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KBA’s Frankenthal Plant Celebrates 150th Jubilee

18 August marks the 150th anniversary of German press manufacturer KBA’s Frankenthal production plant. The citizens of Frankenthal – and gravure printers the world over – still often refer to the company as Albert, even though this name was dropped in 1995.

Common roots in Oberzell

Founder Andreas Albert qualified as a master craftsman under Friedrich Koenig and Andreas Bauer – the inventors of the steam-powered cylinder printing press and founders of the world’s oldest press manufacturer – in a secularised monastery in Oberzell, near Würzburg. Moving to Augsburg, Albert became head of assembly at Reichenbachsche Maschinenfabrik (now manroland), founded by one of Friedrich Koenig’s nephews. In 1861 Albert and a partner, Andreas Hamm, established Schnellpressenfabrik Albert & Hamm in Frankenthal.

The first cylinder press was delivered that same year, to a printer in Nuremberg. The 100th machine left the factory in 1868, handcrafted by a workforce of 15 plus four apprentices. Like Friedrich Koenig, Andreas Albert personally supervised the training of his apprentices. In 1867, on his initiative, the Frankenthal Trade Association set up a proper training school, from which the Frankenthal School for Master Craftsmen evolved at the turn of the century.

In 1871 Albert’s contract with Hamm expired and in 1873 he founded Schnellpressenfabrik Albert & Cie. OHG in partnership with Wilhelm Molitor, a merchant. Hamm’s company was sold in 1895, relocated to Heidelberg in 1896 and later renamed Heidelberger Druckmaschinen. The roots of all Germany’s press manufacturers can thus be traced back to the monastery in Oberzell (see family tree attached).

Andreas Albert died on 30 October 1882 and the business was carried on by his sons Aloys and Hubert, who steadily increased exports. By then the product range had been expanded to encompass platen, lithographic, letterpress, collotype, metal-decorating and publication cylinder presses like the popular Albertina. In 1889 Albert & Cie. built its first web press and ten years later shipped the 5,000th machine. Soon the company had become one of Europe’s leading press manufacturers and the workforce had swelled to 1,200. In 1906 it launched the Bavaria metal-printing rotary press, forerunner of Albert’s web offset range. In 1910 Albert developed a variable rotogravure press, the first model of which was shipped three years later. Thus the Frankenthal company entered a market in which it was to become the world’s leading manufacturer.

1922: first web offset press

In 1914 Albert shipped its first two-colour sheetfed offset press and in 1922 its first web offset model. In the mid-1920s the company developed the fastest and most advanced newspaper press of its day: the Roter Teufel (Red Devil). In the thirties the sheetfed programme of offset, gravure and letterpress machines was expanded to include a highly successful range of automatic printing machines. But the global economic slump of the early thirties took its toll and Albert was forced to close down in 1934.

Production restarted in 1935 and in 1940 the company went public, changing its name to Schnellpressenfabrik Frankenthal Albert & Cie. AG. However, the factory was later bombed out. After the war, employees gradually rebuilt the manufacturing facilities and re-established sales outlets. In the fifties and sixties production was dominated by large series of cylinder letterpress, sheetfed gravure and newspaper presses. It was during this period that the Albertina and Super-Albertina helped make Albert the world market leader in rotogravure.

By 1961, when Albert celebrated its centenary, it had more than 2,000 people on the payroll and was looking to expand capacity still further. That same year a branch factory was opened in Kusel, some 100km (62 miles) away. Meanwhile, publication rotogravure was fast becoming the company's best-selling line and in 1965 Albert produced the first rotogravure press with a web width of 2.6 m (8ft 6in). The Frankenthal factory set the pace of development in rotogravure with ever wider, faster and more flexible models.

