Binding for Digital Short-Run Book Projects
By Cheryl A. Adams
To stay competitive in today's fast-paced business environment, book manufacturers are turning to the latest in digital printing/binding technology. Using such strategies, they can print on-demand books, soft- or hard-cover, quickly and cost effectively, without creating excess inventory.
"When rapid delivery is expected with each order — especially in the non-inventory, e-commerce environment — automatic processes become critical," says Jim Augustine, vice president of national sales, Xyan.com, King of Prussia, Pa.
Indeed, in today's digital short-run book market, automatic turnaround often isn't a problem. Not even for quantities of one and case-bound books. In as little as one minute, a 300-page soft-cover book (a little longer for case-bound) can be printed.
"Because the book blocks are the same regardless of the binding, publishers can offer hard- and soft-cover books simultaneously, without investing in extensive inventory," Augustine explains. On-demand output is then sent to the publisher's distribution center for shipment or (in the case of Xyan.com) directly to the end-user from the manufacturer, without becoming inventory. And without inventory, publishers can sell on-demand books to fulfill existing orders.
Based on a "book of one" model, many of today's top digital book printers create products one at a time and just in time. In some cases, the traditional short run of 100 to 500 has been shortened to less than 20.
New advancements in binding equipment from companies such as Muller Martini, C.P. Bourg and Horizon (to name but a few), are allowing book manufacturers to produce quality products more quickly. And new auto-makeready features enable bindery equipment to sense and adjust to different trim sizes and bulks for each book, binding up to 60 books per minute. Indeed, binders have been capable of such speeds for several years ... offline, that is.
"Initially, inline finishing equipment was added and put at the back of the [printing] machine," explains Bill Clockel, vice president and owner of Troy, N.Y.-based Integrated Book Technology (IBT). "The problem was that the print engine wanted to produce a book every three minutes, but the binding equipment wanted to produce 60 or 70 per minute. But the makers of the new digital binding equipment recognize there are efficiencies in manufacturing multiple units offline, instead of at the back of the machine."
A lot of progress has been made in offline hightech bookbinding equipment, as well as with inline systems. The good news, Clockel says, is that equipment manufacturers have devised exciting and practical prototypes for the future. He predicts that in about a year, case binding will be as efficient as digital binding.
"Staffing, makeready time and throughput have always been obstacles when dealing with traditional binding quality requirements, as well as with the collated sheets output by digital sheetfed and web presses." In the past, Clockel says, long makereadies and skilled-labor requirements reduced digital print engine efficiency and made shorter print runs difficult.
"At Drupa this year, we saw a future that included a perfect binder, where every book could be a different size, a casing inline with a five-minute makeready, and casemaking equipment with virtually no makeready. There was even thermal stamping equipment, whereby in less than 15 minutes you could produce a quality product," he says.
However, in the short-run book manufacturing business, Clockel says, speed isn't as much an issue as it is in conventional manufacturing. "When your typical run is 100 to 300 copies, you worry far more about the makeready time on the piece of equipment than the running speed. Moreover, with the advances in computerized set-ups, the training time for operators is greatly reduced. So, the reduction in makeready times, the skill level requirement of the operators, and the overall cost of the equipment has shed new light on the future of ultra-short-run, digital book manufacturing."
Clockel sees good competition among bookbinding equipment manufacturers who are recognizing the changes in business dictated by the efficiencies of digital print engines. "If the product is going to change, and digital print engine sales would strongly indicate that it is, these bookbinding equipment manufacturers are going to have to change, too, or be left out of the market," Clockel says. "The hyped e-book business is only going to impede so far in the traditional book market. What will always be left is shorter runs of a conventional book product."
Other business opportunities for digital shortrun book manufacturers that are being driven by e-commerce involve international distribution.
"Since people often want information delivered worldwide, the natural extension of this process is the ability to deliver what the customer wants — a printed book, an e-book or electronic information — wherever they are," explains Clockel. "So what will be developed over the years, and what's developing right now, is international distribution. The goal is to be able to manufacture the product as close to the end-user as possible, so customers can get their product quickly."
