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Feb 1, 2001 12:00 AM

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The last time we looked at the finishing end of the print-on-demand (POD) market, it was just after Drupa 2000. The blockbuster print show in Dusseldorf, Germany, featured digital print systems from Heidelberg, Xerox, Oce, Xeikon, Karat Digital Press, Scitex Digital Printing and many more. (See "Demanding FOD," July 2000, p. 30.)

Almost all of the POD vendors featured options for turning all that paper into booklets, books and a host of other possibilities. The operative theory was to couple digital printing and finishing into a modular unit capable of adding significant value to the process. On-demand systems should be flexible enough to turn out a variety of completed products, and enable the digital printer to offer an acceptable variety and quality of finished work to the user.

The recent Xplor Exhibition in Miami Beach, FL, gave us a chance to revisit finishing-on-demand (FOD) systems to see what, if anything, had changed or was new. Xplor started out more than a decade ago as a Xerox high-volume document printer users group. Over the years, it has morphed into a full-fledged conference and exhibition for volume digital document processors. These include banks, insurance companies, credit card statement processors and mailers. Increasingly, though, on-demand printers as well as traditional shops walk the exhibit halls in search of the next big digital thing that could be added to their manufacturing mix.

NEW ROLES FOR POD And there were lots to evaluate in the booths. Before we jump in, however, let's look quickly at the state of POD. This market is virtually jumping with technology offerings from vendors. At one end of the spectrum, all of the major sheetfed press market players, such as Heidelberg, Komori, Akiyama and Sakurai, have weighed in with varying degrees of CTP implementation to make the sheetfed press a virtual - and real - extension of the desktop publishing computer.

On the other hand, non-traditional toner-based systems, such as Xerox, IBM, Oce and Xeikon, are being viewed by printers as manufacturing alternatives for certain segments of the POD market.

Not too long ago, these were looked at as strictly copy-shop print systems. But technological leaps in their capacities have put them into new roles.

If we look at the potential markets for POD, we get a better idea of where it will predominate:

* Production of product manuals and technical data on a short-run or on-demand basis

* Individualized health care and insurance policy books

* Custom professional subscription material (legal updates, engineering updates, etc.)

* Product literature fulfillment on a just-in-time basis

* Inclusion of customer-specific advertising material in billing statements

* Quick-print and finish of back-ordered or out-of-print books.

CREATING NEW MARKETS Perhaps the most explosive growth in POD has occurred in producing short-run technical documentation, primarily single-color work. Printers have been quick to exploit the potential of existing toner-based, single-color technology from Xerox, Oce, IBM and Hewlett-Packard to produce basic 8.5 x 11-inch work that can be rapidly turned around (by receiving files through FTP) and finished.

Books can be produced in small quantities, and accomplishing changes is infinitely faster in the digital toner-based world than by going through the traditional print process. The quality difference between 600-dpi toner and litho, while noticeable, no longer justifies going the litho route for this type of single-color work.

And POD and FOD are actually creating new markets for themselves. Donald Schroeder, vice president of sales for C.P. Bourg (New Bedford, MA), reports significant sales of its Book Factory system to actual manufacturers, such as Sony and Phillips. These companies are purchasing units to produce their own product manuals. The system gives them the flexibility to produce an enormous variety of product documentation, with minimum lead time and total in-house control over content.

INLINE VS. NEAR-LINE It is probably more accurate to view the print and finishing components of these new systems as one integrated manufacturing module for producing printed media. At this point in the development of the industry, however, it still may be wise to consider the pluses and minuses of two approaches, inline and near-line.

"Inline" refers to a finishing process that is directly coupled to the print engine. This is where we see the most development. Stapling sheet sets and making simple booklets inline with high-speed copiers has been an option for some time. What's different now is the high level of integration of finishing devices with digital print.

Many old-time print hands, however, are skeptical of total inline systems, noting that the complete system is then controlled - and can be brought to a halt - by its weakest link.

"Near-line," on the other hand, puts the finishing system close at hand, but not directly connected to the print device. Usually printer and finishing lines comprise two self-contained "work cells" between which work is moved.

You can argue the merits of the inline vs. the near-line approach almost as long as the results of the 2000 presidential election were argued. The right approach is usually determined by the application.

FOUR TRENDS The trends emerging in the FOD arena are clear, however. These are:

* AN EMERGING DIGITAL LANGUAGE STANDARD FOR FOD | Xerox (Rochester, NY) has DigiFinish; Heidelberg (Kennesaw, GA) has its own proprietary language. These are software codes for describing the complete attributes of a print job, from file handling and correction through printing, collating and finishing.

