both Canada and the United States are seldom seen or heard.

They do not make anything, build our roads or habituate the world of graphic communications. But they do rent space to those who manufacture or sell products and services. Somewhat likened to an iceberg, most of the wealthy exist below the waterline of awareness. Hundreds of millions of square feet hardly noticed and owned by this group of the faceless wealthy. Then there’s Donald Trump.

The results of the Bataan death march referred to as the never-ending U.S. election, shocked a great many people. Lots of hand wringing and mea culpa moments ensued. But it was too late. America had in fact elected Trump as its 45th President. He had campaigned on a clever platform: The world is falling apart and dragging America down with it. Too many immigrants from the wrong countries, unfair lopsided trading practices that put American industry at risk, and so on. The plan worked and America found itself at war – with itself.

Unlike his often silent, low-key brethren of real estate, President Trump enjoys the limelight. He craves attention and respect. There also seems to be zero commonality between himself and the average American $24 per hour factory worker and, as surprising as it seems on the surface, these workers were one of the key reasons Trump now holds one of the most powerful positions in the world.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to explain what drives Trump, and even harder to support his many rigid viewpoints, except to say that some of it has to do with his involvement in the construction industry in New York City. Sitting across from mid-level bureaucrats that have the ultimate power over what can or cannot be built plays a role in his aggressive behaviour. Having his own name attached to properties belays a need to protect it. One assumes Trump blows himself a kiss each morning when he shaves.

It can be said that Trump’s business views have changed very little since he pushed himself into the limelight of the highest office in the land. The books he is said to have written are nothing more than grandstanding and one fears Trump himself believes every word of it. “I alone can fix it” summarizes extreme narcissism and bills him as a neo-fascist.

Trump sees government agencies as wasteful and incompetent – getting in the way of free enterprise. He did build his own brand, however, and brought up his children to business leaders in their own right, and all the while being mostly alienated from the aristocrats and old-money movers and shakers. Few wanted anything to do with a brash newbie with such radical views of society. This is why his campaign was so amazing. Trump created a crisis and drew lower- to middle-class white males and small business owners into his web.

Recent gaffs such as the ban on seven select Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States plays to the right-wing hardliners who are also among his strongest supporters. Trump’s position is nothing more than a red herring and he knows it. There are many faiths within Islam. Ismailis for one are an excellent example of why Obama’s separation of extremists and terrorism is so important. One needs only to recall the bloodbath in Northern Ireland, between Catholics and Protestant, to know that wars are primarily caused by two factors – economics and religion. Man’s character cannot be justified by religion: we are all capable of doing bad things. God has been just a good excuse for war.

If we elect people solely on character, legislatures would be virtually empty. But President Trump with all his obvious flaws has one attribute that may pan out especially for manufacturers. I’ve spoken to quite a few American printers – from all regions. The majority suggest the same thing. They support Trump because he will disrupt the status quo of government and be a pro-business President. You cannot argue with that even though some realities of bringing manufacturing back to America may mean they will be buying $10,000 refrigerators and paying much higher costs for labour-intensive products.

The Trump message to industry is quite clear. Cut out the red tape, impose tariffs on a variety of imported products, all to make America great again. U.S. printers can buy into that because if the plan actually works the result will be more printing being produced in America. The Mexican upheaval is really a US., Japanese and Korean manufacturer’s issue more than it is a Mexican one. Goods assembled or made in Mexico are for non-Mexican corporations – with a majority being American. In the 1980 movie The Formula, a film about a secret synthetic fuel that would render oil obsolete, there is a scene between two oil company executives: Arthur Clements: [proposing that Titan Oil can raise its gasoline prices] the people will accept the 12 cents now because we can blame it on the Arabs. Adam Steiffel: Ah, Arthur, you’re missing the point, we are the Arabs.

The largest U.S. corporations are global. The movie showcased what we all sort of know. America Inc. is the puppeteer. Mexico (the country) is the one taking all the flack. The first commandment of free enterprise speaks of making products cheaper. Countries like Mexico are essential to maintaining a low-cost environment. Jobs are disappearing simply because of technology and both Canada and America need a low-cost producer in their own back yard, just as the rest of the world’s continents have access to such countries.

The printing industry on both sides of the 48th parallel can benefit from Trump’s hacking away at red tape and forcing more factories to open up in the USA. Tariffs alone, if implemented by Congress, could invigorate rustbelt towns all over the United States. But there will be losers and Canada will have to work hard to keep itself out of Trump’s crosshairs.

