American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

High-speed saddlestitching

Apr 1, 2001 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

Beyond speed, printers want value-added services, automation and equipment efficiency

Bindery technology develops at a much slower pace than front-end systems, but saddlestitching, a time-honored workhorse finishing service, has recently made some interesting evolutionary strides. Drupa 2000, for example, saw some innovations in the saddlestitching area, including the high-speed market (13,000 cycles per hour (cph) and up), which this article will focus on.

Technology developments address three main challenges that bindery managers now face:

  1. How to deal with ongoing labor shortages

  2. How to offer additional value-added services

  3. How to minimize operator labor, especially for long-run jobs.

With the demise of the McCain Co. several years ago, the last major U.S.-based manufacturer of medium-to-large saddlestitchers faded away. This market is now dominated by European manufacturers, including Ferag, Heidelberg and Müller Martini.

[Editor's note: McCain Bindery Co. Inc. is still in business. The company, based in Alsip, IL, offers the S 2000 saddlebinder and other bindery equipment. See AMERICAN PRINTER regrets the error.]


Among the Drupa introductions from these vendors was Ferag's new CombiDrum gatherer-stitcher, which has a rotary drum design and magnetically charged (vs. the standard chain-linked) grippers that reportedly boast steady movement and exact signature processing. Operating at up to 25,000 cph, the CombiDrum is aimed at the midsize and large printer, according to Mike Paschall, vice president, commercial sales for Ferag Americas (Bristol, PA). It's a step downmarket from Ferag's SHT gatherer-stitcher, which runs at 40,000 cph.

Heidelberg introduced its Stitchmaster ST 400 gang-stitcher at Drupa with what appears to be a similar aim: “to broaden the [market] horizon for the midrange commercial user to the web user,” explains Steven Calov, product manager, stitching and perfect-binding equipment, Heidelberg Finishing Div. (Kennesaw, GA). The ST 400, currently in beta testing, operates at 14,000 cph. Heidelberg's low-end entry in the high-speed market is the ST 300, which runs at 13,000 cph.

The vendor also offers higher-speed stitching systems from its Web Div. (Dover, NH). These include the Pacesetter 870, a Drupa introduction that stitches up to 15,500 cph in one- and two-up formats, and the Pacesetter 1000, dedicated to 8.5 × 11-inch products.

Müller Martini (Hauppauge, NY) offers the Tempo and Prima saddlestitchers to high-volume printers. The Tempo product can finish books measuring 13 × 9.875 inches and cycles at 20,000 cph. The Prima finishes signatures up to 18.625 × 11.875 inches (two-up) and operates at 14,000 cph.


European systems tend to stress horizontal, or flat, signature feeders, while U.S. stitchers typically feature vertical-loading pockets. Horizontal pockets load signatures flat, one on top of the other. Signatures are fed from the bottom, with a moveable suction-bar assembly.

Horizontal pockets can feed a wide variety of signatures and paper types, but the weight of the pile must be minimized and kept consistent. This usually warrants the addition of an automatic signature streamfeeder, which maintains a consistent pile height in the horizontal pocket via a pile level-sensing mechanism.

Vertical pockets load signatures into the opening drums on a vertical angle. The argument for vertical loaders is that the semi-vertical orientation eliminates a lot of weight from the signatures closest to the feeding mechanism. The feed rate of the signature pile can also be controlled, allowing for fine-tuning and custom setting for difficult paper stocks and folds.


Both feeder, or pocket, types have their adherents, and both can be loaded via press-finished signature logs.

The presence of horizontal-pocket technology is increasing, with Müller Martini heading the list of industry proponents. Felix Stirnimann, division manager for print finishing at Müller Martini, says that because U.S. labor was cheap for such a long time, customers tended to prefer saddlestitching systems with handfed, vertical pile feeders. Now, as U.S. printers deal with tight labor markets, the exec says he has seen an increasing preference toward flat-pile feeders, which he says are easier to automate.

