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Welcome to the virtual warehouse

Jan 1, 2011 12:00 AM


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High-speed inkjet presses are changing the book manufacturing game. That's the message we heard loud and clear at Offset Paperback Manufacturers' (OPM) open house this past November in Laflin, PA.

OPM, an Arvato US Bertelsmann Co., has been cranking out books on its monochrome Kodak Prosper 1000 since July 2010. On the color side, the latest addition is a Kodak Prosper 5000XL. Muller Martini's Sigmaline provides comprehensive inline finishing, ensuring that OPM can start with a PDF and end with a finished book in one seamless operation.

OPM's publishing services are extensive — it can handle everything from digital photography to distribution/fulfillment. It produces approximately 350 million mass market and digest book products a year. Its state-of-the-art manufacturing facilities also include Berryville Graphics (trade books), Coral Graphics (jackets and other components) and Dynamic Graphics (specialty finishing).

OPM, reportedly the third largest trade book producer in the United States, produced its first digital book in 1983. “We started with toner-based cutsheet devices and have evolved from there,” says Mitch Weiss, vice president of sales.

Publishers' needs also have evolved with the times and technology. “They don't want warehouses full of books printed on speculation,” says Weiss. “They're trying to get more books to market with less risk.”

While book manufacturing is changing, some aspects of book publishing remain immutable. Books are still sold as 100% returnable — retailers can box up the titles that didn't sell and send them back. But now, thanks to the power of digital printing, OPM increasingly serves as a virtual warehouse. Publishers might opt for a modest run of 10,000 copies for “big list” books and, with OPM's help, reprint in 2,000-copy increments.

Some legacy content is now finding new life in e-book format as publishers strive to expand their offerings.

“As e-books grow, p-books shrink,” concedes Weiss. “But you still need the physical book.”

When long press runs prevailed, press setup was less critical. Once makeready was complete, 2-up machines ran for long, uninterrupted intervals. Digital presses are ushering in a new era of flexibility — jobs that would be impractical on conventional presses can be produced economically, efficiently and without compromising on quality.

“We can literally take a file in and, within 15 minutes, have complete books coming off the line. When it comes off the press, it's collated, converted into signatures and finished,” says Weiss.

But as OPM has learned, digital printers must be prepared to cope with an onslaught of shorter runs.

“You can't afford to have someone doing manual entry,” says Weiss. “Developing an automated front end is the only way to succeed.”

Prior to adding the Prosper presses, OPM had a Prinergy front end. “We had a strong existing relationship with Kodak, both on the front end and with our plates and other consumables.”

Color capabilities open doors

The recently installed Prosper 5000XL press is expected to open new doors for OPM. “The 4-color market for books went offshore many years ago,” says Weiss. While OPM won't rival Asian producers' pricing, it can offer greater run length flexibility and faster response times. A customer with a 3,000-run job evaluating the merits of paying less to print more books in China vs. paying more to print fewer books in Laflin must further consider the cost of obsolescence. By printing only what customers need when they need it, OPM helps customers keep costs in check.

As a practical matter, most customers are looking for one provider that can cover the waterfront. “Customers want manufacturers that can produce one to one million books,” says Weiss. “They don't want to move files back and forth and they won't tolerate quality issues. They want [their books] to look the same [regardless of where or how the books were produced].”

OPM also envisions opportunities beyond the book world. Customized textbooks are a possibility for the education market. Some clients want to combine chapters from different books into a new volume. Rather than cutting up the chapters and rebinding them — as is sometimes the only cost-effective solution — OPM will offer these customers libraries of PDFs and then produce what customers want, when they want it.

Healthcare enrollment guides are another potential application. “Again, we would offer libraries of PDFs,” says Weiss. “It will save them a lot of exposure — there's no warehouse full of brochures, no storage fees and no pick-and-pack costs.”

Short-run journals also beckon. “There are still a lot of doctors who want a medical journal sent to them each month,” he notes.

Quick turns for short runs

David Liess, OPM president and CEO, says the new equipment is helping the printer cope with print runs and cycle times getting smaller and shorter: “Customers now expect turn times of two days, half of what they were before. The single biggest advantage of the Prosper presses is our ability to deliver to our customers offset-quality, 4-color printing in short runs. [It's] a game-changer, one that already is helping us grow our business.”

Hybrid color could be twice as nice for web printers

Mounting monochrome inkjet heads on web-fed offset presses and finishing lines isn't a new concept. But stay tuned for full process-color configurations, says InfoTrends' Jim Hamilton.

According to his March 2010 white paper: “Kodak has commercial monochrome and spot color inkjet offerings today that are opening up new hybrid opportunities because of their speed, quality, cost and ability to handle wider print areas. The company has already announced [the Prosper 5000XL] process color system and can be expected to have a hybrid process color offering before too long.

“In the same way that 600-dpi quality at high speed has driven the opportunity for the monochrome Prosper S5 and S10 Imprinting Systems, the ability to print high quality color at high speed will eliminate the need for preprinted offset shells and will open up new print applications.”

By the numbers

Prior to installing its Prosper presses, OPM had seven toner-based presses. “One Kodak machine replaced three presses,” says Mitch Weiss. “We have one-third of the previous amount of labor invested in the same amount of books. We are able to produce more books faster with lower labor cost than ever.”

Weiss offered the following statistics:

  • Labor reduced from 9 employees to 3.
  • 400,000+ books produced as of October 2010.
  • 75% Prosper uptime.
  • Run lengths range from 500 to 3,000 books.
  • Typical production is 4,800 to 6,000 books per shift.

Coming soon: more paper options

“Economical coated paper that works on high-speed, continuous-feed color inkjet products will open up new application areas and drive high volumes of print,” predicts Jim Hamilton (www.infotrends.com).

Paper companies working with Kodak on optimized paper development include:

  • Appleton Coated
  • International Paper
  • Mitsubishi Paper Mills
  • NewPage
  • Nippon Paper Group
  • North Pacific Paper Corp.
  • Sappi Fine Paper North America
  • StoraEnso
  • Verso Paper Corp.
  • Ziegler Papier

Kodak is developing a pre-treatment module for the Prosper platform called the Inline Optimization Station (IOS). Users can integrate this roll coater with their presses or opt for a near-line coating module. The water-based pretreatment fluids contain adhesion-promoting additives that can be customized depending on the specific paper stock being treated. Virtually any paper surface can be pretreated.

What's next for the North American book market?

Interquest has released “Digital Book Printing: Market Analysis & Forecast (2010-2015).” The study is based on 71 indepth interviews with major publishers and book printers specializing in trade, education, professional, and photographic book applications and also includes input from printing equipment vendors and findings from other research related to digital production.

The study assesses the overall book publishing market in North America: the impact of the recession on key players, including publishers, book sellers, distributors, and book printers; and key industy trends. It addresses major digital printing applications and business models, important technological developments, and key offerings from printing and finishing vendors. The 300-page report costs $995. See www.inter-quest.com.

Pressing the issue

As Kodak rolls out the Prosper line, comparisons with HP's T300 press will become more intense. See the “Digital Presses” one-stop at www.americanprinter.com for additional analysis on high-speed digital web press trends and equipment options.

  • “Real books, real fast: heavy duty, on-demand bookline [Muller Martini's SigmaLine],” May 2005.
  • “Upping the ante: Kodak to launch Prosper inkjet press at Ipex 2010,” (March 2010)
  • “Sprint to win: short-run print business evolution,” (May 2010)
  • “Inkjet's next chapter: New [T300] web press gives book printer a competitive edge,” (May 2010).

Katherine O'Brien is editor, AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at KOB@americanprinter.com.