by Cassandra Balentine
Finishing automation is increasingly important as print providers face a number of new challenges, including shorter, more complex work; faster turnaround expectations; and a reduced pool of skilled operators. In digital print environments, automation in the binding process helps to eliminate manual touch points, reduce errors, and optimize workflow.
“Digital print shops face shorter runs, faster turnarounds, and a workforce that is becoming less technically minded as time goes by,” comments David Spiel, treasurer, Spiel Associates. “Why not opt for a plug-and-play machine that can set up automatically?”
“Today all bindery operations struggle to be competitive without automation since it is the only solution that allows producers to confidently sell more ultra-short run, personalized, variable, versioned printing including ‘book-of-one’ applications that are in high demand and enjoy higher margins than commodity print,” comments James Tressler, VP of sales, C.P. Bourg Inc.
No matter whether or not a print provider is 100 percent digital or a hybrid operation, Mike Wing, solutions manager, book technology and digital solutions, Muller Martin, feels that finishing equipment automation is imperative to survive in today’s time-sensitive print environment.
Increased demand for personalization and customization in healthcare, financial statements and resources, courseware, photobooks, and on demand novels result in shorter run lengths along with increased book-of-one production in digital print. “Without automated perfect binding, print providers run into massive bottlenecks in the finishing process because of the increased number of changeovers required to produce this type of work. Automated, on-the-fly setup via barcode and/or caliper is the only way to meet the increase in book-of-one and short-run book production,” shares Bob Flinn, director of business development, Standard Finishing.
By reducing the need for human intervention, automation helps lower production costs. “Automation eliminates the need for high skilled or specialized operators. It allows multiple processes to be combined into one solution, requiring fewer people,” explains Anthony Gandara, product manager, Duplo USA.
When evaluating automated perfect binding solutions for continuous-feed digital print engines, considerations include booklet size, personalization requirements, glue preference, and configuration—inline, nearline, or offline.
“When it comes to finishing perfect bound products coming from continuous-feed production devices, it is all about speed and reliability,” offers Wing. He says the binder needs to be a robust solution that matches the net throughput of the printer whether the finishing is inline or near line. “Automation allows for reduced touch points in the process, connectivity of information with upstream and downstream systems, and improved data analysis tools,” he comments.
For continuous-feed environments, Flinn says major considerations include width, substrates, web speed, run length, and book size. “Based on these factors, a decision can be made as to how the printed rolls will be converted to book blocks for feeding to the binder. Options include cut/stack output, plow-fold and sheeting, or buckle-fold to signatures. Book blocks can be handed off directly to the binder or hand dropped to a conveyor for automated in-feed. “Regardless of whether the binder is inline or near line, it must have the production capacity to keep up with the output of the print engine and have automated set-up based on barcode scanning. Additionally, there should be barcode matching to ensure that the cover and the book block are a proper match. This is particularly important when dealing with personal information, financial, health/medical, and insurance publications,” he adds.
Cutsheet environments have similar considerations.
“Sheet-fed production printing tends to lean more towards the digital print side, which uses toner and a wider range of papers/substrates,” points out Gandara.
With sheet-fed digital printers, it is all about short runs and flexibility—including formats and paper stock. Wing says an automated perfect binder allows for the elimination of machine set-up time when going from one job to the next, even down to a book of one. “This not only saves time, but also reduces waste, which is essential for these short-run quantities.”
Determining the type of binding equipment that best suits your needs often depends on the kind of work being produced, number of print engines, speed of the print engine, and turnaround time for each job, says Flinn.
One advantage of a cutsheet solution is that in critical turn situations, the first book or job off of the printer can also be the first to be finished through the binder. “While the same is true with continuous printers that have the binder direct inline, this is not the case when continuous jobs are printed roll-to-roll and book production is handled in a near line configuration,” he continues.
