"Will There Be a Bindery in the Future?"

[Column #41, 5/98]

I hope so or I'm in big trouble! When several of the monthly trade publications we receive featured headlines like this a few months ago, I decided I needed to investigate.

It turns out the headlines were the result of a study funded by the Association for Suppliers of Printing and Publishing Technologies (NPES) and conducted by a firm called Strategies for Management, Inc. According to the NPES, the study entitled, "The Market for Bindery and Finishing Systems as Impacted by Digital Technology: 1996-2006" was compiled using "·extensive secondary research (published materials), followed by a mail survey, a questionnaire included in the SFM's TrendWatch (a publication put out by the researching company), access to Strategies for Management's proprietary research, personal and telephone interviews, and extensive interviews at the GraphExpo show in Philadelphia." I decided to spring for the $500 and ordered a copy for myself.

I was heartened to read the results of the study because, in many instances, the opinions my colleagues and I have shared for years were confirmed in writing from a third party! This article will highlight some of the issues discussed in the study. While I am not necessarily offering solutions to any of these problems and have discussed many of them in past issues, I do believe they have considerable impact on our industry and deserve mentioning.

Study results showed that there has always been a lack of respect or appreciation for the trade binder's role in the completion of a print job. (I challenge you to find any trade binder in the United States that wouldn't agree with that statement.) The irony of this is that the binding and finishing portion of any printed job is critical to the final product and can make or even break the simplest project. Fortunately, there seems to be a growing awareness for the importance of postpress operations and many printers recognize a need to improve communication with their binders and finishers. The downside of this for trade binders is that more and more printers are bringing some basic binding equipment in-house and binders are being forced to add specialty services to stay in the game. The study also indicated a strong belief that binding and finishing technologies have not kept pace with the graphics arts industry. While this is true in certain areas of postpress, there has been significant headway in both electronic makeready and ink jet imaging and personalization.

The onset of both these technologies has fueled yet another problem covered in the survey: finding skilled labor to run binding and finishing operations. Not surprisingly, 82% of trade binders and 68% of trade finishers feel this is a big problem and one that continues to grow as computers are introduced into the processes. Traditionally, one mechanically inclined person could handle the setup and a team of relatively unskilled employees could load the job and act as watchdogs searching for problems during production. Now, with the introduction of electronic makeready and other computer technology, there has been a shift in the skilled labor necessary to run this equipment and employees with computer experience are necessary for both setting up and troubleshooting. This shift is not unlike many other industries and a computer-literate labor force is in great demand. To add to this problem, larger trade binders need workers who can operate a variety of equipment such as stitchers, folders, and cutters.

As most of us are so painfully aware, the survey found a growing demand for short-run jobs and quick turnaround times as major trends in the graphic arts industry. Small runs that needed to be done yesterday have become second nature for nearly everyone in the industry. This impossible time crunch (that puts pressure on everyone from prepress to postpress) is especially frustrating for trade binders who are at the end of the food chain. Being the final link in a series of steps is the absolute worst place to be because any lost time up until that point cannot be made up at the end. An interesting discovery made by the study was that the supposed bottleneck caused in the bindery is actually a myth. "Among commercial printers, we see 29% of employees in the pressroom and 24% in the bindery·" The study also showed that commercial printers were "·running their printing operations 44 hours per week and their binding and finishing operations 37 hours per week." If there were truly a bottleneck, there would be more employees working more hours in the bindery, not less. The fact is it wouldnât matter how many machines or employees were in the bindery because the study revealed nearly 80% of jobs are already late when they arrive there! Printers should take this into consideration when adding bindery equipment because they will almost always be forced to send some jobs out anyway to meet their deadlines. According to the NPES, "·printers and binders are looking for equipment that minimizes setup time, eliminates waste, and improves throughput." Any improvement along these lines would help alleviate these problems.

I was pleased to read that design issues and their effect on the bindery were discussed in the study. Results showed that designers (who often use complex finishing techniques to create products that stand out among many other forms of media) are "·woefully ignorant of what happens in the print process, let alone in the bindery." The NPES also states, "Designers are basically oblivious to what happens to the file once it leaves their computer." We encounter this problem daily and have fought to help educate our customers in binding and finishing for this very reason. Study results indicated that printers want to be more closely involved in the design phases of their jobs to avoid potential problems and assist designers along the way. While designers often view printers as "·expendable and interchangeable,·" both parties recognize a need for improved communication. Designers have admitted a lack of understanding for the binding process and would welcome educational efforts such as seminars and "how-to" publications from manufacturers, printers, and trade binders. We find our efforts to train our customers in the world of binding and finishing are greatly appreciated and well attended. Based on the designers' comments in the study, maybe printers should suggest their customers attend this training. (Anything's got to be a help!)

I've touched on only a few of the many issues discussed in the study (primarily those that directly affect trade binders). Fortunately for me, the study found there will be a future for trade binders since digital technology will not take the place of conventional printing. I'm glad to hear there's some good news.

This study included many topics from the myth of the bindery bottleneck among commercial and inplant printers to trends in the industry. For those readers interested in obtaining a copy, it is available to NPES members at no charge ($75 per additional copy) and to nonmembers at $500 per copy. Companies can obtain additional information on NPES research by calling 703-264-7200 or via e-mail at npes@npes.org or www.npes.org.