Paul Willem’s Digital Print Journey
Contrary to popular belief, innovation and invention are rarely the product of a light-bulb moment. Brilliant inventions are the product of a long and often arduous journey, even though the starting point might have been a dazzling idea. For Paul Willems, now head of product management and business development at Roland DG, his digital print journey started with the Xeikon digital press, when Xeikon was still in its infancy.
Paul’s job in the early days of Xeikon was to look at how the technology, could be monetised for Agfa. Xeikon had started life as an Agfa project but was spun off into its own orbit, with Agfa as a major shareholder. Paul remembers that “I started this ride in 1991 in Agfa when Xeikon was just recently born and was working on the product.” In addition to Agfa, Xeikon had two industrial investors interested in what the new company was up to and Paul “was brought on board to see what they could do with it.” He told us that “I spent about one year talking to people, travelling the world, because digital printing wasn’t yet invented. I built the business case for the Chromapress based in those conversations.”
Much as we like to remember that the Xeikon and Indigo presses were launched at IPEX in 1993, that wasn’t strictly true. The system presented in 1993 at IPEX was the Agfa Chromapress based on the Xeikon DCP-1 engine. Xeikon had presented this technology at an event in Belgium in June of that year but as Paul explains, the system demonstrated at IPEX was the “Xeikon engine and Agfa toners and the front end was Agfa.” By 1993 Willems says that, “at IPEX it was Xeikon and Agfa against Indigo. I was hired by Agfa to see if this technology works and if it works what kind of a product could we make out of it. For me, as a young guy being in that role at Agfa was the start of an 18 year journey into digital printing”.
At the time Xeikon and Indigo had very different intentions and expectations of the market. Paul remembers a crucial difference between Xeikon and Indigo fans: “our ambitions were modest and we had some ideas about how much we could sell, but no intention to replace offset, unlike Indigo who always wanted to replace offset.” With hindsight we can see that the market has supported both approaches with some sectors, such as book printing, keenly embracing digital print. More interesting than the idea of replacing an existing technology, was Agfa’s interest in what else could be done with a digital press, what applications could it have that were inconceivable with conventional offset technologies. In 1993 the concept of short run colour work produced on demand did not exist, but the technology was there for it. As Paul Willems explains, “digital printing is the biggest change for many generations to come. It will take time to replace offset, but it has opened up new applications”.
The creation of new applications for print is perhaps the most exciting outcome of the Xeikon and Indigo inventions. A digital press creates new opportunities for added value and, as Paul puts it the technology “led up to a whole new industry within an industry, and the interesting part is that it didn’t come from the established players. Innovations came from small start-ups that had a vision”. Paul reckons that digital press technology is one of the most significant innovations of the last thirty years. He says that “the digital press and the whole eco-system that came up with it and new service providers, all came about because of it and drove a whole waterfall of changes through the industry”.
That waterfall continues to flow as developers come up with new digital printing technologies and new applications for print keep on coming. Today, what starts with a light-bulb moment can be turned into printed reality, thanks to the digital press.