Volume, workflow, and run lengths determine whether a single- or a multi-clamp binder is the best fit. For example, in some instances it may be more efficient to have two binders yielding 400 books per hour than one binder producing 1,000 per hour, explains Flinn.
Spiel says the strength of the bind is key. “What you do to a perfect bound book is the most important aspect of perfect binding, everything else is more or less a bell and a whistle.”
Tressler believes equipment flexibility and expandability are the two most important factors when considering a binder. He explains that C.P. Bourg Inc. offers a fully automated, inline production perfect binding solution that can be attached directly to either inkjet or toner marking engines.
To ensure accuracy, many modern perfect binders are equipped with barcode readers and inline integrity solutions with an easy-to-operate user interface.
Barcodes printed on each individual product are used to set-up the machine without operator intervention. “This leads to quick changeovers and no data input errors. These same barcodes are also used to validate that the correct cover is put onto the right book block. If there is a mismatch, the cover can automatically be rejected until the correct cover in the sequence is found without stopping the production line,” explains Wing.
Barcodes are commonly used to match covers with book blocks. “The book blocks are normally collated prior to the perfect binding process. The sequence and order of the sheets are controlled by the printer. The book covers are normally printed separately. This is when barcodes are required to match the covers to the book blocks before they are bound together on the perfect binder,” explains Gandara. He says barcodes can also be used to automatically set-up the perfect binder to match the parameters of the booklet that is being processed, such as the size and thickness.
Verification and integrity software can perform sheet, signature, and book block level tracking as well as cover-to-book block matching. “Depending upon the configuration, these systems can reject incomplete book blocks or book blocks with the pages out of order. In this case, the rejected book block is identified and the system is used to generate a reprint file. In the case of a mis-matched cover and book block, the binder will alert the operator for correction or ejection. Inspection systems are integral in guaranteeing product quality without increasing labor costs,” shares Flinn.
Tressler explains that for the simplest automation, barcodes are used to match cover and content. “However, as layers of automation are added to the process we have the ability to use barcodes on the book cover to order content from the attached inline printer. “We can use that same process and hand scan a code to order batches of content for book orders of few or many. We have the ability to sheet feed pages from a feeder and read barcodes or data capturing up to 18 points of data on each page of the book.
Plus this data can be externalized post processing creating a data log for highly sensitive or regulated products in the insurance, medical, and financial print industry,” he notes.
Further, barcodes can be used to drive advanced trimming functionality so every book produced can be unique in thickness and dimensions. “Layering automation into the process allows our end users to completely personalize their processes to maximize throughput, based on their client’s needs,” says Tressler.
One of the greatest advancements of binding automation is the flexibility it provides on job lengths.
Gandara says one of the key benefits of automation is that it often allows the customer the flexibility to run low- and high-volume perfect binding. “It also enables them to run a range of applications quickly and easily. The automation simplifies the perfect binding process by minimizing—and in most cases eliminating—the need for any physical set-up or adjustment by the operator.”
However, the level of flexibility depends on the product. “Some binders are designed for high-volume production environments while others are better suited to small- and medium-sized shops,” says Flinn. Every print provider should evaluate their specific volume needs when looking for an automated perfect binder. “Automated perfect binders are ideal for short-run and book-of-one production, including novels, textbooks and reference books, financial reports, and photobooks. Perfect binders that can use either EVA or PUR glue give print providers more options for high-quality softcover binding,” he adds.
Wing agrees, noting that while automated binders are well suited for any job or run length, they are ideal for short runs and print on demand workflows where there are many changeovers required between jobs and finding talented/skilled labor is extremely difficult. “The connectivity of systems in an all-digital print production environment also lends itself to this type of a solution,” he shares.
“Ultra-short runs maximize the efficiencies of any automated binder and associated workflows. However, any volume of work will also benefit greatly from zero waste and lower labor costs associated with automation,” comments Tressler. He points out that applications today are limitless. “We have producers printing and binding everything from education, vanity press, pleasure reading, operators/owner’s manuals, and color applications including children’s books and photobooks. If you can imagine it we are probably producing it somewhere.”