If Trump has his way in removing the so-called tax imposed on manufactured goods made and exported from America, this could cause severe indigestion for, among others, Canadian printers. We faced difficulties like this in the late 1960s and early 1970s. After all, Canadians enjoy exemptions on exported items so the likelihood of the Republicans agreeing on similar schemes is not a stretch.

In 1994, when NAFTA was enacted, there were many Canadian naysayers warning of impending doom to the Canadian Auto industry. The previous 1965 AUTOPACT agreement had proven to be a Godsend for Canada and its replacement? Well who really knew how that would play out? Quite wonderfully actually. But now NAFTA is under attack and if our government cannot negotiate favourable terms our print industry could find itself back in the 1960s – shut out of tariff-free trade with our largest trading partner. For us in Canada? We can only hope that we don’t catch a cold.

Only a fool believes our large oil reserves serve a single purpose of providing energy and powering our vehicles. Oil is so much more important and used in everything from food to plastics. But paper is another story all together. Especially in coated cut sheet, Canada and America work somewhat differently. This can be seen by visiting any cross border print shop. Southeast Asian and Chinese paper suppliers enjoy a major slice of a Canadian printer’s buy. Not as much in America, where they have always been aggressive in slapping on anti-dumping and countervailing duties. With current zero duties on Canadian printed materials (to the U.S.), Trump could alter any perceived advantages save for our weaker dollar.

A bull in a china shop, Trump, while upending the way things have been, could either draw Canada closer economically or create huge difficulties. His reckless tweets and simplistic sound bites could not be more different from his predecessor. Obama’s speeches make Trump’s sound like he’s in a primary school debate. This does not change Trump’s forward trajectory as he stumbles through his first year.

America’s small business owners will, however, applaud him if he does make it easier for them to expand and run their businesses. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for one, has made it extremely hard for web printers. The EPA imposes harsh rules for exhausting of airborne effluents and in some states like California the paperwork alone kills the majority of a dwindling industry.

Battles have not begun yet between the Republican majority Congress and the President. But they will. In two years, Congress has an election. A massive problem will unfold soon between the two for its possible that the GOP will (if they completely side with Trump) lose their majority and make Trump a lame duck. Congress representatives from States that do a lot of business with Canada will be hard pressed to support schemes that restrict trade between the two countries. Let the knives come out.

For the U.S. printing industry they hope Trump will not do anything really stupid to upend the economy. These folks are willing to hold their nose and pray that Trump stays on message to effect legislation that can benefit U.S. manufacturing. Canada’s printing industry needs a strong voice in Washington now more than ever. Do we have it? Time will tell. The one argument President Trump can make that will hold water is trade. The rest of his ideas are another matter but let’s hope it’s not too late to take the car keys back.
How the Iron Curtain ushered in the half-size web in the face of large-format offset to forever change print.

If you were born in the 1950s and chose printing as an occupation, then you already know most of this story. Pressrooms of larger commercial printers typically employed huge sheetfed machines – sheet sizes of 60- and 77-inch monsters. They were the epitome of highly successful businesses. The bigger the press, the more likely you were to be among the top 10 percent in the industry. Only heatset web offset plants were more substantial.

Such large format sheetfed printers existed because, as the amount of printing increased from the 1920s to 1970s, the only logical way to gain an advantage was to print more on a single sheet. Web offset was a much more segregated sector with different customers and very few web printers owned a sheetfed press.

Sixty-four-page signatures were common especially if you produced books and short-run magazines. Massive size sheets meant tremendous hurdles in handling and re-stacking or even turning over to print the back sides. Several machine makers developed blanket-to-blanket presses for one-over-one printing. George Mann and Crabtree cornered this market with presses in the 56- and 65-inch sheet size. The French company Marinoni made similar machines and was eventually bought by Harris.

None of these presses were easy to run. Older Manns required the plate clamps be removed and placed on a table whereby the plate was mounted. Then, along with the heavy clamps, hoisted back into the machine. But for one-colour book work like  school books these presses saved a lot of time with a single pass through.

The binderies of the day faced just as many issues. Sheets – anywhere from 35 by 45 inches to 52 by 72 inches – would arrive and need to be folded. Dexter’s Quad folders were often used (all knife folds). If there were size changes it could take days to set up. Baum made monsters too, albeit not as large. These were all-buckle and, as with all folders of the time, had a very high feed table. I often joked that you needed oxygen to operate them. The biggest challenge was again in paper handling. Reams had to be hoisted by hand to load the feeders!

