Bindery From Start to Finish

A profitable and efficient bindery operation depends on two things, automation and preparation. While both are important, usually no amount of automation can make up for lousy preparation, and that preparation has to take place at the very beginning when the printed piece is being designed.

For too long, the bindery and finishing operations in quick and small commercial shops took a back seat to prepress and production. Digital prepress and digital output, whether to plate or to digital press, were much more readily tied together in a digital workflow. Bindery was relegated to the back of the shop, waiting to react to the end result of that digital workflow.

It’s not that bindery is an unimportant part of a printing operation. In fact, it is a vital step in preparing most printed products. It is also a major revenue center. For the past 10 years, the Quick Printing Top 100 companies have attributed nearly 10% of total sales to their bindery and finishing operations. Franchise print shops report that bindery and finishing account for more than 8% of total revenue. That is a very significant percentage of this year’s total Top 100 sales of $513 million and total franchise sales of $1.7 billion.

From The Top

Printing needs to be designed with bindery in mind. Most printers know this very well. However, all too often, they fail to communicate this to their customers prior to taking in jobs. Instead, they wrestle with poorly designed pieces trying to make the necessary corrections—and sometimes forgetting to charge for the work. A lot of headaches could be avoided if the printer took time to teach the customer how to properly prepare a job—not only for printing, but also for binding. Sadly, too many printers are so busy trying to get jobs out that they neglect training their customers so the orders will arrive in better shape.

Peachpit Press publishes a wide variety of books and tutorials for designers and creatives. In an article by Claudia McCue on Peachpit’s website, some essential considerations for avoiding bindery problems in the design stage are outlined. They sound simple, but are often ignored when a job is being designed. Among them are:

• Build to the correct trim size. In other words, don’t leave a single business card floating on an 8.5x11" page.

• Provide bleed. Take into account when artwork extends to the edge of a page and extend the image beyond the trim line.

• Stay away from the edge. The closer the artwork is to the edge the more chance of it getting clipped in a trim error.

• Follow the print specifications. Printers should provide these to their customers and insist they be followed. They should include details for folding, bleeds, imposition, etc.

• Finally, design for the intended binding method. Folding, saddle stitching, case or perfect binding, comb binding, and coil binding all have different design requirements.

There obviously are many more considerations in properly preparing a job that will run smoothly through production and bindery, but you get the idea. In many ways it can be like the old computer acronym GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out.

In the ideal JDF (Job Definition Format) world, the printing process would be fully automated from beginning to end. The job would flow seamlessly from website to quote to PDF submission to production scheduling to production to finishing. It would be nice if the quick and small commercial printers’ world were so automated. While JDF is indeed establishing itself throughout the printing industry, the fact is that it has yet to really penetrate our industry segment. That’s not to say it isn’t making some inroads, but a PDF workflow is the standard for now, and that usually stops at the bindery door. There certainly is bindery equipment available today that is designed from the ground up to support the JDF industry standard, but you won’t see it in most quick and small commercial shops just yet.


Reality Check

The most recent NAQP Bindery and Finishing Study, published last fall, offers some insight on just how far some printers have to go before reaching any real automation and efficiency in their bindery operations. Some 39% of respondents reported their booklet making operation consisted of machine folding or machine collating and then hand gathering and stitching. Only 35% had computerized/automatic cutters. More than 8% were using letterpress to score, and nearly 25% were using letterpress to number. All perfect binding was being done manually.

There is little doubt that this picture is changing, and changing very rapidly for some as they become more and more involved with digital output and the attendant in-line finishing capabilities it offers. Automated perfect binders, stitchers, trimmers, etc. are available for almost all production digital devices. Meanwhile, off line bindery equipment is becoming more automated with the addition of computerization and touch-screen operation.


In-Line or Off Line?

Almost any bindery step can be performed either in-line or off line. There are distinct advantages and drawbacks to both.

Not only can in-line finishing offer seamless folding, stapling, punching, booklet making, etc., but many in-line units also can handle a mix of stocks or handle feeding and collating of offset output as well. In-line finishing can be a very attractive option for print shops that have a single digital production output device, but they can be somewhat costly if the in-line capabilities are needed for multiple output devices. However, the downside of in-line is that if any of the finishing units go down, the whole machine is out of service. Finally, some digital production printers can take up a heck of a lot of space when all of the finishing options are hung on the end.

An off line piece of bindery equipment can sometimes handle the output of multiple devices, whether digital or offset. It is not tied to a particular output device and if it goes down, the digital printer or offset press can keep on cranking out printed sheets. Also, today’s newer bindery equipment boasts a host of automated features that make them simpler to operate and more efficient to use. Modern perfect binders, folders, saddle stitchers, trimmers and the like boast touch screen operation and servo motors that have replaced manual setups. Jobs can be programmed and settings stored for future use. Operators need less skill to efficiently run the equipment and output is generally more consistent and repeatable.

Which is more suitable for today’s quick and small commercial printer? That depends largely on the job mix in the print shop. In a hybrid digital/offset environment, off line would be more versatile and able to handle the mixed output. However, if fast turnaround, digital short-run color is a major part of the job mix, then in-line would seem to be the way to go. In many of the shops I visit, I see both in-line and off line finishing capabilities. It’s safe to say they will continue to coexist for the foreseeable future.


Back to the Beginning

No matter how automated your bindery operation may be or whether it is in-line or off line, the fact remains that finishing starts at the beginning. As McCue noted: “You’ve probably learned the hard way that building your files without considering the finishing processes can cost you money and delay your job…getting ink on paper isn’t the end of the story.”