Find the Right Finishing Workflow for Short-Run Books

College kids can be rough on book bindings. I witnessed this firsthand, along with learning to tolerate the pungent fumes from hot-melt adhesive, as an under-graduate student working in a campus library’s binding repair department. Perhaps it was destiny that brought me into this crazy industry because the Elliott Donnelley Library bore the name of a prominent Chicago printing family who gave a lot of money to Lake Forest College, the tiny liberal-arts school I attended. A grandson of Richard Robert (RR) Donnelley, Elliott was a lifelong resident of the highly affluent suburb of Lake Forest, IL, nestled 30 miles north of Chicago. Just east of campus, the family’s stately, gated estate features the shore of Lake Michigan in its backyard.

It was there, in the Donnelley Library, that I experienced books in a different way and learned to appreciate a solid binding job. No matter whether it is printed conventional web-offset or digitally, any book truly is not finished until it is bound. And when it comes to high-volume production, today’s ultra-fast, highly automated sheetfed offset presses have no problem printing tens of thousands of sheets per hour. On the digital front, high-speed inkjet printing will have a significant impact on book manufacturing — “the biggest development in publishing in the past 50 years,” predicted one panelist at Kodak’s “Future of Book Publishing” roundtable in January, held at the New York Public Library. The challenge for printers is identifying the right finishing solution so their customers can realize the benefits of inkjet technology.

The pressing question: Can post-press machines keep up the pace in the manufacturing relay race? Slowing production via the dreaded bindery bottleneck is a problem that offset printers have battled for decades. And with faster digital print technologies, including the new inkjet web presses now available, how does 21st-century printing technology integrate into book manufacturing and publishing—especially with output capacities as high as 70 million pages per month, as is the case with HP’s T300 model? Featuring a 30-inch-wide paper web, it’s capable of printing 200-page books at a clip of 500 per hour. Hewlett-Packard now has more than 20 global installations of full-color inkjet webs (a total of 42 engines), with at least 13 designed for book printing. The production volume of these devices (including direct mail applications) amounted to one billion pages last year, reports InfoTrends.

To finish digitally produced book pages, should printers work with inline units, or should they take the books off-line or near-line to finish them? Each set up has its fans, of course, and its place. Until its purchase of a Xerox iGen 4 digital press, a commercial printer overseas had been using a rather complex inline finishing line. “With the set-up times and skill required to get the machine going, all the benefit of short-run digital was going out the window,” laments the firm’s GM. “I was having to print off 300 copies to get 200 copies finished -- taking a lot of the profit out of shorter run jobs,” he told Graphic Repro of South Africa last month. Late last year the shop switched to a Duplo System 5000 bookletmaker and already is finishing nearly 100,000 books per month. Its configuration consists of two DC-10/60Pro 10-bin suction collator towers, DBM-500 stitch and fold bookletmaker and DBM-500T fore-edge trimmer. The system runs up to 5,000 booklets per hour and features tool-less, fully automatic set-up and changeover between jobs. But that is only one of numerous in-line examples.


A Sprinter’s Pace

Worldcolor (now part of Quad/Graphics), which manufactures nearly one billion books per year, chose the SigmaLine in-line digital book manufacturing solution for its Dubuque, IA facility. Muller Martini has partnered with Kodak on the advanced finishing system for the Prosper 5000XL inkjet web press. SigmaLine technology interconnects prepress, digital printing and finishing in a total system that permits fully automated production from a PDF to a finished book in a single operation, says Muller Martini. Worldcolor has dubbed the system “FastBook Digital.” Supported by as few as two operators, it offers a shorter-run, quicker-turn production option for publishers seeking to decrease book obsolescence waste, reduce forecasting risks and better manage book inventories, says the mega printer.

Worldcolor/Quad’s mid-2010 installation of SigmaLine components included a fully format variable signature folder, collator for book block creation, and a perfect binding line with SigmaBinder, SigmaTower and SigmaTrimmer. The firm’s SigmaBuffer intelligently decouples the print, fold, and collating operations from binding and trimming while simultaneously connecting them in-line. The total digital solution is managed by Muller Martini’s end-to-end Connex workflow system.

One of the key features of the digital solution is its scalable capabilities, which allow printers to seamlessly expand their SigmaLine configurations to address both today’s and tomorrow’s printing requirements. For example, before adding the SigmaLine signature folding/collating technology and the Prosper 5000XL press featuring Kodak’s Stream inkjet technology, Worldcolor had implemented the perfect binding line within its existing digital operation. “We recognize that the productivity demanded by inkjet digital technology warrants the highly unique capabilities of the in-line SigmaLine solution,” says Gary Durand, operations EVP of Quad/Worldcolor. The system produces up to 1,000 books an hour in color and black-and-white with quality levels and a price point superior to many conventional short-run book manufacturing applications, say its developers. Run lengths up to 3,500 copies are expected to show customer benefits when compared to traditional alternatives.

As previously reported in Printing News (Dec. 2010), book printer Offset Paperback Manufacturers (OPM), Dallas, PA, a $350 million Bertelsmann unit, has invested some $5 million in its inkjet web digital production platform, which includes two Kodak Prosper models (a monochrome 1000 and a color 5000XL) as well a $ 2 million in-line bindery set-up from Muller Martini.