There is a growing movement among vendors and users toward the establishment of an industrywide standard for embedded digital finishing instruction. As usual, the success of these efforts is hard to predict. Standards such as CIP3/CIP4, PDF and MAIL.DAT (for mailing jobs) have all become part of our lives, so why not one more?

There are many reasons to formalize communication between the print system and the stitcher or binder, and system designers, manufacturers and users would all stand to benefit.

* AUTOMATED MAKEREADY | Heidelberg, Xerox and others now support encoded print files that contain instructions for booklet-making or perfect-binding modules.

The high-speed, black-and-white Heidelberg Digimaster uses a dedicated network connection to pass makeready parameters to its Booklet Maker Stitcher. Error messages, including jam and missed sheet information, are communicated between the printer and stitcher.

Dave Reichardt, a product specialist with Heidelberg, often runs a demo on the Digimaster in which three different booklet sizes come off the Booklet Maker with no operator interruption.

Standard's (Andover, MA) Horizon equipment offering in this area also follows this trend, with servo-motors on its BQ-340DF binder adjusting clamp, mill, adhesive and nip points.

Xerox DigiFinish language includes timing profiles that create a print gap between book sets to allow binding time.

Clearly, manufacturers are trying to make life as easy (and error-proof) for the operator as possible.

* INTRODUCTION OF "HEAVY-IRON" FOD SYSTEMS | General commercial and specialty printers are used to having a rather robust bindery, with folders, diecutters, stitchers and binders supplied by heavy-iron vendors such as Stahl (distributed by Heidelberg), MBO America, Muller-Martini and Kolbus. One criticism of existing inline on-demand finishing systems has been their relatively lightweight construction, which printers suspect results in high maintenance and repair costs.

This detail has not escaped the attention of traditional bindery equipment manufacturers. Werner Naegle, president of Muller-Martini U.S.A. (Hauppauge, NY), is convinced that as digital print output speeds go up, printers will look for inline solutions from their traditional bindery suppliers.

"We are really excited and quite serious about the POD market," says the exec. "Look for Muller-Martini to introduce some very innovative inline stitching solutions for this market during Print 01 and Xplor in the latter-half of 2001."

At the same time, Naegle thinks the near-line system solution is one that should be pursued now. Muller's Amigo five-clamp perfect binder features sophisticated book-block spine preparation and adhesive controls that rival those found on larger systems. Amigo also uses stepper and servo motor-driven adjustments that perform a completely automatic set-up when the book block is placed into the clamp (the clamp actually performs the block measurement). This allows the machine to change binding sizes almost on a "one-off" basis, according to Naegle, making it ideal for the shorter runs found in the POD market.

Heidelberg, too, has introduced finishing options as part of its "digital print solutions." Its Stitchexpert, to be released to the U.S. market later this year, reportedly offers offline finishing across a range of publications, up to high-quality spine-stitched brochures. Collation, folding and cutting take place automatically in a single pass. The Stitchexpert processes up to 4,000 sets or brochures per hour. Heidelberg's Bindexpert performs binding via hotmelt or dispersion, and processes individual and folded sheets with a book thickness of up to 40 mm with and without cover. The vendor has also partnered with the Coverbind division of Bindomatic to offer on-demand perfect binding.

* PRINT-FINISH-MAIL | Pitney Bowes (Trumbull, CT), the manufacturer of postage meters and inserting equipment, displayed an interesting system that finished 5.5 x 8-inch booklets and then directly inserted them into 6 x 9-inch envelopes for mailing.

Both the book pages and covers were in pre-printed roll form. Two roll unwinders, each equipped with a sheeter, separated pages and covers. Pages then entered the system from the back, while covers entered at 90 degrees to the document flow. Cover and book set were then stitched flat and folded, and the booklets entered the main inserting portion of the machine. Additional inserts could be fed onto the booklets before everything was inserted into the envelope.

Machine intelligence was everywhere on this line, with bar code scanners verifying pages and covers, and codes calling for more inserts based on the content of the booklet. Speed was fairly impressive, cycling steadily at around 5,000 pieces per hr.

LATEST HARDWARE OFFERINGS Beyond the FOD trends, what are the latest hardware offerings from the heavy-hitters in this area?

* STANDARD FINISHING SYSTEMS | Standard, which distributes Horizon and Hunkeler products, has jumped into an alliance with Xerox, offering medium-duty binding and trimming options tied to the Xerox DocuTech line of digital cut-sheet imagers. At Graph Expo '00, for example, Standard displayed an inline books-on-demand system consisting of the Standard Hunkeler SF-4 roll-to-sheet feeder, the Xerox 6180 high-speed laser printer and the Standard Horizon BQ-340 perfect binder.