The industry of its day seemed content to follow the maxim of larger (sheet size) was better even though that meant everything else in a supporting role had to be huge. It seemed nothing else would give a printer a technical advantage over another. Web was an old-boys club few sheetfed printers would dare enter – even if they could scrape up enough cash to do so. In Canada, companies like Ronald’s, Maclean Hunter, Southams, Lawsons and Richardson Bond & Wright (RBW) held the keys to a door few would dare cross.

Quiet leap forward with GDR
If you visit Berlin take a stroll through the DDR Museum situated in the former East Berlin sector, just a short walk from the Brandenburg Gates. Inside you will see an interactive display of life in East Germany after the Second World War and up to 1989, when The Wall fell. Nearby a display of wooden hand grenades, which were given to children so they could practice chucking them over the wall when the decadent westerners invaded, there is a plaque that helps to define the miserable life that existed then. The East Germans provided the Eastern Bloc with the majority of hard currency by exporting the lion’s share of what they produced. Rejects were kept for the locals.

As the Iron Curtain fell upon Eastern Europe after WWII, many German businesses found themselves trapped in the wrong place and at the wrong time. One such firm, known today as ZIRKON, had a storied past going back to 1819. Originally known as J.F. Schelter & Giesecke they started out as type founders. By 1827 they started building printing machines. The now famous PHÖNIX art platen was well received all over Europe and sold well into the early 20th century. In 1952 Schelter & Giesecke, along with about 80 percent of the East German industry, found themselves reorganized into the new Volkseigner Betrieb (VEB) state-owned structures.

The company was renamed VEB Druckereimaschinenwerk-Universal Leipzig. Already having been involved with small reel-to-sheet machines before the war, they had designed and built a rather novel little web press known as the RZO. This was an offset press with three cylinders (plate, blanket and impression) and a sheeter, too.

Various stories exist on just how and why this VEB came up with such a concept. Rumours suggested because these machines were so small (they had a web width of 24 ½ inches and a cut-off off 17 3/8 inches) that the whole press could be loaded on a truck and driven all over the Eastern Bloc to print newspapers and propaganda. During 1952 they manufactured the RZO with only two units so only one-over-one printing was possible.  By the next year, VEB expanded the line with the RZO II. It could run with four units and at speeds of only 8,000 iph. A folder was added that could be dollied into position in front of the sheeter. However, the small press had only two ink forme rollers, but this was fine for ground- wood newspaper stock and limited coverage only. Newspapers and flyers fit the bill.

By the time 1957 rolled around, a small New York company called Zarkin Machine Co. caught wind of the RZO. Zarkin, incorporated back in 1928, was into all sorts of things and not just printing. After the war they were building plate whirlers and graining machines and it is suggested that two of the owners, Charles Zarkin and Jerome Reinitz, had in 1949 financed the rebuilding of a bombed out printing press factory in Berlin. This may have been the firm KiekeBusch for shortly after a new company Royal Zenith appeared in the US and the Kiekebusch sheetfed was marketed under the name of the Royal Zenith Jobber. The KiekeBusch was an odd little press with a Spiess feeder and made entirely of either aluminum or the new Suluminum alloy created by the Nazis during the war. Zarkin and Royal Zenith were both connected to each other. One hundred and thirty five RZO II’s were bought by Royal Zenith and sold into the US market by 1957 and a new chapter of printing was about to be written.

In 1963, a revamped model of the RZO was designed. This press continued with the 3-cylinder principle but was faster and more refined. Called the Ultraset Junior RO62, it quickly found homes in both America and Canada. Marketed first as the Webmatic and then the Rubin 90, the press gained from Royal Zenith’s upgrades and demands to drastically change the printing landscape. A major incentive for anyone dealing with the East Germans was hard currency. The powerful US dollar was so desperately needed in the GDR that these machines were sold for ridiculously low money.

The mighty Harris Intertype Corporation was starting to take notice. Harris was the industry leader in sheetfed especially 60 and 78 presses. Back in 1953 Harris had already decided to enter the web business and purchased Dallas-based Cottrell Company. With Harris’s knowledge of offset and Cottrell’s letterpress web skills, it soon blossomed and a wide range of Harris-Cottrell web presses in all sorts of sizes from 16pp to 64pp took hold of the North American market. But Harris didn’t have a small half-size web and they could see clearly how Royal Zenith had created a brand new business of turning large format sheetfed printers into 8pp web shops. This was causing havoc with Harris sheetfed sales!

