Digital Finishing Is at a Crossroads
You’ve no doubt heard this before, but I come from the offset finishing world, and specifically the long-run finishing universe. In this world, it might take three or four days to makeready a perfect binder that might then run for a week (or two) on a single job. Not to mention that these finishing systems would be heavy-duty in the extreme. Just the binder section of a Heidleberg UB binder would weigh close to 50,000 lbs. These systems were literally built for the long-run, in terms of years of service.
Then came digital print. In this world, we speak of quantities of one, and makeready times of a few minutes or less. Early digital binders and booklet makers were great for short runs and fast makereadies, but they more closely resembled office-type systems in their build quality. Their productive life span was measured in (typically) a few years or more.
But digital print is gradually displacing more and more of offset, and this creates an interesting challenge for digital finishing. Although short runs are still the benchmark, overall digital print volume is growing, and digital finishing is being pushed towards a 24/7 model. In addition to this, the web output of a digital press need to be handled quite differently than the folded signature-based model used in offset. Digital webs need to be “sliced and diced” or folded on-the-fly for perfect binding or saddle-stitching.
The former Heidelberg engineers at IBIS Bindery Systems faced this problem many years ago (full disclosure, I represent IBIS in North America). After years of designing and building conventional saddle stitchers, they saw the writing on the wall and designed a completely new system for high-quality booklet output from a digital source. There were many challenges. First, there was no gathering section. Input would be from a sheetfed web, or cut-sheet printer. A unique high-speed sheet folding and collating system was designed in which four-page sheets would be tracked, precision folded, and continuously collected at input speeds of up to 492 ft./min. (faster using a pre-folder). Software had to be written to create a detailed log file on every job that was run.
The three-knife trimmer would use a rather radical angled design, which would allow booklets of varying thickness to be trimmed without any adjustment required by the operator. And, a cold-glue system that glued individual sheets together was also added. This allowed the customer to produce booklets without wire stitching. Although many design elements were a departure from traditional saddle stitching systems, the Smart-binder (as it was named) was “beefy” enough in its construction to be able to run a true 24/7 duty cycle for many years.
The entire machine was a fusion of time-tested and new features that produced booklets of offset-finishing quality, while fulfilling the demands of digital production. And … it was successful, with over a hundred and fifty systems installed so far. The lesson for digital finishing is clear. Design for the digital finishing workflow by being innovative. But make sure your creation can stand up to the volume!