The Standard Hunkeler SF-4 attaches to the back side of various Xerox printers, including the DocuTech 135 and 6180. It prepares sheets on-demand from a paper roll mounted behind the printer, and attaches to the printer through Xerox tray 3. The sheet feeder provides up to 18 hours of productivity and can deliver up to 40,000 sheets non-stop.

The Standard Horizon BQ-340DF binder is a single-clamp model capable of accepting instructions from Xerox as a DigiFinish client. Clamp setting for the book block is automatic (via servo motors), as are milling section adjustment, adhesive and cover nip. Milling, for example, is adjusted in 0.001-inch increments per book block via DigiFinish parameters on paper stock and number of sheets.

To accommodate a wider job range, covers are usually overprinted so that a book block variation of between 10 pages to 20 pages can be run contiguously. The book block end is registered to the front cover, with the nip then forming the cover around the block. Since many of these systems are expected to wind up in office-type environments, special, low-odor adhesives are used in the binding process.

A bar-code scanner at the clamp station ensures that block and cover are a match. The Standard Horizon HT-30 three-knife trimmer, receiving trim instructions from DigiFinish, completes the job.

Standard Horizon has also come up with a twist to its system. Through its SpeedVAC tower collator, some interesting job types can now be run inline.

The SpeedVAC has the capacity to insert pre-printed sheets or signatures into the book block (before binding) to create customized publications. Using a 10-bin system, bar coding on the book block pages can activate individual bins to insert customer- or demographic-specific literature.

Horizon employed this configuration at Xplor to produce a job with index tabs inserted from the SpeedVAC.

* IBIS (INTEGRATED BINDERY SYSTEMS) | A really new approach has been taken by a company named IBIS from the UK. Formed by a core group of engineers from the old Sheridan/AM Graphics plant in Slough, England, IBIS is producing the first true heavy-duty stitcher for integration with POD systems.

IBIS has partnered with digital-imaging heavyweight Oce Systems (Boca Raton, FL) in offering this system - its stitcher is coupled with Oce's DemandStream printer in the U.S. market.

The IBIS Digi-Stitch would definitely look familiar to old bindery hands. Whereas most FOD stitchers apply stitches while the sheets and covers are flat, the IBIS unit takes a more traditional approach. Since the Oce unit is roll-fed, images are imposed on the sheet and printed sheets are converted by a rotary cutting process at the output of the print imaging section. Sheets then are processed through a reverse plow-fold module, which forms the sheet fold over a space of a few feet. Sheets are collected, one on top of another; bar coding on each sheet controls the process.

The code tells the system that the correct number and type of pages have been assembled. The cover is then applied (also with a bar-code check), and the entire assemblage is transferred to the saddle. If the cover is single-color, it is run in sequence with the rest of the sheets on the Oce DemandStream. The book is then stitched and moved to a high-quality three-knife trimmer, where a head, foot and face trim are taken. The completed book exits onto a conveyor. The Digi-Stitch can mount up to six stitching heads.

Digi-Stitch will also handle a fairly wide variety of formats, including U.S. Letter, A4 to A6, digest (5.5 x 8.8 inches) and oblong (8.5 x 5.5 inches). The unit will also accept a wide variety of paper stocks, from 40-lb. to 70-lb. offset, with a maximum stitch capacity of 50 sheets, or 200 four-up pages.

"The real stand-out of Digi-Stitch is its ability to change formats in seconds, through an operator GUI," observes Gretchen DeWeese, manager of marketing communications at Oce Printing Systems. "The input size controls and sets all the values of the sheeting, stitching and trim systems, so product changeover is both fast and accurate." DeWeese cites Digi-Stitch's high maximum throughput of more than 8,000 books an hour as a major breakthrough factor in the system's attractiveness for printers.

But the real stand-out in this machine is its stitch and fold quality, which are much closer to traditional "high-end" saddlestitchers than almost any other FOD stitch system. Understandably, it comes at a price premium over many other systems.

So far, the IBIS Digi-Stitch system is the closest thing we've seen to a true, high-volume inline production saddlestitcher for digital print.

* DUPLO | Duplo (Santa Ana, CA) offers a new DBM series dynamic bookletmaker, which operates inline with the Xerox DocuTech and DocuPrint series, and with Oce's PageStream 155 and DemandStream 4040 cut-sheet printer. Through this set-up, the Duplo DBM Series stitcher/folder/trimmer can create up to 3,600 sets per hour. The bookletmaker features eight programmable memory settings, allowing operators to simply push a button to change from one paper size to another.

New from the company is the System 4000, a vacuum-feed collating and booklet-making system. It also includes a face trimmer and precision stacker, and can produce up to 4,200 booklets or 10,000 collated sets per hour.