With every advancement comes investment hesitation. Key areas of concerns for automated binding include cost and return on investment (ROI).
“The biggest concern most print providers have when implementing new finishing technology into their business is cost,” states Wing. While these intelligent systems do come with a hefty price, he believes it should be an easily justifiable investment once all of the cost-saving factors are considered. Since most print providers are already familiar with barcodes and data transfer, there is minimal impact when it comes to training or integration into their existing workflow, as the binder set-up and operation is driven by advancements in automation. “It is as easy as dropping the barcode in the right location on the printed product for the machine to see and recognize it,” he shares.
Flinn says in the past, some print providers would shy away from automation because they thought that it would come at the expense of reliability and quality. Another concern was whether their operators would adapt to the new technology. However, he feels that automation today is much more user friendly, accurate, and reliable. “Automation has already found its way into order entry, prepress, and printing, which has made it essential to adding automation to finishing and book production just to keep pace. At the end of the day, automation needs to be reliable and allow for changeovers on the fly. In the case of continuous print, this is of even greater importance. Higher production speeds mean that recovery from an error and/or downtime can be more costly compared to cutsheet,” he comments.
Many shops are challenged by the complexities of antiquated workflows. “Despite many years of refinement in automated processes there is often a feeling of resistance or doubt when they first start exploring the new technology,” admits Tressler. Typical barriers are triggered such as the tendency to challenge the efficiencies of inline productivity versus uncoupled or offline device productivity. Asset utilization becomes a concern as there is often uncertainty about volume and frequency of work or how many of their clients can actually benefit from the automation advancements impacting their ROI. “Our response to these print providers is always the same, ‘eat the elephant slowly.’ Grow the business into the technology and implement advancements to the workflow as necessary to maximize efficiencies and profits. We all know automation when implemented correctly guarantees larger returns, less waste, and amazing ROIs but choosing the best technology with partners and professionals that will help with the implementation calms the anxiety and charts a course for the most success,” he offers.
In addition to actual binding, many automated perfect binders perform other functions including three-sided trimming, collating, and stacking.
“The natural progression of binding inline will lead to three-knife trimming inline to complete the book,” says Flinn. Today, Standard offers a variety of inline trimming options depending upon speed, size, and finishing style. For example, the Standard Horizon HT-300 Three-knife Trimmer can be run inline and perform flap cover trimming and unique angle cutting for increased product value.
Wing says one of the latest developments in perfect binding digitally printed books is the ability to tip end sheets and apply a spine reinforcement strip inline on the binder for the production of hardcover book blocks. “For years, most print providers would have to settle for non-standard and costly methods—e.g. combined endsheets or tabbed endsheets with false covers—for producing a hardcover product offering to their customers. Now, solutions add these integrated modules directly to the binder, so these types of books can be manufactured in a traditional manner and at significant unit cost savings,” he offers.
Print providers face many challenges that continue to evolve with new demands and expectations including labor shortages, quick turnarounds, smaller print runs, and increased personalization. “Having a highly automated perfect binder can minimize or eliminate many of these concerns and allow digital printers to thrive amongst intense competition,” says Wing.
Gandara believes automation helps print providers save time and money by getting their jobs done faster and more efficiently.
As the book market evolves, every print provider should evaluate their ability to service this segment. “Whether it’s servicing the local manufacturer with owner’s manuals, operator’s manuals, and parts manuals or providing educational books for the K-12 or home schooling providers in their community, books are a solid business for print providers around the globe. They are also a safe haven in a challenging industry during a challenging economy,” adds Tressler.
Print providers must identify the solutions that work best for their specific markets, but automation in binding can level-up production by optimizing workflows, reducing the need for skilled laborers, and ensuring product integrity. dps
Jan2021, DPS Magazine