1971: Berlin subsidiary GMB

In 1965 the company acquired a small firm in Spandau (Berlin). In 1971 it changed its name to Albert-Frankenthal AG and the subsidiary was renamed Graphischer Maschinenbau GmbH (GMB). Following a cooperative agreement with a rival, Miller Johannisberg, the Berlin factory started producing screen-printing presses and dryers. In 1982 the 110 employees were relocated to bigger premises. When screen-printing presses were discontinued at the end of 1982 the spare manufacturing capacity was used to produce automatic reelstands for a new partner, Koenig & Bauer. Components for web presses and gravure proofing presses were added later. Albert continued to churn out milestone technology in the shape of its internationally successful single-width A 200 newspaper press, double-width A 500 and eight-page A 101, to name but a few.

1978: Koenig & Bauer acquires a minority interest

In December 1978 Koenig & Bauer signed a cooperative agreement with Albert-Frankenthal and purchased a 49.9 per cent interest from the Rhineland-Palatinate regional government. Driven by a wave of consolidation in the international press market, this alliance was a major milestone in Koenig & Bauer’s evolution into the world’s second-biggest press manufacturer. Together, the two companies boasted a range of presses for virtually all applications, and sufficient capacity to handle large-scale contracts.

In 1988 Koenig & Bauer increased its stake to 74.99 per cent and also posted group accounts for the first time, disclosing sales of DM810.4m generated by a workforce of 4,000. In 1990 Koenig & Bauer bought the remaining shares and Albert-Frankenthal became a full subsidiary.

1982: publication rotogravure ventures into new dimensions

In 1985 Albert-Frankenthal set new standards in publication rotogravure with the delivery to bauer druck köln in Cologne of the first press for a web width of 3.08 metres (10ft). Many more contracts were to follow. In 1986 Albert-Frankenthal celebrated its 125th anniversary. At that time it had 1,996 employees. In 1992 the first rotogravure presses with webs 3.18m (10ft 6in) wide were shipped. The shift towards ever wider webs continued.

1990: formation of the KBA group

At the Drupa 1990 international trade fair in Düsseldorf the two merged enterprises exhibited for the first time as the Koenig & Bauer-Albert group under a new logo with an A for Albert in the left-hand circle of the Koenig & Bauer logo. Competences were reassigned: double-width newspaper presses were included in Koenig & Bauer’s remit along with banknote, security, directory, sheetfed offset, sheetfed gravure and special presses. In return its Compacta series and all commercial web offset activities were transferred to Frankenthal, which as world market leader also retained rotogravure presses.

In the 1980s and 1990s Albert manufactured scores of web presses for Würzburg and millions of deutschmarks were invested in upgrading and expanding plant, buildings and infrastructure. In 1991 Albert’s 2,100-strong workforce in Frankenthal, Kusel and Berlin helped KBA breach the billion deutschmark ceiling with group sales of DM1.13bn.

1995: merger as Koenig & Bauer-Albert AG

In 1995 veteran KBA president and tireless architect of the KBA group, Dr Hans-Bernhard Bolza-Schünemann, retired and was succeeded by Reinhart Siewert. That same year Koenig & Bauer and Albert-Frankenthal merged to become Koenig & Bauer-Albert AG (retaining the abbreviation KBA). Four years earlier Koenig & Bauer had acquired a majority interest in a sheetfed offset press manufacturer, Planeta-Druckmaschinenwerke in Radebeul, near Dresden. Subsequently renamed KBA-Planeta AG, it became one of the top two vendors in this sector, behind Heidelberg. In 1998 this subsidiary was merged with the parent to form Koenig & Bauer AG, and the “A” vanished from the KBA logo. By that time the group had 6,376 employees and posted sales of DM1,607m.

KBA Frankenthal extended its lead in publication rotogravure, shipping the world’s first 3.6m (11ft 9in) wide press, a TR 10B, to Broschek Druck, Hamburg, in 1996. The first 4.32m (14ft 2in) wide TR 12B press was delivered to maul-belser, Nuremberg, in 2004. At its peak KBA Frankenthal was installing as many as ten big gravure press lines a year. The largest single contract was placed in 2005 by UK printer Prinovis for a new plant in Liverpool and included three 4.32m wide presses. That same year Frankenthal sold its first decorative gravure printing press.