* C.P. BOURG | Bourg has come up with arguably the most technologically sophisticated inline finishing system. The Bourg Book Factory is the result of a combined effort by three manufacturers, Bourg, Xerox and Roll Systems, Inc. (Burlington, MA). It has won a GATF Technical Innovation Award.

The integration of the finishing end of this system with the printer is almost seamless - one has difficulty telling where the print, stitch and bind modules begin or end.

The entire machine begins with a roll unwind and sheeting system, the Docusheeter, supplied by Roll Systems. It can supply up to 50,000 9 x 12-inch sheets on a single roll. The unit has a variable cutoff or sheeting capability, and neatly gets around a fundamental limitation of digital Xerox printers by supplying a roll-infeed for cut sheet-only machines.

Sheets are fed into a Xerox 6180 laser printer, which can produce up to 180 ppm. Bourg supplies a digital print-and-finish solution, the Bourg Print Manager, a Windows-based client-server processing and management platform. Print Manager basically imposes digital images four-up on a single sheet; that is, two-up on each side so that each sheet gets converted into a four-page signature.

From the Xerox 6180, finished work is sent to a high-capacity stacker that can stage finished book blocks/sets in "offset" or straight stacks (up to 5,000 sheets). Work going to the binder is then rotated and fed into a series of rotating perforation knives. The sheets are then perfed down the middle, which helps with the fold quality as they then proceed into the buckle folding plates. This is where the single sheet is transformed into a four-page signature.

The signatures are collected, one on top of another, until an end-of-book signature arrives. The book block is then placed in the clamp, the spine is milled, and adhesive, applied. Cover application also occurs. Bourg offers a full three-knife trim option (the trimmer is supplied by a third-party OEM). Four-color covers for books are produced on a Xerox 40 Color Printer.

After binding, books are placed onto a cooling conveyor. To save space, the cooling conveyor is, in effect, a vertical stacker that slowly transports each book block up to a delivery conveyor for the operator. Although the binder can handle work up to 9 x 12 inches, it is targeted at the very large market of 6 x 9-inch work (and smaller).

Another module, The Bourg Document Finisher (BDF), handles stitching chores for non-bound books. The BDF gathers pages flat, then stitches. A pre-loaded wire cassette system allows the operator to add wire for the stitch heads without wire threading. Stitched pages are then folded, and a face trim is taken on the book.

The Book Factory and Document Finisher is being sold, not by C.P. Bourg, but by Xerox (in a joint venture with Bourg). Bourg provides the technical resources that allow the system to be serviced by Xerox field engineers.

APPLES AND ORANGES A key point in POD applications is that the data being printed is in many cases variable and unique to that book. Signatures, single sheets and covers may be one-off. A match between book block and cover must be 100 percent. As a result, bar codes and other machine-readable data (OCR and Data Glyphs) are now standard.

Each signature or printed sheet must contain coding (usually a discreetly sized bar code). Typically, the bar code contains numerics that indicate the first sheet or page of a book set, sequential information to verify that the rest of the book or document set is in order, and a finish-set "flag."

How does the quality of products these FOD systems produce stack up against traditional bindery methods?

It's somewhat like comparing apples and oranges, the vendors will tell you. While little items like true front-to-back registration in bound books don't really exist in the digital world, the argument is that these products are not meant to be as permanent as their predecessors. Barbara Rosdahl, marketing analyst, production systems group, Xerox, sees these on-demand soft-cover products as having a limited-use life-span (perhaps like a one-time read on a long international flight); thus, they should not be subject to the same quality judgements usually applied to more traditional work.

SOME NOT IMPRESSED On the other hand, Berryville Graphics (Berryville, VA), a division of Bertelsmann and well-known manufacturer of hard- and soft-cover titles, has purchased a Bourg Book Factory. Berryville conducts rigid quality-control tests on all of its product lines, and reports that pull-testing values of Book Factory-bound soft-covers equal that of products manufactured on much higher-speed conventional binders.

And what about FOD's immediate future? Some printers are not impressed with current technology. Mike Murphy, COO of Japs-Olson, a leading-edge printer/mailer in Minneapolis, is dismayed by the lack of flexibility of inline finishing systems. He maintains that the limited product size variations of these machines are nowhere near his requirements for short runs that demand many different size formats. For now, at least, all of his binding is done as a near-line operation using traditional bindery equipment.

Not even the manufacturers are certain about the market for more complex inline finishing systems. Many of these machines are relatively new to market, having been introduced only within the last year. While certain niche market segments are strong, the use of variable-data color printing, a defined growth segment, is clouded due to production speed restrictions and cost-per-page issues.

As these systems mature in speed, finishing options and sheer technological sophistication, however, it would be an unwise printer who did not take a hard look at the impact - and opportunities - that digital print-and-finish could have on business.