Targeted Bindery Automation

by: Brad Emerson,

Efficient operations often hinge on automated equipment that increases production efficiency while also decreasing makeready times. However, these objectives also can be met through targeted automation, rather than through six- or seven-digit silver bullet investments. Improving bindery quality and identifying obtainable returns on investment requires a surgical approach to automating bindery operations.

Automation Options for Bindery Operations

1. Motorized Adjustments
With motorized adjustments being added in almost every industry to save operator footsteps and minimize operator-input errors, remote servo/actuator adjustment is no longer just for the pressman’s ink keys. Automation has migrated into the bindery with predictable and reliable results. While a “lights out” bindery solution is conceivable in a digital plant with an unlimited capital budget, targeted automation of the adjustments routinely used on existing equipment can provide measurable R.O.I.

For example, many buyers making a large capital investment in a new perfect binding line with over 50 servo motors from gatherer through trimmer would be surprised by how few of the motors are actually used on a typical product mix. Many plants do not raise or lower milling units, gluepots, and nipping stations from one job to the next. Focusing automated adjustment on a handful of thickness adjustments could generate real bang for the buck in the vast majority of plants.

Some of the early bindery automation pioneers with retrofit kits on paper cutters have already incorporated the bolt on kits to include modern CIP4 and JDF technology. I would expect this same technology to migrate into future aftermarket kits for saddlestitchers and perfect binders, as well as the use of off-the-shelf motors and control modules where possible.

2. PUR Adhesive Upgrades
We have been hearing for more the 15 years that the glue or adhesive of the future is coming, and that adhesive is PUR. Well, up until a few years ago, you could almost count all the PUR binderies from coast to coast on both hands. Binderies soon learned that PUR was not just a direct replacement of the hotmelt they were currently running. Many prerequisites had to be met before making a successful transition to PUR. Machine wear regarding book clamp guidance, spine preparation, increased daily gluepot maintenance with a given OEM’s gluepot design, conveyor length, and smooth conveyor transitions all had to be factored in sooner or later. Conversions to existing perfect binders often can be accomplished for less than 10 percent of the cost of a completely new line.

Possibly the only growing sector in the printing industry today is the digital market, and you would be hard pressed to find a digital press OEM that would recommend anything other then PUR for reliable binding strength. It seems the sometimes brutal process of digital print combined with the recycled papers of today makes for increased binding challenges. As recently as five years ago it was difficult to purchase a new PUR perfect binder for under $1 million. With many small perfect binders with automation entering the equipment market today, specifically targeting the digital shops, it is possible to purchase a new perfect binder with PUR and motorized adjustments for under $100,000.

3. Bookblock Feeders, Cover Feeders, and Web Bundle Feeders
With the combined use of the Internet search engine and the seemingly endless supply of surplus equipment through closures, auctions, and downsizing, the hard to find add-ons of yesteryear often can be located today. These feeders can be automated, made portable, interchangeable, or permanently added to a line by your own in-house maintenance personnel or a preferred bindery technical partner. A bookblock feeder running bookblocks at the greatest possible speed without the tedious repetitive pace of human labor can increase margins, as well as differentiate a plant from a competitor. The same R.O.I’s often can be realized on web bundle feeders, cover feeders, book stackers, in-line mailing, etc.

4. Signature or Pocket Readers
ISO standards, end user expectations, and the need to minimize product-spoilage cost is pushing binderies towards some type of automatic verification of products being gathered correctly on saddlestitchers, perfect binders, or loose inserters. Many binderies have these systems, but choose not to use them due to poor performance or time required to set up and maintain them properly. When choosing an aftermarket system, samples technically approved by a prospective vendor in advance can eliminate many headaches and finger pointing. There really is no system that can be purchased and forgotten about – all systems require plant management and operators to take ownership and commit time to perform routine cleaning, calibration, or maintenance of the system.

5. Training
Beyond the safe-operation training of a given piece of bindery equipment, focused training can trim hours off makeready time and reduce equipment damage and downtime when a plant’s typical product mix is factored into the training. Sharing bound and unbound product samples of the typical product mix in a given plant in advance can allow a professional trainer to tailor a training session with optimal long-term results.

Additional Factors to Consider
All of these above items require an investment, but still pennies on the dollar compared to the complete replacement cost of a new machine. Some careful “crossing of T’s and dotting of I’s” can prevent the same gremlins that hampered production prior to the automation investment from returning once the investment is made. Before writing a down payment check for automation or expansion, binderies should evaluate the decision from several perspectives, including:

  • Has the machine been evaluated overall by a qualified technician (other than, or in addition to, an OEM’s new equipment technician) to determine if the machine is in acceptable mechanical condition? Fully rebuilding a worn gluepot – possibly the highest maintenance item on a used perfect binder – can be less than 1 percent of the cost of a new binding line.
  • Do the production scheduling associates optimize the schedule for the bindery? Scheduling two jobs of nearly the same size is as efficient as the highest level of automation on even the most prehistoric piece of bindery equipment.
  • What are the bindery capability “wish lists” of existing customers, new prospects, and team members?
  • Should an independent bindery consultant with experience in bindery production and automated equipment provide a report and recommendations?
  • Are the current operators properly trained on the most difficult products you produce?
  • Do the machine operators have the proper manuals and documentation?
  • Is this the best time to rethink the machine and/or entire bindery layout?

Brad Emerson is the general manager of, a company specializing in consultation, turnkey new and used equipment, automation, equipment fabrication, and training. Emerson’s bindery background includes bindery supervision, as well as marketing and consultation with a global bindery equipment leader. For more information, email [email protected].