German print: digitalisation speeds up with shift to more sustainable business models

But strong analogue print industry legacy could hamper faster introduction of digital and automated print processes

A shift towards more sustainable business models, driven by CO2 pricing and continued innovation and automation, will drive the German print industry to further adopt digital print technologies this year and beyond.

The country’s print industry has a long, proud tradition, characterised by standards of excellence, a highly skilled workforce, and a preference for robust equipment. Innovation in Germany can only thrive, it follows, if it takes these deeply embedded characteristics into account, according to Patrick Jud, Area Director DACH at SCREEN Europe, who has been following developments in the German print market for the past decade.

It is no surprise that the shift to digital printing began to gather steam when the quality of digitally printed materials matched – or even exceeded – that of more conventional print technologies, a milestone achieved just a few years ago.

“Our German customers tell us that one of the main arguments for investing in digital print technology is the fact that inkjet print quality has reached a quality level comparable to offset printing,” says Jud, who’s responsible for sales and services in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. SCREEN saw its sales in Germany pick up massively over the past three to four years, slightly earlier than in other European countries.

Inks for all substrates

Other factors driving the shift toward digital printing in Germany, include the introduction of inks that can be applied for all substrates, meaning no primer is required for inkjet printing, as well as the use of more sophisticated software. This enables the flawless integration of digital printers with other equipment in production lines, such as folding and cutting.

Says Jud: “The introduction of so-called SC ink boosted digital printing. SC enables digital printing on any substrate, without a need for use of special treated inkjet papers. The price of SC ink is an important determining factor for print companies thinking about investing in digital inkjet”.

Enabled by software solutions, print processes are becoming increasingly automated in Germany – starting with pre-press and including the print-finishing, packaging and logistics of the printed material.

Printing was often the bottleneck when it comes to digitalizing the print and print finishing process. Analogue printing needed intervention by a relatively large number of highly skilled engineers and operators. But digital inkjet printers bring automation to a higher level and need fewer and less skilled operators. Software products running the full print process from beginning to end – such as SCREEN’s Equios software – fill a gap that still exists in the automation chain.

The shift to digital printing was apparent in Germany prior to Covid-19, but the pandemic has markedly accelerated this development, says Jud. With the lack of raw material like cellulose fibre or polymers, or transport becoming more difficult and more expensive, due to a shortage of truck drivers for instance, decentralised printing has become more relevant. It means printed products can be produced in smaller quantities locally, with less need for transport. And the only way to do this in a way that is economically viable, as well as process- and quality-related justifiable, is with digital inkjet printers.

‘Smart’ print solutions

Young and innovative print companies such as Pharmadrucker, Mediaprint Solutions and O/D Ottweiler are at the forefront of digitalisation and automation in Germany. They are almost exclusively digital and offer “smart” print solutions. This means customers give a print order online, which is then carried out fully automatically by digital printers. There is virtually no human intervention.

Larger print companies can be more conservative, hierarchical and risk-averse, which might slow down decision-making about investments in innovation, Jud explains. The much-praised German apprenticeship system, in which young people are trained to be craftsmen by means of practical work placements in companies, may also inhibit innovation.

“Most German printing schools and apprenticeships still mainly focus on analogue printing,” says Jud. “People who go to work in a printing company right after school and these apprentices still ‘think’ in terms of analogue printing. Because of this, digital print technology is relatively unknown territory among professionals. This is not always conducive to getting companies to switch to digital.”

Gutenberg’s country goes digital

Still, digital printing is enjoying more tailwind. And this will get a further boost with the emergence of a sustainable and “greener” German economy, a trend expected to be reinforced by the new German government and international regulation. One major example is the European Parliament, which agreed on new greenhouse gas emission reduction interim goals to be achieved by 2030. “In this”, says Jud, “Germany, next to Finland and Sweden, has the highest target to achieve. Currently they are on -38% and must reach -50% by then! Obviously, this will also affect the printing industry.”

“Growing demand for a more responsible and more sustainable print industry drives the growth of digital printing, because digital printing is more sustainable: it produces less waste and CO2-emission due to ‘disintermediation’ of certain processes in the value chain,” Jud points out. CO2 emission pricing and the pressure to reduce CO2 emissions will continue to support the case for printing products closer to home in Germany.

A shift to more sustainable business models, such as Print-on-Demand or dropshipping, in the fight to limit climate change may eventually motivate larger numbers of German print houses, both small and large, to adopt digital business models. Says Jud: “The growth of German investment in digital print technologies that we’re seeing today is likely to continue or even speed up in coming years. The need for sustainability and the rise of high-tech innovators in this market means more conventional print companies and business models may eventually be replaced. Even in the country where Gutenberg invented the art of printing, digital printing is a logical incremental evolutionary step, like when letterpress was replaced by offset technology. But clearly, we can say nowadays that inkjet will be the future of the digital print technology.”