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Ask not for whom the bell tolls, manroland bankruptcy… Andy McCourt commentary

Monday, 28 November 2011
By Print 21 Online Article

The sad news from Friday that manroland has filed for insolvency in its hometown of Augsburg, Germany should also light a beacon of awareness in the global printing and converting industry.

As one who worked for manroland – MAN Roland as it was then – distributor Edwards Dunlop Graphics in the 1980s (although on the prepress side), I felt a particular pang of regret that this great contributor to world literacy, information and entertainment via the printed word, should find itself in such dire straits. In those days, EDG handled the sheetfed presses while Craven Print & Pack handled the web presses.

I recall some of the pioneering work performed right here in Australia, on newspaper colour at the Cairns Post. Driven by News Ltd’s desire to change their titles from ‘Black and white and read all over’ to full-colour, what we see coming off manroland Colorman and Newsman presses today is a direct result of that research.

Australian innovation in newspaper colour with manroland was not new even then. In my collection of Penrose Annuals of the Graphic Arts dating back to 1895, there is a copy of the world’s first offset colour newspaper – The Melbourne Argus, printed by Wilson & McKinnon on a 2/2 Man-Vomag press in 1926. The paper path was modified by Argus engineers and quite acceptable 3-colour process printing was achieved on one side of the web. It made world news.

The Bavarian company’s affiliation with the towns of Augsburg and Offenbach are legendary. Augsburg provides the web presses since it was here that Carl Reichenbach, a nephew of KBA founder Friedrich K?ening, started a manufacturing plant in 1844. The ‘Roland’ side came from the merger of the former Faber & Schleicher sheetfed press business in Offenbach, whose presses bore the Roland brand name.

Augsburg is a very proud and ancient city, established by the Roman Emperor Augustus in 15BC. It has featured in many world-changing events including the League of Augsburg – of which England was an alliance member, keeping France’s ambitions in check in the 17th century.

THAT’S HISTORY, IS THERE A FUTURE?

Indeed manroland can look back on an illustrious past, but at the forefront of people’s minds – especially major backer Allianz Group – is whether or not there is a future for the world’s third largest press manufacturer.

I believe that manroland’s troubles can be traced back many years to decisions made and not made when opportunities presented themselves. German industrial policy itself has to be held to account. Jealously guarding German industrial output, repeated attempts at rationalizing their over-bloated press manufacturing industry have been thwarted. In a globalised economy, one medium-sized European country can not be expected to maintain hegemony in a declining market, beset by competition of both geographic and new media genres.

Manroland should have been on a slow-burn, managed rationalization long ago, particularly in its sheefed division. Teutonic squabbles with Heidelberg and KBA ensured that no one could see the wood for the trees.

Then there was DICOweb, manroland’s attempt at a digital press in the late 1990s. Although clever in that it could image, de-image and then re-image the cylinders, it was another case – the other ones being Heidleberg’s early Nexpress and KBA’s Karat – of an offset manufacturer trying to build a digital press to offset paradigms. Only recently did manroland acknowledge that digital is a completely new medium, by partnering with Oce on its Jetstream line of Kyocera-headed inkjet presses.

There is a future for manroland, which will no doubt be of great encouragement to News Ltd and Fairfax who so depend on its newspaper presses. But it’s a future without sheetfed in my view, at least in the commercial sector. Possibly, contract manufacturing of larger format multicolour presses aimed at the packaging market could be retained at Offenbach but I think manroland should get out of commercial sheetfed offset completely, or sell the factories to China or India. Roland has a good name in India, perhaps the board – or administrators – should look to the subcontinent for salvation, in the way that Goss found a white knight in Shanghai Electric, China.

Web presses are largely built-to-order so Augsburg should be able to continue to function and serve its numerous customers with the world’s favourite newspaper and heatset web presses.

The digital venture; hardly out of the nursery, is a tough one. Double, treble, even quadruple mark-ups may make manroland uncompetitive. With the exception of the ColorStream 3500, Oce’s presses come from Miyakoshi in Japan and Miyakoshi also now manufactures for Xerox. My thoughts are that manroland should develop its own ‘DigiMAN’ to go with its LithoMAN, ColorMAN, NewsMAN etc.

This could be an OEM from the likes of Impika, Miyakoshi or Screen, or an in-house inkjet press using available technology, in much the same way as RR Donnelly in the USA has designed and built its own high volume inkjet web presses.

Whatever happens, it won’t be pretty to watch. 5,000 German workers will not be paid this month and many of those jobs are unsustainable anyway.

Good luck, manroland. Companies can come out of insolvency and turn-around; I hope you are one of them.

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