Müller Martini offers a sophisticated “stream” automatic pocket loader for its horizontal units. This autoloader can effectively deal with improperly jogged signatures by forcibly realigning them before streaming them into the horizontal pocket.

This loader also bows the signatures immediately prior to loading them into the pocket, for better stiffness and separation. The vendor's horizontal pockets running with this streamfeeder are said to gain significant increases in net throughput due to elimination of misfeeds.

At Drupa, Heidelberg Web introduced the H-211 and H-311 (three-around) horizontal feeders.


A tremendous effort on the part of two of the largest stitcher manufacturers has been directed toward the makeready (the same has occurred with perfect binders). Perceiving a trend toward shorter overall run lengths and addressing the lowered skill level in many shops, Heidelberg and Müller Martini (and Vijuk on the middle-market end) have focused on making machine makereadies both shorter and more accurate. Heidelberg's ST 400, for example, is designed for quick changeover between jobs, according to Calov.

“Time is the issue here,” Calov explains. “If a printer has a lot of jobs in a day, faster makeready makes a huge difference.”

For printers with runs of 100,000 impressions and up, however, Calov says automated changeovers “don't mean anything.” He observes that even if a printer can cut its saddlestitcher makeready from one hour to 30 minutes through automation, the operation won't necessarily benefit if it is doing long runs and the upgrade costs more. Job setup becomes the smallest portion of the whole quote, explains the Heidelberg Finishing exec.

Critical thinking has been applied to all of the adjustments on these systems: pockets, saddle design, signature calipering, stitching heads and bad-stitch detect monitors, three- and five-knife trimmers, and counter-stackers. The goal has been to get the machine ready to run consistently, in the shortest time frame.

While this is good news for inexperienced operators, increased automation also results in a limited adjustment range. It imposes some limits on unusual forms and book formats.

Rolling down the pike, however, are totally automated setups, enabled by widespread adoption of workflow standards, such as CIP4. As these standards are further developed, finishing systems will routinely accept instructions from upstream. Even now, some saddlestitchers have the ability to run an automated setup by reading CIP4 files. These files indicate fold and trim marking and allow stitcher components to automatically position themselves.

The SCS 100 communication system in Heidelberg's ST 400, for example, enables the stitcher to be linked to the digital workflow. Data generated at the impositioning stage of prepress can be loaded into the ST 400.


Getting a stitcher to run open-head (three-side open) or closed-head (two-side open) signatures, with a mixture of normal, false or no-laps was previously quite an art. This is especially true if you wanted it to run quickly.

“Anyone can get a stitcher to run fairly well at 150 books per minute,” states Bill Graushar, vice president of finishing technology at Quad/Graphics (Sussex, WI). “But when you want to run consistently, at speeds of more than 200 books a minute, that's where experience and art take over.”

While various features are deemed important by printers, John Morgenstern, director, product management/product planning for Heidelberg Web, says speed appears to be most in demand among catalog printers, a “significant number” of whom do long-run work.

Paschall says that's where Ferag has a competitive advantage. “No one even comes close to our equipment in speed,” he claims, pointing out that even edge, sheer cut and perfect trimming are accomplished at high speeds.


While high-speed equipment is available to midsize printers, not all take advantage of it. Müller Martini's Stirnimann says that too often, midsize printers accept mediocre throughput speeds when a high-speed option is readily available.

“We often see fairly long runs (200,000 and up) produced on slow systems that run 8,000 to 10,000 copies per hour. The basis of our Tempo stitcher technology was to allow even smaller printers to produce speeds in excess of 15,000 books per hour. This changes their manufactured cost and can easily justify their investment in the system,” explains Stirnimann.

Evolutionary improvements in motor and control technology have contributed to the ability of these systems to run at higher speeds. Today's servo-motor and motor drive systems allow incredibly precise positional and speed relationships between components (pocket and saddle, for example), along with a wide variety of timings for different types of work.