The argument was compelling for Royal Zenith. Paper would be cheaper, the press could eliminate folding in the bindery, fewer operators and most importantly faster speeds. No more monstrous platemakers or folding machines and paper cutters. No heavy handling of stock, perfecting was as simple as a turn-bar and machine footprint was not much more than a 38-inch sheetfed.

By 1963, Harris bought a successful forms press manufacturer by the name of Schriber. Out of this, on the commercial side, came the revamped M-90 long grain web press and shortly after a new short grain M-110. The big advantage of the M 110 was that it was a 4-cylinder blanket-to-blanket design – just like the bigger commercial presses. So now instead of turn bars, a 4-unit press prints four colours on both sides at the same time. Add a dryer and some chill rollers and Voila! – the perfect tool to decimate the large sheetfeds completely. This M 110 entry may have hastened Harris`s resolve to drop the complete sheetfed program in an extraordinary 1975 decision.

Not to be outdone, especially in a market they themselves had single handily created, VEB Polygraph/Royal Zenith had another press to launch in 1968. The ZIRKON 66 appeared (referred to in North America as the Royal Zenith 300) and it had all the same attributes as the Harris M 110 plus one very big advantage: Price! VEB Polygraph had come up with a press with some warts, but still able to produce high quality printing equal to sheetfed.

Over the next 15 years, Harris and VEB Polygraph/Royal Zenith would battle it out for market share while at the same time destroying forever the very large format sheetfed industry. By 1982, there were seven more competitors in this segment. Albert Frankenthal (now KBA) with its A 101, Miller Johannisberg with the CW68 and Webb 66 (a licenced copy of the Zirkon Forta 660), Komori with the System 20 (long grain), MAN with the Octoman, Heidelberg with the Web-8 (long grain), Hitachi 440 and 660, and Solna with its C-50. These were all similar 8pp presses and now marketed the same way. The age of the half-web was here to stay.

Both Harris and VEB Polygraph continually brought new technologies to the half web market. In 1978, VEB Polygraph launched the much improved FORTA 660 (or RZ420). The press ran 40,000 iph and was equally matched by Harris’s M 110 B.

Royal Zenith must have made a fortune on the VEB Polygraph association. They certainly did with its Planeta business as well as representing other Eastern Bloc combines like Brehmer, Perfecta and KOVO-Romayor. By the time of reunification (1990), Royal Zenith saw its advantage evaporate overnight and sold its interest to the newly formed and privatized Planeta. Planeta continued for a short time to represent the newly named VEB Polygraph (ZIRKON) but with virtually no cash and still bloated with too many employees, too much inventory and no cash, were gobbled up by KBA.

ZIRKON continues today in Leipzig as a privately held GmbH and has made forays into 16pp webs as it continues trading. The beginning of the end of the half-web happened slowly. And by 1995 drupa, new sheetfed technologies for perfecting 4 over 4 put a lid on its coffin. The advantage the half web once held over larger sheetfeds was eroded by the declining run lengths, lower waste (of new perfecting sheetfeds) and more efficient make-readies of 16pp page webs. The larger webs could, by the mid 1990s, easily compete with what had been an exclusive segment held by the little 8pp webs.

In the early days of half web, printers also started to realize that they could print new work like business forms, newsletters and direct mail, opening up more revenue streams for a press that was first idealized to print propaganda on bad paper.

Today manufacturers face a new challenge in keeping even the 40-inch press viable in the face of newer digital presses. This threat is real and the main impediments are the costs of such new (digital) technologies.         

Currently there is severe sticker shock and something that is completely inverse to the story of the half web versus large sheetfed. Half webs can today be bought for less than the value of their metal. It is a reminder of how quickly printing technology changes today.

“Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end…” The song popularized by Mary Hopkin in 1968 waxed over youth, lost opportunities, passions and a life now well past it’s prime. Cycles of every form have a beginning as well as an end. Technology breeds new revenues and fills scrapyards with redundancy. For the printing machinery industry there is a lot of reminiscing about good times back in the day.  The great period of litho printing press sales, what almost became an annuity business for press makers, is long over and will not return. Oh how painful it is to say that.  

