Book-of-One Digital Production Is the Future, and Present
It’s a reality that digital print has enabled very-short-run book production. In fact, the term “book-of-one” has entered the language as a general descriptor of the short-run process. But actually, designing a workable system for continuously producing books of one is no easy task.
First, there is the problem of “ganging” different format files for your cut-sheet or continuous-fed digital printer. This is a bit easier with cut-sheet production since these printers feature multiple paper trays form which you can “pull” different formats. For continuous-fed machines, the challenge is greater since it’s not practical to print completely different book sizes side-by-side.
New postpress systems can convert either cut sheets or paper webs into book blocks. In the case of digital webs, the stock can be cut-and-stacked, or cut and “slit merged” (web is slit and side-by-side pages are stacked on top of each other). Or, the web can be plow folded into signatures. In addition, the loose sheets or signatures can be glued (typically on the spine edge) to keep the book block together before being conveyed to the binder.
There are also cut-sheet finishing systems that can process a true “book-of-one” book block, delivering a unique book onto the delivery conveyor, or multiple books in offset stacks.
Now we get to the binder. Most “book-of-one” production is soft cover title. New perfect binders can handle variable book-block thickness. The binder clamp “measures” the book-block thickness, then sets the side-glue measurements and cover scoring automatically.
Another variable that’s easy to control is book trim size. This is because most three-knife trimmers employ servo motors. This allows all three trim knives (face, head and foot) to be reset to new values based on barcode input. The barcode (containing trim dimensions) is printed on the book cover. The trimmer reads this as the book enters the unit.
This is perhaps the greatest advance in book-of-one workflow, since it allows the printer to print a “common size” book block and cover. The trimmer can then produce a huge variety of finished trim sizes. One drawback is paper waste, since you may be losing up to an inch of trim (or more) on all three sides of the book. This can also create problems with in-line waste evacuation systems attempting to vacuum away huge trim blocks.
A drawback to all this fancy automation is the (real) time it takes. Assuming each book has a different book-block thickness or trim value, the machines will take from five to 15 seconds per cycle to make these adjustments. This can slow the entire finishing system down to a few hundred net books per hour.
Nonetheless, this is the future (and really, the present), and the major postpress and bindery vendors are all racing to bring systems to market that can truly produce the “book of one” efficiently. This is not to leave out the creativity of printers themselves, who have been really inventive in designing complete workflows, from the incoming file straight through to the shipping dock.
I have personally worked with a number of major book printers, and I can attest to the talent and genius of their employees. There are lots of challenges in producing the “book of one,” but that’s what makes this business exciting.