But printers, particularly publication printers, now face increasing customer demand for value-added services in addition to speed. “Overall machine versatility is important — as important as speed,” says Morgenstern. He explains that speed addresses the need to meet mail distribution deadlines. At the same time, he notes, “we see publication work getting more complex, with an increase in selective binding, different gimmicks and so on.”

Many of these value-added capabilities have become real in the past five or 10 years. Among them are:

  1. False covers — a second cover stitched over the real cover | Why would a printer want to add this? Protection of the book as it traverses the postal system is one reason.

    More often, these false covers are used as reminders that a subscription is nearly over. Printers can incorporate a postage-paid, diecut reply card for a painless reply by the recipient. The use of false covers for renewals can save lots of money and postage that might be used for separate subscription renewal mailings.

  2. Selective stitching and inkjetting | While this is by no means a new application, what is new is its availability for midsize and smaller printers. Stirnimann says that many of Müller Martini's midsize printers have moved from regular stitching work to more selective binding and personalization. He notes that the ability to selectively gather sections for such a purpose has become a priority for printers purchasing new stitching lines.

    QTI International, Inc., the manufacturing division of Quad/Graphics, has targeted the smaller printer with its FCS-1000 and FCS-500 selective controllers. These controllers support various inkjet printers and have been designed primarily for use with saddlestitchers. The FCS-1000 controller comes bundled with Müller Martini's Prima saddlestitcher, which is designed as an upgradeable selective system. Müller Martini also has its own internal machine control for selective binding.

    Recognizing a potentially untapped market, Videojet (a Marconi Data Systems company) and Domino Amjet offer selective systems in their VIP NT and Graftek Line Controllers, respectively. Because selectively gathered books may vary in total page count by more than 50 cumulative pages, however, trimmers that can produce consistent trim quality with variable page counts have been designed.

    While the use of inkjet for addressing, coding and personalizing covers, order forms and even individual signatures was predicted to continue growing, surveys show that inkjet technology on stitched catalogs and publications is still largely used on cover and order-form addressing, messaging and personalization.

    Still, innovative printers are taking a stab at offering full-page, real-time personalization as part of the saddlestitching process. Scitex Digital Printing 6240 and 5300 inkjet print systems can print a “path” of four inches or 2.77 inches high. Two heads can also be mounted so that they can cover an eight-inch path.

    The Scitex technology runs at 300 dpi, good enough for an attempt at full-page, real-time variable printing of signatures fed into the stitcher. In fact, this is already in action. Several other firms are readying high-speed (250 ppm), full-page printers using Hewlett-Packard cartridge technology — the same cartridge used in desktop printers.

  3. Inline mailing | This may perhaps be the most significant upgrade step a printer can take. Twenty-five years ago, almost all publication and catalog mailing was done as a separate offline process. Now it's predominantly inline.

    United Litho (Ashburn, VA) is a $26 million association magazine printer whose sweet spot is jobs from 20,000 to 60,000 impressions with similar trim sizes and page counts. It recently replaced two older Müller Martini saddlestitchers with a Tempo saddlestitching line with inline mailing. According to Chris Azbill, vice president of operations, the printer doubled its average net throughput while lowering its personnel requirements.

    “What used to take two stitcher crews and two to three offline mail crews can now be done with one stitcher crew,” relates Azbill. “It's quite a savings.”

    Inline mailing, however, is a more significant upgrade than simply adding a mail table to the stitcher. Since the most efficient way to do this is via inkjet printing, a separate print and saddlestitching line controller must be added to handle the transfer from mailing file to inkjet printer, manage a reorder of the book if a quality reject occurs, and handle postal sorting and bundling through the counter-stacker.

    Many printers find they have to recruit and hire someone who is knowledgeable about mailing lists, postal regulations and software. The investment usually proves to be worthwhile, though, since adding inline mailing can attract a fair amount of new business.

  4. Gimmicks | Printers and their customers are always looking to add something extra to the book, and vendors have obliged. Specialty feeders for attaching, via gluing, special forms, CDs and even Post-It notes have proliferated.