It seems like only a few years ago we were so excited to embrace a device that, either by violet or thermal laser, entirely eliminated a labourious step of the production cycle and make offset plates perfectly, without fit issues, and at incredibly fast speeds as lasers advanced by the month. Digital technology was our friend. Prior to CTP, the Macintosh computer also eliminated a huge chunk of the typesetting industry by letting us do it all ourselves.  Fantastic new devices were going to rid us of waxers, light tables, film, cameras, plate-makers and a great deal of expensive labour. Everybody knew that strippers and other prepress employees commanded large paychecks. Wasn’t this future fabulous?

As I look back at some of the projects we were involved with at Howard Graphic Equipment, I find that no one really had any idea of where mobile computing, particularly the smartphone and tablet, would take communications. We once had a customer who had a rather simple contract to print a 10-point cover and then stitch it onto popular magazines. It was for a now-defunct airline, to be used on the aircraft. The airline wanted to ensure these magazines were returned and so had produced the magazine with its logo emblazoned on the false cover. In time, the costs proved too high and the airline asked instead for a sticker to be tipped onto the cover. Finally, the magazines as a cost were dropped altogether.

Another customer produced a weekly sports betting card. These were perfected one over one and printed in the millions. Again costs and technology overtook print and now all the betting is online, no day-changing betting cards, just a receipt with the details. In the early 1980s, we did quite a lot of business with an accounting publisher. Every time there was a change in Canada’s revenue act new sections had to be printed.

Even then hot metal Linotypes were used to make copy. It was proofed and then film and plates were made to run on a web.  The bindery was enormous to handle the accounting publisher’s work. It had separate lines for side stitching, hole punching and perfect binding.

The annual tax-code book was almost two inches thick and expensive. Accountants, who were members, bought special binders for all of the inserts of changes that would occur each year. The Internet almost overnight eliminated all of this mechanical work and hundreds of jobs.
Many printers found themselves in the same situation with legal books and court decisions. Changes in the law created a great deal of print and case-bound work.

Think of the law offices up until recently, where  huge libraries stored the requisite purchases for dozens of sets of law books. If not annually mandatory, dozens of new thick books spoke to a law office’s prestige  Automotive manuals and parts books were a staple of a few of our customers, too. In the turn of just a few years, almost all are now out of print entirely.

In the early 1990s, my company Howard Graphic Equipment purchased a Miller perfector from a printing company in the east of England. This firm had a long history. They were ensconced in what had been a carriage house, even had an 1800s workable water closet. The biggest piece of business for this printer was railway timetables. Almost all of it is now redundant. A smartphone can look-up the schedule and buy a ticket to ride without any paper being expended.

Wondering where all of the presses have gone is an intriguing question. In a commendable open manner, KBA in its latest annual financial statements for 2013 approached this difficult subject. KBA commented that group sales had slumped 35 percent since 2006. Since KBA is heavily involved in both sheetfed, web and special presses (currency and metal decorating), it has an almost split revenue business  at €571.9 million for sheetfed and €527.8 million for web and special presses. KBA also acknowledges that since 2006 its Web sales have fallen 70 percent and sheetfed almost 50 percent. The statements also comment that the Web business will continue seeing retraction in the coming years. Should we assume KBA, although heavily diversified, is an example of what all major press makers are going through? The answer is yes.  

Competitors to KBA may argue that the business of newspaper printing (long a staple of KBA) exacerbates the drop in sales. They may also suggest that perhaps KBA had a smaller commercial and publication customer base, or that what KBA produced was not as suitable? 

But KBA is a major supplier in both fields. On the sheetfed side, KBA owns a major position in packaging and Very Large Format sheetfed printing. New in-roads in technology have been poured into the Rapida 106 and 145 platforms. One surmises with its packaging strength KBA’s only real rivals are Heidelberg when it comes to imaginative, multi-purpose machinery for the carton industry. Komori and Manroland also compete in this segment with Manroland running a close third to KBA and Heidelberg in press variants.

We as a machinery segment are a reflection of you the printer just as you are a reflection of your clients. Therefore. we must assume printers cannot make the math work when calculating return costs for a large piece of machinery. Presses that cost a million dollars plus are no longer the prime piece of manufacturing gear in a printing business. They may never be again. There are exceptions of course. Trade printers who do it cheaper, not better, may consider new machines. Packaging printers will because the business is stable. Smaller commercial printers, however, will not. They may buy used, but its doubtful that a majority of shops can draw enough profitable work to pay for today’s engineered marvels.