In Toronto, Webcom’s Mike Collinge turned the digital finishing speed challenge into his $50-million book printing firm’s new strategy. The CEO recalls seeing the new inkjet web presses at Drupa 08. “We realized [then] what we needed was a full manufacturing solution, through to bound product,” Collinge says. The Webcom management team conducted research and did due diligence for 18 months before opting for the HP and Magnum Flex Book combination to comprise its Book FWD program – part of a $12 million overall investment in their 180,000-square-foot operation. The T300 inkjet web was installed in late 2009, making Webcom only the eighth printer worldwide to use the new HP technology for book manufacturing production. One year later, Webcom added a Flex Book line from Magnum Digital Solutions. Flex Book provides an efficient method for the production of fused, easy-to-handle book blocks. Using cut-sheet technology, it produces a high-quality book block sans the common shingling and bottling problems found in folding technologies employing signature solutions.

“Low/no makeready is key,” Collinge told Graphic Monthly (Canada) recently. Simotion software enables Book Flex to offer automated, zero-makeready changeovers for same-size, same-paper formats. Webcom marks only the second installation of the revolutionary book-block system worldwide. (CPI Quantum installed the first, in France, earlier in 2010, and at least three other machines have since been sold.) Book blocks are made durable utilizing Flex Book’s digitally controlled sinusoidal (sine wave) fusing technology that ensures smooth repetitive oscillation. Blocks can be fed in-line to a binding system or off-line. Plus, cut sheets minimize standard trim waste requirements.

The Flex Book system is engineered for 24/7 use and was designed with the future of digital printing in mind, says Magnum. It is capable of a web width up to 43 inches (up to 8-ribbon processing) and speeds up to 800 feet per minute and features flexibility in product sizes ranging from 4 inches to 10.5 inches wide and 6 inches to 12 inches long. Timson, in the U.K., is developing a similar technology, which it calls the T-Book finishing system.

True to its name FlexBook is flexible, typically running inline, fed by the digitally printed web as it is printed. But, "we can also feed a bindery line simultaneously and ... go from roll of white paper to finished book in box at the end of the line," reports Magnum customer service manager Paul Riportella. "We can be run in a near-line mode by unwinding digitally printed web into our FlexBook at speeds up to 800 fpm, and then feed the book blocks into a high-speed binding line." And FlexBook can be run offline as well, unwinding the digitally printed web and making book blocks to be fed in a later process into a binding line, says Riportella.

Finishing Fast with Near-Line

Another success story comes from Canada, where small commercial printer Allan Graphics teamed with CP Bourg, a Xerox finishing partner, for a near-line solution and saved $35,000 in the process. Owned by David Allan, the Kingston, Ontario firm prints brochures, monthly magazines and even 400-page catalogs in full color. Allan himself, a 40-year industry veteran, learned the trade as an offset operator, so he naturally was skeptical about digital press output. Then, in mid-2008, he was golfing with some print peers who were shocked to hear that he wasn’t running digital yet.

“I’ve spent years putting digital technology down, but that conversation made me realize I needed to take a closer look,” Allan says. He added a Xerox 700 Digital Color Press to his 8,000-square-foot plant the following January, but the digital convert had a finishing problem: To maximize the conventional, six-pocket bookletmaker that Allan used to stitch and trim longer run work, some jobs needed to be prepared as signatures. But he couldn’t afford the six-figure price tag of a folder. By the autumn of 2009, Allan had his sights set on a Bourg BME Booklet Maker that he had seen in Montreal at a tradeshow. He saw it again at PRINT 09 – and bought it, along with North America’s first larger-format (14.4 x 23.5 inch), 10-bin BST-e Suction Tower Collator, which Allan says adds versatility.

“The BME uses an ingenious system with a belt that wraps around itself and takes the memory out of the spine,” he notes. “I’m a tradeshow junkie and I look at everything new, and I’d never seen anything like this. Booklets from the BME look three-knife trimmed when they’ve been only face-trimmed.” The best part for the former pressman may be that the BME has given his shop the flexibility for finishing on-demand digital as well as offset production. Plus, on the Bourg BME, one person can produce the work faster and at the same quality as three needed to run the big machine, Allan says.

Duplo also features a near-line DFS-3500 Bookletmaking System designed to completely finish full-bleed booklets in a single pass. Combining the creasing and slitting functions of the DC-445 Creaser with the stitching, folding, and trimming capabilities of the mid-range DBM-350/T Bookletmaker and Trimmer, the DFS-3500 delivers an all-in-one system ideal for short-run applications, says its manufacturer. By automating the finishing process required to create full-bleed booklets, the 3500 eliminates the need for a separate guillotine cutter and creasing machine. Time-consuming set ups, wasted material, and turnaround times all are reduced. Complete job set-up is done from the user-friendly DC-445 control panel, and up to 30 jobs can be saved for quick and easy recall. The 3500’s ability to slit, crease, stitch, fold, and trim in one pass makes it the ideal solution for producing applications such as calendars, catalogs, yearbooks and newsletters.

Companies mentioned in this article


Allan Graphics


CP Bourg




Duplo USA Corp.


Eastman Kodak Company


Hewlett-Packard Co.


Off-line Is a Viable Option, Too

Opting for an off-line workflow, the in-plant at Northwest Natural, a gas company headquartered in Portland, OR, recently expanded its finishing capabilities by adding a range of Duplo machines. “We are able to do more jobs in-house with great efficiency, saving the company money,” says Marilyn Webber, supervisor of office services. Removing the work from its in-line bookletmaking systems, a guillotine cutter, and an aging folder, the shop installed the DBM-350/T Bookletmaker and Trimmer connected with a DSF-2000 Sheet Feeder, the DC-615 Slitter/Cutter/Creaser, and the fully automatic DF-920 Tabletop Folder. The DSF-2000 processes pre-collated sets at up to 200 sheets per minute into the mid-range DBM-350/T, where they are then accumulated, stitched, folded, and face-trimmed into professional booklets. With the new equipment, the firm reports that it has increased productivity as well as reduced costs.