Both Heidelberg and Müller Martini offer sample feeder/gluers that can quickly feed a variety of products, which are subsequently attached to the appropriate signature while it's on the saddle.

Ferag's CombiDrum stitcher also allows up to three infeed stations for samples, gimmicks and other glue-ons to be installed opposite each set of two CombiServer signature feeders.

A primary use of these feeders is for attaching CDs. The precision of these feeders is such that text for an individual page can be arranged around the spot where the CD will be attached. Most CDs are included in publications via polybagging. Including the CD option as part of the stitching process saves an additional offline operation, though it sacrifices visibility, since the CD becomes part of the catalog or publication.

Nonetheless, today's hot gimmick can become passé rather quickly. Printers, as always, must balance the investment and ROI required for such attachments against expected income.


In the U.S., skilled labor is in short supply. This has forced printers to consider automation options that were previously thought of as unworkable from an ROI standpoint.

Indeed, Stirnimann says equipment decisions in the U.S. have largely been based on pricing. He notes that U.S. printers require a short ROI of about 18 months, and meeting that ROI becomes difficult for printers considering the highest end of automation technology.

But, more plants are taking a progressive approach to ergonomics. Shops with more than 200 employees typically have a variety of automatic loading systems. These systems can increase machine efficiency while potentially reducing manning.


According to Stirnimann, about two operators are needed to manually load one pallet's worth of stacked bundles (about 500,000 pages) into the saddlestitcher feeder. With log-loading, on the other hand, one operator can load about 600,000 pages.

Roll technology is yet another step up in automation. The U.S. adoption of roll-type systems, in which signatures are wound onto a roll directly from the press then fed back into the stitcher, was limited until now. Stirnimann says a roll contains roughly 530,000 pages.

The exec further adds that if a printer were saddlestitching a 16-page book at a speed of 14,000 copies per hour, six people would be needed to hand-feed eight feeders — whereas log-feeding only requires two to three people. Roll-feeding simply requires one forklift driver who can then handle several saddlestitching lines.

The potential efficiencies are considerable. Müller Martini's PrintRoll system is now in use at R.R. Donnelley's Lynchburg and Roanoke, VA, plants. Tempo pockets can be fed by dual roll-unwind stands that automatically switch the feed source when a roll is empty. Rolls can also be delivered automatically (via AGV) from roll storage to the stitchers.

Implementation cost of such systems is high, and operational flexibility, reduced. But ultimately, just one person can run a 10-pocket saddlestitcher, at high speed. This is enough of a process shift to make many automation hold-outs reconsider.


While speed is important, there is more to a successful high-speed saddlestitcher. According to Stirnimann, “the true measure of a stitcher is how quickly you can makeready, optimize it, get it to run at maximum speed and run it with your value-added stitchers.”

Ferag's Paschall adds, “People [want] to achieve really high speeds while accommodating other needs, such as selective binding and inkjetting.”

While no pre-show announcements have been made, it's a safe bet that the stitchers at Print ’01 will feature more automated makeready, easier feeding and loading, and high variable printing. Be sure to stop by and see us in Chicago this September — we'll be looking for you in the bindery hall.

How fast is fast?

According to “So many books, so little time” (January 2000, p. 68), high-volume, high-speed stitching involves three kinds of equipment:

  • Fast: 15,000 cycles per hour (cph)

  • Faster: 20,000 cph

  • Fastest: 32,000 cph.

Outside the publication market, the article notes fast stitching is generally between 10,000 cph to 15,000 cph.

In general, though, “the type of job you run will dictate the machine's speed,” attests Steve Calov, product manager, stitching and perfect-binding equipment, Heidelberg Finishing Div. (Kennesaw, GA).

For more info…

For more on saddlestitching, go to for these archived articles:

  • “Drupa 2000: strong to the finish,” September 2000

  • “So many books, so little time,” January 2000

  • “Saddle up & stitch right,” November 1999