Data was once the exclusive domain of the printer and publisher. The only way any kind of data could be distributed was through a printing press. Google et al changed all that.
David Carr, writer for The New York Times, does a masterful job explaining how the trend from a physical method (newspapers) to online is humbling. During a recent speech in Vancouver, Carr eluded to this fact when explaining the state of his employing newspaper. It was as much funny as it was sad for those of us in the business. He explained newspapers are offices where everyday information comes in and is collected. Then a bell goes off and everyone stops collecting news and starts to write down what came in that day. They send the copy to a giant press where it’s printed, rolled up and eventually thrown onto your front lawn.

Carr accepts the inadequacies of news distribution via print while at the same time considering that large dailies like The New York Times seem to be weathering the storm and seeing growth via online pay-walls. Carr hastens to add that it’s the medium-size papers suffering the worst, while small local papers, for the most part, continue to do well in the communities they serve. News is data and so is almost every piece of information we need, which used to be mailed to us. First Gutenberg and now the colloquial Google has changed our world again.

Despite the odd period of increased new machinery order intake that prevailed in late 2013, the industry at large will not go shopping for new litho machines again. While I have a vested interest, few press makers would argue the second-hand press business becomes more important to lessen a printer’s investment risk. It is not coincidence that used machines now are a much bigger piece of the machinery trading pie than ever before in the history of printing or that most press makers now have full-scale used press operations.

The 50 percent machinery sales shrinkage in seven years, as reported by KBA, is reality for every litho press maker. Postal rates and other fixed costs are impediments that cannot be overridden with faster machinery costing millions of dollars. Where have all the presses gone? Nowhere it seems.

In the early 1980s, a local garden hose manufacturer called our small press-sales office because he had a printing problem. The round cardboard discs, used for product branding within the the hose-reel, were missing their Made in Canada. Somehow its inclusion overlooked by everyone involved in the printing process. The garden hose manufacturer now had thousands of printed and die-cut pieces of cardboard he could not use. “Any suggestions?” he asked.

It took a split second to solve his problem: The Heidelberg platen! Certainly there were other possibilities. Machines from Kluge, Victoria or Chandler & Price (with feeder) could do it, but there was an easier, obvious solution with the Heidelberg – problem solved.

The T platen, or Tiegel platen as the German’s called their brilliant little press, can feed and deliver virtually anything. From one-up business cards to folded signatures, thin stitched booklets, odd-shaped labels and – yes – even round Made in Canada cardboard wrappers for garden hoses. The platen quite literally came with everything; initially, there were no options one could buy. It came standard with two chases, small-size kit, two-up kit, odd-shape kit, die-cutting plate and ink knife.

Since the creation of metal type there has never been such a successful printing machine as the Heidelberg T platen. Even today, you would have a tough time finding a commercial printer without one of these versatile, solid machines still working away in their pressroom.

Birthing the Tiegel
Schnellpresse, as Heidelberg was called in the early days, truly began building its now massive business around the Tiegel platen when it was born in 1912. T platens were sold all over the world and by the time mass production stopped, in 1985, more than 165,000 had been sold. There was of course, competition. The British Thompson was a close facsimile of the Heidelberg machine, especially before WWII when Thompson used the same rotary gripper system.

A few years after WWII, the Czechoslovak Grafopress appeared as an almost identical T platen clone. Many suggest this was the driving force behind why Heidelberg began to use the branding term Original Heidelberg, as the German press maker tried to separate its products from Iron Curtain machines impervious to litigation. I have doubts about this connection, however. German manufacturers regularly employed the word Original and Schnellpresse mostly likely used it well before the Czech clone arrived.

We called the Grafopress the Scrap-o-Press, because it was such an inferior printing machine to the T platen. Grafopress, however, did have one key feature incorporated into the Heidelberg machine by Drupa 1967: The ability to lock out form rollers. Both the Soviet Union and China also made knock-offs of the Heidelberg T platen, but they were terrible machines.

Over the years at Howard Graphic Equipment, which primarily sells and reconditions used printing machinery, we have hauled Heidelberg platens out of and into basements, garages, through windows, and often stripped down in order to fit through narrow doorways, as if the old building itself had been built around the press. It seems no place existed where a Heidelberg platen could not go. I lost track years ago of how many platens our company has overhauled and sold.