With more digital shops popping up to serve the growing demand for international distribution, Clockel says, equipment is being designed with mobility in mind. Not much bigger than a desk, the distinctive characteristics of new digital printing and binding machines include their portability and smaller size.
As more book manufacturers get into digital short-run printing, the demand for quicker makeready and faster throughput will increase, and more systems — particularly inline — will be built with that focus in mind, notes Jeff Vierkant, general manager of the Quebecor World Digital Custom Demand facility in Dubuque, Iowa.
Acknowledging there's a continuing challenge with inline finishing, Vierkant believes front-end and back-end manufacturers will work closely in the future to design equipment that gets digital print engines and bindery equipment inline in order to speed up the process from digital file to bound book. However, he notes, faster, more efficient equipment is just one of the developments impacting today's digital bookbinding market. Another significant trend involves the binding itself. "Soft-cover, plastic-coil binding has increased 155 percent in the past year, while soft-cover adhesive and soft-cover wire spiral sales have remained flat," he declares. "Plastic coil gives more color options, plus it's a more durable bind than wire, because it doesn't get bound or kinked in shipment."
The need for speed
A digitized printing/binding process enables publishers to meet the ever-growing need for speed. Leading book manufacturers are integrating digital printing/binding into their business models in different ways. Companies such as Xyan.com and Edwards Brothers Book Manufacturing are employing the latest in digital printing/binding technology to provide a complete, closed-loop service, wherein manufacturing is only part of the business process.
Augustine explains: "When a Web order for a book is placed, it's processed from the publisher to Xyan.com manufacturing. We make the book and ship it directly to the consumer. Then we notify the publisher what item has been manufactured and to whom it was shipped, and we include the shipping tracking number; so, it's a closed-loop process.
"Not long ago," Augustine continues, "when we were printing/binding books and shipping them to inventory, the manufacturing processes were more critical. But today, it's also critical to have an efficient business process. As more business is being conducted on the Web, manufacturing the book is becoming only part of the process: Fulfillment and notification to the publisher are now other critical elements of the business. And that's the service we provide to our clients."
Edwards Brothers Book Manufacturing, Ann Arbor, Mich., recently stepped even, closer to a customer to provide complete, closed-loop service. It installed an on-site print-on-demand (POD) facility in the distribution center of Rowan & Littlefield, a U.S. publishing and distribution firm.
"We've compressed the supply chain by installing a digital printing/binding line in a customer's warehouse," declares John Edwards, president, Edwards Brothers. "We installed a few print engines, a binder, a scanning station and the necessary operators to fulfill Rowan & Littlefield's inventory needs. We've given the publisher its own print-on-demand, short-run operation.
"Think about the cost of processing every short-run job. Just for a few copies, you have to get a purchase order, enter the job, manufacture the product and ship it. The publisher, in turn, stocks the product in the warehouse and pays the bill," Edwards says. "Now we're doing all of that in-house. Since, we still do work for the customer in our other plants, too, this is just a piece of what we do for them."
Edwards believes on-site POD facilities will play an important role in the future. "There's more to it than just installing a digital printing/ binding operation in a customer's shop. We've become printing partners, solidified our business relationship, and provide a higher level of service."
The POD site, which was installed in Rowan & Littlefield's Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., facility, became operational in July. Edwards says printing and binding short-run books on-demand, within 24 to 48 hours, has made the term "out of stock" obsolete for this publishing firm.
"If a book manufacturer can offer case-bound and soft-cover products, publishers can offer both products simultaneously with acceptable mark-ups. Digital printing/binding allows publishers to simply add more products to their Web sites. Without investing in inventory, they're able to increase their sales, profits and revenues," says Edwards.
And in the real world (OK, in the virtual one, too), this win-win situation is changing the rules of the publishing/book manufacturing game. Internet shoppers are getting their products in record time. Publishers are increasing their product lines and profits. And book manufacturers are eliminating the age-old problem of inventory — by digitally printing/binding just in time, instead of just in case.
Cheryl A. Adams is a Baltimore-based freelance writer who specializes in printing technologies.