KBA Frankenthal also drove advances in web offset and folder technology. 1997 saw the launch of the Compacta 215, the world’s first 16-page shaftless commercial web press, some 200 installations of which were subsequently sold. It has since been succeeded by the C16. The 64-page Compacta 818 unveiled at Drupa 2000 and 70,000cph Compacta 217 that followed at Drupa 2004 are more recent examples of Frankenthal’s creativity. It also develops and builds heavy-duty folders for commercial and newspaper presses.

2001: from boom to bust

2000 was a record year for the press engineering industry, and at €1,087.4 million KBA’s group sales passed the billion euro mark for the first time. There were 6,584 employees, 1,562 of them in Frankenthal, Kusel and Berlin. But the bursting of the dotcom bubble and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre sent the global economy plunging into recession.

After ten years of healthy sales and earnings growth, in 2003 the KBA group posted a €30m loss. The Kusel plant closed at the end of the year, the Berlin plant in December 2004. Between 2003 and 2005 the workforce in Würzburg and Frankenthal was also cut.

In subsequent years growth in the KBA group was driven by a rapidly expanding sheetfed division, brisker sales of web presses and the acquisition of further small companies. In 2006 and 2007 the group posted a record performance, with 8,000 employees generating sales in excess of €1.7bn and healthy profits.

2007: gravure business sold off

Diminishing print runs, and the internet-driven transformation of the media marketplace, impacted heavily on high-volume magazines and catalogues. The result was overcapacity, price erosion and a slump in demand for rotogravure presses, which were also being challenged by ever wider, faster and more automated web offset presses. Whereas KBA and its Italian rival Cerutti had previously competed for ten to 15 contracts a year, suddenly there were only one or two. The market was no longer big enough to support two vendors, and in 2007 KBA sold its gravure business to Cerutti.

2008: Financial meltdown and media transition

The financial and economic crisis that broke in September 2008 triggered an even bigger slump in the demand for printing presses and thus in sales and earnings. This naturally affected employment in the print media industry, and the consolidation measures initiated in 2009 resulted in the loss of some 10,000 jobs at the three major German press manufacturers alone, more than 2,000 of them at KBA.

The ongoing transition from print to online media has hit demand for web presses much harder than sheetfed and special presses, which profit from rising print volumes in many threshold economies and a growing need for packaging and other media-independent products.

Over the past few years the proportion of KBA sales generated by web presses has plunged, and in 2010 sheetfed and special presses made a larger contribution to total group sales of some €1.2bn. The general consensus is that the web market is shrinking and in future will be much smaller. One reason is that presses are becoming ever more productive. This has affected KBA’s plants in Würzburg, Frankenthal and Trennfeld: between 2002 and the end of June 2011 the payroll was cut from 3,700 (excluding apprentices) to 2,583. The Frankenthal plant has seen the biggest cuts, particularly following the sale of all gravure business. Since 2002 the workforce has dropped from 1,361 to 656.

2011: realignment offers fresh opportunities

The realignment of KBA’s web press plants to a diminished market has not yet been completed. Following prolonged industrial action, in June this year an agreement was signed on further adjustments at the Frankenthal factory and a new business plan. This entails splitting the plant into two limited companies: an engineering entity, which will remain attached to the parent, and a manufacturing entity, which will be independent and thus able to bid for non-press-related contracts. To ease the transition the parent guarantees a sizeable number of contracts until 2016.

Tradition unites

Good times and bad are a common thread in the 150-year history of KBA’s Frankenthal plant, the 194-year history of the parent in Würzburg and the 113-year history of its sheetfed operation in Radebeul. People in Frankenthal proudly speak of “Albert” just as those in Würzburg say “Koebau” and in Radebeul “Planeta” when referring to their local press factory. In some cases, three or four generations of the same family have worked for these companies, which share common roots: their union in the KBA group over the past 30 years has created the world’s second-largest press manufacturer. Frankenthal staff have made a major contribution.

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