When crash numbering reached its apex, it was not uncommon to see one operator in control of four presses. The operator could keep track of each machine’s progress by listening to its click-clack as they hurried the loading and unloading of feeders and deliveries. The Heidelberg platen faced many challenges as safety concerns increased when unionization returned to manufacturing plants. Some Ts were encapsulated by Plexiglas and wire mesh to keep the inspectors at bay. Eventually it became impossible to operate these presses in such situations. Greeting-card companies, with an ideal T platen application, might have had more than 10 machines and discarded them all for fear of injuring workers.

This amazing and still relevant printing machine was born when Schnellpressenfabrik Heidelberg purchased the patents from a Köln print shop owner and tinkerer named Karl Gilke. Not much is known about Gilke, but his platen with the “propeller-gripper” changed the world. Previously, essentially all platen presses required intensive labour for both feeding and delivering each sheet by hand. It was incredibly slow production amid a new world of industrialization.

Growing the Tiegel
Gilke forever changed the efficiency of platens by using the favoured Boston Principle, which equates to a platen with a stationary bed, and incorporating both feeder and delivery into it.  Back in 1896, the Harris Brothers of Niles, Ohio, developed a similar game-changing machine in the EI rotary card press. It had a unique shuttle feeder and could run at an astounding 15,000 sheets per hour. Because the E1 was rotary, however, it required a stereo plate, which is a curved lead cast plate common on letterpress newspaper presses. This lead cast plate was its Achilles Heel and why the Harris E1 failed to make nearly as much impact as Heidelberg’s T. Small print shops used type and printers could not afford the cost of making stereos needed by the E1.

In 1921, American Robert Miehle came out with his revolutionary Vertical Miehle. This press was later called the V-36 for its high running speeds of 3,600 sheets per hour. It employed a cylinder in a vertical incline – a very unique press design. The Vertical Miehle was well received and had a bigger sheet size of 14 x 20 inches, as compared to Schnellpress’ 10 x 15-inch size. But the Vertical was also a harder press to run, particularly when it came to make-ready. The Heidelberg platen was so quick to set up and feed that it ran circles around the Vertical. Only when run lengths were bigger, and the sheet size increased, did the Platen begin to lose some of its advantage. Before WWII, it was common to see both a Vertical and a Tiegel in the same shop. One’s weakness was the other’s strength and this environment remained throughout the letterpress era.  

Schnellpressenfabrik Heidelberg has roots going back to 1850, before Andreas Hamm and Andreas Albert joined forces in 1863. Hamm owned an iron foundry specializing in bells. Albert was a foreman at C. Reichenbach’s Press Works in Augsburg (later to become MAN). But the two partners had a falling out and Hamm continued on with the company. Albert, on the other hand, formed a new company called Albert & Cie, which grew exponentially. After Hamm’s passing in 1894, his son sold the company to Wilhelm Müller.

Not much happened at Schnellpress during the years 1873 to 1912, when press building gave rise to powerful players. VOMAG, Koenig & Bauer, MAN, Maschinenfabrik Johannisberg-Geisenheim (MJG), Dresdner Schnellpressenfabrik Coswig (Planeta) and Hamm’s former partner, Albert & Cie. all became major makers of mostly cylinder presses. Tiny Schnellpress made facsimiles of the standard German stop cylinder press, as well. Although Schnellpress released the Exquisit cylinder, in 1921, there was no magic in this press.

Gilke’s design was the one and only watershed moment for Schnellpress. German platen presses were all mostly knock-offs of the American Gally parallel impression design. At least 20 companies were making very good versions of this press; Victoria being the best known.

Any developments to automate feeding and delivery were all Band-Aid approaches with discombobulated devices affixed to an already mature handfed platen design. Schnellpress understood if they could make its little platen work, it would rip apart the whole industry. Even back in the early twentieth century, the majority of printers were small shops. Not everyone wanted or could afford large cylinder presses. Jobs were mostly handled 1- or 2-up on smaller handfed platens. If Heidelberg could make a press that would feed and deliver easily then the printing world would come calling.

By the end of WWI Heidelberg had such a press. Although the company faced management issues and very difficult times, Schnellpress had one more vital ingredient. It had a foundry. Richard Kahn, the owner at the time, also owned Maschinenfabrik Geislingen (MAG) and this allowed Schnellpresse to work completely autonomously on its design. Heidelberg castings are unique. When I was a young kid I could see even then the quality differences between a Heidelberg and any other machine – German, English, or American. There was a special quality to a Heidelberg.

Whatever notions one had prior to the Heidelberg platen, these were tossed aside because not only was the feed/delivery unique, so was the inker and adjustable bearers.  Having a windmill, as the platen was also often referred to, in your shop almost guaranteed success, because you could obliterate any competitors who were still hand-feeding work or trying to make the crude add-on feeders work.  

Heidelberg’s innovation to build the T platen on Germany’s first mechanical assembly line brought the prices down so that every printer could afford one. The small jobbing printer was the key customer for Heidelberg and its new machine was priced accordingly. Along with its small footprint, the T platen required nothing more than a drive motor or belt driven from a driveshaft.

Leveraging the Tiegel
Why then was Heidelberg able to eclipse much larger companies in Germany, such as VOMAG, MAN and Koenig & Bauer, the latter of which is recognized as the founder of printing machinery manufacturing. Heidelberg also faced stiff competition from Albert Frankenthal and Faber & Schleicher. All of these firms, however, were focused on making innovative but complicated cylinder sheetfed machines, Web presses and even offset machines in the early 1920s. So much that they all failed to notice a big hole in jobbing presses which is exactly what Schnellpresse filled.

Another major reason for Heidelberg’s meteoric rise was its unique sales approach. Instead of staying close to home, as many of the German builders did, Heidelberg sought out new markets and customers in America, Britain and around the entire globe. The early vision of globalization among Heidelberg’s leaders is a fundamental reason why its T platens, and the company itself, became so successful.

At the Bugra trade fair of 1914, Heidelberg displayed the first prototype T platen to the world. This early press, known as the Express, would be altered several times before it finally became legend. 1914 was also the year The Great War began and very little development or production materialized on the T platen until 1921. By 1927, the press had another facelift.

The gripper mechanism was vastly improved and remained remarkably similar to the last version of 1985. Impression throw-off and micro adjust was really easy. Changing packing was just as simple as on a Gordon. The use of a Geneva motion or Maltese cross allowed for better registration and more stable movement of the grippers. This feature alone was an incredible advancement for its time.

World crisis in the first half of the twentieth century had an impact not just on Schnellpress but every manufacturer. The crash of 1929 was a worldwide financial epidemic and Germany faced hyperinflation and eventually the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s.

Loving the Tiegel
Why then does this little press mean so much to so many? History shows there was ample press competition and, certainly, for work like heavy embossing one must give the Parallel machine or Kluge a leg up. Why then? Heidelberg was very clever. The company designed its press to be the easiest to run. Feeding was easy, clean up, running difficult materials – even printing on paper bags is possible. Watching a Heidelberg run is precision in motion, exact and measured in its movements. Even when compared to a high-end Gordon platen, it is actually frightening how much better the Tiegel was. It worked in harmony with the operator. I remember my father showing me how to run the press, never forcing its workings and making it sing. The better the pressman, the easier the work.

My memories of the Heidelberg platen trump everything else. Its sound, its strength, the fact it was almost indestructible are fond recollections. Heidelberg built its company on the T platen, later followed by the GT (larger size) and the OHC (cylinder). What Heidelberg learned with the T platen can be seen still today. Its unique suction feeder was used on the cylinder S and K models, as well as the K, M and GTO offset presses. In fact, the unique hardware first used on the T can be seen on the Speedmaster as late as 1994.

The wonderful T platen made it possible for Heidelberg to move past all of the German press makers and stay on an incredible roll right up to its flagship Speedmaster line. Heidelberg owes everything to the platen. It took the unique machine-building genius of Heidelberg to refine and build it in their personal style.

Perhaps this affection has been lost on many of the greybeards in the industry, but to the new generation of letterpress artisans, the Tiegel is making them fall in love with printing all over again. Today, Heidelberg makes some of the finest printing machines in the world. Look at the XL 106 or XL 162 – amazing technology. The lithographic world is changing very fast. It’s fighting to keep digital devices away from their offset pages. I doubt there will ever be another printing machine that is truly loved like the Heidelberg platen. I remain in love my Heidelberg platens. We have a 1928 and 1985 in our collection.

In 1975, a Dutch artist created a musical about his Heidelberg T, running it on stages across Holland. One of Japan’s largest printers has a T monument ensconced in glass. Loved by so many, the Tiegel transcends printing. It was Heidelberg’s gift to the printing world.

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